"Japan was willing to surrender throughout all of 1945, but only with the gurantee their Emperor would remain"

I’ve head the above statement at various points in my life (including from my College History Professor) but it’s also one of those things I can’t find any attribution for. It’s generally used as part of the “Anti-Atomic Bomb” message to show how there was absolutely no reason to drop the atomic bomb because Japan was willing to surrender at any time in 1945.

The only thing I can find backing this up is that Japan was willing to conditionally surrender with their Emperor intact only AFTER the first atomic bombing. I can’t find anything about prior to that, nor can I actually find anything involving the Japanese government’s willingness to unconditional surrender except for that one condition. The only thing I’ve read about a Japanese conditional surrender in 1945 is that one post atomic bomb one.

Considering as I understand that the condition about the emperor was accepted by the Allies (by the USA) after the atomic bombs, I have trouble imagining that was a sticking point before then.

There’s this article.

Also, some senior officers tried to stage a coup to prevent the surrender even after 2 atomic bombs, so there’s that data point.

Another article says this:

American intelligence had broken the Japanese codes, knew the Japanese government was trying to negotiate surrender through Moscow, and had long advised that the expected early August Russian declaration of war, along with assurances that Japan’s emperor would be allowed to stay as a figurehead, would bring surrender long before the first step in a November US invasion could begin.

But gives no indication that Washington had received the Japanese overtures, so we don’t know the total Japanese demands. But the Allied terms were the same as Germany - “unconditional surrender”.

And there’s this in Wikipedia, more explicit: (Sato is Japanese ambassador to Moscow)

Satō advised Tōgō that in reality, “unconditional surrender or terms closely equivalent thereto” was all that Japan could expect. Moreover, in response to Molotov’s requests for specific proposals, Satō suggested that Tōgō’s messages were not “clear about the views of the Government and the Military with regard to the termination of the war,” thus questioning whether Tōgō’s initiative was supported by the key elements of Japan’s power structure.[46]

On July 17, Tōgō responded:

Although the directing powers, and the government as well, are convinced that our war strength still can deliver considerable blows to the enemy, we are unable to feel absolutely secure peace of mind … Please bear particularly in mind, however, that we are not seeking the Russians’ mediation for anything like an unconditional surrender.[47]

In reply, Satō clarified:

It goes without saying that in my earlier message calling for unconditional surrender or closely equivalent terms, I made an exception of the question of preserving [the imperial family].[48]

On July 21, speaking in the name of the cabinet, Tōgō repeated:

With regard to unconditional surrender we are unable to consent to it under any circumstances whatever. … It is in order to avoid such a state of affairs that we are seeking a peace, … through the good offices of Russia. … it would also be disadvantageous and impossible, from the standpoint of foreign and domestic considerations, to make an immediate declaration of specific terms.[49]

American cryptographers had broken most of Japan’s codes, including the Purple code used by the Japanese Foreign Office to encode high-level diplomatic correspondence. As a result, messages between Tokyo and Japan’s embassies were provided to Allied policy-makers nearly as quickly as to the intended recipients.[50]

And later:

On July 30, Ambassador Satō wrote that Stalin was probably talking to Roosevelt and Churchill about his dealings with Japan, and he wrote: “There is no alternative but immediate unconditional surrender if we are to prevent Russia’s participation in the war.”[80]

On August 2, Tōgō wrote to Satō: “it should not be difficult for you to realize that … our time to proceed with arrangements of ending the war before the enemy lands on the Japanese mainland is limited, on the other hand it is difficult to decide on concrete peace conditions here at home all at once.”[81]

So here, a week before Hiroshima, the Japanese were still not committing to unconditional surrender (although they appear to have been debating it in the top echelon).

The “Emperor condition” was mostly just a recognition on the part of Japanese leaders that the only person who could persuade the Japanese people and institutions to surrender en masse was the Emperor himself. Assuring the Emperor that he would survive a surrender would be a tool to persuade him to do that. Is there any correspondence on the Allied side that such a trivial condition (to them) was a poison pill for any Japanese surrender, other than a strict definition of the word “unconditional”?

I think the reason it was such a big deal, aside from general history/society issues, is that some of the references to the Emperor were also code for the “Imperial system”, i.e. the constitution where the Emperor had authority, not simply as a symbolic monarch like the British monarch. So for some of the Japanese higher-ups, keeping the Emperor meant that they would not be moving to a democratic constitutional monarchy, and the elites would still have corresponding authority.

Yes, it’s actually in the cite of the cite that md-2000 gave, Richard B. Frank’s Downfall: The End of the Japanese Empire, it’s the July 22nd edition of the Magic Diplomatic Summary - all of the diplomatic communications between Satō and Tōgō were being decrypted in real time by Allies and being read by policy makers. The preview pages from Amazon starts a bit awkwardly in mid-sentence, but here’s what’s on page 239 from the Amazon preview:

ETA: Actually I found the whole paragraph from an old post of mine, so here’s the complete paragraph:

The most often repeated condemnation of American diplomacy in the summer of 1945 is that policy makers understood that a promise to retain the Imperial institution was essential to end the war, and that had the United states communicated such a promise, the Suzuki cabinet would likely have promptly surrendered. The answer to this assertion is enshrined in black and white in the July 22 edition of the Magic Diplomatic Summary. There, American policy makers could read for themselves that Ambassador Sato had advised Foreign Minister Togo that the best terms Japan could hope to secure were unconditional surrender, modified only to the extent that the Imperial institution could be retained. Presented by his own ambassador with this offer, Togo expressly rejected it.

Honest (as opposed to rhetorical) question: did the Roosevelt administration have to worry about their own political fallout as they considered leaving the emperor on the throne (i.e. the GOP using it as a “bloody shirt,” the Chinese and their DC lobby making a fuss, etc.)?

There apparently was majority opinion in the U.S. that Hirohito should be punished for his role in the war (until very late, he was determined that Japan should fight on); a May 1945 Gallup poll found that 33% of those surveyed thought Hirohito should be executed. There was also political pressure on the Truman Administration to end the war before the Soviet Union could make significant territorial gains and demand a postwar role in the occupation of Japan. Republicans could’ve had a field day in that event.

So the American response to the Japanese surrender note’s statement which rejected “any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign Ruler” was essentially to ignore it, instead affirming that the authority of the Japanese government and Hirohito “shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied powers”. That did the trick - the Japanese figured out that Hirohito could retain his throne but not have any real power.

As for the claim that “Japan was willing to surrender throughout all of 1945”, the army ministry on August 10th released a statement in the name of the army minister Anami calling on troops to “fight the sacred war to defend to the last this land of the gods. Even though we have to eat grass and chew dirt and lay in the field we must fight to the bitter end”. That doesn’t sound like eagerness to surrender if only the Allies would be nice to the emperor.

*credit to Ian Toll’s “Twilight of the Gods” for the above material.

This is close, but the question of how much power the Emperor actually had is fascinating.

For most of Japanese history, the Emperor was kept in a religious ceremonial role and didn’t weld any actual power. The Meiji Restoration was conducted with the pretense of giving real power to the Emperor, but in actuality, the aim was to create a new oligarchy.

The Emperors under the Meiji constitution had less actual executive power than the US president or the British PM and certainly nowhere near what the dictators held. His constitutional role was to “accept the advice of his advisors” although he certainly did more than that.

Like the US at the beginning of the war, the Japanese Army and Navy were completely separate organizations, with their own cabinet ministers (Minister of War (Army) and Minister of Navy). While they were both in the Cabinet, they nominally reported directly to the Emperor.

Japan law at the time stated that those two position needed to be filled by active duty flag officers. If either of them resigned, it would bring down the government and the branch of service could prevent a new cabinet from forming by retiring any officer that the PM nominated.

In addition, the Chiefs of Staff of the services also directly reported to the Emperor (who again was constitutionally bound to accept their advice) and were completely outside of civilian control.

Retaining the Emperor could have meant to the Japanese military could have retained their independence. The leaders knew that they could be considered war criminals and one of the demands was that Japan be allowed to try and punish war criminals themselves.

From my post in the tread linked by @Dissonance ;

The war faction was not going to surrender, no matter the terms. They used the excuse of retaining the Emperor perhaps not only because that would have preserved their independence but also it was used as an excuse. Had that been clarified, they would have found something else.

When the Emperor acted by making a decision on his own, it was actually acting in contrary to the constitution. A contemporary analogy would be if Pence had acted as Trump wanted.

While there was growing concern among some people about Soviet encroachment, that was actually still very early in the process. The surrender of Germany had only been three months early and the broken promised were still unfolding.

I believe that the much greater pressure of ending the war sooner came from the concerns of the expectation of great casualties and questions of how long the war would end. The public wanted the war to be finished.

Do we actually know what terms Japan was WILLING to surrender to in 1945?

I imagine they wouldn’t have given up Manchuria/Korea if they could.

Surrender is different to an armistice. It seems pretty clear that Japan basically wanted a negotiated end to the war that left them with control of the territory that they occupied.
That would be a clear victory and an end to the war. So that is one end of the continuum of terms. Unconditional surrender is the other. No territory gains at all, and cede control of the country. Up until the point Russia attacked there remained some idea within that Japan was negotiating from a position of some strength.
Where Japan might have been aiming for in the continuum of settlements possible is probably impossible to know. As noted, Japan was not a single single minded entity.

Sorta. It was a handshake deal, not part of the formal surrender. As you said:

They wanted to end the war, but very much on their own terms, which included no occupation, and keeping all of their colonial gains in China and Korea.

It can’t be stressed enough, but it’s meaningless to use the term “Japan” in this context because the Japanese government and military institutions and key individuals were divided and remained so up until the day the decision was made to accept the Allied terms of surrender. Because of the nature of the Japan at the time, there simply wasn’t one individual with the political authority to make that decision.

There were individuals in the government and military or close advisors who recognized as early as a year before that defeat was inevitable. However, generally the military, especially the IJA, believed that if they just had one good battle with the US, they could inflict enough damage that the US would accept better terms than an outright surrender.

They failed to deliver this at the Philippines or Okinawa and the Emperor had started to doubt their ability to deliver a “crushing blow” during an invasion in the Kanto area. Nevertheless, the IJA either kept believing that or just clung to that out of desperation.

Prior to the August 6th, the “peace faction” in the War Council was suggesting surrendering with the conditions that the Emperor be allowed to remain, and also to let Japan retain its kokutai

The war faction didn’t want to negotiate an end to the war and like a compulsive gambler down on his luck, had complete faith in one more victory which would turn it all around.

After the “Twin Shocks” of the two atomic bombings and the Soviet entry into the war there were discussion in the government in the two essential bodies. The Cabinet needed to formally agree in order for the surrender to be a legalized agreement. The more powerful organization was the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War (Supreme War Council) which I referred to in my post above.

The Hawks in the War Council, General Anami, General Umezu, and Admiral Toyoda, introduced three additional terms: that Japan disarmament itself, that Japan deal with Japanese war criminals, and that the Allies do not occupy Japan. At this stage, it’s hard to see any of their thoughts as rational.

Foreign Minister Togo, the chief proponent of accepting unconditional surrenders, with the only condition being allowed to retain the Emperor, was concerned about the utter destruction of the Japanese nation and people.

The Emperor seems to have been very concerned about retaining the role of emperor. One of the concerns of him and his closest advisor, Lord of the Privy Seal Kōichi Kido was danger of the people turning against the emperor, that if Japan didn’t surrender, then the hardships on the people would cause them to reject the emperor but demanding that the government surrender without the buy-in of the military, especially the IJA, they would be faced with a coup and that Hirohito would be replaced by a most hawkish relative.

As an indication of the war hawks mentality, there’s this quote from General Anami, the War Minister, responding to the possibility that the atomic bombs might obliterate Japan: “Would it not be wondrous for this whole nation to be destroyed like a beautiful flower?”

This is not rational thinking.

OT, but this explains why, although the postwar period is the golden age of samurai movies, the best of them like Hara-Kiri and Samurai Rebellion have themes of how the supposedly honorable traditions of etiquette and military conduct were in fact corrupt and manipulated by a self-serving elite.

No discussion on the topic would be complete without noting that for some the answer to this question was that there no terms that they were willing to accept. Some army officers, including Army Minister Anami’s brother-in-law, Lt. Col. Masahiko Takeshita, attempted a coup, the Kyūjō incident, on the night of August 14-15 to attempt to prevent the surrender and the radio broadcasting of the Emperor’s pre-recorded surrender message (which notably at no point actually uses the word ‘surrender’).

As far back as February 1944 then Prime Minister Tojo had officially called for ichioku gyokusai, literally 100 million shattered jewels, figuratively 100 million die together.
Gyokusai or “Shattering like a Jewel”: Reflection on the Pacific War

As a matter of fact, more than a year before the U.S. decided to send its soldiers into Iwo Jima, that is, in February 1944, Prime Minister Tojo Hideki, in his “emergency declaration,” had made the sweeping call: ichioku gyokusai , “100 million gyokusai .” It was a demand that the entire Japanese population be prepared to die. Japan’s mainland population at the time was 70 million, so he was also ordering Taiwanese and Koreans to meet the same fate.

Excellent write-up, thanks!

There was some alt-history short story I read that indeed had a “Negotiated Ceasefire” with Japan where the US invades Kanto but takes so many casualties in the opening week there’s a massive public uproar in American that forces the US to basically end the war as it stood. So Japan agrees to stop fighting but retains Korea and Formosa and other colonies it had (The atomic bombings and Manchuria invasion hadn’t occurred) which to me seemed like the most implausible scenario.

The war was already lost, and everyone in Japan but the most fanatical or naive knew that. Admitting it was almost impossible due to social and political factors. A large number were willing to die-and allow the county to die- rather than admit it.
The bombs provided an invaluable service to the government- they gave an excuse for surrender without a true admission that they had lost. It allowed them to thread that needle, and even then it was a close thing.

But what I’m getting from the Wikipedia article and all discussion here is that the Allied terms - “unconditional surrender” were on the table for a long time, and the Japanese, despite back and forth with Sato talking to Moscow, made no explicit discussion with the USA - the primary decision maker - to try to negotiate any other form of surrender. There’s the suggestion by Sato that Moscow was not interested in passing on their overtures to the USA since they were intent on grabbing Japanese territory.

But I’m assuming by 1945 there was enough US diplomatic presence in Moscow that Sato probably could have passed on any messages from Tokyo, but it appears nobody could/would make an opening offer.

So if Tokyo did not even try to surrender, or try to negotiate different terms - why would the USA be faulted for not accepting any?