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Prior to the atomic bomb attack, Japan was engaged in war for 14 years, from 1931 to 1945. The conflict began with the Manchurian Incident in September 1931 and ended with the official surrender of Japan in September 1945.

Before WWII, Japan – an island nation with few natural resources – imported 88 percent of its oil and was highly dependent on raw material imports. Though the nation enjoyed a brief period of economic stability after WWI, the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923 and Showa financial crisis in 1927 devastated Japan and led to massive unemployment. In an effort to uplift the economy, the Imperial Japanese Army established a campaign to expand into East Asia to secure more natural resources. The combination of growing nationalist sentiments since the Meiji Restoration, an unwieldy Imperial Army that acted independently of the central government, and the grandiose notion of a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” – a singular Pan-Asian polity free of Western colonialism – culminated into a series of conquests in the Pacific. This antagonized the US, Britain, France and the Netherlands, which had material interests and colonies in the region. Furthermore, it victimized other Asian nations and dragged them into war.

The following is an abridged timeline of events involving Japan from 1931-1945.

Timeline (1931 - 1945)

1931 – Manchurian Incident

On September 18, 1931, there was a small explosion near a railway line owned by Japan’s South Manchuria Railway in Mukden, China. The Imperial Japanese Army claimed that Chinese rebels had detonated a bomb and proceeded to invade Manchuria, ignoring the central government’s orders to localize the incident. This was executed under the command of General Kanji Ishiwara, a Nichiren Buddhist and leader of the East-Asia League Movement, a Pan-Asianist organization. In 1932, the Lytton Commission of the League of Nations concluded in a report that the bomb was in fact a ruse planted by the Japanese military. In a matter of days, Japanese forces secured control over every city along a 730-mile stretch along the rail line.

1933 – Japan leaves League of Nations

The Lytton Commission unveiled Japan’s involvement with the Manchurian “Incident” and recommended that Japan withdraw its troops and restore Manchuria to Chinese sovereignty. The report was adopted 42 to 1, with Japan as the sole opposer. The Japanese delegation, led by Yosuke Matsuoka, stated that they had claims to Manchuria after the Russo-Japanese War and left the hall as a stunned international assembly watched in silence. Shortly after, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations.

1937 – Rape of Nanking

Continued Japanese presence in Chinese provinces and the Marco Polo Bridge Incident sparked the Second Sino-Japanese War in July. After invading Shanghai, Japanese troops marched to Nanking, during which episodes of mass murder and rape began. One of the most infamous atrocities was the hyakuningiri killing contest – a race between two Japanese officers to see which could kill 100 people first using only a sword – and it was covered much like a sporting event by a Japanese newspaper with regular updates over several days. The massacre continued for over six weeks after the fall of Nanking, resulting in 40,000-300,000 estimated deaths. The death toll varies widely because Japanese military officials hid and destroyed records on the massacre after Japan’s surrender in 1945, and remains a stumbling block in Sino-Japanese relations to this day.

1938 – Pursuit of a New East Asia Order

The Japanese Imperial Army began a terror bombing campaign in Chongqing in February, conducting over 268 air raids over a period of five years. In March, the Japanese government issued the kaiseichousenkyouikurei, or an ordinance that requires schools in Korea to teach Japanese as an official language. In April, the government implemented the National Mobilization Law, reconfiguring the economy to maximize war production. The National Service Draft Ordinance was a part of this law, empowering the government to conscript civilian workers into war industries. The combination of an increasingly demanding military budget and mass drafting of farm workers led to severe food shortages, often referenced by the hibakusha. In November, then Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe introduced the concept of a New Order in East Asia, implying that Japanese conquest is necessary to “free” Asia from European colonial powers.

1939-1940 – Building Tensions

In February of 1939, the Japanese Imperial Army occupied Hainan Island to complete its southern blockade of China from outside imports. Japanese forces continued the terror operation in Chongqing, killing over 5,000 Chinese civilians in a two day period in May of 1939. In response to this, the US embargoed airplane parts to the country, thus implementing its first economic sanction on Japan.

1941 – Pacific War Begins

The Imperial Japanese Army continued its quest to halt arms and fuel imports into China and invaded Indochina. To keep from having to fight a multi-front war, Japan signed a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union for the duration of WWII. The US, concerned about Japan’s expansion into Saigon and Hanoi, imposed a full embargo on exports to Japan and froze Japanese assets in U.S. banks. In response, then Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe proposed a meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to which he received no formal reply. During the month of November, Japan offered two diplomatic proposals to the American government; however, the US rejected both after Roosevelt received a leak that a Japanese fleet was on its way to Indochina. On November 26, Secretary of State Cordell Hull presented a Japanese ambassador with the Hull Note, which required Japan to completely withdraw its troops from French Indochina and China. Then Prime Minister Tojo Hideki called this note an “ultimatum” as it wholly disregarded his previous proposals. On December 7, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service attacked a US naval base in Pearl Harbor, killing 2,403 military persons and 68 civilians. The US declared war on Japan the following day, on December 8.

1942-1943 – Beginning of the End

Ever since the discovery of uranium fission in 1938, multiple committees were formed in the US for the development of nuclear weapons. With the US now at war, funding was available at unprecedented levels. From December of 1941 to September of 1943, S-1 Executive Committee expenditures on atomic energy burgeoned from $452,000 to $13,000,000. Meanwhile, Japan suffered acute food and labor shortages and drafted the kyousei renkou in February 1942, enforcing Korean laborers to Japan. In the same month, the US incarcerated up to 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, 62 percent of which were US citizens. Four months later, Japan lost a decisive naval battle at the Battle of Midway, during which their naval fleet suffered irreparable damage. This was followed by a defeat in the Battle of Buna-Gona in January 1943 and another defeat in Battle of Attu in May 1943. Japanese newspapers continued to claim that the nation was nearing victory while mass evacuations and conscription programs continued.

1943-1944 – Attempts to Save Face

To offset labor shortages, the Japanese government conducted a mass drafting of students into war industries in June of 1943. This was an extension of the gakkouhoukokutai program that emerged in 1941, modifying the school curriculum to prioritize food and coal production. Three months later, the Japanese government determined a zettaikokubouken, or a defense territory in the Pacific. In November 1943, the Japanese government held the Greater East Asia Conference in a meager attempt to reinforce the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” Participants were head of states from the six “independent” states of Manchukuo, the Reorganized National Government of China, State of Burma, the Second Philippine Republic, the Provisional Government of Free India, and an envoy from the Kingdom of Thailand. While Japan suffered mounting civilian casualties under US air attacks and called for mass evacuations into the countryside in 1944, nuclear research continued on in the US.

1945 – The Final Year

The year 1945 is remembered differently in every country. For the Japanese, it is the year of unprecedented devastation and the Jewel Voice Broadcast, where the emperor spoke directly to his “subjects” for the first time announcing that the war was over. For Americans, it is the year when WWII was punctuated by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which effectively curtailed many more American and Japanese deaths. For those in Manchuria, it is the year when governing hands abruptly switched from the Imperial Japanese Army to Soviet-backed communist regimes, resulting in tens of thousands of war-displaced peoples and orphans. For many other Asian nations, it is the year of liberation from Japanese colonial rule and brutalities.      

February 4-11 – Yalta Conference

Though an unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany was inevitable, the Allies saw that a victory in the Pacific would not be possible without Soviet cooperation. On February 4, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Premier Joseph Stalin met in Crimea to discuss the conditions under which the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan, in exchange for a sphere of influence in Manchuria. At this point, the Soviet Union was bound by the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact.

March 10 – Operation Meetinghouse

Known as the single most destructive bombing raid in human history, Operation Meetinghouse was a US air raid attack on Tokyo, which resulted in 75,000 – 200,000 civilian deaths and nearly 1,000,000 displaced persons in a single night. It is one of a series of 90+ US aerial missions against Tokyo from 1942 to 1945. Air raids increased dramatically after November of 1944, averaging one every 3-4 days over the next nine months. As a single event, Operation Meetinghouse was deadlier than Dresden, Hamburg, Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

February 19 – March 26 – Battle of Iwo Jima

As Japan’s zettaikokubouken fell apart, Japanese military leaders grew concerned about an American landing on the mainland. Not surprisingly, the US forces strategized to capture Iwo Jima of the Volcano Islands to then use as a staging area for attacks on the Japanese mainland. This culminated into a five-week battle known as Battle of Iwo Jima, one of the bloodiest battles fought during the Pacific War.  A Japanese defeat was inevitable from the start – aircraft losses from the previous year were not yet replenished and those that were available from the mainland could not fly more than 900km. A monograph from the Central Pacific Operations Record later revealed that Japanese staff officers used Iwo Jima “to gain time necessary for the preparation of the Homeland defense.” There were 17,000-18,000 casualties on the Japanese side.

July 16 – Trinity Test

“Now we are all sons of bitches,” director of the Trinity nuclear test Kenneth Bainbridge told his colleague after the Trinity Test, the first detonation of a nuclear weapon. The plutonium-based atomic bomb explosion yielded an energy equivalent of 20 kilotons of TNT and was felt over 100 miles away. Fallout contamination could be observed over 30 miles from the hypocenter, in the form of beta burns on livestock in the area. There were ranches and commercial crops grown within 15 miles of the hypocenter. Nuclear fallout doses have yet to be disclosed to local inhabitants, 72 years later.

July 26 – Potsdam Declaration

A day after the successful execution of the Trinity Test, President Harry S. Truman met with Churchill and Stalin at the Potsdam Conference. On July 26, they and Chairman of the Nationalist Government of China Chiang Kai-shek issued the Potsdam Declaration, an ultimatum that stated that if Japan did not surrender, it would face “prompt and utter destruction.” The Japanese government was split due to the vagueness of the declaration terms. While Emperor Hirohito stated that the declaration was “acceptable in principle,” key military officers opposed it. The Emperor – unaware of the secret alliance made at the Yalta Conference –  sent a request to the Soviet Union for mediation, implying that Japan would accept the terms of surrender if the emperor’s legitimacy remained intact. While he waited for a response, Asahi Shinbun and other newspapers reported that Japan’s response to the declaration would be one of “mokusatsu,” or to “kill with silence.” Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki repeated the word during a press conference that afternoon. Truman and his advisors interpreted it as a rejection of the declaration. On August 6, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

August 6 – Bombing of Hiroshima

On August 6, 1945 at 8:15am, “Little Boy” was dropped on a bustling city centre in Hiroshima, killing an estimated 70,000 via the initial blast and 140,000 total by the end of that year – 70,000 to 120,000 of which were civilians. The bomb detonated 600km above ground level, immediately destroying 12 square kilometers of the city. Many students aged 12 and up who were not yet drafted were sent to work on building demolition sites or as part of the student labor force at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries or Mazda Motor Corp. near the hypocenter that morning. “Hiroshima lost an entire generation of middle school students that day,” locals recall.

Read the testimonies of hibakusha survivors in Hiroshima here.

August 8 – Soviet Union declares war on Japan

Since the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact was ongoing, Foreign Minister Togo Shigenori hoped that Stalin would negotiate a settlement with the Allies for a conditional surrender – one that would not put the emperor’s position at risk – since the Allies’ terms of unconditional surrender would undermine Russia’s influence in Asia. On August 8, the Soviet Union invaded Manchuria thus terminating the neutrality pact and commencing the Soviet-Japanese War. With a devastated economy and nearly eighty percent of its cities destroyed, Japan was now fighting a two-front war.

August 9 – Bombing of Nagasaki

After the successful detonation of a plutonium-based atomic bomb in Hiroshima, scientists at Los Alamos were eager to sample a uranium-based atomic bomb. The city of Nagasaki became the target for “Fat Man” after weather and fuel conditions crossed initial target Kokura off the list. The bomb detonated 500km above ground level, immediately destroying 1.6 square kilometers of the city – much smaller than Hiroshima due to the topography of the Urakami Valley. Still, an estimated 39,000-80,000 died by the end of the year. After Nagasaki, Truman and his advisors had another atomic bomb ready for August 19, with six more to be prepared over the next two months.

Read the testimonies of hibakusha survivors in Nagasaki here.

August 15 – Jewel Voice Broadcast

At noon on August 15, Emperor Hirohito read out the Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War via radio broadcast announcing to the Japanese people that Japan had accepted the terms of the Potsdam Declaration. For Japanese civilians, this was the first time they had heard the Emperor speak in over two decades. The four-minute broadcast was esoteric and did not mention Japan’s surrender until a radio announcer clarified the Emperor’s message at the end of the broadcast.

September 2 – Japan Surrenders

Japan formally surrendered to the Allies on September 2, aboard the USS Missouri at Tokyo Bay. More than 250 Allied warships lay at anchor as Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu and General Yoshijiro Umezu signed on behalf of the Japanese government and Imperial armed forces, respectively. Supreme Commander MacArthur, assigned to oversee the Allied occupation of Japan, stated that “a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past” and assured his fellow Americans that “the holy mission has been completed.”

October 12 – GHQ established

The Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers – often referred to by the Japanese as General Headquarters (GHQ) – was established on October 12 to oversee the Allied occupation of Japan. The GHQ drafted a new Japanese Constitution and enforced strict media censorship, outlawing topics such as the atomic bomb, US-Soviet relations or criticism of the GHQ for the next seven years. Supreme Commander MacArthur stated that the GHQ sought to “restore security, dignity and self-respect” to the Japanese people. However, he flooded Japanese cities with 430,000 of his own troops by the end of the year and spent one third of the regular budget housing and supporting the occupying forces, masking it as a “war termination cost.” The Supreme Commander thrived in veneration, mentioning before a joint committee of the US Senate in 1951 that the “Oriental mind” was predisposed to “adulate a winner.” The GHQ was terminated with the signing of the Treaty of San Francisco on September 8, 1951.

1945 is a documentary project created by Haruka Sakaguchi.
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