Recently, Japan’s Imperial Household released a DVD set containing a re-mastered and digitized version of Emperor Hirohito’s speech that was recorded for national broadcast on the eve of Japan’s surrender thus ending WWII. The actual broadcast was made on Aug. 15, 1945 marking the official end of the war.

While the release of the improved quality of Hirohito’s speech was widely reported, I could not find any official explanation as to the reason for making this version available now. Presumably, it is part of Japan’s contribution to celebrate or commemorate or memorialize the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, depending on one’s personal perspective.

Having now read the text of the Emperor’s speech, I have a better understanding of why the self-image of post-war Japan can be so vastly different from the view of Japan by others. I was a child in China during the war. If I grew up in Japan and heard the Emperor’s speech, I could easily have concluded that Japan was a victim of WWII. Nothing in his speech would suggest that Japan was the aggressor and guilty of provoking the devastating conflict.

August 1945 Japanese surrender ceremony  aboard USS Missouri
August 1945 Japanese surrender ceremony aboard USS Missouri

The Japanese language is characterized by nuanced, indirect expressions. I recall reading one the old popular business books written to educate gaijins (foreigners) on the subtleties of communicating with the Japanese. The title was something like “Japanese have 16 ways of saying “no,”—none as simple as a straightforward no. Interacting with my Japanese friends, I found that they have many ways of expressing apology and regret but never with seamless candor.

Indeed, we can see by deconstructing the Emperor’s speech that “telling it like it is” is not in the Japanese make-up.

First, Hirohito said: “We have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure.” What he meant was, “We have to surrender unconditionally.”

Next, he said, “We have ordered Our Government to communicate to the Governments of the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union that Our Empire accepts the provisions of their Joint Declaration.”

The Western powers interpret this statement to mean that the Emperor accepted the terms of unconditional surrender as outlined in the Potsdam Declaration. Yet can anyone expect the ordinary people in Japan to make the same connection from his speech, a speech where “surrender” and “Potsdam” were conspicuously absent? Thanks to the way post-war textbooks are written, most people in Japan have not even heard of Potsdam Declaration.


Then he said, “It being far from our thought either to infringe upon sovereignty of other nations or to embark upon territorial aggrandizement.” He obviously was not referring to Japan’s invasion and occupation of Manchuria as early as 1931 and certainly not the occupation of Korea since the latter part of 19th century.

And he said, “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japans advantage.” Certainly a masterful understatement under the trying circumstances he was facing.

Approaching the end of his speech, he said, “We cannot but express the deepest sense of regret to Our Allied nations of East Asia, who have consistently cooperated with the Empire towards the emancipation of East Asia.” This statement neatly encapsulated the myth of co-prosperity Japan used to justify invading and occupying East Asia countries.

The raping and pillaging as the Japanese troops moved into each country was for their own good, to free them from the shackles of white man domination. Politicians in Japan today continues to perpetuate the idea that Japan invaded rest of Asia for their own good, that the Japanese soldiers snatched the possessions from the local people in order to share the wealth with them.

The media simply adored the statement the Emperor made toward the end of his speech, “… to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable.” The poetic meter of the enduring and suffering tugged their heart strings and was often quoted and repeated in documentaries and films about the war.

Unfortunately, the context of that quote was to portray the hapless Japanese people as having to endure and suffer the post war trauma of a defeated nation — in others words, another reminder of Japan as a victim of WWII. The Emperor was certainly not referring to the Chinese people having to endure and suffer the eight years of the brutal occupation by the imperial troops before the war ended.

It’s customary for victors to write the history. Japan is proving to be the exception to the rule. Whether deliberate or simply inhibited by his cultural upbringing, the ambiguity of Emperor’s concession speech –certainly not a legitimate surrender proclamation — has allowed Japan to begin revising history. It’s as if denying all the brutalities committed in the past can exonerate the present from any collective guilt. Just the opposite is true. The people of Asia will continue to remind Japan until there is only one version of the tragic history of World War II.

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