The emperor's voice and the soldiers who tried to silence it

The Jewel Voice Broadcast

The original record of the Jewel Voice Broadcast in the NHK Museum of Broadcasting (Photo: Japanese Wikipedia)

Almost exactly 76 years ago, on August 15, 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced on the radio Japan's surrender to the Allies. This was the first time most Japanese people have heard the voice of their ruler. Today's article will focus on the circumstances of the announcement, and how some Japanese officers tried to derail it and continue the war.
It was clear by August 1945 that Japan had no chance of winning World War II. Nazi Germany had been defeated in Europe. The island of Okinawa was in American hands, and Japanese troops on the Asian mainland were in a hopeless position.  The forces stationed on the Home Islands could, at best, only hope to delay the inevitable. Then Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by two American planes dropping a single bomb each, even as the Soviet Union declared war on Japan on August 9.

Aerial view of Tokyo after the war (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
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On the same day, pro-peace members of the Supreme Council for the Direction of War, including Prime Minister Kantarō Suzuki, suggested to Emperor Hirohito that he should accept the Potsdam Declaration's demand for surrender (read our earlier article). The emperor agreed during a second, late night council meeting in a bomb shelter, and the Japanese envoy to Switzerland and Sweden (both neutral countries) began to communicate the news to the Allies.
The emperor's decision caused a rift within the War Ministry. Many senior officers felt that the war had to be pursued to the bitter end to protect the Kokutai, the structure of the Japanese state that stemmed from a leader of divine origin. (According to Japanese mythology, the Imperial family descended from two deities of the ancient Japanese pantheon.) The Minister of War, General Korechika Anami, was one of many who believed the war should be continued, and he made an unsuccessful attempt at persuading the emperor's brother to intercede with the emperor to that end.


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War Minister Korechika Anami (Photo: public domain)

Other officers were willing to go further. Major Kenji Hatanaka was one of those who were willing to consider an outright coup to prevent the emperor from surrendering. Capturing and disenfranchising the emperor in order to preserve the integrity of the empire might sound like a contradiction, but it wasn't unprecedented in Japan: the 264-year Edo period from the 17th to mid-19th centuries was already characterized by the emperor being a powerless figurehead under the thumb of the military elite.

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Major Kenji Hatanaka (Photo: The Pacific War Research Society)

Over the next couple of days, Hatanaka and his co-conspirators tried approaching senior officers, including Anami, to win them over to their cause, but failed to gain wider support. They intended to put their plan into action on the morning of the 14th, but the emperor had plans of his own. On that very morning, Hirohito summoned the cabinet ministers for an unplanned conference. During the conference, where he broke down sobbing, much to the shock of those present, he revealed that he intended to create a recording of the surrender proclamation in his own voice, which would be broadcast the following day. News of this plan leaked out, giving Hatanaka and his comrades a clear goal: prevent the broadcast of the recording.

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Hatanaka made his first move in the evening hours. He convinced the commander of one regiment in the First Imperial Guards to join him, by untruthfully telling him that Minister of War General Anami, the Eastern District Army (the field army stationed in that part of Japan) and other Imperial Guard Division commanders were already on his side. Hatanaka then travelled to another part of Tokyo and visited the commander of the Eastern District Army, General Shizuichi Tanaka, trying to turn him to his cause, too. Tanaka had openly pro-western sentiments. He studied Shakespeare at Oxford, he carried the Japanese flag at the London victory parade after World War I, and he had served as Japanese military attaché in the United States. He immediately refused Hatanaka's request, sent him home, and started mobilizing his army to move on the imperial palace and secure it from the rebels.

One-page version of the emperor's rescript. The yellow chrysanthemum is the Imperial Seal of Japan, the red seal is the Privy Seal of Japan. (Photo: unknown photographer)

Meanwhile, back in the palace, the recording of the emperor's surrender was made. Sound technicians from NHK ("Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai", Japan's public broadcaster) arrived and set up a studio in a bunker under the Imperial Household Ministry. Emperor Hirohito proceeded to read the prepared text, titled the Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War, between 11:25 and 11:30 p.m. He spoke too softly, and the quality of the recording ended up being substandard. On the advice of the technicians, he offered to read the text again for a second recording. This one ended up being louder, but he spoke in a very high-pitched voice and made a few reading mistakes, skipping some characters in the written text. Nevertheless, the second version was deemed to be better and the official one, while the first recording was kept as a backup. The records were placed inside a safe in the palace's administration building for safekeeping until the broadcast the next day.

One of the original two recordings of the emperor's speech (Photo: The Imperial Household Agency of Japan)


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While this was happening, Hatanaka returned to the palace, took command of the roughly 1,000 men following him and surrounded the palace complex. At around this time, Minister War Anami committed suicide, leaving behind a message: "I—with my death—humbly apologize to the Emperor for the great crime." It remains unclear to this day what exactly he meant by "the great crime": losing the war or not warning Hirohito about the coup brewing against him.
Hatanaka's next target was Lieutenant-General Takeshi Mori, commander of the 1st Imperial Guards Division, the emperor's guard. With Mori on their side, the rebels could have easily seized the palace. Without him, they would have had a much harder time. Hatanaka and several of his men burst in on Mori, demanding his compliance. Mori was in the middle of a meeting with his brother-in-law, a fellow officer. Stalling for time, Mori launched into an hour-long monologue on his philosophy of life, trying to disarm the rebels with words. Finally, he offered to go over to the Meiji shrine, one of the most sacred Shinto shrines, and pray for divine guidance. Mori was trying to make his escape, but he was known to be very religious, so this proposal was not out of the blue. Hatanaka, however, had run out of patience. He pressed Mori for a direct reply one last time. When it wasn't forthcoming, he shot the general with his gun, while another rebel almost simultaneously slashed the man with his sword. Mori died in seconds, sliding to the floor from his chair. Mori's brother-in-law, still in the room, was also murdered to prevent him from escaping and raising an alarm.

General Takeshi Mori, who sacrificed himself to buy time for the emperor (Photo: unknown photographer)

Hatanaka took Mori's official seal and used it to forge an order giving him control of the palace complex. With this order in hand, he had free run of the place. His men started turning the complex upside down for the recording. 18 men, sound technicians and staff of the Imperial Household Ministry, were captured and detained. The emperor's chamberlain was threatened with disemboweling if he wouldn't tell where the records were. He lied and claimed he didn't know. No reliable historical record remains about Emperor Hirohito's whereabouts during the night. Official history claims that he slept through the events, but it's hard to believe that. It's been speculated that whatever form of capture or arrest happened to the emperor, a figure greatly venerated by Japanese society, was considered too humiliating to preserve even in records.

Kōichi Kido, (former) Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal of Japan, who hid the recordings during the night of the coup, during his war crimes trial in 1947 (Photo: public domain)

The rebels were greatly hampered in their search by the circumstances. An Allied air raid warning necessitated a blackout, so the sprawling palace complex had to be searched in the dark. Additionally, the Imperial Household Ministry, steeped in history and tradition, was laid out and organized in a very traditional way, and the soldiers just couldn't make out the names of many rooms, written in an archaic form of Japanese. We don't quite know what happened to the two records. Some sources claim they were in an underground safe all along. Another version of the story claims that the rebels were looking for it in the Room of Imperial Treasures, while they were hidden among the servants' bedsheets. A further claim is that they were hidden among nondescript paperwork, and yet another that they were smuggled out of the palace.

Aerial view of the Imperial palace complex (Photo:


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While Hatanaka's rebels turned the palace upside down, some of his men travelled to the nearby city of Yokohama to find and kill Prime Minister Suzuki, who was advocating surrender, and Kiichirō Hiranuma, an influential advisor to the emperor. Both were warned in advance and made their escape.
Meanwhile, Hatanaka was running out of time. Loyalist forces, including the Eastern District Army commanded by Tanaka, were converging on the palace. Before dawn, Hatanaka gave up on finding the recordings. He left his men behind and hurried to the NHK broadcast studio to prevent the speech from being played. General Tanaka arrived to the palace by car after Hatanaka left. He personally confronted the officers Tanaka abandoned, berating them and ordering them back to their barracks. The dispirited men complied and the coup attempt was over by 8:00 a.m.

Japanese civilians at the gates of the Imperial palace after hearing the surrender (Photo: AP)

Once he got to the radio building, Hatanaka brandished his pistol and demanded that he be allowed to address the Japanese nation on the air to explain his actions during the night. The radio employees refused to budge, and he gave up and left at roughly 6:00 a.m. He was last seen riding a motorcycle through the streets of Tokyo throwing leaflets that explained his motivations and actions, while one of his loyal followers was doing the same from horseback. At around 11:00 a.m., an hour before the planned broadcast, Hatanaka shot himself in the head. In his pocket was a death poem, a traditional composition written by samurai before their execution or suicide: "I have nothing to regret now that the dark clouds have disappeared from the reign of the Emperor."

Japanese POWs on Guam after hearing the emperor's surrender on the radio (Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

The emperor's surrender speech, which became known as the Gyokuon-hōsō, the "Jewel Voice Broadcast", came on air at noon, after a night of treachery and murder. The broadcast began at precisely 12 o'clock with the Japanese anthem, followed by the emperor's speech. This was a historical occasion, the first time the emperor of Japan addressed the entire nation. Most people, however, could barely understand the speech. The poor sound quality of the broadcast was the lesser problem. More importantly, the imperial family used an archaic form of Classical Japanese, which was practically unintelligible to the general population. Additionally, the speech did not once include the word "surrender" – it merely stated that the emperor ordered the government to accept the provisions of the joint declarations of the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union. (Mentioning the last was a gaffe, since the Soviet Union did not sign the Potsdam Declaration.) The radio anticipated the confusion, and had an announcer on hand who explained the meaning of the speech to the listeners in everyday Japanese. According to French journalist Robert Guillain, who was living in Tokyo at the time, most Japanese then retreated to their homes and businesses for several hours to quietly contemplate the speech and its ramifications.

Japanese men, women and children crying after the surrender speech (Photo: AP)

General Tanaka, who openly refused to cooperate with Hatanaka and was almost single-handedly responsible for preventing the coup, was hailed as "the hero of the August 15 incident". Nevertheless, the burden of the war proved too much for him to bear. He felt personally responsible for the heavy damage Tokyo suffered from Allied bombing. After the surrender of Japan, he told his subordinates to destroy their unit color, but not to commit suicide. This was an order he himself did not follow. He shot himself in the heart on August 24. He left his desk covered with Buddhist writings, letters to his family and officers, a statue of Emperor Meiji (who oversaw Japan's transformation into a modern nation), and a scroll with Emperor Hirohito's words of praise to him after the coup attempt.

General Shizuichi Tanaka, the hero who prevented the coup (Photo: unknown photographer)


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The disk on which the official broadcast was recorded disappeared sometime after the broadcast, but not before a radio technician secretly made a copy. All present-day copies of the speech were made from this unauthorized copy. The original disk was later found, but was never played again. Today, it is on display at the NHK Museum of Broadcasting in Tokyo. Films that deal with the Jewel Voice Broadcast and events leading up to or following it include Japan's Longest Day, a 1967 Japanese film with internationally renowned Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune as War Minister Korechika Anami; Emperor, a 2012 Japanese-American coproduction with Tommy Lee Jones as General Douglas MacArthur, and the 2015 Japanese historical drama The Emperor in August.

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