The 15th of August in Tokyo
Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 15, 2007
AT NOON ON 15 AUGUST 1945 IN TOKYO, NHK Radio broadcast a recording made by Emperor Hirohito at about 11:30 p.m. the night before accepting the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and surrendering unconditionally to the Allied nations.
As this account in the Japan Times makes clear, however, that broadcast nearly didn’t make it to the air. The son-in-law of former Prime Minister Tojo Hideki issued a bogus order at 2:00 a.m. for about 1,000 soldiers to seize the Imperial Palace and cut off communications with the outside. The aim of the cabal of about a dozen officers was to find and destroy the two audio discs made by the Emperor before they could be broadcast to the nation later that day, overthrow the government, and install a new administration led by the War Minister to continue fighting.
The soldiers did occupy the Palace grounds, and about 40 or 50 entered the premises of the Imperial Household Agency. They hunted for the records for about 90 minutes without finding them. The discs had been placed there instead of NHK headquarters, which also was occupied, because it was thought to be a safer hiding place. One wonders how they knew to look on the Palace grounds instead of at NHK.
The coup leaders killed the head of the Imperial Guards after he refused their request to order the 4,000 troops under his command to join the revolt. Eventually, an officer of the Guards Division escaped and alerted General Tanaka Shizuichi, the head of the Eastern Defense Command (responsible for defending the capital) of the situation at the Palace. Tanaka convinced the Imperial Guard commander that the orders were not legitimate, and the commander confronted the coup leaders. They killed themselves shortly afterward, and the troops left the Palace grounds about 8:00 a.m., six hours after the plot got underway.
No Basis for Urban Legend
NHK’s official account of the events of the 14th and 15th, contained in their corporate history published on the network’s 50th anniversary in 1977, clears up another matter. There has been a persistent urban legend in Japan that the combination of poor radio reception and unfamiliarity with the language reserved for the Emperor led some people to believe that Hirohito had actually asked the people to fight to the last man. This cannot have been the case.
After the plotters were removed from NHK headquarters, the day’s broadcasts began at around 7:20 a.m., more than two hours behind schedule. There was an immediate and urgent announcement that the Emperor would address the nation at noon that day, and every citizen was urged to listen to the gyokuon broadcast. (Gyokuon is the Emperor’s voice, or literally, jeweled sound.) There were no daytime radio broadcasts in the regional areas of the country at that point in the war, so arrangements were made for a special hookup. This was to be the first time that most Japanese had ever heard their Emperor speak.
At noon, everyone in the country stopped what they were doing to listen. The recording was broadcast not only throughout Japan, but also over the NHK radio network in each of the colonized countries and territories in the Pacific. My mother-in-law’s family of well-to-do farmers were the only people in their neighborhood with a radio. She remembers everyone in the area coming to her house to listen.
Before the recording was played, the NHK announcer asked everyone to stand (to listen to the radio!) While it is true that the broadcast of the record was difficult to understand due to interference in some areas and the language used, there is no question that everyone understood what had just happened when the full broadcast ended some 37 minutes later. After the recording was played, the NHK announcer explained in simpler language that Japan had just surrendered, read the text of the Emperor’s broadcast again, and followed that with another explanation. After all that, it would have been unlikely that anyone would have thought the Emperor had asked the country to fight to the last man. In any event, newspapers began publishing extra editions at 1:00 p.m.
They understood in Tokyo. A stream of people passed by the bridge leading to the Imperial Palace to bow in its direction. This continued for the rest of the day.
They understood in Seoul. This was Liberation Day for Korea, and the sound of fireworks and gongs were heard almost immediately. The colonial government broadcast a plea asking for cooperation from the citizenry until the occupation army arrived, and they apparently got it.
They also understood on the other side of the world. It was midnight on the East Coast of the United States. Those people listening to a late-night live broadcast of Cab Calloway on the Mutual Broadcasting Network were among the first to find out.
One tricky aspect for students of the Japanese language is the bushel basket full of personal pronouns available in the language, combined with the common practice of omitting personal pronouns entirely. When pronouns are omitted, people usually can tell who is talking about whom from the context, but even the Japanese have to stop and ask each other every now and again.
For centuries, there was a specific personal pronoun meaning “I” reserved for the exclusive use of the Emperor, with its own kanji character. Hirohito used the word that day in his broadcast. The word is chin.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Chinpo or chin-chin are two of the less refined expressions for penis (the latter used mostly by grade-school boys), though it is written differently. Anyone who has taught English to 10-year-old boys in Japan, pointed to the end of his jaw, and called it his chin knows to wait a couple of minutes for the hysterical laughter to subside.
I’m not an anthropological linguist, so I have no proof or knowledge that there was a connection between these near-homonyms centuries ago. Still, it does offer fertile ground for speculation.
As Sherlock Holmes put it, I have sometimes thought of writing a monograph on the subject.