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Hirohito's Speech: The Surrender Of Japan's 'Living God'


Before the end of the second World War, Emperor Hirohito was considered by the Japanese to be a living God. And the first time most of his people heard him speak, it was to surrender.


HIROHITO: (Speaking Japanese).

VIGELAND: That's Hirohito's radio message from exactly 70 years ago today. It was supposed to be an announcement of surrender, but the Japanese people almost didn't get the message in a couple of different ways. George Koo is a writer for the Asia Times, and he joins us now - welcome.

GEORGE KOO: Yes. Thank you, Tess.

VIGELAND: First of all, I understand that Hirohito wasn't using plain-spoken Japanese here.

KOO: That's right. He, being the Emperor, got - they have a different set of court language, I guess you can say. And most people are probably not familiar with it and may not even really understand it. And this would be the Japanese common people.

VIGELAND: Do you have any examples of some of the unclear phrases that Hirohito used?

KOO: Well, I think practically, you're right. The beginning is, quote, "we have decide effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure." That statement by itself - how does anyone make sense of that? What he really meant was, we have to surrender unconditionally. We're in such a pickle. The...

VIGELAND: Yeah. That's certainly not the way he said it (laughter).

KOO: But that's what he meant - right? - in effect.

VIGELAND: Sure, sure, yeah. And I found this fascinating, that, you know, up until then, he had been basically the polar opposite of FDR's fireside chats. He had never before addressed his citizens.

KOO: Right. But that's not just him. I mean, that's a tradition from all the emperors. It's not in their custom to address the common people of Japan.

VIGELAND: I understand that Hirohito's recorded message almost didn't make it to the radio station at all. Why was that?

KOO: There was a young group of officers that are very much in favor of continuing the fight. And when they heard wind of the emperor getting ready to surrender - and this is, you know, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki - the only recourse they had was trying to intercept that message so that it doesn't get to the broadcasting station.

VIGELAND: And so did that happen? Did the attempt happen?

KOO: I don't think the attempt happens only because the attendance of the emperor was successful in secreting this out of the palace grounds by a secure route that the officers were not aware of. And by the time the officers found out that the cat was out of the bag, the broadcast had already taken place.

Making - you have to give the emperor credit to this extent. By proclaiming that Japan has lost the war, it saved untold number of lives on the side of the Japanese but also on the side of the American soldiers that would've had to go block by block, door by door in hand-to-hand combat in order to take all of Japan.

VIGELAND: That's George Koo, writer for Asia Times. Today is the 70th anniversary of Japanese emperor Hirohito's radio broadcast announcing Japan's defeat in World War II. George, thank you.

KOO: Thank you very much for having me, Tess. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.