In July of 1945 the United States prepared to test the first atomic bomb in a dusty corner of New Mexico.
Amongst the small cadre of scientists who were aware of the Trinity Project – even the US Vice President wasn’t in on it – some were concerned that a chain reaction of split atoms in the upper atmosphere could ripple through the sky and destroy the planet. This clumsy steel ball from the 40’s, hanging on a steel tower 100 feet off the ground, sparked a dark guessing game: How much destruction would come pouring out of that tower once the bomb dropped?
The US didn’t make haste. Even before the New Mexico test, another bomb was sailing across the Pacific, destined for Hiroshima. If the planet’s atmosphere survived the test in New Mexico, then the USA was ready to localize the phenomenon in two Western Japanese port towns: Kitakyushu and Hiroshima. Rain over Kitakyushu moved the second bomb to Nagasaki – spawning the phrase “Kokura Luck,” a reference to the Kitakyushu city center.
That first bomb finally detonated 100 feet above what is now the Hiroshima World Peace Museum and Park. Today, the museum shows the effect of nuclear weapons through emotional depictions and artifacts; tells of skin being burned into clothing, of children walking through ashen cities with radiation burns. It is a very compelling set of reasons to oppose nuclear warfare. The gift shop sells Barack Obama T-shirts, postcards thanking him for his stance on the global reduction of nuclear stockpiles.
But there’s a single sentence that seems a bit dodgy. The museum asserts that when the Allies presented terms of surrender, the Japanese government was contemplating surrender and had yet to reply when Hiroshima was bombed.
This was never in my history books, but then not much is. The typical story among Americans is that Japan had refused to surrender and was bombed out of necessity; only the bomb could have halted a frenzy of suicidal nationalism. Japan asserts that it was planning to surrender but was bombed anyway.
Turns out, there was a miscommunication.
Truman, Stalin, Churchill and Chiang Kai-Shek made the Postdam Declaration in July of 1945. The declaration was quite firm:
“We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.”
For good measure, the Allies dropped leaflets explaining the terms of surrender in Japanese and broadcast them over the radio. Everyone was aware of the terms, and everyone knew the world was waiting for an answer.
In Tokyo, Premier Suzuki was questioned by reporters about Japan’s response. Behind the scenes the military refused “unconditional surrender” on principal, while some believed that Japan could make a land invasion so bloody that the allies would negotiate an armistice on Japan’s terms rather than demand total surrender. Estimates were being drawn: 10,000 aircraft and pilots could be trained for last-ditch kamikaze missions that would have wiped out 400 US transport boats; citizens were being armed with every kind of spare weapon, from swords to farming tools. One high-school girl was handed a leather-crafting awl and told to kill at least a single American soldier with it. The goal was to force the military into killing every man from 15 to 70 and every woman from 17 to 65, who were now elevated from mere citizens into the “Civilian Defense Force” of Japan.
Others, to their credit, saw that this would be madness, and advocated full surrender. The Emperor would eventually agree. But none of them were aware that the US wasn’t planning a land invasion. None of them could have imagined the alternative.
With this all occurring behind the scenes, Suzuki gave a boilerplate answer: “No comment.”
The Japanese verb for withholding comment is mokusatsu(suru), which you could better understand culturally as, “We’ll wait in silence until we can speak with wisdom.” The problem with this answer is that it has a number of connotations, including one that could best be understood as the more dismissive, “We will wait in silence until we can speak about something wise,” more in line with “This doesn’t even merit a response.” Japanese language is vague; the source of the wisdom here is supposed to be implied. Is the wisdom coming from reasoned discussion? Or are you refusing to answer a stupid question?
Tokyo reporters could have gone either way. They decided that the Premier said the Potsdam Declaration was “not worthy of discussion.” Coming from the Premier of the Japanese Government, the Allies saw this as an official refusal of terms. It seemed insane given the state of Japan, but so, too, were kamikaze pilots and an army of teenage girls armed with leather crafting tools. One could easily assume that the entire nation would destroy itself rather than surrender – that was, after all, what it had said for the entire duration of the war.
In Japan, the view is that Suzuki said they were thinking about it.
Hiroshima was bombed within 10 days.
Reading The Air
Perhaps we could say the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the result of a translation error, but the translators understood the word and knew the full range of meanings it carried. The problem was inherent to the Japanese language, where words are secondary to context. In this situation, the context seemed clear: Japan had trained soldiers to kill themselves rather than surrender, and was now being asked to surrender. If we “read the air,” – my favorite Japanese phrase for the impossible task of understanding situations intuitively and not actually communicating – we might assume that Japan would be insulted and reject the proposal, even if it meant “prompt and utter destruction.”
This to me seems less like a flaw in translation than a flaw of the Japanese language. Causing offense means something here, so the language has evolved to tease out consensus and not make clear statements. Catherine Travis, a linguist, did a survey in Japan that found 70 percent of Japanese saw “the ability to act on guesses” as tied with kindness among the most important personal trait.
This is fine and good for communicating with neighbors or the local baker, but it is absolutely useless internationally, where the burden lies in communicating clearly and “acting on guesses” can end with the annihilation of cities.
Japan is quite poor at globalized tasks because it doesn’t communicate well. Of course, the global economy was designed to keep Japan in line. When Japan was outpacing everyone else economically, the US teamed up with other nations and agreed to a series of financial measures to weaken the dollar against the yen. Japan agreed, inadvertently cheering the actions of its gravediggers. Perhaps it is no coincidence that once the assertively communicative countries started cooperating economically, Japan entered a period of stagnation and eventual decline.
Since then, Japan continues to be vague. In its weird, muddled face-saving measures after the Fukushima nuclear crisis, to its response to international pressures against whaling, the problem has always been that whatever Japan’s policy is, it will articulate it vaguely, leaving everyone wondering just what, exactly, it wants. With so little patience for this style of communication, Japan often ends up with nothing – or with whatever its allies decide it needs.
Cultures and Tiger Warnings
In 1968, a National Security Agency report on the incident remarked rather glibly on Suzuki’s role in the incident, saying, essentially, that Suzuki could have actually communicated instead of being all weird about it, that even information like “We’re thinking about it” or “We have the proposal under review” could have saved the country from it’s morbid distinction as the only country ever engaged in nuclear war.
I’ve read that language evolved as an extension of our nervous system – our primate selves used language to warn our friends about threats they couldn’t see. We shout “Look out for that tiger!” and we’ve become a part of a connected structure. Language connects us into a common front against the threats of the world. We give each other access to our sensations, revealing more of the pleasures and simplifying the difficulties of the world.
In a groundbreaking 1991 study, psychologists Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama found that the way “self” is constructed in American culture and Japanese culture is radically different. In American culture, the “self” is always in isolation from others, while in Japan the “self” is always placed among others. If you imagine this in the context of the tiger example, you might see that the American consciousness is that we are looking out for tigers, separate from our friend, while the Japanese consciousness would be that both of you – and everyone around you – is looking out for tigers.
The difference may seem subtle, but consider how it changes the way we communicate: The Japanese way is indirect because you and your friend are aware of the same bits of the environment and understand what is around you both. Or the American way, where you focus on one thing, tigers, while your friend focuses on another, such as finding wild berries.
The American berry-hunting party would have to shout to draw attention to a specific aspect of the environment that it is responsible for monitoring – in this case, tigers and berries. The Japanese berry hunters, sharing tasks, don’t have to communicate as explicitly. (Notably, studies have shown that Americans are very good at reporting details of a single sphere of focus – such as a goldfish in a tank – whereas Japanese people could answer fewer questions about the goldfish but could discuss the entirety of the aquarium in greater detail).
Born In The USA
Realizing how much of my world view has been culturally crafted is an intense experience. I listened to punk music. I was a vegan. I didn’t watch television. I was a snotty hipster, in fact, for much of my 20s, and I have always considered myself “outside” of mainstream America, only to realize, abroad, just how much has seeped in.
Directness and openness are good examples. They’re often annoying to other Americans, but always annoying to everyone else. Being away and then coming back, I was frequently shocked by bold declarations of opinions and emotions by Americans (myself included). After years in Japan, any show of self-expression comes off as entitled, self-important, or recklessly emotional. Non-Americans strike me as aloof.
I am conditioned to seek finality in things that are ambiguous; I find myself wishing for rapid resolutions through acts of extreme honesty. This is, of course, not universal to Americans, but it is rooted in a series of very American beliefs in the value of self-expression, “letting it all out,” and valuing efficiency (even if it’s at the price of deep, thoughtful reasoning).
Amber Waves of Grain
American culture, like any other culture, evolved from a feedback cycle of behavior and environments. The variety of behaviors (coming from hundreds of countries, religions, etc) and environments (arid deserts, freezing tundras, tropical marshes) meant that our culture requires an ability to be understood across different contexts.
It is no wonder that a prevailing American stereotype is that we’re the loudest group at a bar: We’ve been raised to be heard, and clearly. Our desires are rarely misunderstood, because we don’t leave a lot to the imagination.
But these practices evolved to serve a purpose, and so this negative side has a corresponding strength: Americans are well-prepared to thrive in a global culture. Our diversity requires a constant balancing act between our own directness and accommodation to the directness of others. What we lack in subtlety we make up for in tolerance.
But coming from that culture, guessing whether someone is withholding comment until they have made a decision, or withholding comment because I’ve insulted them (likely through my directness), is maddening. I find vagueness and undefined situations enraging. People from every other country seem to have a tolerance for uncertainty that far exceeds my own capacity. When someone implies that I should “read the air,” I feel like they should just explain themselves. Refusing to communicate with words feels arbitrarily difficult to my American mind.
This is where I find a cultural divide: I read about Suzuki, as an American, and I’m infuriated by the arrogance of his leisurely stroll through the act of communicating. Japan, however, believes that America jumped to irrational conclusions and was quick to take devastating actions on too little information. Both sides say that the other should have intuitively understood what was taking place. America, for its part, could have made some attempt at verifying its own conclusions before engaging in the destruction of human life on an unrivaled scale.
But that’s the tragedy. Suzuki was withholding and inarticulate, and the US was quick to jump to the worst conclusion. That’s the limit of international – and interpersonal – communication. You never know what something means to the person saying it, or, in this case, to the person who isn’t.
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“read the air” – understanding situations intuitively and not actually communicating
“the ability to act on guesses” – the most important personal trait for Japanese
With so little patience for this style of communication, Japan often ends up with nothing
Americans – single sphere of focus – such as a goldfish in a tank
Japanese – could answer fewer questions about the goldfish but could discuss the entirety
Japan – any show of self-expression comes off as entitled, self-important, or recklessly emotional.
American culture – requires an ability to be understood across different contexts
“the destruction of human life on an unrivaled scale.” – “That’s the limit of international – and interpersonal – communication.”
And a very dangerous path that is. Remarkably complex piece, well done. The American style is no nonsense: “OK, so that’s your deal, Here’s what I need.” or words to that effect.
“Kitakyushu and Nagasaki. Rain over Kitakyushu moved the first bomb to Hiroshima”
Actually, Hiroshima and Kokura were the original targets. Rain over Kokura moved the second bomb to Nagasaki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Atomic_bomb_1945_mission_map.svg
Kokura (town) is within Kitakyushu (city).
Yes, I know. I just referred to it as Kokura to reflect the map I linked to. The post originally had Hiroshima and Nagasaki switched as secondary targets to Kokura/Kitakyushu, but has since been corrected.
I had always heard that the bombs were dropped because the U.S. had a shiny new toy and itchy trigger fingers, and that the use of the atomic bomb was more a display of power to the Soviet Union than a means to end the war. If I recall, even the military and political leaders of the time remarked many years later that the bombings were not necessary, that Japan was ready to surrender before the bombs were dropped. I completely agree that Suzuki’s choice of words were completely irresponsible, but I wonder if he could have said anything other than “We Surrender”, and had a different reaction from the U.S.
I guarantee you didn’t hear that from Chinese people.
A fascinating article cocnerning the complications of surrender that unfortunately won’t be accessible unless you feel like paying or have existing access from a University or something is this this, by Sadao Asada…
Very interesting, and has stuck with me since my university days. Anyway….
As a British person working as a teacher in Japan I’m fascinated by the focus given to ‘reading the air’ and ‘not saying what we mean’ in a lot of our prepatory seminars. This is after all pretty second nature to us Brits and it almost felt like we were being taught basic etiquette and I personally was completely shocked by some of the questions some of my American colleagues raised. It was interesting to me that as a group of foreigners we were treated as if we all shared American values. (I don’t mean to say Americans lack basic etiquette, just that theirs doesn’t match my own.)
Anyway, this was a thoughtful and interesting piece, and I wonder where us Brits would fit into this scale, haha. I’m certainly definitely sometimes confused by Japan’s vagueness but still very uncomfortable by American assertiveness.
Yes– I have similar problems with the British, in fact; but it’s far more comprehensible given that subtext is far more readable when you can comprehend the language.
I’ll warn you that this blog will be changing to a study of British vs US cultures in October, when I relocate to London. :)
In that case I’ll definitely tell you what I was thinking about as I read this piece, in the hope that it might save you a bit of grief – that Alastor is right, and I had perhaps more misunderstanding with Americans in London about this kind of thing than I’ve ever had with Japanese in Japan. Maybe the fact we speak (almost) the same language engenders a false sense of complacency that isn’t there when one of you is obviously non-native.
I’ve occasionally been told that “English is more direct than Japanese” which is obviously rubbish. American people are more direct than Japanese people (on the whole), but that’s got nothing to do with the language. And of course, the Anglosphere is much broader than just the US.
One final hint for your move. We like understatement in the UK. I’ve had far too many Americans spit their dummies (pacifiers?) out because they thought I wasn’t taking a problem seriously enough, when they simply failed to grasp that when I say, ‘Well, that’s clearly less than ideal,’ what I mean is that it’s a clusterfuck of gargantuan proportions. Divided by a common language indeed…
Divided by a Common language is a personal favo(u)rite of mine. And yes, with a diverse expat community I’ve come to learn every excruciating bit of weirdness that comes with being an American, many of which have disappeared as soon as I’ve come to see them and some of which I’ve had to sort out from the rest of the chaff. Grappling with what’s “good” about coming from American culture has been quite an interesting bit of grief.
And agreed, I’ve made a point to compare Japan to Americans here, not “English Speakers” or “The West.” Bear with us! Some of us are trying to tone down our reliance on exaggeration and hysterics to communicate. But it’s so damned effective when we’re at home!
I’ve faced the same “divided by a common language” problems. Raised by Canadian parents who were born early enough to remember the pre-WWII British Empire, I am given to understatement. This way of speaking only got worse when I studied the Indonesian language and culture, which has some similar social rules. In Indonesian, for example, one generally says “less than good” (kurang baik) rather than “bad” (jelek) unless there is a really high social-status difference, and the speaker is on top.
Speaking in such a “soft” way makes a person appear weak and wishy-washy to Americans. The preference in the U.S. seems to be for emotional hyperbole. A reserved “This soup is less-than-good” can, can be accurately portrayed in American English with the sentence “This is the worst soup I’ve ever had in my life!”
Some non-Americans (both Japanese and English) might hear “This is the worst soup I’ve ever had in my life!” and think that the American either has complete lack of awareness of social status or is implying a belief that he is far, far above the people around him in status. This is probably one cause of the “Americans are arrogant” stereotype.
Fantastic, thanks. This history could go quite deep and be endlessly fascinating all the way through. I remember some of this Manchuria argument from “Embracing Defeat,” which is a brilliant primer on the immediate aftermath of WW2 in Japan; sadly my copy is slightly out of reach in America. :)
The Japanese were not vague when they bombed Pearl they were assertive. How convenient they reverted to becoming “invisible” when required to answer a serious question. A ten day wait… hum…
I was a young child when my family walked into my Aunts house for our regular Sunday visit to hear the news that we were now at war – a few years later my girl friends father was a commander on the ship Missouri when the Japanese were allowed to make an
unconditional surrender. My story isn`t as long – but true.
The Japanese didn’t hide behind the language differences to shift blame for the bombing of Hiroshima/Nagasaki, this is merely an explanation for the bombing by Americans themselves, I think to shift the blame off of Americans. Regardless, I disagree with Owwls that the language difference had anything to do with the nuking of civilians. The US dropped the bombs to intimidate Moscow, and the world generally. The US already knew it was going to take over from Europe, especially Britain as the global hegemon. The bombs were dropped *because* it was a senseless act, the US wanted the world to know it could act like a wild dog. Its about building credibility, mafia-style. See the video I posted in the other comment for a full explanation.
There’s definitely some argument regarding if Japan was going to surrender prior to the dropping of the atomic bomb, but also interestingly, whether if they were going to surrender still even AFTER the bomb were dropped.
You brought up the American perspective that the atomic bomb ended the war, but from archives that have been made available since the fall of the USSR, their version (and also collaborated from some Japanese sources) is that the invasion of Manchuria was pivotal.
The Japanese realized that no matter how the Americans bombed their city, they would be reluctant to actually invade, but the Soviet Union had no such qualms. The Japanese were still fighting after the first bomb was dropped, and then the Soviet army tore through Manchuria. Japan and Russia had a bit of a rough history, and given the speed of the advance, it became obvious that the Soviets would capture Japan first even before the first US troops arrived, and they won’t be very kind about it. A surrender to the US was preferred because they thought the US would give them better surrender terms, and that was it.
I don’t know how much the Japanese were contemplating surrender before either of these events happened, but the part about Manchuria certainly played a role, which is something that is often omitted from US textbooks. The whole ‘the bomb saved lives’ sounds a lot better than the ‘they surrendered to us because we were the lesser of two evils’ line. ;)
“since the fall of the USSR, their version (and also collaborated from some Japanese sources) is that the invasion of Manchuria was pivotal.”
That was also the conclusion of the US intelligence services and Truman himself! This issue is discussed by Historian at American University in Washington DC Peter Kuznickat at 11:16 of the below video, although the whole thing is worth watching:
You are so right in saying that reading the air is very important in Japan and often leads to misunderstandings and frustrations in the interactions with foreigners. I am often impressed by the Japanese attentiveness to other people’s needs. They are so incredibly thoughtful. I really wish I could learn to be as good at it as they are.
I am from Belgium, and have often thought that Belgium is the most ‘Japanese’ country in Europe, since people also tend to hold back a little and sometimes prefer to communicate indirectly. If I have to think of the most ‘unjapanese’ country I can imagine, it would probably be the USA. So I can imagine that being expected to read the air is particularly frustrating for Americans.
yeah this whole ‘reading the air’ and being psychic can go too far really.. I have lived in “high context” societies before, have been raised in them, and therefore they are ingrained in my psyche/comes naturally to me. But, it doesnt help here much, since I cant read Japanese in that the air is written differently. And anyway, even in the high context societies where I grew up, people ended up getting what people thought they wanted and not what they actually wanted, people were often stressed and frustrated by this. A bit of transparency and directness helps.. mind you, I had to takes courses in assertiveness to learn it :D
Also, I also read that Japan was not made aware of the nuclear bomb when the terms of the surrender was parlayed to them.
Thank you for an excellent post.
John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, emphasized that the artist should show and not tell. I find the Japanese sense of subtle and indirect communication admirably artful.
Donald Richie, on observing Ozu filming a scene in Late Autumn with Setsuko Hara and Yuko Tsukasa, wrote:
“A three-minute conversation during which nothing much gets said. But through it one comprehends filial affection as though for the first time, and gazes at the deep, hidden pattern that has been made visible.
Don’t even think of crying, I remember him telling Yoko – Just suddenly put your face in your hands – that’s quite enough.”
Another example, though I don’t remember the exact quote, was the great onnagata (kabuki actor specializing in female roles) Bando Tamasaburo explaining that, if given one minute to express a character’s sadness, a good onnagata would remain still until the very last few seconds before finally conveying the sadness with a slight gesture of one hand.
As opposed to much American film or theater, with its tendency to whack us over the head, I find this indirection all the more powerful and revelatory because I need to bring something of myself (empathy) to the grasping of these emotions.
On the other hand, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of daily tasks such as doing a complex job together, such a style of communication can indeed be frustrating to us Americans. And in international relations it can, as you’ve articulated better than I ever could, it may mean the difference between life and death.
This is an appalling post.
“The problem was inherent to the Japanese language, where words are secondary to context.”
““acting on guesses” can end with the annihilation of cities.”
So the cause of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed up to a quarter million innocent Japanese women, men, and children, was their own fault.
It is now apparent that the way you use “read the air” is a new version of the old idea and slur “inscrutable oriental.” Japanese isn’t the only language that depends on context to a large degree, English does too. In fact, scholars and statesmen of Aramaic languages have long described the English language, the language of many of their colonizers, as vague and open to multiple interpretations (I don’t know any Aramaic language, but this point was referenced in the final chapter of the seminal book Orientalism by Edward Said- a book Owwls ought to read).
Also, its ridiculous to presume that merely a few words Suzuki gave in an interview with reporters is something that made Truman’s choice inevitable. Truman’s Chief of Staff Admiral Leahy and 6 of 7 5-star generals and admirals who won their 5th star during the war were adamantly against the use of the bomb, including Eisenhower (as explained in the video below). Even MacArthur was against the bomb, he believed the Japanese would’ve surrendered in May. You, Owwls, paint a picture of a wild-eyed, murderously suicidal nation, but obviously much of those with a full understanding at the time didn’t have the same image of Japan.
This is a touchy subject, and one that it is possible to discuss reasonably and productively, but blaming the nuclear bombs on a supposed failure of the Japanese language is beyond the pale.
Professor of history at American University Peter Kuznick discusses the bombing in a interview today. In the interview it is made clear from the context and motivations out of which Truman made the decision to drop the atomic bombs that the Japanese language isn’t to blame for the American killing of 250,000 civilians.
I think you are reacting a bit strongly. I don’t place the blame on “orientals” being “inscrutable,” I place the blame on the vast disparity between communication styles and expressions – and on the fact that American translators ignored shades of meanings and subtext. I’m careful to point out that as an American, the Japanese hesitancy to express ideas clearly is frustrating, but I am also quick to point out the American capacity to jump to conclusions rather than tolerating ambiguity.
As for your claim that “a few words Suzuki gave to reporters” couldn’t have triggered the confusion in American diplomatic circles, read the NSA paper I link to in the text. Key words here are that yeah, Truman wanted any excuse he had to drop it. Suzuki was PM, which isn’t just any other government official. The military needed an answer, didn’t hear one, then saw this – it’s certainly not the only reason, but, at least according to that paper, it was a major sign that the Japanese had rejected the offer.
Anyway, I’m getting a bit tired of your endless accusations that I am somehow an enemy of the Japanese people, or whatever, this is the second time you’ve accused me of saying something I’m not saying, and both times you’ve assumed I was taking a position that was clearly idiotic. If you’re going to throw that kind of stuff around at least make sure you look for the counter-evidence in the post. Both times I’ve said the opposite of what you seem to think I’ve said.
Wanted to take a long time to respond to cool off a little. As much as this one piece bothered me, I like your blog and enjoy reading it. I’ve spent a combined 7 weeks in Japan in the course of 3 visits, and find your observations generally accurate. Your style of writing is especially entertaining.
That said; you admit that “Truman wanted any excuse he had to drop it.” Doesn’t that contradict the idea that “the blame [belongs] on the vast disparity between communication styles and expressions,” which, even with the qualifications, is the gist of this blog post?
Truman wanted any excuse he had to drop it. The vast disparity between communication styles and expressions seemed to be the one he took.
wow – I’m actually proud to say that, despite not learning much about the atomic bomb and the effects on the Japanese people, we did learn about the miscommunication – because history is supposed to be taught as a reminder of what is a good idea and what isn’t. We learned about how cultural understandings and clear communications were important from this debacle.
But I disagree with the fact that it was a miscommunication. America fired because it wasn’t sure but it didnt want to take any chances and also, they really wanted to show the world what they were capable of. But there is no excuse for this level of devastation. They should have sent a final communication to say what the devastation would be if they didn’t surrender and then – if the reply was not clear – proceed.
Minor correction. At the time of the Trinity test parts of the weapon to be used to bomb Hiroshima were on their way across the Pacific, however the fissile material was not ready and was shipped later.
The US didn’t need to base its decisions solely on the interpretation of a single word. Japan’s recent history showed that no major decisions would be made without the acquiescence of the military. Its code breakers were aware of many of the discussions underway within the Japanese government. Those discussions showed that the upper ranks of the military were adamantly opposed to surrender.
While the status of the emperor was a consideration it was far from the only one. The US government wanted the Japanese military out of the Japanese government and thought that could only occur by the occupation of Japan. The US also wanted to liberate Northern China, Manchuria, Korea, and Formosa. All of the gains at the cost of the lives of hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers would be lost. The US also wanted to decide the fate of Japanese war criminals, some of whom were currently in the upper ranks of the military. All of this made the upper ranks of the Japanese military unhappy with the idea of surrender.
At he time of the Potsdam declaration the war council consisted of six members: Prime Minister: Admiral Kantarō Suzuki; Minister of Foreign Affairs: Shigenori Tōgō; Minister of the Army: General Korechika Anami; Minister of the Navy: Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai; Chief of the Army General Staff: General Yoshijirō Umezu; and Chief of the Navy General Staff: Admiral Soemu Toyoda. Anami, Umezu, and Toyoda were adamantly opposed to surrender. In council discussions Suzuki, Tōgō, and Yonai seemed willing to consider discussions of surrender terms with the US, but were reluctant to take steps opposed by the other three. While the government made feelers to other governments to serve as intermediaries, when asked if they had concrete proposals they were silent, I expect because any proposal acceptable to the Japanese military was obviously unacceptable to the US.
While this was going on Japan was facing widespread disaster. Between the lack of fertilizer due to the US embargo, and unusually bad weather Japan was in the midst of a massive crop failure. Widespread famine threatened the deaths of millions. Only famine relief with the US occupation limited the death toll, though it was still bad. Thousands continued to die from the conventional bombing campaign, while the lives of POWs in Japan, China, Manchuria, etc were also threatened.
The lack of agreement in the war council had persisted for many months, and did not change with the Potsdam declaration, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the declaration of war by the Soviet Union. It seemed Anami, Umezu, and Toyoda would have rather seen Japan destroyed than surrender. The stalemate in the council was rendered mute by the speech of the emperor. The speech attributed his decision to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and didn’t mention the declaration of war by the Soviet Union or the impending famine.
Thanks for chiming in with some very informed context!