16 Bleak And Desperate Realities For Japan At The End Of World War II

The collapse of an empire is never pretty, and the experience of Japan at the end of World War II was no exception. This list illustrates the grim realities of daily life in Japan during the conflict, and the desperate tactics the Japanese military employed as defeat became imminent.

As the tide of the war turned against Japan, its Imperial Navy and Imperial Army Air Force lay in ruins. As the American fleet approached, the Japanese were faced with an increasingly grim picture. Civilians faced extreme hardships, and soldiers were told to die for their emperor in an increasingly futile effort. The home front in Japan during WWII was austere and bleak, and as the conflict came to an end, increasingly chaotic and desperate. 

The challenge for Allied troops was to elicit an unconditional surrender from a nation that unconditionally refused to do so. It took not one, but two atomic bombs, as well as the entrance of millions of Soviet troops into the Pacific theater, before Japan accepted unconditional surrender. When Americans arrived in Tokyo's harbor, they found a country decimated by war. Read on to learn about the harsh realities on the home front for Japanese civilians as the war drew to a close, and the brutal, desperate lengths to which the military went to adhere to outdated behavioral codes.


  • Japanese Citizens Feared US Soldiers Would Rape And Torture Civilians

    Japanese Citizens Feared US Soldiers Would Rape And Torture Civilians
    Photo: United States Marine Corps / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Japanese government told the public that invading American soldiers would act like pillaging marauders. Given the behavior of Japanese soldiers during the Rape of Nanking and that of Soviet soldiers during the "three days of rape and pillage" during the Battle of Mukden, such a scenario wasn't far-fetched. Tragically, this belief led many Japanese civilians to commit suicide, rather than face capture by Allied forces.

    Events during the Battle of Okinawa demonstrate the extent of this belief. Citizens had been hiding for days in one of the island's caves when American troops arrived. Two young boys charged from the cave wielding bamboo spears and were shot dead. The American troops then attempted to coax the civilians out of the cave, dropping leaflets in Japanese that explained how civilians would be treated well, and with respect. But the people in the cave feared this was propaganda.

    An 18-year-old girl named Haru Uechi reportedly shouted, "Mommy, kill me! Don't let them rape me!" The mother obliged, setting off a mass suicide in the cave. Parents killed their children, then themselves. Some of the bones from this incident remain to this day, a grim reminder of horrors that were in no way isolated to that small cave.

  • Civilians Committed Mass Suicides

    Civilians Committed Mass Suicides
    Photo: Wayne Miller, US Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Battle of Saipan bore witness to one of the largest mass suicides of WWII. Hundreds of Japanese citizens jumped from the cliffs of Marpi Point, on the north part of the tiny Pacific island, while others perished via hand grenades. In total, an estimated 1,000 people ended their lives on the island.

    Shinsho Kuniyoshi and his family joined a group of about 70 citizens debating suicide. They attempted to use grenades, which they received for the express purpose of suicide with loved ones, but the blasts weren't strong enough to exterminate everyone. Those who remained, including Kuniyoshi, jumped from the cliffs into the sea. He survived the fall, along with his father, who, upon seeing Kuniyoshi alive, decided against suicide so as not to leave his son alone.

    Speaking to The Japan Times, Kuniyoshi said, “War is a monster that tears up happy lives." 

  • Japanese Civilians Were Under Constant Threat of Allied Firebombing

    Japanese Civilians Were Under Constant Threat of Allied Firebombing
    Photo: Ishikawa Kōyō / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    All told, the Allied strategic bombing campaign caused more death and destruction in Japan than the atomic bombs. During one raid in March 1945, more than 300 B-29 Superfortresses dropped two tons of bombs each on Tokyo's industrial centers. The resulting firestorm destroyed more than 15 square miles of the city. For comparison's sake, the island of Manhattan (part of New York) is about 23 square miles. 

    With working-class neighborhoods located adjacent to the factories, the loss of life and property was enormous. In the first six hours of the firestorm created by the bombs, more than 100,000 Japanese citizens passes. In that month alone, three more such raids took place. In the absence of proper air raid shelters, civilians hid in glorified holes dug in backyards and parks.

  • Thanks To Propaganda, Many Japanese Soldiers And Civilians Thought They Were The 'Good Guys'

    Thanks To Propaganda, Many Japanese Soldiers And Civilians Thought They Were The 'Good Guys'
    Photo: Artist Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Imperial Army pushed the narrative that Japan was liberating its Asian neighbors from Western powers. Although the treatment of the native populations by their Japanese colonists painted a different picture, it didn't stop the government from spreading the propaganda. Roughly translated, one pamphlet reads:

    Currently, in Manchuria, everyone has begun to combine their power and work. Japan and China formed an alliance. The Philippines and Burma became independent. Thailand grew larger. The people of Java, Malay, and others, too, will, by important duties, come together to work. India, too, has driven out England. From now, we will make the countries of Greater-East-Asia friendly to one another.

  • Hundreds Of Thousands Perished Due To Atomic Bombs, And Two Cities Were Destroyed

    Hundreds Of Thousands Perished Due To Atomic Bombs, And Two Cities Were Destroyed
    Photo: US National Archives / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    On August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay B-29 Superfortress released its deadly cargo in the skies above Hiroshima. The atomic bomb, dubbed “Little Boy,” leveled the city, killing around 80,000 people instantly. Still, the Japanese did not surrender. Three days later, the US dropped a second bomb, dubbed “Fat Man,” on Nagasaki, killing around 40,000 instantly. In the following months, 100,000 more succumbed to radiation poisoning.

    The attack destroyed approximately 63% of the buildings in Hiroshima, and 92% were eventually torn down, being deemed unstable or useless. Nagasaki was almost completely flattened; nearly all the buildings not destroyed by the blast were consumed by fire. 

  • Soldiers Engaged In Suicide Charges Rather Than Surrender

    Soldiers Engaged In Suicide Charges Rather Than Surrender
    Photo: Imperial Japanese Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Colloquially referred to as "banzai charges," these attacks came when Japanese soldiers ran out of ammunition or otherwise faced imminent defeat. American troops encountered the first banzai charge during the Thousand-Mile War in the Aleutian Islands in 1943. Japanese soldiers at Chichagof Harbor on the island of Attu rushed the American lines, bayoneting sleeping soldiers, then killing themselves if they could not break through. They were trained to charge en masse if they heard the command “Tenno Haika! Banzai!" (“Long live the Emperor! Ten thousand ages!")