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Timeline

The Last Days of Imperial Japan

1945 – 1951

Japan experienced unparalleled destruction by U.S. military forces during World War II, resulting in its complete capitulation. Washington played a decisive role in Tokyo's postwar transition and reconstruction, but the legacy of Japan's imperial wartime actions continues to be a source of tension with its Asia Pacific neighbors.

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Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference.  AP Images
Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference. (AP Images)
Yalta Conference

The Allied leaders—U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin—agree to the conditions under which the Soviet Union will enter the war in the Pacific against Japan. Soviet involvement, with the opening of a new front, is seen as crucial to the conclusion of the war. Under the Yalta agreement, Japan’s surrender would lead to the return of territory imperial Russia lost during the 1904–05 Russo-Japanese War, including southern Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands.

U.S. Marines raise a U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima.  Joe Rosenthal/National Archives
U.S. Marines raise a U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima. (Joe Rosenthal/National Archives)
Battle of Iwo Jima

U.S. forces battle Japanese troops for control of the strategic island of Iwo Jima. The U.S. mission, Operation Detachment, is the amphibious invasion [PDF] of the island after months of aerial and naval shelling. The battle is one of the bloodiest in Marine Corps history, killing nearly seven thousand U.S. Marines while more than twenty thousand Japanese soldiers died in the thirty-six days of fighting. The island later served as an emergency landing site for U.S. B-29 bombers.

A man bathes amid the rubble of Tokyo.  The Asahi Shimbun/Getty
A man bathes amid the rubble of Tokyo. (Asahi Shimbun/Getty)
Great Tokyo Air Raid Begins

The United States launches an extensive air campaign, dropping over two thousand tons of incendiary explosives on Tokyo over two days. The bombardment leaves Tokyo in ruins, destroying nearly sixteen square miles. An estimated eighty thousand to one hundred thousand civilians died. The Tokyo air raid is the first in a series of firebombings on sixty-four Japanese cities.

U.S. anti-aircraft fire on Okinawa. National Archives
U.S. anti-aircraft fire on Okinawa. (National Archives)
Battle of Okinawa

Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops battle Japanese forces on Okinawa. The island is valued as a potential staging ground for air bases deemed vital for Allied wartime efforts in the Pacific. The battle was even bloodier than Iwo Jima, with more than fourteen thousand U.S. troops killed and seventy thousand Japanese soldiers killed. Up to 150,000 civilians, one-third of Okinawa's population, died in the crossfire. The U.S. "island hopping" campaigns, ahead of a projected invasion of Japan, proved exceedingly costly and helped influence U.S. President Harry Truman's decision to use atomic weapons.

New Yorkers celebrate the surrender of Nazi Germany in Times Square. Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images
New Yorkers celebrate the surrender of Nazi Germany in Times Square. (Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images)
Germany's Surrender Ends WWII in Europe

Nazi General Alfred Jodl signs the complete and unconditional surrender of all German armed forces at Allied headquarters in Reims, France, ending the war in the European theater. May 8 is declared Victory-in-Europe (V-E) Day. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, Allies' battle focus turns to the Pacific theater.

A U.S. Marine smooths the sand between crosses at a 5th division cemetery after the blood battle for Iwo Jima.  Keystone/Getty
A U.S. Marine smooths the sand between crosses at a 5th division cemetery after the blood battle for Iwo Jima. (Keystone/Getty)
Panel Recommends Using Atomic Bomb

The Interim Committee, a secret high-level group tasked with advising President Truman on nuclear issues, recommends the atomic bomb be used on Japanese targets as soon as possible and without prior warning because the potential loss of U.S. life in an invasion of Japan would be unacceptably high. President Roosevelt had launched the Manhattan Project in 1942 with the aim of developing an atom bomb. As bomb research advances, Truman's advisors debate plans for an invasion of Japan and the use of an atomic weapon.

Truman Threatens Japan With Destruction

U.S. President Harry Truman warns Japan that it will face the same complete destruction of Germany if it does not surrender. As the president weighs whether to drop an atomic bomb on Japan or invade, a series of studies by military planners estimate high casualties of U.S. forces in the planned offensive; projections varied from 1.2 million casualties, including 267,000 fatalities to 1.7-4 million casualities with 400,000 to 800,000 deaths.

The Trinity atomic bomb test explosion. Los Alamos National Laboratory
The Trinity atomic bomb test explosion. (Los Alamos National Laboratory)
U.S. Tests Atomic Bomb

The U.S. Army completes the world's first atomic weapons test, at the Los Alamos research site in New Mexico as part of the Manhattan Project. On July 24 at the Potsdam Conference in Germany, President Truman informs Stalin of U.S. plans to use an atomic weapon on Japan. The following day, Acting Chief of Staff Thomas T. Handy sends a directive to General Carl Spaatz authorizing [PDF] the use of the bomb on preselected Japanese cities any time after August 3, once weather permits.

Stalin, Truman, and Churchill speak to the press at the Potsdam Conference. Corbis
Stalin, Truman, and Churchill speak to the press at the Potsdam Conference. (Corbis)
Potsdam Declaration

Leaders of the "Big Three"— the United States, Soviet Union, and Great Britain—gather in Potsdam, Germany, to negotiate the terms to end WWII in Europe. Separately, Churchill, Truman, and Republic of China President Chiang Kai-shek issue the Potsdam Declaration outlining the terms of Japan's surrender, including the unconditional surrender of armed forces, disarmament, and occupation of Japanese territory by Allied forces. Japanese leaders reject the declaration on July 28.

The ruins of Hiroshima, one month after the atomic bomb was dropped. Popperfoto/Getty
The ruins of Hiroshima, one month after the atomic bomb was dropped. (Popperfoto/Getty)
U.S. Drops Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima

The United States drops the world's first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Between sixty thousand and eighty thousand people die instantly, with thousands others injured and thousands more dying from burns and exposure to radiation. The city suffered from extensive destruction, with nearly 67 percent of structures obliterated. In a speech announcing the bombing, Truman threatens Japan's complete destruction: "If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth."

A Soviet tank unit crosses Manchuria's Great Khingan Mountain  to launch Operation August Storm. Sovfoto/Getty
A Soviet tank unit crosses Manchuria's Great Khingan Mountain to launch Operation August Storm. (Sovfoto/Getty)
Soviet Union Declares War on Japan

Foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov announces the formal Soviet declaration of war against Japan. Soviet troops begin their march on Manchuria, Chinese territory invaded by Japanese forces in 1931. At the end of WWII, millions of Japanese nationals are repatriated from China. In the Soviet Union, thousands of Japanese soldiers are forced into hard labor as prisoners of war. Most are repatriated in the first four years after the war, but the last major group of Japanese prisoners is sent back in 1956.

A mushroom cloud from the atomic bomb rises over Nagasaki.  Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum/Corbis
A mushroom cloud from the atomic bomb rises over Nagasaki. (Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum/Corbis)
U.S. Drops Atomic Bomb on Nagasaki

The Bockscar, a U.S. B-29 bomber, drops a second atomic bomb over the industrial valley of Nagasaki. An estimated forty thousand people are believed to have been killed initially with thousands of others dying later from related burns or exposure to bomb radiation. The yield of the explosion over Nagasaki is later estimated around 21 kilotons, 40 percent greater than the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

A Japanese officer surrenders to U.S. armed forces. Keystone/Getty
A Japanese officer surrenders to U.S. armed forces. (Keystone/Getty)
Japan Agrees to Surrender

In a radio address to the Japanese public, Emperor Hirohito announces Japan's acceptance of the terms outlined in the Potsdam Conference for its unconditional surrender. Allied powers celebrate the day as Victory Over Japan (V-J) Day, which effectively marks the end of World War II.

General Douglas MacArthur arrives at Atsugi Air Base.  Corbis
General Douglas MacArthur arrives at Atsugi Air Base. (Corbis)
Allied Occupation of Japan Begins

General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP), arrives at Atsugi Air Base to begin the Allied powers' occupation of Japan. Unlike occupation in Germany, the SCAP was granted direct control over Japan's main and immediate surrounding islands, while outlying territory was divided among Allied powers. Tasked by President Truman to oversee the occupation, MacArthur seeks to democratize Japan's political system and liberalize its economy, emulating a U.S. model.

Japanese delegates sign the formal surrender on behalf of the imperial Japanese government onboard the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Corbis
Japanese delegates sign the formal surrender on behalf of the imperial Japanese government onboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. (Corbis)
Japan Signs Formal Surrender

Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signs the Instrument of Surrender on behalf of Emperor Hirohito on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, thereby ending all hostilities and agreeing to all provisions of the Potsdam agreement for Japan's complete and unconditional surrender. Shortly after, a convoy of more than forty U.S. ships enter the bay with thirteen thousand troops ahead of Japan's official occupation. During the occupation, the Allied powers establish tribunals to address war crimes and oversee Japan's political transition.

U.S. General MacArthur and Japanese Emperor Hirohito at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. Truman Library
U.S. General MacArthur and Japanese Emperor Hirohito at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. (Truman Library)
Hirohito Calls on MacArthur

Emperor Hirohito calls on General MacArthur at the U.S. embassy in Tokyo, marking the first time that an emperor of Japan travels in person to see another leader. This ten-minute exchange is the first meeting between the two leaders, and Hirohito reportedly expresses responsibility for Japan's wartime actions. Though effectively stripped of real power, Hirohito remains an important symbolic figure. According to historians, the Truman administration and MacArthur believed that maintaining Hirohito as head of state would provide the stable political climate to enact necessary reforms in Japan.

Japanese-American internees departing the Manzanar Relocation Center in California. National Archives
Japanese-American internees departing the Manzanar Relocation Center in California. (National Archives)
Closing of U.S. Japanese Internment Camps

Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, then-President Roosevelt issues an executive order allowing the relocation of people with Japanese heritage to internment camps, forcing thousands to close businesses and abandon their homes. The order affects more than 110,000 people, including U.S. citizens. U.S. Supreme Court rulings uphold the constitutionality of Roosevelt's order but the government begins releasing internees in early 1945. The last Japanese American internment camps officially close in March 1946. Decades later, the U.S. government provides reparations to former internees.

Hideki Tojo, Japanese wartime prime minister, testifies before the war crimes tribunal in Tokyo. AP Images
Hideki Tojo, Japanese wartime prime minister, testifies before the war crimes tribunal in Tokyo. (AP Images)
Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal Opens

The Allied powers begin deliberations on Japanese war crimes before the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, a body patterned after Germany's Nuremberg Trials. The tribunal, which ends in November 1948, presided over the prosecution [PDF] of twenty-eight government officials and military officers facing charges of crimes against peace, conventional war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Supporting tribunals are held to prosecute other classes of war crimes across Asia. The postwar treatment of Japanese prosecuted and sentenced remains a source of deep concern to many in the region.

Emperor Hirohito stands before the Japanese Diet to endorse the new constitution.  Bettmann/Corbis
Emperor Hirohito stands before the Japanese Diet to endorse the new constitution. (Bettmann/Corbis)
Japanese Constitution Goes Into Effect

The new Japanese constitution, promulgated by Emperor Hirohito before the Japanese parliament in November 1946, replaces the 1889 Meiji Constitution. The new constitution, with some amendments by the Japanese government, is largely the work of MacArthur and his staff, who draft the charter to protect the civil liberties of the Japanese people and establish democratic governing bodies. Article 9 of the constitution denounces the country's right to make war and prevents the build up of armed forces.

U.S. soldiers attack North Korean targets during the first weeks of the Korean War.  AP Images
U.S. soldiers attack North Korean targets during the first weeks of the Korean War. (AP Images)
Korean War Begins

The military of communist North Korea, backed by the Soviet Union, crosses the peninsula's demarcation line and invades the South, nearly overrunning the country. U.S.-led UN forces enter the war to defend the South, internationalizing what was originally an internal conflict. Following Japan's surrender in 1945, Korea, a Japanese colony for thirty-five years, is split along the 38th parallel by the United States and the Soviet Union to facilitate postwar transition on the peninsula. Chinese troops enter the war later in 1950. An armistice is agreed to in 1953, ending the war, but no formal peace treaty is ever signed.

U.S. President Truman addresses the Japanese Peace Treaty Conference in San Francisco. Truman Library
U.S. President Truman addresses the Japanese Peace Treaty Conference in San Francisco. (Truman Library)
Japan Signs Peace Treaty

Delegates from Japan and Allied countries sign the Treaty of Peace (to take effect in April 1952) in San Francisco, returning full sovereignty to Japan and ending seven years of occupation. The United States and Japan also sign a bilateral security treaty outlining the terms under which Japan permits U.S. military personnel and bases on its soil. A revised security treaty, signed in January 1960, includes a U.S. obligation to assist in Japan's defense. The treaty anchors a relationship between democratic partners in the Cold War. Japan's relations with U.S. ally South Korea and neighboring China remain strained over wartime actions.

Timeline
The Last Days of Imperial Japan