The Japanese economy had been operating at full capacity since 1931. But the decentralized production, with home production of many components, could not compete with the assembly lines of the West. The Japanese High Command believed that the war would be short, and the military production could be converted to home production after the war was over. Unlike the Western powers, Japan waited until 1944 before mobilizing their home population for total war. The lack of a war economy left Japan without enough materiel to sustain its civilian population and its military.
However, the war in China dragged on, with millions of Japanese soldiers committed in a stalemated battle. The economy began to show signs of strain, with all of Japan’s manpower committed to production or the military. Prime Minister Prince Fumimaro Konoe tried to work out diplomatic solutions with the West to achieve Japan’s strategic needs.
When the United States froze Japan’s assets and suspended trade, the Japanese Navy had three years operating supply on hand. If civilian consumption was reduced, then the Navy could have more oil. This began a pattern of civilian sacrifices for the war effort. The Army advocated for war. Konoe resigned in October 1941. The Emperor did not listen to Konoe’s recommendations for a new Prime Minister and appointed a military government headed by Hideki Tojo.
Western propaganda, to this day, portrays the Japanese public as unified behind the Emperor for the war effort. In actuality, the Japanese people’s hopes rose and fell with the success of the war. John Dower, in Japan in War and Peace, argues that Japan had a significant minority that was very much against the war. The Japanese Communist Party was banned and its members incarcerated because they were fermenting anti-war opinions.
In 1944 the Japanese government was shocked by the fall of Saipan. A cabinet headed by Imperial Army General Kuniaki Koiso replaced Tojo’s government. This cabinet still held on to the idea of Japanese victory, calling for the Japanese people’s spirit to overcome the shortages in war materiel and food. Secretly,Prince Konoe, Kantarō Suzuki, and others were working with Navy and civilian leaders who were sympathetic to ending the war. They had to be careful; military extremists had assassinated anyone who had attempted to oppose the war in the 1930’s; and it was not inconceivable that they would assassinate the Emperor in his own name if he tried to openly work for peace.
The military government had thought that the West could not sustain public approval for the war. The Japanese strategic plan was to cause as many casualties as possible, hoping for the collapse of public support. The failure of the Japanese to understand the public unity after the attack on Pearl Harbor was a key factor in underestimating the Allied will to fight. Thousands of people died in the vain hope that the democracies would give up the fight in the face of heavy casualties. Except during 1944, when the western public’s support of the war went down, the war was seen as necessary and support was overwhelming. Public disapproval of the war was socially unacceptable and the public sentiment never dropped below 80%. The strategy the Japanese followed was doomed to failure from the time the first bomb fell on Pearl Harbor.
With the surrender of Germany, the Japanese issued a proclamation that they would fight on alone on May 7, 1945. The Allies issued an unconditional surrender ultimatum during the Potsdam conference of July 26, 1945. A week before, the atomic bomb was successfully tested in New Mexico, and it was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The Soviets entered the war against Japan on August 8. A second bomb was dropped on August 9 on Nagasaki.