The imperial rescript ending the war was a momentous occasion, and the press had to scramble to express its import.

It is, unmistakably, Japan’s most famous radio broadcast of all time.

The first hint of it came on Aug. 14, 1945, during NHK’s 9pm news broadcast, when listeners were told to expect an important announcement “at noon tomorrow.” Some time after midnight on Aug. 15, 1945, Japan’s Information Bureau began distributing copies of an imperial rescript to the media, with the stipulation that the contents were not to be conveyed to the public until after the NHK broadcast at noon.

The broadcast began with NHK announcer Nobukata Wada saying, “From now, there will be an important broadcast. All listeners are requested to stand. This is an announcement of great importance.” Then Hiroshi Shimomura, head of the Information Bureau, came on the air, informing listeners that they were about to hear the “jeweled voice” of the emperor.

Preceded and followed by the national anthem, Kimigayo, the emperor’s speech (see box) lasted 4 minutes and 37 seconds of the 37 minute, 30 second broadcast. The rest consisted of commentary to explain the essentials of the speech, which few Japanese were able to comprehend, and a summary of the news.

WE REMEMBER MANY EVENTS of 1945 through iconic photographs and films whose contents are recognizable at a glance. One would certainly be Joe Rosenthal’s shot of U.S. Marines raising the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima on Feb. 23 of that year. Another famous photo, the towering mushroom cloud over Hiroshima on Aug. 6, was shot by 2nd Lt Russell Gackenbach aboard the B-29 observer plane, Necessary Evil. A week later Alfred Eisenstaedt snapped V-J Day in Times Square, capturing a sailor and nurse celebrating the war’s end in a passionate embrace.

All of these photos would appear to validate an old Chinese adage adopted in Japanese that goes Hyakubun wa ikken ni shikazu (“Seeing something once is better than hearing it 100 times”). But when clouded by preconceptions, seeing – not to mention hearing – can be deceptive. Which may be the case with the still photos and films in which distraught Japanese are shown kneeling in the gravel at the Kyujo-mae Hiroba, on the east side of the imperial palace, in response to the emperor’s address.

These iconic images are often described as being shot during the broadcast, and a quick perusal of the internet as well as email inquiries to journalists and academics shows that this is what many believe. But while the captions to these scenes outside the palace may give the mistaken impression that those in the photo were listening to the broadcast at that very moment, they couldn’t have been. No loudspeakers were mounted in the plaza. And Sony didn’t even exist at the time, so had yet to build their ubiquitous transistor radios.

How could the caption writers get it wrong? Newsreel foot age in both Japanese and foreign documentary films probably added to the confusion, as a sound track of Emperor Hirohito’s speech accompanies the scenes of people kneeling outside the palace.

He said he wanted to take our photo … “Did Japan win the war?” Sato asked the cameraman. “No, we lost,” came the reply.

Caught on film
In 1995, the Hokkaido Shimbun admitted that the photo of the boys listening to the Emperor’s broadcast was staged.

INTERESTINGLY, SOME WRITERS HAVE been trading accusations over the images and when they were shot for a number of years. In Hachigatsu Jugonichi no Shinwa (“The myths of August 15,” published in 2005), author Takumi Sato exhaustively researched the events of that day, how they were reported in the media both in Japan and abroad, and their influence on how people remember the war.

Sato also presents other revelations of photo fabrications, one of which did not come to light until more than 50 years later. The Hokkaido Shimbun, for example, finally came clean in its edition of Oct. 8, 1995, admitting that the photo that appeared in its Aug. 16, 1945 edition was staged. The photo showed four schoolboys in Sapporo City, three standing with heads hanging in apparent dejection while a fourth knelt on the ground, his head cradled in his hands.

Seiroku Sato, one of the standing boys, was shown holding his school cap while appearing to use his right sleeve to wipe away tears. Sato told the newspaper that when he first saw himself in the photo he “wanted to run away and hide,” and that it “caused him to feel anguish for the next 50 years.”

The kneeling boy, Hiromichi Kato, recalled playing with his friend Sato on Aug. 15, when they were approached by a photographer. Neither boy thought anything untoward about it at the time. “He said he wanted to take our photo, and led us to a radio tower about 50 meters away,” said Kato. “Did Japan win the war?” Sato asked the cameraman. “No, we lost,” came the reply.

Kato also claimed to have no recollection of two other boys having posed in the photo; efforts by the newspaper to identify them were unsuccessful. The Hokkaido Shimbun conceded it was a common wartime practice for newspapers, which were under control of the military, to run composite photos “to bolster readers’ fighting spirit.”

In the February 2005 issue of monthly magazine Bungei Shunju, Hideaki Kase claimed that the article appearing on the back of the Asahi Shimbun’s single sheet Aug. 15 edition was likely to have been written well before the broadcast.

By far the longest story on the page, its headline read: “Continuously grasping the gravel, bowing toward the palace with only tears. Ahh, eight years of war that have gouged out hearts to their very depths.” The body text overflowing with emotional language and sentiment, it reads more like a cri de coeur than a terse news report aiming to meet a tight deadline.

ASAHI, HOWEVER, DENIED ANY foul play. In a history of the company published in 1995, two editors involved in the production of that issue recalled that the veteran reporter who covered the event, the late Takuro Suetsune, galloped back to Asahi headquarters at that time located beside Yurakucho Station dashed off his piece, and let the editors do the rest. Thanks to their advance knowledge of the noon broadcast contents, the Asahi and other newspapers had held back their deliveries until early afternoon.

There is some logic to Kase’s contention that Suetsune may have written at least part of the story in anticipation of the broadcast. Newspapers have a history of preparing stories in advance for publication following the lifting of an embargo. So it is very likely that this one was already edited and typeset, along with the full text of the Emperor’s rescript bearing the date Aug. 14, 20th year of Showa and that’s what appeared at the top center of the Asahi’s front page on Aug. 15.

Kase wrote that while he was in the process of publishing a year long series on the postwar period in Shukan Shincho magazine from May 1974, he received a letter from one Shozo Hanada, at that time a school instructor in Aomori. Hanada allegedly informed him that on Aug. 14, he had been dispatched to make a business call to Hitachi, which was located on the 6th floor of the Meiji Life Insurance Building, not far from the palace. “Afterwards I thought that since the palace was close by, I would go there and pay my respects,” Hanada wrote in the letter. “Just as I approached the Nijubashi I was accosted by a cameraman wearing an armband who said, “I want to take photos, so would you prostrate yourself in a kneeling position?

“When I looked back at him, the cameraman was wiping away tears with his sleeve, and I thought, ‘There’s something ’ I asked him to send me a copy but he said it was special and not the type that could be given away. ‘But if you come to our office at noon tomorrow I might be able to let you have one.’” After the emperor’s broadcast, however, Hanada said he had fled from Tokyo without a copy.

According to Sato’s book, the Asahi did admit that the photo of an indeterminate number of people, both standing and kneeling outside the palace, appearing under the caption “Subjects pray for continuation of the national polity and weep in apology” in its Aug. 15 Osaka edition had been telefaxed from Tokyo at 5:25 the previous evening. Obviously, even before seeing the rescript, the media had gotten wind that something big was imminent. What they knew, when they obtained it, and the ways they conveyed it to the nation is a story that deserves further investigation.

Mark Schreiber currently writes the “Big in Japan” and “Bilingual” columns for the Japan Times.