VJ Day stands for Victory Over Japan Day – it marks the day Imperial Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945 – effectively bringing the Second World War to an end.
However, as explained here below, there are variations on what is considered the actual day of commemoration, taking into account the moment that Japan waved the white flag or the official signingof the Japanese Instrument of Surrender.
The Allies – Britain, the Soviet Union, the US, and other allied nations, had been fighting the Axis powers – Germany, Italy and Japan since 1939.
In the last days of the Second World War, Hitler took his own life. Italy had surrendered in 1943 and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was executed in April 1945. Nazi Germany had surrendered on 8 May 1945.
Europe celebrated victory, but war continued to rage on in the Pacific, with Japan showing no intention of surrendering.
An estimated 71,000 soldiers from Britain and the Commonwealth died in the war against Japan. Many that were captured and survived later reported how they were treated horrifically as prisoners of war.
The Allies ordered Japan to surrender on 26 July 1945 but the country's leaders refused.
On 9 August, 1945, the Soviet Union invaded the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, at the same time as the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. This was the second of two nuclear attacks on the country and came three days after the first, on Hiroshima – an unparalleled act of destruction in warfare.
Emperor Hirohito then had little choice but to accept the terms of the Allies' Potsdam Declaration, a document which ordered the surrender of all Japanese forces or face 'prompt and utter destruction', and he ordered Japan's Supreme Council for the Direction of War to accept the surrender.
The new British prime minister Clement Atlee, who had taken the premiership following a landslide election victory in 1945, announced the news of Japan’s surrender at midnight on 15 August, saying: "The last of our enemies is laid low."
Two days of national holiday were announced to celebrate VJ Day. Street parties broke out all over the country.
In a state of euphoric frenzy, soldiers climbed traffic signs and jumped into fountains while office workers threw paper out of windows as confetti.
Friends and strangers alike embraced each other, cried, laughed and danced.
Some intriguing points about VJ Day:
1. Brits and Americans commemorate VJ Day on different days
Japanese Emperor Hirohito made the initial public announcement of Japan's surrender on 15 August 1945. This is the day that the UK officially marks VJ Day.
The US commemorates on 2 September – the day that the formal documentation was signed confirming the surrender.
Both dates are known as VJ Day. However, back in 1945, the Americans did not wait until September to celebrate the good news.
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2. Potsdam declaration threatened "prompt and utter destruction" if Japan did not surrender
The declaration was an ultimatum issued by the United States, Britain and China calling for the immediate and unconditional surrender of Japan. It also served as a legal basis for the Allied governance of Japan after the war.
The document was created at the Potsdam Conference on 26 July 1945.
For 80 days after Germany surrendered and victory was celebrated in Europe, the war in the Pacific raged on. Japan had not lost a war in its history – for many, surrender was unthinkable.
The Potsdam Declaration was initially ignored by Prime Minister Suzuki who in a press conference said the Japanese approach is "killing it with silence".
Interpreting this as "rejecting by ignoring", the United States reacted by dropping two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August, respectively.
On 9 August, the Soviet Union invaded Manchuria which was controlled by Japan at the time. This ended six years of neutrality between the two states.
Until then, Japan's only hope was Soviet assistance in meditating a better peace deal with the other Allies. Being at war with the Soviet Union meant that accepting the terms of the Potsdam Declaration became inevitable.
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3. The surrender ceremony was held on a US ship
Due to Japan being 16 hours ahead of Washington, the news of Japanese acceptance of the Potsdam agreement was aired in the US on 14 August at 19:00.
In a nationwide broadcast, President Truman said that "the proclamation of VJ Day must wait upon the formal signing of the surrender terms by Japan".
This took place on 2 September in a carefully choreographed ceremony on board USS Missouri.
The chosen ship was a suspected favourite of President Truman, who himself was a Missouri man and had his daughter christen the hull at the ship's launching.
Having previously participated in the bombardments of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the US battleship lead the Allied armada into Tokyo Bay on 29 August 1945.
Missouri did not have the most distinguished war record compared with other ships that were part of the armada, such as USS West Virginia and USS South Dakota or the British HMS Duke of York and HMS King George V.
But it did have the most deck space, wide enough to hold Japanese representatives and those from nine allied countries.
The ceremony that brought one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history to an end lasted a mere 23 minutes.
The surrender agreement was signed by Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, representing the Emperor of Japan and General Yoshijirō Umezu representing the military.
General Douglas MacArthur signed on behalf of the United States.
Following MacArthur, the allied signatories followed in this order:
- Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz signed for the United States
- General Xu Yongchang for the Republic of China
- Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser for the United Kingdom.
- General Kuzma Derevyanko for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)
- General Sir Thomas A. Blamey for the Commonwealth of Australia
- Colonel Lawrence Moore Cosgrave for the Dominion of Canada
- General Philippe Le Clerc for the Provisional Government of the French Republic
- Lt Admiral Conrad E. L. Helfrich for the Kingdom of the Netherlands
- Air Vice Marshal Leonard M. Isitt for the Dominion of New Zealand
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4. In the US, celebrations turned to riots
As soon as the announcement of Japanese surrender was made on 15 August, celebrations broke out all over the United States.
The biggest crowd in the history of New York's Times Square gathered to rejoice in the news that one of the bloodiest pages in the history of humanity has finally been turned.
With the country in a state of jubilant frenzy, according to Time magazine, Americans began celebrating "as if joy had been rationed and saved up for the three years, eight months and seven days since Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941" (the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour).
Tragically, in one US city celebrations turned deadly.
On the second day after the announcement, downtown San Francisco descended into violent brawls, looting and acts of vandalism. In 2005, San Francisco Gate reported it as "the deadliest riot in the city's history". At least six women were raped, 13 people killed and 1,000 injured.
The crimes were mostly perpetrated by young drunk soldiers and sailors who had not been to war themselves.
Despite the scale of the grotesque violence, in the atmosphere of post-war euphoria, the crimes were not prosecuted.
Watch: VJ Day – a son's recollections of his former PoW father.
6. Who took charge of the Japanese empire post VJ day?
After the Japanese surrendered, under the conditions outlined in the Potsdam Declaration, the country was occupied by Allied forces lead by General Douglas McArthur. The Americans were given free reign to run the state with limited support from Britain.
Codenamed Operation Blacklist, the occupation marked the first time in Japan's history that the country was controlled by a foreign power.
The US guided Japan into overhauling the constitution, transforming the country into a parliamentary democracy and introducing sweeping social and economic reforms.
The other allies had wanted Emperor Hirohito to face trial for war crimes. However, Washington saw it best that the divine ruler of Japan retains his post, albeit in a revised manner.
MacArthur personally insisted that the Emperor remained on the throne.
A new anti-militarist constitution was adopted on 3 November 1946, defining the new role of the emperor as ''the symbol of the state and the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereignty.''
The Emperor carried an occupied and weakened Japan into the modern era, seeing it transform into an economic and cultural powerhouse. He strengthened diplomatic relations with former enemies, treading a fine line, expressing regret but never apologising so as not to upset hardliners at home who were still finding it difficult to accept surrender.
In accordance with Japanese tradition, after an Emperor's death, he ceases to be known by his given name. In his lifetime, the Emperor was known as Hirohito which means Broad-Minded Benevolence. Having ruled for 62 years, longer than any other Emperor in Japan’s history, Hirohito died in 1989 at the age of 87.
The posthumous title chosen by scholars for the 124th Emperor was Showa, or Enlightened Peace. That is also the name of the era that coincides with his reign.
Watch: VJ Day – how atomic bombs forced Japanese surrender.
7. The iconic VJ Day photo – an image of celebration or sexual harassment?
The iconic photograph of a sailor kissing a dental nurse in Times Square was taken by Life Magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, on assignment to capture the unbridled joy that filled the streets of New York City on the day that imminent victory was announced.
Having spent a year and a half at sea in the Pacific, Quartermaster 1st Class George Mendonsa was enjoying five weeks of leave when the news was announced that the Japanese were surrendering.
Ecstatic that he would not have to go to war, after celebrating with a few drinks, he poured into the thickening crowd in Times Square and like many of his compatriots started kissing women at random.
The fateful click of the camera captured the sailor embracing Greta Zimmer, a Jewish refugee from Austria who had ventured into the heart of New York on her lunch break to see the news on the ticker tape on Broadway.
The two were complete strangers – united briefly by the ecstacy of victory, their images fused forever in the most frequently reproduced photograph of the 20th century.
After its initial publication in Life magazine under the title "The Men of War Kiss from Coast to Coast", the image spread like wildfire becoming the symbol of the jubilation that pierced the air on VJ Day in 1945.
However, the kiss happened without Greta's consent. She later told an interviewer: "It wasn't my choice to be kissed, the guy just came over and grabbed me!" When asked about what she was thinking at the moment, she answered: "I hope I can breathe."
In February of 2019, a statue in Florida depicting the iconic moment became a point of contention in the Me Too movement when it was vandalised with red graffiti for allegedly depicting 'sexual assault'.
Eisenstaedt, one of the first photographers to be hired by Life magazine, made it his life mission "to find and catch the storytelling moment".
By looking deeper into the context of this photograph perhaps we see a different story. Many women and girls reported being accosted, chased, grabbed and groped against their will by the "Men of War" that the Life article depicted in "Kissing From Coast to Coast".
Mendonsa and Zimmer were reunited in 1980 by Life magazine to recreate the iconic kiss. The former dental nurse was reluctant because by that time she had added the surname Friedman to her name on the account of being married, and her kissing partner's wife was also at the photoshoot – both in the staged one in 1980 and in the original photo!
On 14 August, the fateful day that the photograph was taken, the young sailor was on a first date with his soon-to-be fiancé Rita who can be seen smiling in the background of the photograph.
She insists that she was not jealous that her future husband kissed another woman in front of her – who could be mad on such a jubilant day of celebration?
Greta did not view the kiss as romantic either. In a 2005 interview, 81-year-old Greta said:
"I felt he was very strong, he was just holding me tight, and I'm not sure I -- about the kiss because, you know, it was just somebody really celebrating. But it wasn't a romantic event. It was just an event of 'thank God the war is over' kind of thing because it was right in front of the sign."
George moved to the only state that officially celebrates VJ day – Rhode Island. Greta got married and left New York, became an artist and went back to college. She graduated the same year as her children.
Although the 'couple' never became close friends, exchanging Christmas cards every year became a cherished tradition.
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8. Rhode Island is the only US state that officially celebrates VJ Day
Victory Day became a legal holiday in Rhode Island in 1948, three years after the Second World War ended.
VJ Day was never a federal holiday in the United States. Some states including New York Observed VJ Day in the late 1940s, and in 1949 Arkansas joined Rhode Island in adopting a new state holiday. However, they dropped it six years later, leaving Rhode Island as the only state that marks the surrender of Japan with a day off.
The day remains popular, as many Rhode Islanders celebrate by spending it on the state’s beaches. Compared to the weekend the beaches are less crowded because beachgoers from neighbouring states are not able to join in the celebrations, as their states don’t observe VJ day as a legal holiday.
Officials claim that the real reason for Rhode Island's loyalty and commitment to observing Victory Day, is the state's strong links to the Navy and the state contributed a disproportionate number of forces personnel to the war effort.
Watch: VJ Day – PoW veteran remembered by RAF granddaughter.
9. The war in the Pacific officially ended in 1956
The occupation ended in 1951 with the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty. It became effective on 28 April, 1952. Sovereignty was officially returned to Japan.
The Soviet Union did not sign the Peace Treaty in 1951.
Japan and the Soviet Union signed a separate Joint Declaration of Peace in 1956, resuming diplomatic relations and officially ending the state of war.
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