One of the most famous photos of World War II shows a formally dressed
Japanese diplomat aboard the US battleship Missouri signing the document
that officially ended World War II.
The date was Sept. 2, 1945. The signer was Foreign Minister Mamoru
Shigemitsu, an amputee who had tried to prevent war with the victorious
Americans and their allies. He had lost his right leg a dozen years before
during a break from negotiating a cease-fire between Chinese and Japanese
armies in Shanghai, China.
|Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru
Shigemitsu signs the Instrument of Surrender on behalf of the Japanese
government on board the USS Missouri (BB-63) Sept. 2,1945.
|Public domain Wikimedia
A Korean nationalist hurled a bomb disguised as a water bottle at
Shigemitsu and other Japanese military and civilian dignitaries on April 29,
1932, while they were at a celebration in honor of Emperor Hirohito’s
birthday. The explosion killed a general and wounded several others, including
“I was wounded so seriously as to be brought to death’s
door,” he wrote in his autobiography, Japan and Her Destiny: My
Struggle for Peace. “Refusing to give in, I carried on the final truce
negotiations from the hospital and brought them safely to a conclusion on May
Born in 1887 and educated as a lawyer, Shigemitsu became a well-traveled
diplomat. He served at posts in the United States, Great Britain, Germany and
other countries after World War I. Following the Japanese conquest of the
northern Chinese province of Manchuria in 1931, Shigemitsu was sent to several
European capitals to calm Western fears over Japan’s expansion.
Japan had ruled Korea since the 1900s, brutally suppressing Koreans who
opposed the occupation of their country. The bomb-thrower, Yoon Bong-Gil, was
arrested and later executed.
Meanwhile, the text of the cease-fire agreement, having been negotiated
and finalized at the British consulate-general’s office, was brought to
Shigemitsu, who was fighting for his life in a hospital bed. His left leg
shattered, Shigemitsu suffered excruciating pain, but “managed to complete
the numerous signatures required.”
Shigemitsu recalled that he told the Chinese secretary, Chang,
“Relations between Japan and China must now enter a state of amity. I pray
that this document may be the starting-point of future good relations between
our two countries.”
Chang returned to the consulate “and in impressive tones disclosed
my message. When all the signatures were completed, the operating table was
wheeled in and one leg was amputated,” he wrote.
Shigemitsu was fitted with a prosthetic leg. But for the rest of his
life, he would require a cane to steady his gait.
Despite Shigemitsu’s efforts at peace, the Japanese ultimately
resumed their aggression in China, committing many atrocities against
civilians. He eventually served as ambassador to the Soviet Union, and again,
he played the role of peacemaker, brokering a settlement after a 1938 border
clash between Japanese and Soviet troops in the Far East.
From Moscow, he was posted to Great Britain, where he served as
Japan’s representative during a period when relations between the two
countries grew steadily worse.
Negotiations with the US
He was called home in June 1941, but stopped in Washington on the way.
In hopes of preventing war between the US and Japan, he tried to arrange a
meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Japanese Prime Minister
Shigemitsu’s attempts at reconciliation with the Americans angered
Gen. Hideki Tojo and the militarists who took control of the government after
Konoe resigned in October 1941. Following the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on
Pearl Harbor, which plunged the United States into World War II, Shigemitsu
was, in effect, banished to China to serve as Japanese ambassador to
China’s Japanese-installed puppet government.
In 1943, Tojo named him foreign minister, the post he held when,
following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan agreed to
surrender on Aug. 14, 1945.
The official surrender ceremony took place on the main deck of the
massive Missouri in Tokyo Bay. “The choice of delegates to sign the
Document of Surrender presented the greatest difficulty,” Shigemitsu
wrote. “They must be persons who accepted full responsibility for
terminating the war and who would inspire confidence in Japan’s
He added, “As the first step to be taken by a defeated Japan, the
slightest false move would be fatal. Japan had laid down her arms. Her enemy
was now entering, with blood-stained sword held at the ready, the country of
those Japanese who they thought only yesterday fought like beasts of the
Dawn of a brighter era
Shigemitsu said Tojo and other government and military leaders
considered capitulation the ultimate shame. Some committed suicide. Tojo was
executed for war crimes.
But Shigemitsu said he “had longed with all my soul for the end of
the war and, behold, it had come to pass. It was my duty to carry through the
last decisive act. I summoned all my resolution and determined to set the final
seal on my services to the Throne. For all I knew, a bomb might be my reward,
but that counted for little. I hoped and prayed that surrender was to be the
dawn of a brighter era in which Japan might live.”
An American destroyer ferried Shigemitsu, Gen. Yoshijiro Umezu and a
small contingent of other Japanese diplomats and army and navy commanders to
the Missouri, flagship of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. Other allied
warships were anchored nearby.
Shigemitsu and two other diplomats were dressed in formal wear —
black suits and trousers and black top hats. Shigemitsu wore white gloves, his
right hand gripping his cane.
He remembered: “We clambered up the gangway and were saluted by the
guard. As we made our way to the upper deck, where the ceremony was to take
place, it was just short of ten o’clock.”
The Missouri’s crew, plus Allied military personnel, thronged the
battleship, which was also crowded with reporters and photographers.
“Prominent were [British] General [Arthur] Percival, who surrendered at
Singapore, and [US] General [Jonathan] Wainwright, who surrendered at Bataan.
Facing us across the table were the Allied representatives. The Allied Supreme
Commander in the Pacific Gen. Douglas MacArthur, entered; in his speech he
declared that the war was over and requested us to sign the Instrument of
Surrender. I signed first and Umezu after me.”
The Soviets demanded that Shigemitsu be tried as a war criminal. Joseph
Grew, former US ambassador to Japan, and Joseph Keenan, the lead prosecutor for
the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, signed a deposition
testifying that Shigemitsu had opposed the war and the Japanese militarists.
Nonetheless, in 1948, the tribunal convicted Shigemitsu and sentenced him to 7
Paroled in 1950, Shigemitsu was subsequently elected to the Japanese
parliament and served as deputy prime minister. He also became foreign minister
again, helping gain Japan’s admittance to the United Nations in 1956. That
same year, he journeyed to Moscow in an effort to improve Soviet-Japanese
relations. He died in 1957 at 69 years old.