It bears no relation to the main point of his article, which focuses on how economic ideology led the Fed into the current “unmitigated disaster” known as the subprime lending debacle, but Paul Krugman chose this interesting quote as the lead-in to his article:

When announcing Japan’s surrender in 1945, Emperor Hirohito famously explained his decision as follows: “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”

This quote is meant to be a humorous example of understatement. While the atomic bombs get most of the headlines, the firebombing of Tokyo killed at least as many people. Japan was in ruins. But, having read a little Japanese sociolinguistics, I know that Japanese discourse can often sound very indirect to English speakers, even though Japanese speakers would not necessarily hear it that way. I wondered if something similar might be going on here.

I immediately thought of blogger Matt Treyvaud of No-Sword and Néojaponisme, and so I wrote him asking what he thought. His answer was more thorough than I could have hoped for, although it wasn’t what I had expected:

First, Matt directed me to the original document, original document (also here), from where we can find the quote mentioned in Krugman:

…. But now the war has lasted for nearly four years. Despite the best that has been done by everyone – the gallant fighting of the military and naval forces, the diligence and assiduity of Our servants of the State, and the devoted service of Our one hundred million people – the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest.

The context of this statement is his praising the Japanese people’s devotion during trying times, not an explanation for the decision to surrender. Indeed, the main reason he gives for his decision is in the following sentence, where he discusses the atomic bomb:

Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should We continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.

There’s no beating about the bush here.

Matt’s second point which is that the speech was given in the semi-archaic courtly variety of Japanese, which has two important implications. The first is that translation is difficult:

since the speech was in court Japanese (obscure even in 1945), exactly how to interpret this line is not clear. Some modern commentators do
accept the “understatement” reading that Krugman uses. Some people claim that that passage…’means “things have definitely not gone well for us” (usage of 必ずしも, the key word corresponding to “not necessarily” in Krugman’s version, has changed slightly over the years), some say it means “[despite everyone's efforts] things will not necessarily improve for us”.

I lean towards the latter interpretation myself. By the time Hirohito delivered this speech (via a recording broadcast over the radio), central Tokyo had already been burned to the ground; I don’t think that even the Japanese leadership of the time could seriously have written a speech that could call this “not necessarily to [our] advantage”. Implicitly admitting that things are going badly, and then adding “and, contrary to expectations, they are not likely to improve” seems much more likely.

I also seem to recall hearing that the original version of this line was something like “the war situation gets worse every day”, so it could just be the tortured result of a fierce edit war within the bureaucracy.

The second is that most Japanese in 1945 would have found the Emperor’s announcement very difficult to understand in the first place. Even those who were comfortable with classical Japanese were “much more used to reading language like that than hearing it spoken.” The low quality of the recording did not help either. Supposedly there was a follow-up broadcast which explained the announcement in plain-everyday-Japanese, but that is harder to track down.

This means that it is hard to tell how ordinary Japanese would have “understood” the speech. Presumably, at the time the main message was that the war was over, although Matt says that there was some confusion as to whether Japan had even surrendered, with some people believing that they had to prepare to fight a land-invasion.

As far as how the speech is remembered today, according to Wikipedia’, the most well remembered phrase in Japan is this one:

… it is according to the dictates of time and fate that We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable.