History and Major Facts about V-J Day

V-J Day, standing for “Victory over Japan” Day, commemorates the surrender of Japan and the end of World War II. Its significance lies not only in its marking the conclusion of the deadliest conflict in human history but also in its shaping of the modern geopolitical landscape.

V-J Day commemorates Japan’s World War II surrender, marking the conflict’s end. Celebrated on various dates globally, it reflects pivotal moments, from Japan’s announcement to the official surrender ceremony, with observances ranging from jubilation to reflection. Image: iwm.org

Historical Background

The Pacific front of World War II was marked by intense combat, primarily between the Allies, led by the United States, and the Empire of Japan. Following Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States formally entered the war, beginning a series of island-hopping campaigns to reclaim territories occupied by Japan.

By 1945, with the European theater settled by the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany (V-E Day on May 8, 1945), attention fully turned to the Pacific front. Japan, while significantly weakened from continuous battles and facing an increasing American naval blockade, persisted in its resistance.

Events Leading to V-J Day

The battle for Okinawa, one of the war’s bloodiest conflicts, lasted from April to June 1945. It brought American forces closer to Japan’s home islands, but at a significant cost in lives.

In an effort to force Japan’s surrender and avoid an invasion—which was estimated to cause immense casualties on both sides—the U.S. made a controversial decision: the use of atomic bombs. On August 6 and 9, 1945, the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed, leading to the deaths of over 200,000 people, many of them civilians. These bombings, combined with the Soviet Union’s declaration of war on Japan and subsequent invasion of Manchuria, forced Japan’s hand.

On August 15, 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s unconditional surrender via radio broadcast, marking the first time many Japanese citizens had heard their Emperor’s voice. The formal surrender ceremony took place aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945.

Japanese foreign affairs minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signs the Japanese Instrument of Surrender aboard the USS Missouri as American General Richard K. Sutherland watches, 2 September 1945.

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Why does the U.S. Marks VJ Day as September 2, 1945, instead of August 15, 1945?

Crowds celebrating VJ Day in Times Square in New York City on August 14, 1945

The U.S. marks V-J Day as September 2, 1945, instead of August 15, 1945, due to the following reasons:

  1. Official Surrender Ceremony: While Japan announced its intention to surrender on August 15, 1945, the official surrender ceremony took place later, on September 2, 1945. On this day, aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Japanese officials signed the Instrument of Surrender, formalizing the end of hostilities and Japan’s surrender.
  2. Time Zones and Dates: The announcement made by Emperor Hirohito was broadcast in Japan on August 15. However, due to the time difference, it was still August 14 in the U.S. when the announcement was made. This led to initial celebrations in places like New York’s Times Square on August 14.
  3. Desire for Formality: The U.S. and its Allies wanted a formal end to the war with an official surrender ceremony. The signing aboard the USS Missouri provided a clear, formal, and documented end to the conflict, marking the definitive conclusion of World War II.
  4. Presidential Proclamation: President Harry S. Truman declared September 2 as the official V-J Day for the United States. In his announcement, he stated that it was the day when the formalities of Japan’s surrender were concluded.
  5. Different Observances: Different countries have different dates for V-J Day based on their own historical narratives and experiences. For example, the UK observes V-J Day on August 15, aligning with the date of Japan’s announcement.

US and Soviet sailors and seamen celebrating together V-J Day on August 14, 1945

What are the dates of VJ celebrations across the world?

V-J Day, or Victory over Japan Day, commemorates the day when Japan surrendered, effectively ending World War II. Different countries mark the occasion on different dates based on significant events and their local time zones. Here are the primary dates and their significance:

August 15, 1945:

    • Japan: In Japan, August 15 is observed as the day to remember the end of the war and is known as “Memorial Day for the End of the War” (終戦記念日 Shūsen-kinenbi). It’s a day of reflection and mourning.
    • United Kingdom and its Dominions: V-J Day is commemorated on August 15, aligning with the date of Japan’s announcement to surrender. Interestingly, in Australia, August 15 is termed as VP Day, or Victory in the Pacific Day.
    • South Korea: Known as “Gwangbokjeol” (meaning “The day the light returned”), it marks not only the surrender of the Japanese Imperial Army but also the end of Japanese colonization of Korea.
    • North Korea: “Jogukhaebangui nal” (meaning “Liberation of the Fatherland Day”) is observed on August 15.
    • India: August 15 is celebrated as Independence Day, marking the end of British colonial rule. Though it coincides with V-J Day, the focus of the celebrations is on India’s independence.

Celebration of V-J Day in London

August 14, 1945:

    • United States (Initial Observance): Due to time zone differences, when Japan announced its intention to surrender on August 15, it was still August 14 in the U.S. Spontaneous celebrations erupted across the country on this day, especially famous being the celebrations in Times Square, New York.

September 2, 1945:

2015 China Victory Day Parade

    • United States (Official Observance): The U.S. officially recognizes September 2 as V-J Day. This is the date when the formal surrender ceremony took place aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
    • China: In mainland China, September 2 is celebrated as “Victory Day of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression,” commemorating both the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II.

Major Facts About V-J Day

Image: Citizens and workers of Oak Ridge, Tennessee celebrate V-J Day on August 14, 1945

Below are eight major facts about V-J Day and its celebrations:

  1. Different Celebrations: The term “V-J Day” is somewhat ambiguous because it can refer to two dates: August 15 (when Hirohito announced the surrender) and September 2 (when the formal ceremony took place). Different countries celebrate on different dates.
  2. Spontaneous Celebrations: News of Japan’s surrender ignited spontaneous celebrations worldwide on August 15. The iconic photograph of a sailor kissing a woman in Times Square, New York City, became a symbol of the elation felt across the U.S.
  3. Controversy Over Atomic Bombs: The decision to drop atomic bombs remains controversial, with debates about its necessity and the ethics surrounding the use of such a devastating weapon.
  4. Significance of USS Missouri: The choice of the USS Missouri for the signing of the instrument of surrender had symbolic importance. President Truman hailed from Missouri, and the battleship had participated in significant battles, including Okinawa.
  5. Global Repercussions: V-J Day marked the end of Japan’s ambitions in the Pacific. The nation was occupied by Allied (primarily American) forces until 1952, undergoing significant political, social, and economic reforms.
  6. War Trials: After the war, leaders of the Empire of Japan were tried for war crimes in the Tokyo Trials, similar to the Nuremberg Trials in Europe.
  7. Post-war Japan: V-J Day led to Japan’s transformation from a militaristic empire to a pacifist nation, culminating in its post-war constitution that renounced war.
  8. Asia-Pacific Realignment: Japan’s surrender paved the way for the geopolitical reconfigurations of the Asia-Pacific region. The ensuing Cold War created new tensions, with the Korean and Vietnam Wars as significant offshoots.

Frequently Asked Questions

V-J Day stands for “Victory over Japan Day.” It commemorates the day when Japan surrendered in World War II, effectively ending the war. Image: Representatives of the Empire of Japan aboard USS Missouri at the surrender of Japan on 2 September 1945

When is V-J Day?

The date varies. It’s observed on August 15th, the day Japan announced its surrender, but the formal signing occurred on September 2, 1945, aboard the USS Missouri, which is sometimes recognized as the official V-J Day in the U.S.

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How is V-J Day different from V-E Day?

V-E Day (Victory in Europe Day) marks the end of World War II in Europe, celebrated on May 8, 1945. V-J Day marks the end of the war in the Pacific with Japan’s surrender.

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How is V-J Day celebrated?

Celebrations include parades, memorial events, and moments of silence to honor the fallen. In some places, it’s a day of reflection rather than celebration due to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that precipitated the surrender.

Is V-J Day a public holiday?

It is not a federal public holiday in the U.S., but Rhode Island observes it as a state holiday. Other countries, like the UK, remember it as part of their broader WWII commemoration.

What significance did the atomic bombings have on V-J Day?

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, played a significant role in Japan’s decision to surrender. The bombings and their aftermath are often intertwined with V-J Day discussions.

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Why is it remembered as a significant day in history?

V-J Day marks the end of World War II, the deadliest and most widespread conflict in history. It represents the culmination of years of warfare and signifies the beginning of post-war reconstruction and the establishment of a new world order.

Civilians and service personnel in London celebrating V-J Day on August 15, 1945

How do Japan and other countries in the Pacific remember this day?

While V-J Day is a day of celebration in some countries, in Japan, it’s a day of remembrance and mourning, particularly for the victims of the atomic bombings. Other countries in the Pacific have their observances, reflecting on their wartime experiences.

Crowds in Shanghai celebrating V-J Day on August 15, 1945

Were there iconic events or images associated with V-J Day?

Yes, the famous photograph by German-born American photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt (December 6, 1898 – August 23, 1995) of a U.S. sailor kissing a woman in Times Square, New York, on V-J Day is one of the most iconic images of the 20th century.

Victor Jorgensen, a U.S. Navy photojournalist, captured an alternate view of a famous kiss in Times Square, titled “Kissing the War Goodbye.” Published in The New York Times, it lacks the recognizable Times Square backdrop and has a darker, less detailed composition. Unlike Eisenstaedt’s copyrighted image, Jorgensen’s, taken by a government employee, is in the public domain. While artistically different, Jorgensen’s photo reveals the exact location of the kiss. Kay Hughes Dorius of Utah is the surprised woman on the left.

US Navy photo journalist Victor Jorgensen’s photo published in The New York Times. Jorgensen titled his photograph “Kissing the War Goodbye”.

How has the perception of V-J Day changed over the years?

As with many historical events, perceptions evolve. While the initial celebrations in 1945 were jubilant, subsequent generations have also used the day to reflect on the broader impacts of the war, including the moral implications of using atomic weapons.

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