October’s Item of the Month takes a look at an item from the Historical Records Collection, The Instrument of Surrender, relating to the surrender of Japanese Forces in Hong Kong in 1945.
The Japanese attacked Hong Kong on 8 December 1941, the day after their attack on the American Naval Base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. The British garrison and the local defence force attempted to halt the Japanese; however, they were overwhelmed by the sheer number of the enemy, and to save lives surrender was the only option.
Through 1941–42 the Japanese had celebrated victory after victory, and expanded their empire and influence. However, the Pearl Harbour attack failed to sink the American aircraft carriers which were at sea during the attack, which would be a major factor in the Pacific War.
The Instrument of Surrender [item HSR/V/8] was signed by Rear-Admiral Sir Cecil Halliday Jepson Harcourt on behalf of the Allies, and by Major General Umekichi Okada and Vice-Admiral Ruritaro Fujitia on behalf of the Japanese Empire, dated 16 September 1945. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, China had assumed Hong Kong would come under Chinese rule, but the British acted quickly and assumed control.
When the Japanese capitulated, Vice-Admiral Ruritaro Fujitia surrendered his sword to Rear-Admiral Harcourt. The sword was manufactured in 1942 in an arsenal and retains the rank tassel at its grip. The sword is currently on display in the Museum’s Voyagers: Britain and the Sea gallery.
The Japanese held their swords in high regard and were reluctant to surrender them. In many armed forces the sword was a ceremonial item; however, the Japanese carried the sword into battle and if the opportunity arose it would be used. Swords could be family heirlooms handed down the generations, and in certain instances were several hundred years old, created by a master swordsmith.
The swords carried by the Japanese were sought after by American servicemen. Few understood the historical significance of the old swords, in comparison to the modern arsenal items, many of which were made using steel from railway tracks. It is believed that at one point the Americans obtained such a large quantity of swords that they were being taken out to sea and ditched over the side.
Official presentations of swords were also made to American servicemen - one man might be presented with a modern factory sword while another could be handed a sword of great age and the highest quality. Over the passage of time most surviving swords have probably been accounted for; only time will tell if more are to be discovered in attics and lofts.
Colin Starkey, Library Assistant