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In the United States, it is a widely-held belief that an invasion of the Japanese main islands would have been necessary were it not for the use of atomic bombs (putting aside the question of whether a demonstration in an unpopulated area may have been sufficient to cause surrender). For instance:

[A] massive Allied (largely American) invasion of the Japanese home islands that was being actively planned....there was virtually no inclination toward an unconditional surrender. -- The Nuking Of Japan Was A Tactical And Moral Imperative

But according to this article by John Denson:

[T]he Japanese leaders, both military and civilian, including the Emperor, were willing to surrender in May of 1945 if the Emperor could remain in place and not be subjected to a war crimes trial after the war. This fact became known to President Truman as early as May of 1945.

and quotes Allen Dulles as saying:

On July 20, 1945 ... [I] reported there to Secretary [of War] Stimson on what I had learned from Tokyo — they desired to surrender if they could retain the Emperor and their constitution as a basis for maintaining discipline and order in Japan after the devastating news of surrender became known to the Japanese people.

Does Denson's article portray the situation in May-Jul 1945 accurately?

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    What would you consider evidence for and/or against? To @jwenting's point, if some of the Japanese government were in favour, does that count? If they were prepared to surrender with conditions (e.g. the fate of the Emperor), does that count? If they declined the demand to surrender unconditionally just a week earlier, does that count? – Oddthinking Aug 15 '13 at 10:22
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    You can't reduce this stuff to a yes/no question. It's well known that the Allies had decided on a policy of 'unconditional surrender', meaning there wouldn't be any negotiations. This was agreed between three major allies and several minor ones, so it wasn't going to change overnight. – DJClayworth Aug 15 '13 at 13:10
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    Miller writes "there was virtually no inclination toward an unconditional surrender.". That is entirely consistent with the other two pieces, which both indicate consideration of a conditional surrender. Remember that the Allies had decided that unconditional surrender was the only acceptable outcome. – DJClayworth Aug 15 '13 at 18:40
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    For a lot of good material on the topic, see Kai Bird's 1998 book "Hiroshima's Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy." It addresses the issue of the state of the Japanese government, what the US knew and did not know at that point, the US official explanation of the rationale for dropping atomic bombs, and what we have since learned through decades of scholarship and many subsequently declassified documents. – Larry Gritz Aug 15 '13 at 20:57
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    @LarryGritz That sounds like a great resource: perhaps you could summarize it as the basis for an answer? – Larry OBrien Aug 15 '13 at 21:37
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No.

The Japanese were not "suing for peace" prior to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Does Denson's article portray the situation in May-Jul 1945 accurately?

No, Dulles' contacts had limited support and did not represent the Japanese government...

In early 1945 Japanese navy circles in Berlin tried to begin peace negotiations with the United States. Using their contacts with the arms trader Friedrich Wilhelm Hack, they sent Commander Fujimura Yoshikazu to Switzerland, where he opened talks with Allen W. Dulles of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services. Though the Japanese navy and Foreign Ministry showed some interest, the peace attempts finally failed since neither side took the initiative to an official level. Fujimura confused his government by claiming that the Americans had made the first step, while the U.S. side waited for proof that the administration in Tokyo was backing the navy officer's initiative. - (Krebs 2005, see pp. 1108-1112)

Furthermore...

The most often repeated condemnation of American diplomacy in the summer of 1945 is that policy makers understood that a promise to retain the Imperial institution was essential to end the war, and that had the United States communicated such a promise, the Suzuki cabinet would likely have promptly surrendered. The answer to this assertion is enshrined in black and white in the July 22 edition of the Magic Diplomatic Summary. There, American policy makers could read for themselves that Ambassador Sato had advised Foreign Minister Togo that the best terms Japan could hope to secure were unconditional surrender, modified only to the extent that the Imperial institution could be retained. Presented by his own ambassador with this offer, Togo expressly rejected it. Given this, there is no rational prospect that such an offer would have won support from any of the other live members of the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War. - (Frank 1999, p. 239)

I would like at least a sketch of the elements within the Japanese government who were in a position to control the surrender and an understanding of those elements' position on surrender.

As historian Robert Butow pointed out in 1954, the fate of Japan rested in the hands of only eight men. These were the emperor, his principal advisor Marquis Koichi Kido, and an inner cabinet of the government of Admiral Kantaro Suzuki called the "Big Six": Prime Minister Suzuki, Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo, Army Minister General Korechika Anami, Navy Minister Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai, Chief of the Army General Staff General Yoshijiro Umezu, and Chief of the Navy General Staff Admiral Soemu Toyoda.

There is no record whatsoever that any of these eight men proposed a set of terms or circumstances in which Japan would capitulate prior to Hiroshima. More significantly, none of these men even after the war claimed that there was any set of terms of circumstances that would have prompted Japan to surrender prior to Hiroshima. The evidence available shows that in June, a memorandum from Kido to the emperor proposed that the emperor intervene not to surrender, but to initiate mediation by a third party. The mediation would look to settle the war on terms that echoed the Treaty of Versailles: Japan might have to give up its overseas conquests and experience disarmament for a time, but the old order in Japan would remain in charge. Certainly there would be no occupation and no internal reform. - (Frank 2009)

Sources

See also

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