*** Imperial Japanese Navy

The Imperial Japanese Navy: Kaigun

Imperial Japanese Navy
Figure 1.-- This is part of the Tokyo parade celebrating the Imperial Japanese Navy Commemoration Day (May 27, 1944). The Japanese people gad not been told out badly the war was going. This photograph was taken only days before the Americans attacked the Japanese bastions in the Marianas leading to the Great Marianas Turkey shoot and the obliteatiin of Japanaese naval aviation. The Marianas of course opened the Home Islands to American strategic bombardment.

Japan as an island country has in many ways been shaped by the sea. It was the seas that saved the Japanese from the Mongols (1281). The seas brought the Europeans from whom the Shogun eventually decided the Japanese people had to insulated (1636). Much later it was the seas that permitted America to open the 'Hermit Kingdom' (1853). Japapanese reformers decided that Japan must have a modern navy. The new Imperial Navy helped Japan seize its first colony from China--Formoisa (Taiwan) (1895). The battle history of the Imperial Japanese Navy lasted a mere 50 years. In that short time it demolished the Imperail Russian Navy (1905), devestated tghe American Pavific Fleet (1941), drove the Royal Navy from the Pacific (1941) and the Indian Ocean (1942). The Japanese built the world's most powerful carrier force and with that brilliantly equipped and trained fleet came close close to defeating the American Navy, despite the massive difference in industrial power.

Mongol Invasion of Japan (1281)

Perhaps the most important military campaign in Japanese history is the defeat of the Wmperor Kubla Khan's invasion fleet. The Mongol Emperor of China was Kublan Kahn introduced to the West by Marco Polo. China at the time was the most poweful country in the world Mongul armies had conquered China and then swept all opponents and pushed into the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Kubla Khan controlled an empire streaching from Poland to Korea. He dispattched an invasion fleet to add Japan to his empire. Japan at the time was a primitive country made up of waring fiefdoms. The Hojo family usurped the authority of the Japan's emperor, establishing the Shoganate. When the Shogun refused to pay homage to the Mongol Emperor, Kubla Khan set his eyes on Japan. He launced a massice invassion in 1281. The invasion fleet was made up of 4,200 ships and 142,000 men--larger than the D-Day invasion at Normandy. The Japanese would have been no match for the hugh Mongol army and sophiticated battlefield tactics. Mongil sophisticate battle formations rather than individual Samuri The fleet was destroyed by a storm known as the Divine Wind (Kamikaze). This became the inspiration for the Japanese suiside pilots (Kamikaze) of World War II.

Euopean Voyages of Discovery

he great European voyages of discovery of the 15th and 16th centuries were fundamentally economic enterprises. They were conducted by the European countries of the Atlantic coasts to establish direct trade contacts with China and the Spice Islands (Indonesia) that was being blocked by Byzantium/Venice and the Arabs. At the time, trade in silk, porcelin, and spices from the East carried over the Silk Road had to pass through Turkish, Arab, Byzantine, and Italian middleman, making them enormously expensive. The crusaders failed to break the Islamic wall separating still primitive Europe from the riches of the East. Circumventing the land Silk Road and the sea Spice Route would have profound economic consequences for Europe and the world. The ballance of power would shift from Eastern to Western Europe and eventualkly to northern Europe. Two nations led the early explorarions in the 15th century--Spain and Portugal. These two countries pioneered the sea routes that would lead Europeans to Asia and the Americas, but the Dutch, English, and French were to follow in the 16th century.

The Shogun Isolates Japan (1636)

Columbus has sought China by sailing west. It was the Portuguese who first reached China and Japan by sailing east as they develooped the Spice Route. They were soon followed by the Spnish, Dutch, and English. With them the brought Christianity. The Shogun came to see the many Chistian converts as a threat to traditional Japanese values. He ordered the Christians killed and limited foreign trade to a small number of Chinese and Dutch traders and limited to a tiny island near Nagasaki. Japan began a period of self-imposed iosolation. Not only were foreigners not allowed to enter Japan, but the Japanese people were not allowed to leave Japan. Gradually skills like navigation and ship building disappeared in Japan. Japan became a hermetically sealed country, known in the west as the Hermit Kingdom.

Commodore Perry Opens Japan (1853)

The Shogun for two centuries closed Japan ports to all but a handfull of Dutch and Chinese traders. Japan was a country frozen time and in the mid-19th century was still essentially a feudal country. The United States had an expanding merchant fleet. Yankee clippers had by the mid-19th century become a force to be reconned with in the expanding international economy. America also had a Pacific whaling fleet of some commerical importance. American commercial interests asked the U.S. Government for assiatance in opening Japan. The Americans wanted to trade with Japan. They also wanted rights for whalers to obtain coal and supplies. President James Buchanan ordered Commodore Perry to carry out a mission to Japan. He commanded a squadron of four ships which entered Edo/Tokyo Bay (July 8, 1853). His flagship was the USS Powhatan. The ships were painted black and Japanese paintaings of the encounter emphasize the black ships. The modern vessels astonished the Japanese. The Japanese had never seen steam engines. Some thought them "giant dragons puffing smoke." They were impressed with the armament aboard the ships. Perry carried a letter from President Milard Filmore for the Emperor. Japanese officials realized that they had nothing to ressist the American ships. After protracted negotiatiuions, a treatty was signed opening Japan to American trade (March 31, 1854). The treaty provided for peace and friendship. The Japanese agreed to care for shipwrecked sailors and to offer provisions and coal to American whalers. The Japanese today celebrate the event with annual black ship festivals. President Buchanan subsequently welcomed a delegation of Japanese samurai to Washington, receiving them at the White House. The Japanese diplomats were not impressed, seeing no towers or moat. They did think that it was admit it was handsomely furnished inside. They were the first Japamese to visit the United States. They and their traditional dress were instant celebrities. They reported back to the Shogun that America was an inferior society and not likely to endure. Comodore Perry's squadron, however, would have profound impact on Japanese thinking and in a decade undermine the Shogun and his traditional regime. And who could predict less than a century later america and Japan would fight the most titanic naval war in history.

The Meiji Restoration (1868)

There were in the early 19th century, but it was not until Perry's opening of Japan that reforms were possible. Forward thinkers anf modernizing elements acurately foresaw that tradituinal Japan could not resist foreign power any more than China could. Only with industry and modern arms could Japan resist Western powers. And the Tokagawa Shogun opposed major reforms to Japan's feudal society. The Shogun had signed a treaty with Perry, but to become law it required the Emperor's ratificatiion. The Emperor in the Shigunate was a figurehead, and normally would sign whatever put before him. The Emperor seing an opportunity to challege the Shogun, refused to ratify the Treaty. A Civil War ensued. Eventually the Shogun was defeated by forces loyal to the Emperor (1868). While the Emperor had used the Treaty issue to challege the Shogunate, after his victory in the civil war, the Emperor Meiji became a symbol for reform. Japan which had sealed itself off from the world for two centuries, now embraced reform and modenization with a fervor unparalled in history. The reform was uneven. There was no land reform which was the underpinnings of the country's feudal society.

Imperial Navy Founded

Japan at the time of the arrival of Commodore Perry had no navy in a modern sence. The forces of the Shogun and Emperor deployed naval forces during the civil war. With the vicyory of the Emperor, these forces were reorganized intpo a new Imperial Navy. A Naval Academy was founded at Eta Jima, a small island near Hiroshima. The Academy and the Imperial Navy itself was modeled on the British Royal Navy. The Japanese even imported bricks indiciduall wrapped in paper from England so that theur Academy would look like Dartmouth.

Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914)

While the Imperial Navy was modeled on the Royal Navy, an American naval strategist deeply impressed the Japanese--Alfred Thayer Mahan, a naval strategist and historian. Mahan while teaching at the newly opened Naval War College developed the theories that led to his ground-breaking book, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 (1890). The book strongly influended the U.S. Navy as it entered the 20th century. Thayer agued that the great powers in history maintained strong navies and merchant marines and that sea power offered advantages over land forces. Mahan maintained that naval power was generated by a complex mix of geographical position, excess production, proper national character, and a supportive government. He arued that these factors argued that America could be an important naval power and that American policy makers should persue naval power. The same of course could be said of Japan, although its more limited industrial base put it at a disadvantage to America and the major European countries. Mayer insisted that modern fleets should be built around massive battleships. He argued that naval commanders should mass forces for decisive victories, such as Nelson achieved at Trafalgar (1805).Major changes had appeared during the Civil War (1861-65): ironsides, steam engines, and screw proplellers. The large American Navy that had blockaded the south was allowed to deteriorate. Mahan argued for building a modern navy, postulating that 'sea power' was vital for a great nation. He argued that that nations with poweful fleets will be able to project power worldwide. [Mahan] At the time that Mahan wrote, the British Royal Navy was still dominate on the Highsea. Mahan concepts were highly influential in shaping strategic thinking, not only in the United States, but in other countries as well, imcluding Japan and Germany. d the seas. Both countries were resource poor, but actively building overseas empires. The U.S. fleet still consisted of a large number of small vessels, a number still wooden. Influenced ny Thayer's theories, the Great White Fleet founded by President Cleveland began to emerge in the 1890s. Japanese naval thinkers were impressed both with the idea massive battleships and the persuit of a decisive battle.

Building a Modern Fleet

Japan proceeded to buiold a fleet of capital ships capable of competing with European countries. Japan in the late 19th century waa just beginning to develop an industrial economy. Thus modern big-gun battle ships had to be ordered from European shipyards. Japanese ships from the beginning had iron hulls, steam power, and revolving turats. This was a huge leap from a country that before 1853 had been a feudal society. The father of the Japanese Navy was Gonbee Yamamoto who ascribed to Thayer's theories and helped create a fleet of large battleships and fast armoured cruisers. The Japanese built their largest ship the Mikasa in a British shipyard. As many of the Japanese vessels were built in Western shipyards, from the beginning the Imperial Navy had some of the most modern vessels available. The Mikasa was in fact the most powerful ship of its day. It had four 12 inch guns in two turrets. While the Imperial Navy at first relied on imported ships, it soon began building ships in the French-designed Dry Dock No. 1 at Yokosuka. Other navies around the world developed over time. This meant that they included a mix of modern and older vessels. Japanese naval planners knew they could not outbuild oyher countries, so they emphasized quality and training. They used the same approach with naval aviation and training aviators. As Japan develped heavy industry its gradually developed the capability to design a build naval vessels. Important naval bases and shipyards wee built at several Japanese ports. Yakoska became the Japanese Portsmouth. Japan's firsr modern vessekls were built at Yakoska. A huge drydock was built at Kure near Hiroshima. It was here that the giant Yamato and Mushashi would be built in secret during the 1930s. The Japanese thus tended to have the more modern ships meaning that at naval battles over China, Russia, Germany, and in the opening months of the Pacific War against the Americans and British. Unfortunastely for the Japanese, the Pacific War did not last a few nonths and the opening months were not decisive.

The Warrior Tradition of Bushido

The code of Samnariwarriors was Bushido. This had been a code of conduct that developed over centuries and was widely accepted by the country's ruling class. As Japan developed a modern educational system, many aspects of Bushido was extended to the average child being educated in the new schools. Bushido also became some of the guiding principles at Eta Jima Naval academy. Here a belief that Japan disciplined with Bushido would be an invincible force. Industrial power even more than for the Army was vital for naval power. Some naval commanders understood this, much of the IJN like the Army, however, came to believe that the fighting spirit developed by Bushisdo was the key to victory.

Major Bases

Eta Jima

The Japanese naval academy was Eta Jima. It was based on the British Royal Navy school at Darmouth. The Royal Navy provided assistance to Japan in building a modern fleet. The Japanese in building their new navy closely followed the British example. The main building at Ita Jima was even built in the Georgian style with red bricks imported, individual wrapped in paper, all the way from England. Discipline at service academies is notriously strict. The Japanese at Eta Jima took this to an extrme. Cadets were brutalized. Upper classmen were allowed to strike first year students who were required to stand and take the beating. Traditionally first year students were lined up on sunday in the school yard and made to stand at attention for 4-5 hours in all weather while the uppeclassmen beat them. [Thomas, p. 28.]


Kure accross the channel from Eta Jima is near Hiroshima. Here is one of the largest drydocks in the world. Opened in the mid-1930s, the massive Yamato was built here in great secretcy. Immense cloth cutains shrouded the project--utilizing the country's entire supply of burlap and rope. . Residents were admonished not to look at it. The security effort was so effective that thev U.S. Navy only heard vague rumors and did not get a look at it until 1944. The Japanese knew they would never outbuild the Ameruicans, so they focused on quality. The Yamato and sister ship Musashi was the embodiment of this effort. Hiroshima itself was Japan's major southern port. It was from Hirshima that the Imoerial Japasnese Army embarked soldiers and supplies for Korea and the war in China as well as the Pacific War with the United States. In the final monts of the War, Hiroshima along with Nagaski were vital for the military buildup on Jyushu to repel the anticipated American invasion.





Yokosuka near Tokyom was the most important japanese naval base. It has been described as Japan's Portsmouth. It is the fuirst open port after Commodore Perry's missuin to Japan (1853). With the Meiji Resortoration, Yokosuka became the nmajor base forv thev Imoerial Japanese Navy. Many of the IJN's first vessekls were constructed here at the Arsenal and Dry Docks. Dry Dock Number 1 one was designed by a Frebchman. It was cimoleted in 1872. In tyoicalm Japanese fashion, once it was completed and the Japanese saw how to do it, more dry docks followed which the Japanese designed and built on their own. Japan had a well established craft tradituin of wirking with the stonev used in Dry Dock No. 1. Jpanese castles and moats involved the same stone technology.

Important Figures

Katsu Kaishū (1823-99) former Tokugawa naval commander, was appointed to be aopan's first Minister of the Navy (1873-78). He played a key role in founding the modern Japanese Navy from a collection of Tokugawa and new foreign-built ships. Bringing all the Tokugawa men and ships together under a centralized commabnd was a formidable problem and not achieved until for a few years (1871). Katsu as vice-ministrer oplayed a major role and was appointed minister and wide viewed as the founfder iof the Imperial Navy. The best known subsequent figure is Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō (1848-12934) who commanded the smaller, but more modern Japanese fleet in the Battle of Tsushima (1905). The battle was won by what has become known as Togo's turn and shicked the world. Japanwas the vfirst Asian nation to sucessfully confrionta Wesrern power at sea. The father of the Imperial Japanese Navy is often seen as Admiral Count Yamamoto Gonbee (1852 – 1933). He was an admiral in the Imperial Navy, Navy Minister, and twice Prime Minister of Japan (1913-14) and again 1923-24). He was navy minister during the Russo Japanese War and played a key role in building up Adm. Togo's victorious fleet. The most important World War II Japanese naval commander was of course Isoroku Yamamoto (2884-1943), unrelated to Count Yamaoto. He was a fervent proponent of nacal aviation at a time that most navak commanf=ders ficused on big0gun basttleships. It was Yanmamioto who mastermined the Pearl Harbor attack. Yamaoto opposed war with America and was the target of assasination squads. But once the decision was made, he decided that Japan's only possibility of victory was to destroy the American Pacifuc fleet in a surprise attack. A major tactical flaw in the ooeration was to insure that the American carriers would be in port. They of course were not. And while devestaingly executed, suceeded in mostly disabaling largely obsolete World War I era battleships. Only two battleships were destroyed. Yamoto was not the commander of the Japanese Navy and did not choose the First Air Fleet commander that carried out the Pearl Harbor attack-- Adm. Chuichi Nagumo (1887-1944). He was criticised for not launching a third wave attak that could have paralized the Pacific Fleet. While a brilliantly executed tacuical strike, Yamoto created the greatest strateguic blunder of Workd War II. He cakculated that a majir success at Pearl Harbor would so disharten Amrricans that it would force the United Stastes to recognize Japanese conquests in the Far East and South Pacific. Instead it galvanised a deeply divided nation resisting another war into a formibasble national effort to make war on a level unparalled in human history. The Japanesevpeople would pay a terrible price for Yamaoto's misclculation. It was Nagumo that again commanded the First Air Fleet at Midway, faithfully executing Yamamoto's complex battle plan. At Midway the Americans tore the heart out of the First Air fleet--sinking four carriers (1942). Nagumo was blamed, but the fauklt more correctly falls primarily on Yamamoto's battle plan. American pilots shot down Adm. Yamaoto's plane, killing him over Bouganville in the Solomons (1943). Adm. Jisaburō Ozawa (1886-1966) was the last comnmnder of the Imperial Navy's combined fleet. He conducted the Japanese operations in the Battle of the Philppines Sea resulting in the Great Marianas Turkey shoot and sinking of three carriers, essentially ending Japannese naval aviation as a substantial force (June 1944). Adm. Ozawa was left to command the Japanese decoy Northrrn Force in the climatic Battle of Leyte Gulf -- the greatest naval battkle in history (October 1944). The IJN's powerful Center Force including the two super-battle ships (Musashi and Yamato) was commnded by Adm. Takeo Kurita (1889-1977) who had vessels shot out from under him. The Americans mauled Center Force in the Subuyan Sea after which Adm. Halsey commanding the Third Fleet went charging off after Ozawa's decoy Norther Force. This left it to Task Firce 77 (Taffey 1-) with tiny vessels to confront Kuritas huge fleet of battleshios and heavy cruisers off Samar. Somehow they did it it, suffering terribkle losses in the process. Adm. Kurita turned asround in surely the most lopsided enggement in navl history. This ended the IJN's operations as a formidable force in the Pacific War.

Sino-Japanese War (1894-95)

Tension between China and Japan over interests in Korea broke out in war (1894). The War highlighted the decling of the Qing dynasty. It also highlighted the weakness of the Chinese military and the success of the modetnization process in Japan. The Yi dynasty in Korea attempted continue its traditional seclusion. Korea had a tributary relationship with China which in exchange had provided military protection. China allowed Japan to recognize Korea as an independent state (1875). Subsequently the situation in Korea became complicated. China attemopted to maintain its influemce while Japan attempted to expand its influenmce. The Koreans divided between conservative traditionlists and reformists, many of who supported the Japanese. After thge assasination of a reformer, a Korean religious sect, the Tonghak, launched a rebellion. The traditionalist Korean Government asked for Chinese mikitary support. A Japanese military epedition reached Seoul (June 8, 1894), obstensibly to support the reformers. China declared war (August 1) after both land and naval engagements had occurred. The War was a disaster for China. The Japanese Army mauled the Chinese in battles around Seoul and Pyongyang. The Chinese retreated north and suffered another defeat at Liaoning. The Japanese then took Port Arthur (Dalian) (November 21). The Chinese fared even worse at sea. China's northern fleet was devestated by the Japanese Navy in a battle at the mouth of the Yalu River. The Yalu forms part of the border between China and Korea. The Japanese sank 8 of 12 Chinese ships engaged. The surviving 4 ships withdrew behind the fortifications of the naval base at Weihaiwei. There they were destroyed when the Japanese attacked by land across the Liaodong Peninsula. Japan took Weihaiwei (February 2, 1895). After the harsh Winter weather passed, The Japanese drove into Manchuria. The Chinese finally sued for peace. The Treaty of Shimonoseki ended the War (April 1895). Korea was recognized as a sovereign state, but effectively became a Japanese protectorate. China ceded Formosa (Taiwan), the Liaodong Peninsula, and the Pescadores Islands to Japan. China was required to to pay an indemnity of 200 million taels. Even more humiliating for China, they were forced to open four more treaty ports to external trade. The outcome of the War, however, was modifIed by the Triple Intervention (Russia, France, and Germany). They fiorced Japan to return the Liaodong Peninsula, but China was required to pay an additional 30 million taels to mollify the Japanese. China's defeat outraged Chinese students and strengthened the reform movement in China. Sun Yat-sen founded the revolutionary republican movement which evolved into the Kuomintang.

Anglo-Japanese Naval Alliance (1902)

The Anglo-Japanese Treaty was actually a series of three treaties signed before World War I. Anglo-Japanese naval cooperation played an important role in the development of the Imperial Japanese Navy. There was extensive cooperation before a formal agreement was signed. Japan first acquired modern naval vessels from British shipyards. Royal Navy officers helped train Japanese officers. With the rise of a modern German Navy, Britain saw Japan as a useful ally in the Pacific. The major rationale for the treaty in 1902, however, was a mutual concern with Russia. Japan saw its relationship with the Royal Navy as helpful in building a modern navy. The first Anglo-Japanese Naval Treaty was signed in 1902. The Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) changed the strategic situation in the Pacific. Britin and Japan rennewed the Treaty, but the terns were substantially different, extending its scope (1905). Britin and Japan renewed the Treaty a third time, again with an expanded scope (1911). This was the Treaty in force at the time of World War I. Japan joined Britain in World War I and in the post-War settlement received several former German island colonies in the Pacific that were to play a role in World War II. The Anglo-Japanse Treaty finally lapsed (1923), primarily because of American concerns at the Washington Naval Conference (1921).

Russo-Japanese War (1904-05)

War with Russia was a direct result of the earlier war with China. The first European power with which Japan came into contact was Tsarist Russia. The two countries both had interests in Korea and Manchuria. The Japanese without declaring war staged a surpride attack on the Russia Pacific fleet at Port Arthur (February 9, 1904). Torpedo boats damaged several Russian vessels, but it was not the decisive blow the Japanese sought. It was when the Russian vessels attempted to run to the safter port at Vladisvostok that the faster Japanese fleet scoired a decisive victory. With its Pacific fleet destroyed, the Russians assembled their Baltic fleet and dispacted it to the Pacific. The Russian fleet consisted if some modern vessels and other slow, largely obsolete ships. The Russian fleet consisted of 10 battleships and three armpred cruisers. Admiral Togo intercepted the Russians in the Straits of Tsushima (May 27, 1905). Togo's sqadron consisted of five modern battleships an eight aromored cruisers. The Japanese force was smaller, but more modern and much better trained. Togo raised the Z banner, meaning "The fate of the Empire depends on this battle. Every man will do his upmost. The Russian fleet was poorly commanded. The Russians has some modern vessels which could have possibly given a good account of themselves, but they were slowed down by several slow, largely obsolete vessels. Togo executed a daring turn that brought his squadron parallel ewith the Russians. The Japanese turrets allowed him to bring his fire power fully to bare on the Russians. It was one of the desive battles in naval warfare. The Japanese sank 19 Russians ships and captured five more. The Japanese liost only three torpedo boats. The Japanese victory shocked the world. The Russians were forced to sue for peace. Japan gaining the southern Sakhalin (Karafuto) Island and Russia's port and rail rights in Manchuria. The Battle of Tsushima Straits cemented the Japanese commitment to a single descisive battle as tennant in naval warfare. The battle had another major impact. First Lord of the Admiralty Jackey Fisher recognized that the only ships that had any impact on the outcome of the battle were those with big guns. Battle ships at tne tkme bristled with a large array of smalle guns. Fisher proposed the all big gun battleship. The first one built was HMS Dreadnought which helped to fuel the European naval race.

World War I (1914-18)

Japan joined the Allies almost at the onset of the War (August 23, 1914). It seems surprising that Japan would have entered the War so quickly when the German Army was marching through Belgium and seemed likely to reach Paris. Japan had signed an Alliance with Britain (1902), but it was not aimed at Germany nor did it require Japan to join the Allies when war broke out in Europe. The British fearing that the German Far Eastern Squadron would disrupt trade, asked the Japanese for assistance. The Japanese Government for largely domestic reasons quickly agreed to the British request. Germany had acquired several colonial possessions, including concessions in China and Pacific islands. The Germans build a major naval base at Tsingtao. It was hear that the only major engagement in the Far East was fought. The Japanese supported by the British succeeded in seizing Tsingtao a very little cost in a conbined land sea operation (November 1914). More importantly for the future, the Japanese seized control of the formerly German owned Shantung Railway. Japan seized German Pacific islands without resistance, includung Palau and the Marshall, Caroline, and Marianas islands. This gave them the naval bases at Yap, Ponape, and Jaluit. Japanese naval surveyors subsequently discovered the potential fleet base of Truk, and after the war built a major naval base there. As agreed by the Allies, the Japanese seized German colonies north of the Equator while those to the south were seized by British and Dominion forces. A New Zealand force escorted by British, French and Australian warships seized German Samoa (August 28, 1914). A British ship seized the guano-mining island of Nauru. The Australian Navy seized the Bismarck Islands (September 1914). The German forces surrendered German New Guinea and the Bismarck, Admiralty, and Solomon Islands. After seizing the German bases, the Japanese Navy assisted the Allies in convoy protection from German raiders. There were small German military units in these colonies as well as civilians. We do not notice any attrocities by the Japanese during World War I like they committed during World War II. After the War, the Treaty of Versailles awarded Japan a mandate over the islands.

Washington Naval Conference (1921-22)

The major powers after World War I chastened by the incredible loss of life and destruction persued a policy of naval disarmament. The Treaties of Washington (1920) and London (1930) limited national fleets. The major naval powers (America, Britain, France, Italy, and Japan) agreed to major limitations on their naval strength which at the time was measured in battleships. American Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes organized a conference to address the problem os spiraling naval expendidutres as a result of the naval arms race. Senator William E. Borah, Republican of Idaho, who had ledt the fight againstvAmerican ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and participation in the League of Nations, strongly advocated efforts to limit the arms race. His efforts were not at first favored by the new Harding administration, but was eventually adopted as the Republican alternative to the Democrat's (Wilson's) policy of collective security through the League of Nations. The Confrence opened on Armistice Day 1921--a very meaningful date so close to World War I. The American delegation was led by Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes. Hughes shocked the other delegates by proposing a major reduction in naval fleets and not just limitations on new construction. This was far beyond what the other countries had anticipated. Some have called this one of the most dramatic moments in American diplomatic history. The American proposals entailed scrapping almost 2 million tons of warships as well as alengthy holiday on new building. Interestingly, Admiral Yamamoto suggested that battleships be scrapped. WEe are not sure what the Japanese objective was with this proposal, but the other powers had large numbers of battleships, the Jpsnese inly a few. It was not taken seriously by the other naval powers. In the end limits were agreed to, but France, Italy, and Japan were allocated quotas 60 percent of America and Britain. This was justified because America needed a fleet in the Atlantic and Pacific and Britain had world-wide responsibilities. As part of the agreement, Japan also agreed to respect Chinese national integrity

Turning Point: Nationalist Outrage (Early-1920s)

The Anglo-Japanese Alliance (1902) was a departure for both Britain and Japan. British policy in the late-19th century at the time was 'Splendiud Isolation' that had dominated British diplomacy after the Naspoleonic Wars, but is especially associated with the late-19th century, despite the growing German challenge. The primary purpose was the mutual concern toward the Russians. The Alliance beefitted both countries. The British relationship was a fctor in the subsequent Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). And the Japanese supported the Brutish in World War I (1914-18). There were discenters, both within and outside the Empire. Australians and others were not all that happy with the arrangements. Neither were the Americans. And concerns were growing in Japan, not so much with the British, but toward the Americans, but many Japanese did not destinguish between America and Britain which had the same language and looked alike. Problems began with the American immigration policy and than President Roosevelt's who mediated an end to the Russian War. Many Japanese nationalists believed that Roosevelt prevented them from obtaining the spoils they believed that they deserved. Than America and Britsin forced them to backdown from the Twenty-One Demands they desired to impose on China. The Japanese were offended by their treatment at the Versailles Peace Conferencer (1919). In particular they expected support from the British. The Americans further incened the Japanese by demanding they withdraw from Siberia after World War I (1922). Perhaps the greatest greviance of all, espcilly for nasval officers, was that that Japanese did not receive parity with the American and British fleets. Many officers considered the Treaties a humiliating insult to their national honor. Many natioinalists advocated an aggressive preparation for war, although this was their mindset even before the Washington Treaties. Others such as Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto insisted that war with America and Britian would be suicidal. Because of America's superior industrial and technical capability, Yamamoto argued that Japan could never win a naval arm's race. The Washington Trasty thus was advantageous to the Japanese. Yamamoto was for a time targeted for assasination. He was, however, appointed commander of the Imperial Navy. He was an inovative strategist and in particular prompted the naval air wing. After the Washington Treaty, Britain how to make a decision. They could continue their relationship with Japan or develop a new relationship with America that had begun when America entered World War I on the Allied side (1917). Britain's policy since Trafalgar was to maintain a naval force ar least equal to the two other largest navies. The cost of World War I and the rise of the United States meant that this was no longer possible. And the British estblishmenbt wuth some unease decided to accept the rise of American naval power. The Treaty was terminated by the British (1921-23). The Japanese were offened, another factor in the series of grevianses felt by the Japanese.

Japanese Naval Policy

The Washington Treaties significantly influenced the Japanese Navy. The Imperial Navy began experimenting with non-conventional forces not covered by the treaties, in particular aircraft carriers and submarines. The Navy also began to emphasize quality over quality. This emphasis was to eventually lead to the construction of the Yamoto and the Musashi. Japan also developed high-quality weapons like the Long-Lance torpedon an Zero fighter. Japan ininitated a naval building program in violation of the treaties, although we are not sure precisely when this begun. Certianly the construction of Musachi and Yamato far exceeded the limitations (1937). From the beginning, naval tactics like that of the Army focused on he attasck. Only limited attention was given to importnt aspects like fire control during battles. Nor was there any interest in using the substantial submarine force to interduct merchant vesseks despite the long exoposed sea routes in any Pacific War. Nor did the IJN consider the need to build more marus or for convoying marus fior the uocoming showdown with the American Pacific Fleet. Japanese submarine commanders wanted to sink naval vessels. They saw no glory for a warior in sinking merchant vessels. All of these decisions would have a major impact on the Pacific War.

Japan Renounces the Washington Naval Accords (1934)

The limitations on the Japanese fleet imposed by the washington Naval Treaties were neve popular with the Japanese military. With the military in control of the Government, Yamamoto was dispatched to Washinbgton to seek a renegotiation of the treaties (October 15, 1934). His mission was rebuffed and the Japanese Government withdrew from the treaties.

The Japanese Army

Yamamoto and other naval officers appreciated the industrial potential of America. Japanese Army commanders had no such apprecition. In addition, the Japanese Army in 1939 fought an undeclared bnorder war with the Soviets along the Manchurian-Mongolian border (May-September 1939). Stalin dispatched Gen. Zukov east to deal with the Jaoanese. The Japanese Army suffered substantial losses and were apparen\tly not anxious to persure another campaign against the Soviets. American support for China caused Army officers to advocate a war with America. One might have thought that advanced Soviet weaponry would have convinced the Japanese not to go to war against a major ibdustrial power. It did not. Many in the Army had convinced themselves that fighting spirit could over come American industrial superiority. One might ask why given that it had not with the Russians, why they would have thought it would work against the Americans with a dar greater industrial base. As the British were engafed in Europe and France and the Netherlands occupied, their colonies with key natural resources needed by resource-poor Japan seem easy prey. The only other creditable force in the Pacific was the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. The Army in 1941 dominated the Japanese Government. And why few Army officers had visited America, many thought they knew all about America because Hollywood films were popular in America and widely shown. And what they saw was a weak, degeerate population, a soiety where effete men were dominated by their women. They convinced themselves that the luxury-loving Americans would not have intestinal fortitude to fight a war with a Japan hardened by the princioles of Bushido.

The Imperial Navy (1941)

Conspiracy theorists make the absurd charge that President Rooiselvelt and Secretary of War Marshall were responsible for the debacle at Pearl Harbor. Unsaid is the racist assumption that the Japanese on their own could not hsve carried out such a devestating attack. The simple truth, however, is that in 1941 the Japanese had the most powerful naval fiorce in the world. Not only did the Japanese have more carriers and carrier aircraft, their planes were superior to American and British carrier aircraft. (the British were still uding biplanes), And the Japanese pilots were better trained and more exoperienced. The real question is not how the Japanese succeeded at Pearl Harbor, but how the U,.S. Navy managed to stop the Japanese only 6 months after Peal Harbor before American indudtry could provide the stream of plsanes and ships that would eventually destroy the Imperial Navy.

Commitment to War

To this day, Japanese historians often say that the United States forced Japan into World War II. Some even claim that the America tricked Japan into attacking Pearl Harbor. This is of course simply not true. Japan decided on war in the 1930s. There was a battle for power between the treaty forces seeking a peacefuil role in the world and thev militarists who saw Japan's future as being achieved through force. By the early 1930s the militaristrs had prevailed. Japan chosen war as an instrument of national policy years before Pearl Harbor and any American sanctions. Japan invaded Manchuria (1931) and China (1937), not to mention the Sioviet Union (1939). Japan also renounced the Washington Naval Treaties (1934). Even by 1941, America did not force Japan to make war. America was making no demands like the NAZIs made on Czechoslovakia or Poland. America was demanding that Japan stop its invasion of China and expansion into Southeast Asia. Japan was not forced to make war, it chose to do so.

The Pacific War

It was the Japanese carrier attack on Pearl Harbor that brought America into the War. The Japanese Imperial Fleet was a superbly trained force with modern, well designed vessels. Many did not fully appreciate the effectivness of the Imperial Navy. The lack of radar, however, proved a huge disadvantage. Allied radar and many other technical advances were the result of close cooperation between American and British scientists anf joint development projects that began even before America entered the War. There was no comparable Axis technical cooperation or even coordination of military campaigns. The Kriegsmarine had very effective radar on its surface ships like Bismarck yet advanced German technology like radar, jet engines, and other equipment was not provided to the Japanese until very late in the War, too late to be of any effectiveuse to the Japanese war effort. While Pearl Harbor was a stunning tactical victory, it was a strategic blunder by the Japanese of incaluable proportions. The Jpanes were able to seize much of Southeast Asia, but the stunning American carrier victory at Midway, significantly reduced the strike capability of the Imperial Navy. This provided the time for American industrial capacity to reated a naval force with which Japan's limited industrial capacity could not cope. While the German submarine campaign in the North Atlantic failed, the American submarine campaign in thePacific proved spectacularly successful. The Japanese merchant marine was almost completely destroying, cutting the country's war industries off from supplies and bringing the country close to starvation. Amercan industrial strength enabled America to build a naval force capable of leap froging from island to island. The Navy by 1944 had seized islands from which the Japanese Home Island could be bombed. The Navy also enabled the Army to retake tNe Guinea and the Phillipines and by 1945 Okinawa. Naval and Army forced were preparing for a full-scale amphibious invasion of the Home Islands when two atomic boms were dropped (August 1945) and Japan finally surrendered (September 1945).

Leyte Gulf (October 1944)

The Imperial Japanese Navy fought in the greatest naval battle in the history of naval warfare--the Battle of Leyte Gulf. It was the largest navl battle ever fought and probably the last great fleet engagement. The United States Navy had beginning with Guadacanal (August 1942) launced a series of naval strikes and amphibious lndings that had brought the United States to the Marians within striking distance of the Philippines and bombing range of the Home Islands. The Emperor had been demanding to know why the Imperial Fleet did not stop the U.S. Navy. The Imperial Navy finally decided to make its stand off the Philippines and commit its still substantial naval assetts, including carriers and the two super battle ships, Musashi and Yamato. The Japns did with the Sho-Go (Victory Plan). The result was the virtual destruction of the Imperal Fleet. After Leyte, the Imperal Fleet was no longer capable of monting a major fleet action or evn oppose the invasion of the Home Islands.


Mahan, Alfred T. The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1805 (1890).

Schom, Alan. The Eagle and the Rising Sun: The Japanese-American War 1941-1943 (Norton, 2003).

Thomas, Evan. Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign, 1941-1945 (Simon & Schuster: New York, 2006), 414p.


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Created: 1:31 AM 11/15/2004
Last updated: 7:48 AM 12/18/2020