*** World War II Japanese military services

World War II: The Japanese Military

World War II Japanese military
Figure 1.--This is the Japanese Army in China. Notiucevthat there uis not a motor vehichle in sight. And the electrical poles suggest that this is a relatively developed area of China. World War I may have been the first industrial war, but industry was even more important in World War II . Japan had an industrail capacity a fraction of that of the United States and the other major World War II beligerants. Thus affected tghe equipoment and weapory of the Imperial Army. Japan entered the War without a highly mechanized army. Japan did have a larger industrial base than China. But when the Chinese withdrew into the interior, the largely unmotorized Army and the primitive Chinese infrastructure made it impossibe to complete the conquest of China. Incredably the Japanese after much study determined that the only way to defeat China was to attack the Inited States. Unlike Germany and Itaky whose war olanning swas essential the persinal whims of Hitler and Mussolini, the Japanese actually carefully studied the situatio and their abswer was the Pacific War.

Japan was not a Fascist country. It had features of fascism, including racism, militarism, and xenepobia, but there was no fascist political party. Rather the military, dominated by the Imperial Army, seized control of the state. And unlike Fascist political parties, the military's goal was to preserve traditional society, not to conduct a social revolution. The Meiji Restoration ovethrew the Shoigunate and instituted a range of modrtizing reforms. One of thise was a European dtyle military with modern arms. Underneath the modern patina, many tradituional values and the old social structure were retained. For the military this meant the traditional samarai spirit and code of Bushido. Japan became the only industrial country in Asia and was thus able to domimnte Eastern Asia, including China a much larger country with resources it coveted. Japan waaa resource poor country whose industry was dependent on importing raw nmaterials. It was also not self sufficent in food production. This helped set the military on a very expensive course of overseas expamsion. Competing with still tradition bound China was one things, competing with Western powers was another matter--especially the United States and the Soviet Union. After World War I, this is precisely what Japan set out to do, They were attracted by the resource-rich colonies of the European powers. and began to brankrupt the country. A first civilan poloiticans who resusted were assassinated, eventually after the Depressioin caused severe locations, the military began to play an increasing political role, eventually seizing control of the country. The military fir the most part were not highly ediucated men. They assumed that part of a great natioin was having colonies which would provide needed resources. As a result, this was their goal, . Unfortunately for Japan, set squarely between the Home Islands and the resoirce-rich Europoean colonies of Southeast Asian was the American Phillipine Island. This meant that even went Europe eruoted in War, the Japanese woulf have to contend with the United States when they moved south. Unlike the European Axis, the Japanese militarists studied the matter of war verybcarefully and they concluded that they coukld defeat the United Stares in a short war. And based on their understanding of America, based primarily on watching Hollywood films, decadent Americans would not have the stomach to fight a long war. While Japan's suucess in China was based largely on its industrial supoeriority, the mikitarists concluded that their superior traditional fighting spoirit would be major factor in defeating the United States.


Japan did not have a modern military or educatin system until after the Meiji Restoration (1868). The military for centuries had been dominated by the Samurai class, largely a kind of medival nobility similar to European knights. The new Japanese education stressed the idea of patriotic duty and devotion to the Emperor. Until this point the peasantry was largely outside the natinal, political system, uneducated and largely prey to the country's land owning nobility. But if Japan was going to become a player in internatiinal affairs, it was going to mean creating a large conscript army and this meant drafting the peasantry. National conscription began soon after the Meiji Restoration as part of a series of reforms (January 10, 1873). It was the beginning of important changes the country's social structure. Many conservatives, especially the old samurai class, objected because a modern military including the peasantry meant an end to the Samurai Class. This was the cause of the short-lived Satsuma Rebellion (1877). The Japanese used Prussia as a model for its new army and its conscription system. The new Conscription Law required every male at age 20 to register for 2 years of service and remain in reserve status, subject to recall, until age 40 years. First-born sons, students, and teachers were exempt. Inevitably, as as the bulk of the population was composed of the peasantry, the new Japanese Army would be composed of peasants. Unlike the medieval Samurai weapons, peasants could be trained to use modern firearms in a short period of time. This made the professional samurai warrior obsolete. And it also created a rare avenue of advancement for poor peasant boys--a factor in the extodinary fighting spirit of the Japanese soldier. At the sam time land reform was not part of the Maeiji reforms. (This will not come until after World War II and Japan surrendered to the Americans.


New recruits entered service on January 10. The first 7 months were basic training. We note many descriotions of the Jpanese soldiers and sailors furing World War II as 'well trained'. Recruits were subjected to extensive, rigorous training wjhich lasted a year. As the war progressed, training was gradually shortened, eventually dropping to 3 months, sometimes less. Training was even conducted in combat theaters. The Japanese military training program involved a great deal of physical abusive, including beatings. And this continued even after the training phase. There were apparently efforts to limit this, but with only limited effect. The purpose of this butal treatment of subordinates was to instill obedience--unquestioning absolute obedience. And in this connection, it seems to have been successful. The Japangese soldier and sailor did what he was told, including fighting to the death in hopless situations. The Japanese soldier was the most determed soldier of the War. His effectiveness was limited, however, by the the ooor quality of Japanese weaons, the country's t-reakuvely small industrial base, and the military leadership. Here while the naval leadershio was of high qlkality, the Armyn leadeership was basically incompetent. After the early vicyories against poorly trained and armed colonial peace forces. Once they encountered well traineda and armed combat forces (Guadalcanal and New Guinea), the victories ceased. And this at first meant the Guadalcanal camapign in whivh the Japanese outnumbered the Americans and had many advantages. Tactics were basically to chrage headlong into fixed Marine positiions. One has to ask where officers like Col. Ichiki at Aligator Creek (Battle of the Tenaru) learned his tactics. Japanese Naval commanders exhibited a much higher degree of competence.


Japan was the only industrialied country in Asia. The country was, however, deprndent on both imported raw materials and food. The country built up a formidable military, but few World War II belgerants were so poorly situated to wage an extended war. It was capable of supporting the war in China, but bot without consequences. Thus rather than achieving benefits from occupying large areas of China, the Japanese people began to feel adverse impacts from the war and massive military spending. The country's industry directed at military production rather than consumer goods. And to make matters worse, the United States, Japan's major trading partner began to take commercial actiins to sanction Japan for its aggression in China. Drafting large numbers of young men also affected the country's agricultural prodyction which in the best of times only provided part of the domestic food demand. While the Japanese economy could support the war in China, it was totally inadequate to support the Japanese military in the Pacific War with the United States, especially as Japan was still mbigged down in Chians. The Japanese milutarissts achieved spectacular vicyories in the first 6 months of the War. Then at Midway (June 1942), Japan's offensive capability was sverely restricted. And gradually the American industrial capacity began to make itself felt in the Pacifiv battlefields. This had severe consequences for the Japanese war economy. Japan went to war to acquire needed resources such as oil, tin, eubber, rice, ect. As a result, of the offensive that followed Pearl Harbor, it acuired those resources, but after Midway, the merican Pacific Fleet gradually cut off the Home Islands fron he resources it acquired in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, This was largely done by American sunmarines which decimated tne Japamese Maru flet but were joined by surfac fleet and carrier operations. Japan's industrial capacity was a fraction of the American industrial production, but was severly impaired when raw materilas deliveries could no longer be delivered. Food supplies wre short even before the Pacific War, but as the American blockade intensified, the Japanese begam to go hungary.


The Japanese soldier was the most poorly equipped of all major belligerent countries. The Japanese fought the war with largely inferior weapons except for the Imperial fleet. The most legendary Japanese weapon was the Mitsubishi A6M Zero which dominated the Pacific for the first year of the War. The Japanese limited research and industrial capacity, however, meant that they were still using the Zero at the end of the War. The other major Japanese weapon was the Long Lance Torpedo which gave the Imperial Navy a powerful punch at a time that the U.S. Navy torpedoes had serious technical problems. Not only did the Japanese generally have poor equipment, but the Japanese General staff launched major operations without plans to supply their soldiers. They were expected to seize enemy equipment and food. As a result, large numbers of Japanese soldiers starved to death during the War, especially on isolated Pacific islands. At the end of the War the Japnese with German technical support attempted to introduce some innovated arcraft suchas the Baka, but to little affect. The Japanese were working on a nuclear weapon. They asked the Germans for uranium which was being delivered by a U-boat at the time the Germans surrendered. It is not clear what the Japanese were going to do with the uranium. We know of no innovatiove Japanese weaponry during World War II. The Japanese the Mitsubishi A6M Zero and the Longlance Torpedo were interatioins of existing technology. The Zero was basically a stripoped down fighter, expalining its earky succes, but making it very vulerabke. The Long Lamce torpedo wa more aof am av=chievemjent. Once the War beggn, the Japanese did not have the academic or industrial capacity to compete with the Allies in the develop of high-tech weaponry. And their German Ally does not seem to have been overly anxious to provide their technology, at least while the Whermacht was achieving stunning success. The Japanese Navy before the Americans had radar on most of their ships were better skilled in night action because of their training and better quality binoculars they had that while not the 'night vision' ones of today, did have a much clearer view at night. We are not yet sure of this, but we think that the Japanese binoculars were made with lenses made by the excellent German lens manufacturer Carl Zeiss. While Japan's suucess in China was based largely on its industrial supoeriority, the mikitarists concluded that their superior traditional fighting spoirit would be major factor in defeating the United States. Prime-Minister Tojo ordered that soldiers be issued a booklet--Senjinkun (戦陣訓, The Instructions for the Battlefield). It was a pocket-sized military code (beginning January 8, 1941) It instructed soldiers, "Belief is power. A resolute fighter who nelieves in himself is always the victor."


Japan's primary since World War I and the issuance of the 21 Demands was to seize China (1915). This began with the seizure of Manchuria, quickly comopleted with little resiatance (1931). Then they invaded China proper (1937). This time the Chinese resisted. This surprised the Japanese, especially the resistance in Shanghai. This was no NAZI Blitzkrieg. The Impetiakl Army was not a modern mechinized force as can be seen here (figure 1). And China was a huge country with primitive infrastructure, pursuing the Chinese into the interior was beyond the logistical capaability of the Imperial Army logistucal capability. The Arny had great difficulty supplying their forces away a major base. Their sollutiion was tgo live off the land. The Army relied heavily on horse drawn carts and bicycles. This mean that the Japanese could achieve victories, but not force China to surrender. And away from the coast, the weak Japanesde logistical capability meant that China could not be forced to surrender. As a result the war dragged on for 4 years, comsuming vast resources which resource-poor Japan could barely afford. And the further Japnn went into China meant that more of the IJA force had to be consigned to garrison duty, weakeninng the front-line forces. While Japan was able to seice Chinese ports and coastal areas, guerilla fighting in these occupied areas futher sappped resources and men. Rather than gain resources, the war in China was draining resources--and there was no end in sight. Incredably, the Japanese answer to this dilemma was to go to war with America and Britain--the Pacific War. This led to another logisticasl nightmare. Wageing sar over the vast streaches of the Pacific Ocean required a huge maritime transport fleet--the marus. The Imperial Navy was impressive, but Japan did not have the need marus. The Japannese merchant marine was barely adequate in peace time and completely inadequate in war time. And the IJA's practive of solving logistical problems by having men live off the land would prove disasterous in the Pacific War, beginning at Guadalcanal which the Jaoanese were to call Death Island because so many men starved there. Once the U.S. Navy began to recover from the Pearl Harbor disaster, the Pacific Fleetvsubmarines began to destroy the Japanese marus one by one. This was slowed primarily because of the problem-plagued U.S. torpedoes. But by 1944, the U.S. Navy had not only cut the war factories on the Home Islands from the Southern Resource Zone, but Japanese gariasons on countless Pacific islands off from supply including food. Much of this was accomplished by submarines. By the time the War ended, Japanese units throughout the Pacific were starving. A Japanese officer wrote after the war, "No Japanese military student possessing any basic knowledge of military logistics could fail to foresee ultimate defeat for our nation in a prolonged war." The problen for Japan was that Japanese commanders were not interested in logistics and carrers in in the IJA were not made in logistics. The proble=m of logistuics was solve by ordering combat units to seize the emnenybsupplies and occuption forces ro seize what they needed frim the occupoed people. The Japanese solduer would pay a heavy price for this fundanedntal failure of logistics.

Martial Ethos

Few World War II soldiers fought with such spirit and devotion, despite the fact that the Japanese soldier was equipped with largely inferior weaponry and supported with inadequate logistics. Japanese military commanders believed that fighting spirit imbued in their soldiers could overcome what ever material inadequcies existed. And this was not only when they were winning, but when they were losing and certain to die. Surrounded and starving Japanese grisons throughout the Pacific, refused to surrender. Imperial Army Headquaters were fully aware that their garisons were starving. They were told to become self sufficent, essentilly to starve. The Japanese packed such large numbers of soldiers on various islands that there was no way they could grow their own food, even if they became full time farmers. Still they did not surrender. Island campaigns commonly ended with suisidal Banzai charges rather than surrender. Soldiers including the walking wounded charged into American positions. This might work in China, but not aginst the Americans armed with modern automtic weapons, tanks, and artillery. And the spirit which imbuded the Japanese soldier also was felt by many civilians which the military incouraged to also resist the advancing Allied forces and ultimately if they failed to commit suiside. This included women and children. American Marines fotst encountered this on Saiplan (June 1944). The Japanese fighting spirit was based on the Way of the Samurai an the Bushido Code. It was the spirit behind the Kamikazee in the final year of the War. Very few Japanese soldiers questioned it. There were more Japanese surrendering in the final major battle of the War (Okinawa), but still only a small fraction of the island's garrison.

Political Role

The political system created by the Meiji reformers established both firm civilian control of the military and gave a high priority to building a strong military which would ensure that the Western powers could never do in Japan what they did in China--especially establishing treaty ports. The Emperor Meiji began Japan's empire building effort by launching a war with China, the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95). This secured Formosa (Taiwan) and then the Russo-Jaopane War (1905-06) secured control over Korea. The Emperor Meiji died (1912). And no one could replace him with comparable status. He left Japan with a parlimentary system for which the military had little respect, especially when the civilians began questioning the military's huge budget demands. Empeor Meiji held them under control, alrgiugh the first of a series of political aassainatioins occurred while he was still malive, but aging. When he died, there was esentially no one capable of contoling the military which not only had great power, but enomnous respect throughout Japan. At the same time, the military began seeing themselves as the pure emboiment of the national spirit--beyond petty party sqabling nd most omimnpislu--above the law. Soon they began assainating civilian politicians that dared to stand up to them and the enormous annual budget allocations they demanded. Not one was immune, including the prime minister. The military adopted the politics of assasination. It was generally the work of mid-level officers. They even created a word for it--Gekokujp. It meant overpowering the higher ranks by the lower ranks, in essence manipulating superiors by subordinates. Assasinations were a unique manifestation of Japanese militarism. In Europe is was a tool used by the NAZIs, Fascists, and Communists. Beginning in 1909, eight of Japan's most senior political and military laeders were assainated: 5 prime ministers, 2 generals, and 1 admiral. In the run up to the Pacific War, Adm. Yamaoto himself became a target. He was reassigned from the naval ministry to sea as the commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet (August 1939), in part for his own security. It would thus be military, primarily the Army, not civilian politicians that would lead Japan down the road to war beginning with Manchuria (1931). At the ebd of the War when the Emperor ordered surrender, the military would face the ultimate decesion whetger they would arrest otv assasinate the Empeor. This proived to be one assination too far.


Japan fought World War II with two services, the Imperial Army and the Imperial Navy. The Imperial Army was the dominant service. There of course was a third unit, the Air Force, but like the United States it was part of the Imperial Army and the Navy had its own separate air service. The strongest support for Pacific War came from the Imperial Army which was determined to complete its subjacation of China. It was the Army that led the militarization of Japanese society, assainating any political leader who questioned the military. Curiously this was after failing to win the War in China which was being fought at enormous cost. Not only had the Army failed to complete its victory in China, but the Army was decisevely defeated by the Red Army in a sharp engagement on the Mongolian Border (July 1939). Fighting the poorly armed Chinese was one thing. Fighting a well armed, modern army was a different matter. One might have though with that Japanese commanders would have realized that there equipment was deficent in fighting a well-armed foe. Incredibly, the Japanese militarists decided that they could go to war with the United States and Britain. The militarists apparently concluded that the Deutsche Wehrmcht after launching Barabrossa (June 1941) would smash the Red Army and the United States would have to concentrate its efforts in Europe. They also did not believe that the Americans had the warrior spirit neede to fight a war. The Whermcht not only failed to destroy the Red Army, but suffered devestating losses in a Red Army Winter Offensive before Moscow. The most technologically advanced service was the Imperial Navy. And they would have to bear the brunt of the Pacific War. They had a magnificent fleet and well trained sailors and aviators. And it was with the First Air Fleet that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor Laubching the Pacific War. It was a brilliant executed attack and one of the gretest blunders in miitary history. The Japanese air forces proved highly effective at the beginning of the War, both because of advanced air craft and superbly trained air crews. The Imperial Army achieved some stunning successes early in the War, but as American industry began to restore the military balance, weaknesses in Army tactical doctrine and weaponry led to one failure after another in the Pacific despite the fanatical commitment of the individual soldier. As the Allies began to field well-trained and -equipped forces, the Japanese string of victories ended. Even when the Japanese had a substantial superority in forces, they failed to retake Guadalcanal, in large part because of astonishly amateurish tactics--especially suisidal Banzai attacks. Army doctrine soon degenerated into how to kill as many Americans as possible in hopeless defenses of one Pacific island after another.


Navigate the CIH World War II Section:
[Return to Main Japanese road to World War II page]
[Return to Main Japanese World War II page]
[Return to Main World War II Pacific campaign page]
[Biographies] [Campaigns] [Children] [Countries] [Deciding factors] [Diplomacy] [Geo-political crisis] [Economics] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[POWs] [Resistance] [Race] [Refugees] [Technology]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Return to Main war essay page]

Created: 5:03 AM 10/10/2020
Last updated: 7:32 AM 12/17/2020