Imperial Japanese Army Legacy 1920-45

On August 16, 1945, Maj. Sugi Shigeru led about 100 young soldiers from the army’s air signal training school in Ibaraki prefecture to Tokyo in order to protect the emperor from the imminent allied occupation. The Guard Division, which was responsible for defending the palace, shooed them away, but the group congregated at Ueno Park, eventually occupying the art museum. More arrivals from the school swelled their numbers to around 400 armed and emotional young men. Sugi ignored senior officers’ orders to disband, and the next day Maj. Ishihara Sadakichi, a Guard Division officer and friend of Sugi’s, was sent to convince him to leave. While the two were talking, a second lieutenant assigned to the training school walked up and shot Ishihara to death. Sugi in turn shot and killed the lieutenant. The murders broke the spell of an imperial rescue mission, and the disillusioned troops drifted away. That night Sugi and three other junior officers committed suicide. The scene of the army’s decisive victory in 1868 over supporters of the Tokugawa shogunate became the backdrop for the imperial army’s violent curtain call in 1945.

Radical young reformers had created the new army of 1868 and forged intensely personal relationships as young men at war bonded by danger. Their personal ties created a web of informal connections that transcended the emerging political, military, and bureaucratic institutions. The first generation of leaders not only held the various levers of state power but also knew how to use them. They also possessed a self-assertiveness that attracted adherents and repelled opponents.

The army’s formative experiences left it riven with competing internal factions dominated by strong contending personalities who held diametrically opposing visions of a future army. Reaction to the Chōshū-Satsuma domination of senior military ranks produced anti-Yamagata stalwarts like Miura and Soga who simultaneously represented a French faction that opposed Yamagata’s and Katsura’s Prussian clique. Arguments about the merits of differing force structures and the functions of a general staff consumed most of the 1880s. Though the army successfully adapted division formations and staff organizations, it failed to institutionalize the highest decision-making process and formalize command and control arrangements.

Lacking that apparatus, army leaders had to rely on the emperor to resolve disagreements and authorize policy. From beginning to end, the army depended on its relationship with the throne for authority as well as legitimacy and enshrined its unique connection to the emperor in the Meiji Constitution. Although the army steadily increased its power, it still remained one of many government institutions (which were simultaneously expanding their influence) competing for imperial certification. Initially, army leaders used the symbols of the throne to promote nationalism or a sense of nationhood, but by the early 1900s they were manipulating the imperial institution to secure larger force structures and budgets. By the 1930s they used appeals to the throne to justify illegal acts at home and aggression overseas.

The formative period realized its immediate goal, which was the preservation of domestic order. Had Japan fallen into civil chaos during the 1870s or 1880s, the nation might have shared a fate similar to China’s. By quelling civil disturbances and crushing armed insurrections, the army guaranteed domestic order and became the bedrock of the oligarchic government. Thereafter a series of midrange objectives carried Japan through two limited regional wars. In each the army initially sought to protect previously acquired gains on the Asian continent, and successive victories brought in new acquisitions that in turn required protection and ever-larger military forces.

Between 1868 and 1905 the army played a significant role in achieving the nebulous but shared national strategic goal of creating “a rich country and a strong army.” At the least, the slogan suggested a general approach to modernize Japan in order to fend off potential enemies. The well-ordered colonial world of nineteenth-century western imperialism fit the conservative approach of Japan’s oligarchs and military leaders, who were often the same individuals. Working in a well-defined international system, men like Yamagata cautiously developed the army’s strategy in reaction to events.

Successors built on Yamagata’s foundation, modified the army’s institutions to meet new requirements, and institutionalized doctrine, training, and professional military education. The steadily expanding conscription system indoctrinated youths, who in turn transmitted military values to their communities, as the army became an accepted part of the larger society. But the second generation of leadership faced the problem of perpetuating the oligarch consensus, an impossible task because of the emergence of other strong competing elites—the bureaucracy, political parties, big business—whose demands for their shares of power and influence inevitably shifted national priorities and international policies.

Furthermore, once the nation had achieved the goals of the Meiji Restoration, a new strategic consensus was required. It never materialized. The army responded with strategic plans that reflected narrow service interests, not national ones. Army culture increasingly protected the military institution at the expense of the nation. One might say the army had always put itself first, but after 1905 the tendency was exacerbated by the absence of an agreed-upon common opponent, a strategic axis of advance, and force structure requirements.

Until the Russo-Japanese War fierce debates raged within the army about Japan’s future. Should the government be satisfied to be a minor power defended by a small territorial army, or should Japan, undergirded by an expanded army and navy, aspire to a dominant role in Asia? Imperial sanction for the 1907 imperial defense policy set Japan on the latter course because of fears of a Russian war of revenge, rising anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States, and an obsession to preserve continental interests acquired at great cost in blood and treasure. International pressures helped to shape the army, but perhaps the internal debate, division, and dissension were decisive in its overall evolution. In other words, the formulation of strategy, doctrine, and internal army policy decided the army’s and the nation’s fate.

Japan’s post-1905 aspirations for regional security enlarged the army’s responsibilities to encompass garrison and pacification duties in Korea and the railroad zone in Manchuria. The army’s emphasis in the 1907 imperial defense policy aimed to protect those newly acquired interests by conducting offensive operations against a resurgent Russia. The navy, intent on expanding south, identified the United States as its potential opponent. Military objectives were not focused, and the formulation of long-term military strategy foundered as the army compromised internally on force structure issues and externally with the navy over budget shares and the strategic axis of advance.

Too often after 1907 long-term strategic planning was sacrificed for short-term service-specific goals to protect budgets and resolve internal doctrinal and philosophical differences. Formalized strategic planning reflected parochial service interests, not national ones, and military strategy habitually depended on unrealistic plans that the nation could not afford. Military strategy was never integrated into a comprehensive national strategy and never fully coordinated from the top. The last cabinet consensus was for war with Russia in 1904, but even then there was no service agreement on how to fight the campaign. Decision-making had less to do with national unanimity than with the absence of an agreed-upon national strategy.

Unable and unwilling to resolve fundamental differences, the services went their separate strategic ways and produced operational and force structure requirements whose implementation would have bankrupted the nation. Recognizing this, the Diet and political parties consistently rejected the army’s more radical proposals for higher appropriations into the early 1920s. At a time of unprecedented global flux, internal fissures plagued army planning and operations while external friction with the legislature, the imperial court, and the public disrupted hopes for service expansion.

Economic austerity intensified the bitter factional disputes over strategy and force structure that erupted between Tanaka Giichi, Ugaki Kazushige, and Uehara Yusaku. These were not idle disagreements about abstract numbers of divisions but fundamental expressions of substantially different approaches to future warfare. Put differently, the army had moved from its personality-based cliques of the nineteenth century to professionally based groups led by officers holding competing and incompatible visions of future warfare. Traditionalists argued there was no need to match the technology of the West because Japan’s next war would be in northeast Asia, not Western Europe. Excessive reliance on technology would detract from traditional martial values and fighting spirit. And the divergent proposals became zero-sum choices; the army either funded personnel or modernization.

Major international realignments after World War I, particularly in Northeast Asia, reinvigorated the army’s mission. Under the revised postwar international structure, Japan confronted a growing Chinese nationalism, a resurgent Soviet Union in North Asia, and a weakening of the western grip on Asia. New ideologies of communism, democracy, and national self-determination threatened the army’s core values by questioning the legitimacy of the imperial throne. During and after World War I, changing requirements for national security rewrote the rules governing international relations. Alliances that had been the basis of international stability were suspect. Treaties to reduce armaments or guarantee commercial opportunity appeared anti-Japanese. Most of all, modern warfare meant total war—whose preparations had to extend beyond national borders, making it impossible to pursue a conservative foreign policy in a well-ordered international framework and simultaneously achieve military goals of self-sufficiency required to wage total war.

Japan’s new theorists of warfare deemed the acquisition of China’s resources vital national interests and thereby elevated China to a central place in army strategy. Army officers became more aggressive and assertive toward China and made radical, often unilateral, decisions about national security that converted a traditionally defensive strategy into an aggressive, acquisitive one. This decisive strategic alteration set Japan on a course that challenged the postwar international order. Unilateral action by army officers failed in China in 1927 and 1928, but the army’s stunning “Conspiracy at Mukden” in 1931 rendered Manchuria and North China essential national interests. Instead of the army serving the interests of the state, the state came to serve the army.

Senior army leaders, however, were unable to agree on the limits of continental expansion or the type of army required for the changing ways of warfare. The bitter clashes between Araki and Nagata about the timing for war with the Soviet Union and army modernization were not resolved, only carried forward as disputes between Ishiwara and Umezu over China policy, rearmament, and a short-war or long-war strategy. Likewise, the war ministry and general staff often found themselves at odds over strategic decisions during the Siberian Expedition, the China Incident, and the 1941 decision for war with the Soviet Union. They continued to argue about strategy during the Asia-Pacific War, disagreeing about the merits of holding an extended defensive perimeter, Burma operations, and homeland defense, among others. The internal bickering was masked by a united front adopted against the navy, the Diet, political parties, and the foreign ministry. As much as army leaders disliked it, even in wartime they had to deal with these competing elites, compromise with them, and bargain to gain their ends.

Between 1916 and 1945, six army generals served as prime minister. Only one, Tōjō Hideki, displayed an ability to control subordinates and administer the cabinet, but his attempt to consolidate control made powerful enemies within the army who collaborated to assure his downfall. A dominant war minister like Terauchi Masatake fell victim to the rice riot mobs, Tanaka Giichi resigned after the Zhang Zuolin fiasco, and Hayashi Senjūrō quit so soon after taking the premiership that pundits nicknamed it the “eat-and-run” cabinet. Abe Nobuyuki served briefly with little distinction, and Koiso Kuniaki resigned after the defeats in the Philippines and Iwo Jima, unable to coordinate military and national strategy.

The outbreak of full-scale warfare in China in 1937 ended the army’s ambitious modernization and rearmament plans. But the army did not prepare for the last war. It planned well for the next war, only against the wrong opponent. Japan could not afford to prepare simultaneously for the army to fight the Soviet Union in Manchuria and the navy to fight the United States in the Pacific. Stated differently, the services consistently produced a military strategy that the nation could not afford. Only the United States had the resources and industrial capacity to underwrite a global maritime and continental military strategy. Japan went to war against the one opponent it could never defeat. Appeals to warrior spirit to offset American material superiority pitted merciless men against impersonal machines in a savage war that ended in atomic destruction.

Suicide tactics, fighting to the last man, and brutality during the Asia-Pacific War became the legacy of Japan’s first modern army. Yet the concept of literally fighting to the death did not gain popular acceptance until the late 1930s and was not institutionalized until 1941. After the Boshin Civil War and the Satsuma Rebellion there were no mass suicides by the defeated rebels. The collective suicides by sixteen members of the White Tiger Brigade during the Boshin War represented a tragedy of such unusual proportions that the event became enshrined in popular memory. It is true that the Meiji leaders meted out cruel punishments to high-ranking rebels and instigators, but the new government took pains to reintegrate most of the former insurgents into society. Government propaganda and the deification of wartime heroes during the Russo-Japanese War intersected with a popular reaction to western values that revived derivative samurai ideals as somehow representative of true Japanese spirit to create new standards for battlefield conduct. This attitudinal change eventually metastasized into tactical and operational doctrine that prohibited surrender, coerced soldiers to fight to the death, and ultimately endorsed the desperation kamikaze tactics of 1944–1945.

Ordinary soldiers did not fight ruthlessly to the bitter end because of a common samurai gene pool or military heritage. The great paradox is that the only samurai the new Meiji leaders ever trusted were themselves. Appeals to a mythical warrior ethos were government and army devices to promote the morale of a conscript force that neither the civil nor military leaders held in much regard.

In macro terms, soldiers fought because the educational system inculcated a sense of national identity and responsibility to the state, patriotism, and reverence for imperial values that the army in turn capitalized on to indoctrinate pliable conscripts with idealized military values. At the micro level, they continued to fight when all hope was gone for various institutional and personal reasons. Army psychologists identified tough training, solid organization, army indoctrination, and small-unit leadership as factors in sustaining unit cohesion in extremis. Personal reactions were as varied as the conscripts. Some fought to uphold family honor (usually sons of veterans), others simply to survive one more day, and most to support others. Based on recent, preliminary research, it appears that the vertical solidarity between junior leaders (lieutenants and senior sergeants) and the conscripts they led played a more significant role in combat motivation than in western armies.

Any generalizations about the army’s Asia-Pacific wartime performance require caveats. Battles or campaigns that ended in the almost total destruction of army units usually occurred when they were surrounded, as happened at Nomonhan, or defending isolated atolls such as Peleliu and smaller islands like Attu, Saipan, and Iwo Jima, where retreat was impossible. Conversely, on Guadalcanal, New Guinea, Luzon, and China, large Japanese army forces conducted tactical and operational retreats to preserve unit integrity. True, those armies suffered heavy losses, but most occurred after their logistics systems collapsed. There were also times such as at Leyte when withdrawal was an option but senior commanders’ stubbornness and ordinary soldiers’ docility had predictable disastrous results. Mutaguchi’s Burma campaign is probably the most notorious example, but even his battered army did not fight to the last man.

An assessment of the Japanese army must address its brutality. The army’s conduct in the Boshin War, the Satsuma Rebellion, and the Taiwan Expedition was at times reprehensible and reflected a combination of traditional Japanese military practices of the samurai class and late nineteenth-century western colonial pacification policies against indigenous peoples. In 1894, however, the Second Army’s massacre of Chinese at Port Arthur went beyond accepted international standards, and the army reacted by protecting its interests, not punishing the perpetrators. Just a few years later, during the Boxer Expedition, Japanese soldiers were models of good behavior, operating under draconian discipline designed to impress the western allies with the nation’s enlightened and civilized military forces. If nothing else, the experience suggests that the army could enforce strict field discipline when it found it to its advantage. The army’s conduct during the Russo-Japanese War was likewise exemplary; prisoners of war were well treated, European residents of Port Arthur were not harmed, and international rules of land warfare were observed. A decade later, German prisoners taken at Tsingtao were similarly well treated. The army’s conduct during the Siberian intervention was at times atrocious, but perhaps comprehensible, as the consequence of fighting a nasty guerrilla war in the wasteland.

A sea change in attitudes about civilians and prisoners seems to date from the 1920s. Notions of total war made civilians an essential component of an enemy’s overall war-making capability and therefore legitimate targets to one degree or another by all major military powers. The army’s hardening attitude during the 1930s about being captured complemented a growing contempt for enemies who surrendered. The permissible violence that unofficially suffused the barracks drew on concepts of superiority to toughen the conscripts while the gradual militarization of Japanese society, abetted by a national educational system that glorified martial values, contributed to a sense of moral and racial superiority. Popular stereotypes of devious Chinese made their way into field manuals, and when full-scale warfare broke out in China in 1937, officers at all levels condoned or connived at murder, rape, arson, and looting.

War crimes may afflict all armies, but the scope of Japan’s atrocities was so excessive and the punishments so disproportionate that no appeal to moral equivalency can excuse their barbarity. Between July 1937 and November 1944 in China, for instance, the army court-martialed about 9,000 soldiers for assorted offenses, most involving either crimes against superior officers or desertion, indicating that internal discipline mattered more to the army than external brutality.

By the late 1930s the Japanese army relied on violence to terrorize Chinese opponents and civilians into submission. The army was as ruthless with Japanese citizens (Okinawa being the case in point) as it was with indigenous populations under its occupation because it placed the institution’s prestige first and justified illegal acts to protect it. First readily observable after the Port Arthur massacre, the trend accelerated in the late 1920s with field insubordination (1927 Shandong), assassination (1928 Zhang Zuolin), criminal conspiracies (1931 Manchuria, 1932 Shanghai, and 1936 Inner Mongolia), and the sack of China, which began in July 1937 and continued into August 1945. The government, the army, and the navy ignored reports of mistreatment of Allied POWs and crimes against civilians to perpetuate the institution, not the nation.

Violence was idiosyncratic, depending on commanders’ attitudes and orders. Too often senior Japanese officers ordered the execution of prisoners and civilians, the destruction of villages and cities, and condoned or encouraged plunder and rape. Junior officers followed orders (or acted secure in the knowledge that no punishment awaited them), and the enlisted ranks followed the permissive lead and took out their frustration and anger on the helpless. Not all Japanese soldiers participated in war crimes, and those who did cannot be absolved because they were following orders or doing what everyone else in their unit was. They were the “ordinary men” in extraordinary circumstances who became capable of the worst.

Between the cease-fire of August 15 and Japan’s formal surrender on September 2, the cabinet ordered all ministries to destroy their records—orders that were soon extended to local government offices throughout Japan. The imperial army tried to conceal its past, particularly its long record of atrocities throughout Asia. A week-long bonfire consumed the war ministry’s and general staff’s most sensitive, and likely most incriminating, documents. Imperial general headquarters also transmitted burn-after-reading messages to overseas units ordering them to destroy records related to the mistreatment of Allied prisoners of war, transform comfort women into army nurses, and burn anything “detrimental to Jap[anese] interests.” Finally, former army officers concealed significant materials from the occupying American authorities so that they could write an “unbiased” account of what they called the Greater East Asia War after the occupation ended.

Throughout the war, the army had routinely starved and beaten prisoners and had murdered tens of thousands of Caucasian prisoners and hundreds of thousands of Asian captives. Disturbed by the postwar outpouring of such revelations, in mid-September Foreign Minister Shigemitsu Mamoru conveyed his thinking on the matter to Japanese diplomats in neutral European nations. “Since the Americans have recently been raising an uproar about the question of our mistreatment of prisoners, I think we should make every effort to exploit the atomic bomb question in our propaganda.” Instead of confronting the issue of war crimes, Shigemitsu tried to shift attention from it, a precedent the Japanese government has followed ever since.

The Allies’ dragnet for Japanese war criminals covered most of East Asia and identified and punished Japanese for war crimes committed throughout the area of Japanese conquest. Besides the twenty-eight leaders designated Class A war criminals (a number that included fourteen army generals) for plotting aggressive war, 5,700 Japanese subjects were tried as Class B and C war criminals for conventional crimes, violations of the laws of war, rape, murder, mistreatment of prisoners of war, and so forth. About 4,300 were convicted, almost 1,000 sentenced to death, and hundreds given life imprisonment.

Others escaped justice. The most notorious example was Unit 731, a biological warfare unit in Manchuria that conducted human experiments on prisoners to test the lethality of the pathogens they manufactured. At war’s end the unit destroyed its headquarters and germ-warfare facilities as its commander, Lt. Gen. Ishii Shiro, and his senior officers escaped the advancing Soviet armies and made their way back to Japan. Ishii later traded his cache of documents to Supreme Commander Allied Forces (SCAP), Japan, in exchange for immunity from prosecution as a war criminal.

For all the bluster about one’s responsibility to emulate samurai values, only about 600 officers committed suicide to atone for their roles in bringing Japan to defeat and disaster. That number included just 22 of the army’s 1,501 army generals. Other general officers disarmed their troops throughout Asia and the Pacific in accordance with Tokyo’s August 17 notification to major commands that surrendering soldiers were not to be considered prisoners of war and that unit order and discipline would be maintained.

The immediate military problems were the repatriation of overseas Japanese and the dissolution of the army. Even with Japanese cooperation, these were staggering tasks. More than 6.6 million Japanese were outside home islands (more than half of them soldiers and sailors), and there were one million Chinese and Koreans brought to Japan as forced laborers during the war who had to be returned home. About two million Japanese were in Manchuria, one million in Korea and Taiwan, and about one-and-a-half million in China. Others were scattered across Southeast Asia, the Southwest and Central Pacific, and the Philippines. The enormous mass migration was carried out between 1945 and 1947, using U.S. Navy and Japanese ships, many crewed by Japanese seamen. Repatriation and demobilization went smoothly, and Gerhard Weinberg has noted the paradox between the turmoil in Asia that followed Japan’s defeat and, notwithstanding the desperate conditions, the relative tranquility in Japan itself.

In mid-September 1945 SCAP dissolved the imperial general headquarters and made the war and navy ministries responsible for demobilization of the armed forces. By December 1945 the ministries had disbanded all military forces in the Japanese home islands. SCAP then converted the ministries into demobilization boards that continued to muster out returning overseas veterans until October 1947, when the boards too were inactivated. After a generation of insubordination, conspiracy, and iniquity, in one of the great surprises of World War II Japanese officers obeyed orders and presided over the dissolution of their army. Perhaps nothing befitted the army so much as its self-administered demise

The rapid rise of Japan’s first modern army was a remarkable accomplishment that succeeded against long odds. Army leaders faced difficult options whose outcomes were never certain. Their choices set the army on a course whose direction was buffeted by foreign threats, altered by personalities, and changed by domestic developments. What continues to define the army, however, is its fall, a descent into ruthlessness and barbarity during the 1930s whose repercussions are still felt today through much of Asia. That legacy will forever haunt the old army.