The Japanese Army had more motorized infantry capabilities than the Guomindang ever had in China. It reinforced mobility in that theater by highly effective use of local railways. It also used large numbers of horses and bicycles, including towing mortars behind tandem bikes. The Japanese evidenced a pronounced reliance on superior artillery and bombers to suppress poorly equipped Chinese troops during fighting in the late 1930s. Their high mobility and fi repower strategy worked initially in blitzkrieg campaigns in Malaya and Burma as well. However, that advantage faded by the end of 1942, then disappeared as the Japanese dug in for tough defensive battles where mobility was not an issue, while meeting increasingly better-armed American and other Allied troops who were supported by exceptional air, land, and sea-based fi repower. Japanese tanks were all light infantry-support types, or just tankettes: what all other armies called “light tanks” the Japanese Army classed as “medium tanks.” Its first two armored divisions were not activated until 1942, only to be broken up a year later. Without decent tanks, lacking armored doctrine, and absent real experience in armored warfare beyond a trouncing by the Red Army at Nomonhan in the summer of 1939, the Japanese Army made elementary tactical errors. Most of its armored attacks were conducted by too few tanks employed in an infantry support role. It was not until late 1944 that the Japanese Army finally massed its armor for offensive actions in China. The Japanese also failed to develop or produce anti-tank guns adequate to defend against late-war enemy models such as “Shermans” faced in the Pacific and T-34s and “Stalin” tanks met in Manchuria in August 1945. Nor could Japanese field artillery match the heavier guns Americans brought to the Pacific. Improved tubes available late in the war lacked adequate ammunition supply and had to be fi red sparingly. Japanese soldiers therefore suffered under enemy naval gunnery, landbased artillery, and bombing they could not counter or match. Finally, Japanese Army all-arms coordination was less effective than that of late-war Western armies, and that reduced too many Japanese attacks to unsupported all-infantry assaults that were brutally smashed with overwhelming defensive fi repower, reversing the early Japanese Army experience in China.
Standard Japanese infantry weapons included the “Arisaka” M-38 rifle, which came in a 6.5 mm sniper version. It was an older model and overly heavy. Infantry were also issued the usual assortment of mines, grenades, and small mortars. These weapons were highly valued and emphasized in Japanese close combat doctrine. Emphasis was also placed on fighting with bayonets. This standard Army infantry weapon-a wicked blade nearly 16″ long-added weight to an already heavy rifle. But it proved effective during infiltration night attacks, a Japanese Army specialty never matched by Western troops, and was physically and psychologically intimidating by advance reputation. Carbines with folding bayonets were issued late in the war to some Japanese troops. Infantry companies were issued 6.5 mm and 7.7 mm “Nambu” machine guns. Officers also carried swords, which they sometimes used in combat and at other times to behead prisoners. Enemy troops particularly valued Japanese officer swords as war trophies.
Japanese soldiers conscripted from the countryside had a more favorable attitude toward Army life than many urban conscripts-about 80 percent of Japanese Army recruits came from fishing or farming communities. All received basic training that included the usual physical exercise and weapons learning. Physical fitness was given a premium but independent thinking was discouraged, as was normal in basic units in most armies (though not in the Wehrmacht). In addition, Japanese recruits were trained in traditional virtues and skills of the national infantry tradition dating to Meiji times, notably in small group surprise and night infiltration attacks. Japanese rankers were inculcated with a less-refined version of the officer cult of emperor devotion that placed a premium on blind obedience. This devotion was explicitly spelled out in Army field guides, which built on ideological foundations of military life encouraged in the school system and national press. Discipline was harsh. For instance, it was common practice for soldiers to be slapped across the face by officers for the most minor infraction. It was not unknown for Japanese officers to also kick, beat, or whip their men. General George S. Patton might have been justly astonished at those facts, had he served in the Pacific. Regular brutality toward their own men by Japanese officers was passed down the line, to become routine ill-treatment of prisoners and civilians by drunken and often riotous troops. Even so, infractions of military law and rank indiscipline within the Japanese Army increased with each successive year of a corrosive war in China, then with more suffering and defeat across the Pacific and in Southeast Asia.
Indiscipline and violence against non-Japanese was almost never punished, a fact that reinforced hard treatment and conduced to repeated atrocity. However, explaining the frequent barbaric behavior of Japanese troops remains most difficult. Abuse of civilians and prisoners of war was routine, but at times exploded into murderous frenzies that nearly defy understanding. Atrocities were probably facilitated by a national education and propaganda system that inculcated feelings of racial superiority in the lowliest Japanese. Beastly acts were also almost always carried out while drunk. But rage was not just a problem of rear areas, where poor quality troops roamed without combat discipline. The worst outrages were actually conducted by frontline combat soldiers, most notably those who took Nanjing, Singapore, and Hong Kong, then rampaged through those cities. Western armies also carried with them rapists and murderers. With isolated exceptions, however, they did not behave with savagery on a grand scale as did so many ordinary Japanese soldiers. Explanation is not made less difficult, but perhaps it becomes more contextual, if one recalls comparable barbarism, rape, and massacre elsewhere. Ordinary Germans in the Wehrmacht committed comparable atrocities throughout the German-Soviet war, as did krasnoarmeets of the Red Army seeking revenge on Axis prisoners in 1941 or against civilians in Silesia and Prussia in 1945. Uniquely among a small minority of Japanese, there were instances of documented ritual cannibalism of enemy prisoners. The main cause does not appear to have been hunger, although starvation seems to have led to at least some cannibalism on a few islands. More usually in cannibalism cases, an Aztec-like ritual superstition about eating parts of a defeated enemy to take on his physical and spiritual powers appears predominant. The practice was apparently supported by special desire for revenge against American air crew: killing and ritual eating of Allied flyers occurred on several unconnected Pacific islands. Both sorts of motive were demonstrated in postwar trials of Major General Yosio Tachibana and several of his men who tortured, murdered, and ate prisoners on Chichi Jima.
Not all men fighting for Japan were ethnic Japanese. Manchurian and Mongolian troops supplemented ethnic Japanese occupation forces in those territories, with the best non-Japanese units sent to Japan to receive some advanced training. The most numerous non-Japanese troops in Japan’s service constituted Chinese “Peace Preservation Armies.” These were ethnic Chinese formations from Japanese client states in occupied-China, primarily in the north and along the coast. They were anything but elite or reliable formations and more than once switched sides en masse. However, they filled essential garrison roles that released Japanese combat troops for active fronts in south and west China against the Guomindang or to conduct antiguerrilla sweeps in the north against smaller Chinese Communist armies. Also allied with Japan were about 20,000 Indians recruited into Indian National Army (INA) units from among the miserable in prisoner of war camps. They were poorly equipped, low in morale, and hardly trusted by the Japanese. In fact, most Japanese openly despised INA troops doubly, once for having surrendered and a second time for turning their coats. Across Southeast Asia, local nationalist forces who initially believed Japanese anticolonial propaganda, and some minority ethnic groups looking for a chance to improve their lot, provided scouts and some troops. Most such formations in occupied territory, such as the Burma National Army, spent the war positioning politically for its end. Some turned on the Japanese as they were exiting in 1945, to curry favor with the returning metropolitan power or to seize political and military ground before Allied forces arrived or colonial forces returned.
The Japanese Army was oddly medically backward in many ways. For example, it did not inject against tetanus. Japanese troops had little choice but to turn to folk prescriptions, or they just suffered greatly, especially in the appalling tropical conditions of Burma or the South Pacific. The main native killers of Japanese troops on New Guinea, New Britain, Guadalcanal, and in Burma were jungle sores and tropical diseases, especially beriberi, typhus, and malaria. Conditions worsened as island garrisons were cut off from access to quinine sources for treating malaria and from other medicines and medical supplies. Japanese soldiers and marines incurred a great many fatal as well as debilitating casualties from unfamiliar tropical conditions, in many locales leading to more dead and men put “hors de combat” than from casualties inflicted by enemy action. Army medics lacked proper medicine or medical knowledge about the theater, and suffered from too little transport for wounded or any ability, beyond a few submarines later in the war, to evacuate sick or injured men. As a result, if defeat or retreat was pending, sick and wounded Japanese might be killed in their beds, including in several known cases by their own medical officers. Chinese troops facing the Japanese on the mainland also suffered terrible medical conditions and lack of medicines, likewise aggravated by hunger and brutal treatment and neglect at the hands of their own officers. Western Allied troops suffered similarly to at least the end of 1942, but thereafter were much better off than the Japanese: they had better access to medical evacuations, field surgeries and hospital ships, and preventive and palliative medicines, especially pioneering antibiotics.
To compensate for losing the war of matériel to the Western Allies, the Japanese Army kept its ratio of support troops to combat troops at 1:1. That was a remarkable figure achieved by no other major combatant. On the other hand, it reflected a general lack of supplies and support available to frontline troops. Another manner of compensating was to inculcate frantic display of superior “spiritual values” in losing campaigns conducted from 1943 to 1945, a shift clearly apparent as a declared Absolute National Defense Sphere cracked at Saipan (June 15-July 9, 1944). The Army began moving whole divisions out of Manchuria to the Philippines, Taiwan, Okinawa, and back to the home islands, preparing to defend the inner sanctuaries of a broken Pacific empire and strategy. Exhortation and indoctrination produced many examples of remarkable self-sacrifice and heroism in the face of the enemy by Japanese troops fighting past any hope of survival, let alone of victory. Ultimately, the trend to fanatic devotion found expression in such militarily wasteful tactics as futile banzai charges, mass suicides (and mass executions) in bunkers and caves, ritual seppuku by officers at all levels, and the extraordinary strategy of the kamikaze. Contrary to popular imagery of unquestioning Japanese soldiers, however, the last year of the war also saw rising refusal to obey stupid orders, increased desertion wherever that was physically possible, and even some killing of unpopular or overly brutal officers. In the end, slogans and exhortation failed in the face of overwhelming enemy material superiority and determination to press home total war to Japan itself. The Japanese Army fought with great tenacity on Okinawa and had several million men still in uniform in mid-1945. Nearly half were positioned on the home islands awaiting a series of invasions that never came. Instead, Japan succumbed to a weight of woes, fire, and death too great to be borne: strategic bombing that destroyed dozens of cities; strangulation of its war economy by naval blockade; collapse of all military, then basic economic, logistics through loss of the merchant marine and tanker fleets; threat of starvation that prompted mass migration into the countryside in search of food; and rising despair and anger that deeply frightened the ruling caste, as defeat threatened to turn into revolution. Then came the last, triple shocks of two atomic bombs and the Red Army’s Manchurian offensive operation in August 1945. The Shōwa Emperor told his people and Army of several million men, at long last, to lay down arms and ‘endure the unendurable.’
By the end of the war the Japanese Army had raised 170 infantry divisions and 4 armored divisions, though many existed only on paper or as woefully underequipped and unready units. Officially, 1,439,101 Japanese soldiers were killed in the war or went missing and were presumed dead. Offering and accepting surrender was not always neat or peaceful: all wars end more messily than formal dates suggest. It took months to receive formal Japanese surrenders in areas the Western Allies or Soviets had yet to reach, and more time to ship home disarmed Japanese troops. The last Japanese Army units in the South Pacific were not disarmed until October 24. Under surrender terms of demilitarization of Japan, by order of the occupation authority headed by General Douglas MacArthur, the Imperial Japanese Army was formally dissolved on November 30, 1945.
Suggested Reading: Edward Drea, In the Service of the Emperor (2003); Meiron and Susan Harries, Soldiers of the Sun: The Rise and Fall of the Imperial Japanese Army(1991); Saburu Hayasi, Kogun: The Japanese Army in the Pacific War (1959; 2003); Leonard Humphreys, The Way of the Heavenly Sword: The Japanese Army in the 1920s(1995); Gordon Rottmann, The Japanese Army in World War II: Conquest of the Pacific, 1941-1942 (2005).