Japan To Asia: The Sino-Japanese War I

An informal and passive defense strategy remained the basis of national military policy, but developments in Russia and China during the late 1880s convinced Yamagata that Japan’s inability to project military power overseas would relegate the nation to a perpetual second-class power status. Acutely aware of Japan’s weakness, he pursued a cautious foreign policy of limited expansionist goals on the Asian mainland and reshaped Japan’s army into a force capable of protecting the nation’s sovereignty and interests.

In January 1888 Army Inspector-General Yamagata declared that the construction of a Panama Canal, a Trans-Siberian railway, and a Canadian-Pacific railroad would shift the thrust of western imperialism from Africa into East Asia. A clash between Britain and Russia over India was likely, and Korea was a flashpoint because of competing Chinese, Japanese, and Russian interests. He was confident that the army could repel a Russian invasion of Japan by concentrating two or three divisions against the beachhead, provided the government improved the communications infrastructure of telegraph and rail lines, finished construction of coastal fortifications, and fully funded seven infantry divisions.

Retired general Soga agreed that Russia was the threat but questioned the conventional wisdom that dictated that an island nation like Japan should depend on a strong navy as its first line of defense. Rather than invest heavily in a vast naval establishment, which could not protect thousands of miles of coast anyway, Soga proposed a small standing army (90,000 regulars and 60,000 reservists) and coastal fortifications linked to the rail and road network. Even Russia, he reasoned, could transport no more than two corps (30,000 troops) by sea to Japan at one time, leaving the invaders far outnumbered by a mobilized militia and army of about 150,000 men. A small navy operating from offshore islands could harass any enemy fleet and disrupt its maritime line of communication. These joint measures would prevent any invasion. Lt. Gen. Miura aired similar opinions in a series of newspaper articles written in 1889 that maintained that Japan’s topography was unsuitable for European-style, division-echelon operations. An enemy force could land anywhere along the lengthy coastline, so instead of expanding the army, the government would be better off to organize and deploy militia units at strategic locations to repulse an enemy landing.

Irritated by the Getsuyōkai’s directors’ recurrent criticism, angered by the association’s independent opinions, and displeased with the proliferation of other officer associations, in November 1887 the war ministry had ordered the consolidation of all military fraternal associations under its approved organization, the Kaikōsha. Prominent officers assigned to the war ministry and general staff left the society, urged their peers to quit, and pressured their juniors to do the same. The Getsuyōkai directors, however, refused to disband, and Soga and Miura continued their drumbeat of opposition to overseas expansion. Having previously alienated their powerful civilian political backers over the issue of treaty revision, Miura and Soga were vulnerable, and army authorities seconded both to the reserves in December 1888, thereby purging the army of its last vestiges of its Francophile faction. Tani was seconded to the reserves the following year.

In February 1889 five division commanders petitioned War Minister Ōyama to amalgamate the Kaikōsha and Getsuyōkai; he complied by dissolving the Getsuyōkai, disbanding all other professional officers’ societies, and forbidding study groups within the army. Thereafter Kaikōsha chapters, which doubled as officers’ benevolent societies (members paying a small fee that went into a relief fund to assist officers’ families), promoted the army’s official orthodoxy, set standards for behavior and skills, evaluated junior officers for promotion and recommendation for advanced schooling, and played a major role in determining a young officer’s career progression. The implicit lesson was that the army attached little value to critical research or questioning of its prevailing orthodoxy.

The inaugural imperial Diet convened in 1890. Many of the elected representatives were landowners and spent much of the session trying to cut land taxes, the main source of government revenue. As a consequence, the legislature consistently reduced or rejected the cabinet’s costly budget requests for riparian and defense projects. It also steadfastly opposed the army’s ambitious plans for nationwide railroad improvements because many of its members were unwilling to raise taxes to pay for the projects. Government critics such as retired general Tani Tateki, now a member of the House of Peers, unfurled the banner of fiscal responsibility to oppose expensive railway construction projects, promote Miura’s less costly militia scheme, and champion investment in coastal defense construction. Now prime minister, Yamagata had to compromise to muster enough votes in the House of Peers to pass a reduced military construction bill to pay for a strategic railroad network.

The government-designed rail network’s major trunk lines converged at Ujina, the port of Hiroshima in western Japan, enabling the army to move units rapidly either for purposes of coastal defense or overseas deployment. Although narrow-gauge lines were easier and cheaper to build, the cabinet opted for broad-gauge rails, whose greater load capacity allowed fewer, larger cars to carry more troops. The government-stimulated construction touched off a railroad boom and increased the demand for imported steel for rails, which, added to imported steel for warships and weapons, resulted in an unfavorable balance of trade and caused severe domestic inflation. By 1893 shrewd investors cashed out and the speculation bubble of hyperinflated railroad stocks burst, adding to the nation’s financial woes.

Besides their shaky financial underpinnings, the new rail lines had questionable military value. Strategically the railroads often ran too close to existing coastal routes and, as Prussian Maj. Klemens Wilhelm Jakob Meckel had previously warned, left the tracks susceptible to interdiction by hostile naval gunfire. The general staff and the chairman of the Railroad Conference Board, Vice Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Kawakami Sōroku, heeded the Prussian’s advice and wanted the railroads relocated farther inland, but Ōyama insisted that construction through precipitous mountain ranges would be technically more difficult, more time consuming, and much more expensive than a coastal route. Besides, Japan’s growing navy could protect the coasts and the coastal railroads from enemy naval bombardment and invasion. Kawakami resigned from the board in disgust.

The army’s quest for strategic mobility during the 1880s rapidly transformed Japan’s transportation infrastructure. Army engineers completed the great military port at Ujina in 1885 and upgraded coastal batteries, military ports, naval bases, and arsenals throughout the country. The completion of a new railway line connecting Kobe and Hiroshima in mid-1894 removed the bottleneck between eastern and western Japan, and the army also improved and widened roads leading to the ports to accommodate heavy artillery caissons and divisional baggage wagons. The modern transportation infrastructure opened previously isolated regions to commercial expansion as textiles, foodstuffs, and coal could be moved cheaply and easily for sale or export. It also enabled the expanding army to move troops and equipment rapidly to ports of embarkation for overseas deployments.

The Soldiers of the Sino-Japanese War

In 1893 the army had about 6,000 officers and 12,000 NCOs. Its almost 60,000 conscripts lived in garrison barracks where they trained with their respective regiments. Six months of basic training emphasized repetition in everything from military courtesies and calisthenics to small-unit formations and marksmanship. Rote memorization and constant repetition were necessary because a large percentage of the conscripts were either completely or functionally illiterate.

Although statistics are incomplete, as late as 1891, more than 60 percent of all conscripts fell into those two categories (with almost 27 percent being completely illiterate). Only 14 percent had graduated from a primary or higher school, though the army regarded 24 percent as having comparable practical or work experience. Superstitions abounded, especially among the peasant conscripts, who found themselves in a barracks amidst strange new things. A frequently cited example was the case of peasant conscripts who, having never seen a wood-burning stove, worshiped the one in their barracks as a religious idol.

Between 1891 and 1903 the number of middle schools (at the time male-only) almost quadrupled, to more than 200, three-quarters of them built in rural areas. Enrollment quintupled to around 100,000 students. By 1900 functional illiteracy had declined, but it was still above 30 percent (actual illiteracy 16.8 percent) and remained constant throughout the decade. Until the educational reforms in 1920 that instituted compulsory grammar school education, between 10 and 15 percent of all young men undergoing an induction physical lacked any formal schooling. Thereafter illiteracy rates became negligible—less than 1 percent—but as late as 1930 almost 40 percent of conscripts had not graduated from primary school.

The army was attuned to educational changes and concentrated on indoctrinating an increasingly literate public and conscript force with themes of Japan’s uniqueness by virtue of the unbroken imperial line. To spread its message, the army subsidized the publication of cheap, widely distributed commercial handbooks that explained how to organize simple public ceremonies for troops like hearty send-offs, welcome-home celebrations, or memorial observances. Army propaganda in the pamphlets explained that conscripts should be grateful the emperor wanted them for his army, underlining their soldierly duty to meet and obey imperial injunctions and reminding them, “As the cherry blossom is to flowers, the warrior is to men.” Military values were steadily seeping into the popular culture.

Despite the army’s numerous and impressive accomplishments, the institution of the early 1890s was by no means a state-of-the-art fighting force. Its weaponry and military technology lagged far behind western standards. By the late 1880s, for example, steel-gun technology had rendered bronze weapons obsolete, but lacking the sophisticated new technology the Osaka arsenal continued to manufacture bronze field and mountain guns. This in turn retarded the artillery school’s experiments with smokeless powder because the residue fouled the bronze weapons, making them unusable. Likewise, manufacturing capacity restricted shell production, and the army could not stockpile large quantities of munitions. General staff planners compensated by compiling ammunition consumption tables based on statistical data derived from the Satsuma Rebellion in expectation that a central general headquarters would carefully control the field commanders’ expenditure of artillery rounds. The rebellion’s legacy of light artillery was reinforced by Meckel’s later pronouncement that mountain artillery hauled by packhorses was better suited for Japan’s rugged landscape than heavier field artillery pulled by teams of draught horses. The army considered large-caliber guns (larger than 150 mm) defensive weapons for use in coastal fortifications. On the positive side, gunners studied direction and range findings techniques and became proficient at controlling indirect artillery fires.

The Tokyo arsenal was producing Type-18 Murata rifles, a single-shot weapon. The advanced Type-38 Murata, a five-round clip-fed version, was not standard equipment in the mid-1890s, and only the Imperial Guard and the 4th Division were initially equipped with a prototype repeating rifle. Clothing and weapons were standardized. The field uniform was a black jacket and white pants complemented by a soft black kepi. In 1889 the army adopted the French-style sword. Demands to return to a Japanese samurai sword were rejected after a five-year study concluded that the samurai sword was impractical in modern warfare because both hands were needed to wield it.

The army diet consisted of polished white rice, fish, poultry, pickled vegetables, and tea. Attempts by Japanese doctors to introduce white bread or a hardtack biscuit into the daily ration in the early 1890s failed, but the biscuit did become part of the emergency field ration. Soldiers received just over two pints of cooked white rice per day even though anecdotal evidence showed that cutting the rice with barley prevented beriberi, known as Japan’s national disease during the Meiji period. Between 1876 and 1885 about 20 percent of enlisted troops suffered vitamin deficiencies and contracted beriberi; about 2 percent of them died. Field tests of a ration of barley mixed with rice conducted in 1885–1886 dramatically reduced beriberi cases (from almost 265 per 1,000 to just 35 per 1,000), but vitamin theory was still an unproven and contentious hypothesis. More significant, conscripts and officers alike regarded adulterated rice as penitentiary food (in fact, since 1875 it was prison fare) and considered it unfit for loyal soldiers of the emperor, a case of cultural imperatives inhibiting disease control.


Prime Minister Yamagata’s fifteen-minute maiden address to the Diet in March 1890 outlined a geopolitical strategy based on a line of sovereignty and a line of interests to protect Japan’s vital national interests. He observed that once the Trans-Siberian railway was completed, Korea would fall under the Russian shadow. Accordingly, national security could no longer depend simply on a primary line of defense on Japanese shores but demanded the capability to protect a forward line of overseas interests, chiefly in Korea, where Japan had to prevent Russia from using the peninsula as a springboard to invade the home islands. The inference was that Yamagata wanted to carve out a buffer zone beyond Japan’s boundaries, but his speech described a neutral Korea as the focus of Japanese interests and identified Tsushima Island as the first line of defense along his line of sovereignty.

Fears of a Russian invasion had fed Japanese nightmares since the 1850s, but until the 1880s the army was too weak to do much about it. Following Meckel’s guidance, the army refined counter-amphibious doctrine and tested it during a new joint grand exercise conducted in March 1890 near Nagoya. The stylized scenario had a predictable outcome (the invaders lost), but the army displayed its imagination and creativity by moving large units by rail and testing field telegraph communications to improve command and control. The emperor lent importance to the inaugural event by presiding over the maneuvers dressed in an army uniform and observing the culmination of the exercise during a driving rainstorm. Thereafter he attended special army grand maneuvers on ten occasions, always wearing his army uniform, a practice that dated from public appearances in 1880 as supreme commander.

The 1890 and 1892 maneuvers field-tested the new mobile division tactics, an operational departure and a significant shift from the traditional doctrine of waterline defense. After a May 1893 mobilization exercise revealed that reserve NCOs and junior officer platoon leaders were less proficient than their regular counterparts, the war ministry redoubled efforts to improve reserve training.

The same year, the ministry reorganized the tondenhei (the militia the authorities formed from samurai settlers in Hokkaidō in the 1870s) into an under-strength division because the available Hokkaidō cohort was still too small to fill a full division’s ranks. Finally, the war minister also revamped the wartime table of organization to draw on the approximately 150,000 strong first reserves (120,000 more in the second reserve) to field a wartime division of 18,500 personnel (the Imperial Guard strength was set at 13,000). The expanded wartime division added one infantry company per battalion (twelve total), strengthened the cavalry squadron and field artillery regiment, and added two engineer companies and a transport battalion. Wartime mobilization required additional reserve officers and NCOs, and the army expanded its one-year volunteer system to train and build a larger reserve officer pool.

More young men were conscripted for active service, but a rapidly growing population provided a larger available cohort, and the percentage of those conscripted remained fairly constant. Draft resistance or evasion was negligible—less than 1 percent of the cohort per year between 1882 and 1896. Each year about 3,000 youths skipped the annual physical exam or appeared late for testing,24 which suggests the system had become institutionalized and accepted by the larger society (see Table 5.1).

Training reforms instituted in 1888 devoted more time to unit exercises and field maneuvers. Company commanders were expected to display initiative and seize tactical opportunities without waiting for orders from higher headquarters, but the revised 1891 infantry regulations perpetuated Meckel’s inflexible massed columns and skirmisher formations. Planners projected losses of between 25 and 50 percent during operations. In order to sustain the offensive under such conditions, officers and NCOs were expected to enforce iron discipline during the tactical advance. Army authorities relied on intensive indoctrination in the intangibles of élan and esprit to promote each soldier’s sense of obligation to the nation and his unit as well as his determination to press home attacks whatever the cost.

Imperial General Headquarters, Planning, and Wartime Performance

Although the services had conducted joint maneuvers, interservice cooperation and coordination faltered because the army was determined to retain its primary role in national defense. In 1886 the navy embarked on its first replenishment plan and saw the establishment of a naval general staff with a corresponding resentment among naval leaders about their service’s second-class status. The admirals’ push for a totally independent naval general staff was countered by the generals’ insistence that wartime operations had to be based on peacetime plans prepared by a single authority—the army. Advocates couched their arguments against the cabinet’s push for joint general staff in terms of imperial prerogatives, span of control issues, and administrative requirements. The fundamental debate, however, was about the future of the army; its strategic role, its force structure, and its force design.

In January 1893 the cabinet presented the navy’s proposal for an independent staff to the emperor, who harbored reservations that interservice staff rivalry might interfere with wartime performance. The army was willing to accept an independent naval general staff provided that during wartime the army chief of staff was in charge of an imperial general headquarters (IGHQ). Several days later Prince Arisugawa, the chief of the joint staff, recommended that the IGHQ chief of staff should be from the primary service—the army—and serve as the emperor’s chief of staff. This would unify the services’ planning and operational efforts as well as ease imperial concerns that separate staffs might create serious coordination issues.

Emperor Meiji approved the establishment of a separate naval general staff on May 19, 1893, creating two parallel and independent chains of command whose chiefs reported directly to the emperor during peacetime. That same day, Meiji sanctioned regulations to organize an imperial general headquarters directly under the emperor to control wartime operations. An army general officer would fill the post of chief of the IGHQ staff to ensure that service’s primary role in national defense. During wartime he had the authority to issue operational orders sanctioned by the emperor, and the army vice chief of staff and the naval chief of staff served under him.

Operational Planning

Military strategy, such as it was, relied on mobile divisions to defend the homeland, a fixed defense anchored by coastal fortifications, and an offensive strategy against China in case of emergency. Col. Ogawa Mataji, the chief, second bureau, of the general staff, guided the first serious planning for offensive operations against China. His 1887 draft employed an eight-division (six regular and two reserve) expeditionary force to seize Peking. Six divisions would land near Shanhaiguan at the head of the Bohai Gulf and then advance on the capital. The remaining two divisions would land further south (along Changkiang coast) to prevent Chinese armies from relieving Peking. Ogawa’s plan was mostly wishful thinking because the Japanese navy could neither maintain a line of communication to the continent nor transport such large numbers of troops overseas. His operational concept did serve as a strategic statement to justify the army’s budget for its five-year expansion program and became a point of departure for subsequent general staff planning that influenced Vice Chief of Staff Kawakami’s thinking.

Officially the army continued to advocate a strategic defensive. In February 1892, for example, Kawakami submitted an operational plan to the emperor that apparently outlined a counter-amphibious campaign against an invasion. Unofficially the army had a clear awareness that it might be fighting a war on the Asian continent. Since 1889 Kawakami had overseen contingency wartime planning directed against China. The army’s Plan “A” for a war against China and Korea landed forces along the head of the Bohai Gulf near Shanhaiguan and then moved them west to fight a decisive battle on the Zhili (Hebei) plain. With imperial approval, Kawakami and other senior staff officers conducted a terrain reconnaissance (described as an inspection tour) in north and central China during mid-1893 to gather intelligence on Chinese forces and defenses.

The team’s evaluation of the state of Chinese army training, coastal defenses, and munitions factories as well as Kawakami’s firsthand observations convinced him that Japan could defeat the Chinese army because the latter lacked mobilization and logistics capabilities, had no standard doctrine, and neither operated nor trained as a modern combined arms force. Army leaders excluded civilian ministers from their subsequent operational planning, justifying the action as necessary to protect the prerogative of supreme command from political interference. This military bias against civilian authorities ignored the need to integrate national political and military strategies, isolating army planning from the larger context of Japan’s political and diplomatic objectives.

Peasant uprisings in Korea in the early 1890s and the kingdom’s growing dependence on China threatened Yamagata’s strategic benchmark of a neutral Korea. In the spring of 1894 Korean peasants rebelled against the radical reforms imposed by the court, blaming the Korean elite and foreigners, especially Japanese, for their impoverishment. The Korean emperor appealed to China for help, which in turn dispatched troops to Korea to suppress the Tonghak Rebellion. The intervention violated China’s 1885 agreement with Japan whereby both countries withdrew their troops from Korea and promised advance notification to the other should they return. In these explosive circumstances, the general staff dispatched an officer to Pusan for firsthand assessment. His May 20 dispatch described an organized rebellion, led by a rebel army armed with some modern weapons and an effective command and control system that was determined to overthrow the government. Because the prospect of an anti-Japanese faction seizing power was unacceptable, he recommended sending troops to protect the more than 9,000 Japanese nationals residing in Korea.

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