Japan To Asia: The Sino-Japanese War II

At a June 2 cabinet meeting Prime Minister Itō discussed unconfirmed reports from the army attaché in Tientsin, later proved erroneous, that 5,000 Chinese troops had moved into Korea. Despite its dubious quality, Kawakami and Foreign Minister Mutsu Munemitsu used the intelligence to justify military intervention. It was later alleged that the two conspired to conceal information from Itō that negotiations had taken a favorable turn and calm was returning to Korea. Regardless of Kawakami’s and Mutsu’s conduct, the full cabinet likely drew the lesson based on previous Japanese setbacks in Korea in the 1880s that in order to preserve the military balance it had to commit forces before China did. With compromise impossible, war with China was inevitable.

The cabinet dispatched troops to Korea the same day, and Meiji instructed his military leaders, referring to them as his daimyōs (military lords), to establish a mechanism to handle wartime matters. On June 4, senior officers from each service, following the emperor’s guidance to cooperate, met at the war minister’s residence and, after haggling most of the day over command procedures, finally agreed to establish an imperial general headquarters in accordance with the 1893 regulations. The Chief of the Combined Staff, Prince Arisugawa, received imperial approval to open imperial headquarters in the general staff building on June 5, the same day the first echelon of the 5th Division mobilized for deployment to Korea.

During the almost two-month interval between the establishment of IGHQ and the declaration of war against China on August 1, the service staffs refined a two-stage operational plan. The 5th Division would prevent a Chinese advance in Korea while the navy eliminated the Chinese fleet in order to secure control of the seas. Phase two had multiple options contingent upon naval success. In the best-case scenario, the navy would defeat the Chinese fleet and secure control of the seas, which would allow the army free passage to land on Chinese soil and advance to the decisive battle on the Zhili plain. If neither navy could gain supremacy, the army would occupy Korea to exclude Chinese influence. If Japan lost control of the seas to the Chinese navy, this worst case foresaw attempts to rescue the beleaguered 5th Division in Korea while simultaneously strengthening homeland defenses to repulse a Chinese invasion. In other words, the army’s contingency plans were both offensive and defensive, depending on the outcome of the naval operations.

The government had initially moved cautiously. On June 2, Itō ordered the army to avoid clashes with Chinese, and Ōyama notified the 5th Division commander that his mission was to protect Japanese citizens and diplomatic outposts in Korea, not fight Chinese. Itō’s resolve hardened after Mutsu provided attaché reports in mid-June that the Russian forces in northeast Asia were too few in number to intervene militarily in Korea. With Russian intervention unlikely, the army unilaterally implemented its plan to land in Bohai Gulf in anticipation of a decisive battle on the Zhili plain.

Civilian ministers were not involved in the army’s planning and had to rely on the military’s professional expertise to prepare the nation for a possible war. Unfettered by civilian restraint, army generals likewise expected the navy to escort troop convoys to the continent, but had neither consulted with their naval counterparts beforehand nor considered the necessity of securing command of the sea before sending any transports. This haughtiness led to Captain Yamamoto Gonbei, the navy minister’s secretary, to remark caustically that if army engineers built a bridge between Kyūshū and Korea the generals could probably fight the campaign all by themselves.

On July 2 the full cabinet with the respective chiefs of staff present agreed on war. The first IGHQ imperial conference met in the palace on July 17 with the emperor and twelve senior officials, including the chief of the combined staff, the army vice chief of staff, the war and navy ministers, and the naval chief of staff in attendance. Privy Council Seal Yamagata was the only civilian in the room. Prime Minister Itō and Foreign Minister Mutsu then demanded the same access, and the emperor ordered the service chiefs to allow senior civilian officials to participate in IGHQ’s conferences, which convened every Tuesday and Friday. The general staff presented its operational plan to the emperor on August 5, and the same day IGHQ moved onto the palace grounds.

Emperor Meiji played a significant, if mostly symbolic, role in mobilizing the people for war. Despite his own reservations—allegedly remarking, “This is not my war”—he compliantly relocated along with IGHQ to Hiroshima, ostensibly to be closer to his troops fighting in Korea. Meiji always appeared in an army uniform at Hiroshima, the first time the image of the emperor as the supreme commander was consciously cultivated for the common people. He lived a Spartan existence to set an example for his subjects. His quarters had no separate bedroom, and each evening orderlies cleared a chair or desk as a place for him to sleep, evidently a sign of his willingness to share the deprivations of his loyal forces.

The army acted circumspectly in June and July, carefully developing a three-month campaign in anticipation that British mediation would end any fighting by October. In mid-August, the general staff’s main objective was to secure the Korean peninsula militarily before the arrival of winter weather. After China refused Japanese demands conveyed through the British, Itō resigned himself to a longer campaign and the necessity of a spring 1895 offensive. In mid-September IGHQ displaced to Hiroshima, where Itō could keep a closer eye on the field armies to ensure a unified national policy. Reminiscent of the Satsuma Rebellion, the imperial relocation hampered timely and effective liaison with the foreign ministry and the bureaucracy that remained behind in Tokyo.

Kawakami’s certitude in victory aside, the army hedged its bets by deploying troops overseas while simultaneously bolstering homeland garrisons and coastal defenses. Only after the September 17 naval Battle of the Yalu did IGHQ announce that the navy’s victory reduced the likelihood of invasion and release homeland defense garrisons to reorganize into infantry regiments. IGHQ still retained almost 100,000 mobilized reserves in Japan throughout the conflict, most of them engaged in logistics support duties.

The mobilized army grew to more than 220,000 men, including all seven regular divisions, which at wartime strength numbered about 125,000 personnel. The army relied more heavily on the reserves for its NCOs and infantrymen (40 percent of wartime NCOs and infantrymen were reservists) than for its junior officers (only 10 percent). Senior officers and division commanders were, with two exceptions, Boshin War veterans, as were most brigade commanders.

The campaigns of the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) may be described briefly. On June 12 a brigade from the 5th Division landed at Inchon, the port of Seoul, followed throughout the month by the rest of the unit. Peking ordered its small (500-man) force in Kunsan to withdraw to Pyongyang by sea on July 15, but the Chinese commander declared that course too dangerous, refused the order, and demanded reinforcements. Eight days later three transports carrying Chinese troops and equipment sailed for Korea.

On July 25 Captain Tōgō Heihachirō, commanding the armored cruiser Naniwa, intercepted the third transport as it approached the Korean coast. Although the Chinese ship was sailing under British registry and Japan and China were not at war, Tōgō sank the vessel. Soon afterward, Japanese and Chinese troops clashed near Kunsan, and on August 1 Japan officially declared war on China. By mid-August IGHQ concluded that a decisive battle on the Zhili plain was infeasible before the arrival of winter. Anticipating a short war, the army found itself in a prolonged struggle and commenced planning for a spring 1895 campaign.

The general staff’s objective was to secure the Korean peninsula militarily before the arrival of winter weather and then land forces near Shanhaiguan. The navy, however, was unable to bring the Chinese Northern Fleet into battle and in mid-August temporarily withdrew from the Yellow Sea to refit and replenish its warships. As a consequence, in late August the general staff ordered an overland advance on the Zhili plain via Korea and the capture of bases on the Laiodong Peninsula to prevent the Chinese forces from interfering with the drive on Peking.

IGHQ activated the First Army (two divisions) under Yamagata’s command on September 1, and in mid-September the First Army occupied Pyongyang as the Chinese retreated northward. The navy’s stunning September 17 victory in the Battle of the Yalu surprised everyone. Yamagata wrote that although the rapid fall of Pyongyang was unexpected, it paled next to the totally unforeseen naval triumph. Japan’s newly won maritime supremacy allowed Ōyama’s Second Army (three divisions and one brigade) to land unopposed in mid-October on the Liaodong Peninsula, about 100 miles north of Port Arthur (Lüshun), the great Chinese fortress that controlled entry to the Bohai Gulf.

Yamagata’s First Army pursued the Chinese across the Yalu River in late October, but by that time attention had shifted to Ōyama’s Second Army, which on November 8 occupied Dairen (Lüda). Spearheaded by Lt. Gen. Nogi’s 2d Division, the Second Army next seized the fortress and harbor at Port Arthur on November 25. Farther north, Yamagata’s offensive stalled, beset by supply problems and winter weather.

The western powers were caught off guard by the apparent ease of the Japanese victories, an impression the authorities in Tokyo encouraged. Foreign military observers attached to the respective armies and experts of all kinds attributed Japan’s success to its modernity and westernization. The obvious advantages of standardized doctrine, weapons, and equipment complemented a well-educated professional officer corps versed in western-style modern warfare, technologically proficient, and able to maneuver division-echelon forces. Well-organized and well-trained reserves were efficiently mobilized and confidently used. Superior Japanese morale, especially after the early victories, benefited from superb fighting spirit, or esprit, under the leadership of well-trained and capable junior officers and NCOs. Finally, the Japanese soldiers had a commitment (perhaps defined as nationalism) defined by specific objectives and accepted a common ethos that subscribed to a goal greater than individual or regional interests. But these strengths, the army’s hallmarks throughout its existence, masked serious structural flaws that might equally define the Japanese military institution. The most glaring shortcoming was the army’s logistics system.

Logistics tables and doctrine were based on homeland defense, not overseas operations, and the general staff had conducted no detailed logistics planning during the prewar period. Furthermore, in January 1894 Japan lacked sufficient shipping to move a single division overseas. The general staff purchased ten transports from foreign companies in mid-June, but chronic shortages compelled the army to charter more than 100 commercial vessels from the Japan Mail Line. The navy contributed twenty-three additional ships, including armed escorts, a hospital ship, and a repair vessel.

Persistent shipping bottlenecks delayed the Second Army’s landing on the Shandong Peninsula, which in turn was partly responsible for IGHQ’s decision to extend the campaign into the spring of 1895. Even after occupying Korea and the Liaodong Peninsula, the army still faced an uncertain, perhaps precarious, future because in March 1895 some 200,000 Chinese troops were reportedly massing on the Zhili plain. With available shipping committed to sustaining the expeditionary armies, the general staff in desperation deployed combat units to China with the promise that their unit equipment and supplies would follow eventually.

The army hired 153,000 civilian contractors, laborers, rickshaw men, and coolies to sustain its war machine, many of them desperate for any work because of the economic depression afflicting Japan. These auxiliaries were neither trained nor outfitted in military uniforms. Wearing bamboo hats, pale blue cotton jackets with tight-fitting sleeves under a happi coat with their unit’s number painted on it, and straw sandals, they looked like the coolies they were. Porters carried the army’s supplies on their backs, dug its fortifications, and accounted for most of its sanitary corps personnel. Thousands perished in the cold or from epidemics. Besides being exempt from military orders and discipline, contract laborers received extra pay for hazardous duty, causing resentment among soldiers, who did not get a bonus.

Koreans were reluctant to support the expeditionary army with labor or goods because they, like most disinterested western observers, initially doubted the small island nation could defeat the mighty Chinese empire. Forcibly impressed Korean coolies pilfered supply trains, by some accounts stealing 25 percent of the army’s rice stockpile. Korean porters and their Japanese counterparts deserted in droves, and in an extreme case an overwrought Japanese battalion commander took responsibility for the delays in moving supplies forward by committing suicide.

Available maps were of poor quality and often misleading about the condition of roads and rail lines. Trusting the map, no one had reconnoitered the rail line between Pusan and Seoul that in places was impassable, forcing bearers to portage supplies and further delaying resupply. The main road to Seoul, shown clearly on maps, was little more than a narrow, poorly graded dirt track that meandered through mountains and into valleys. Water-filled rice paddies along either side reduced traffic to a single file that moved at the pace of the slowest wagon.

When available, the wartime daily ration consisted of polished white rice, meat, vegetables, Japanese pickles, and condiments. The field ration contained dried boiled rice, tinned meat, and salt. Soldiers also foraged for food and confiscated chickens, cattle, and pigs from Chinese and Korean households. Various food combinations were tested, but none was superior to dried boiled rice and a hardtack biscuit for the emergency field ration. Paradoxically, the chaotic logistics situation determined the Japanese decision to attack Pyongyang. After reaching Seoul, the First Army was so desperate for food that troops had slaughtered the oxen that had pulled their now empty supply wagons. Officers exhorted the soldiers to capture Pyongyang with promises of mountains of Chinese rations awaiting them. Besides these logistics problems, epidemic outbreaks hampered operations.

There were about 3,500 sanitary corps troops, two-thirds of them reservists, and the army had to hire large numbers of contract workers to carry litters, dig latrines, and construct field hospitals. Maintaining a potable water supply under field conditions was probably their most difficult task. Sanitary teams purified water from wells, streams, and rivers, and officers forbade troops from drinking the water in train stations or port terminals and instructed units to boil water before using it for cooking or brewing tea. Despite these efforts, there was an outbreak of cholera in the army for the first time since 1890.

On paper, each division established six field hospitals that served as treatment and collection points, but because of the shortage of sanitary troops about half that number of field hospitals were built. Military doctors and pharmacists were too scarce to treat the epidemic outbreaks. Opiates used in anesthesia were a controlled government monopoly, and the army had to negotiate with the Home Ministry to purchase 80 percent of the nation’s annual supply. To relieve the burden on doctors and sanitary corps personnel, army instructors trained conscripts in field sanitation procedures and basic nursing skills. The government rallied soldiers’ relief organizations under the umbrella of the Japan Red Cross. Nevertheless, the scale of even a very limited war had almost overwhelmed a medical corps that had to resort to temporary emergency measures to compensate for a lack of planning, intergovernmental coordination, and proper stockpiles.

Battlefield Performance and Discipline

Japanese infantrymen fought as they had trained. Massed columns facilitated rapid mobility during the approach to the enemy. Upon contact, the columns maneuvered into a skirmish line supported by densely packed ranks of riflemen who rushed forward en masse for a short distance, threw themselves on the ground, and then repeated the maneuver. Junior officers led frontal assaults in short rushes and supported by light artillery. The tightly packed formations preserved unit integrity and fire discipline, ensured tactical command and control, and created the mass and momentum for a successful assault. The Japanese consistently took advantage of terrain to mask their movements and rushes but were willing to cross open ground to get at their objectives.

The army compiled no comprehensive analysis of its wartime campaigns to derive “lessons learned,” although postwar reports by the frontline infantry units did identify deficiencies. The esprit de corps established among individual squads in an infantry company, for example, improved unit cohesion in battle, but individual companies were reluctant to sacrifice their solidity to support a neighboring unit, thus reducing overall aggressiveness and effort. The peacetime pace of the attack in training proved too rapid to be maintained in combat conditions, and when soldiers could not sustain the training tempo, their morale fell. Troop morale also wilted under heavy enemy fire, particularly when nearby comrades were killed or wounded. The revised 1898 infantry manual nevertheless validated massed formations relying on bayonet attacks because that was the only way for a company commander to control his unit. It devoted great attention to fighting spirit and morale because the army deemed these intangible qualities the keys to victory. As a consequence, postwar training became more demanding on the theory that enduring physical hardship would develop willpower that conscripts could draw upon to sustain their morale and discipline in the turmoil of battle.

The army suffered 1,161 killed in action, including 44 officers and 118 NCOs. With the Japanese constantly on the offensive, the retreating Chinese had little chance to take prisoners and captured just eleven Japanese, ten of them overage porters. The only soldier taken prisoner was suffering from a head wound. Officers actively discouraged the notion of surrender, warning the troops of the terrible fate that awaited them in Chinese hands. Yamagata, for instance, cautioned his officers not to allow themselves to be taken prisoner because the innately cruel Chinese would kill them. Instead, it was the Japanese who committed the worst atrocity.

The New York World reported in late November that Japanese troops had massacred as many as 60,000 Chinese during a four-day period following the capture of Port Arthur. More conservative recent estimates are that about 2,000 Chinese were killed, apparently in retaliation for Chinese soldiers mutilating Japanese corpses. Whatever the numbers, there was no doubt that something dreadful had happened at Port Arthur, despite the Japanese government’s vigorous denials.

Foreign Minister Mutsu’s memoirs dismissed the reports as “exaggerated” but acknowledged that “some unnecessary bloodshed and killing did occur.” He believed some provocation had occurred and that most of those killed were Chinese soldiers out of uniform. Two weeks after the incident, Ōyama admitted that in the confusion of street fighting it was difficult to avoid killing civilians who were intermingled among the Chinese soldiers.

The Japanese government would later claim that numerous Chinese soldiers refused to surrender, discarded their uniforms for mufti, and were killed during mopping up operations. Yet the cabinet held no inquiries because an investigation might embarrass the army by implicating senior officers in war crimes. The cabinet’s underlying fear was that a trail of responsibility might lead to Ōyama’s headquarters and force his recall. If that happened, Yamagata would take command of all field forces, an outcome neither Itō nor Mutsu wanted.

The government also tried to conceal the massacre because it tarnished Japan’s image in world opinion as a civilized nation that the foreign ministry had burnished during ongoing negotiations for treaty revision. Commanders had issued strict orders to protect westerners, especially missionaries, for two reasons. First, they wanted to avoid provocations that might lead to western intervention; second, they wanted to demonstrate that Japan was a civilized nation that respected western standards of international law, which in turn would further the government’s efforts to revise the unequal treaty system.

A double standard, suffused with attitudes of racial superiority toward the Chinese, likely contributed to the massacre at Port Arthur. Expecting a rich and cultured civilization, Japanese soldiers were disillusioned when they saw firsthand the filthy conditions and hardscrabble existence of impoverished Chinese. Admiration turned to contempt and debasement. These perceptions dovetailed with notions of Japan’s uniqueness and superiority to produce popular racial stereotypes of the Chinese and China as a decaying civilization.

Army discipline reflected the larger society’s propensity to settle disputes privately without recourse to formal courts or tribunals. Moreover, the army’s concept of military discipline applied to ensuring offensive spirit and obedience to orders, not to disciplining the ranks in a formal fashion. Field courts-martial boards convened 2,000 cases during the war, more than 70 percent of which were to try civilians working for the army. About 500 soldiers, almost all conscripts, were convicted by courts-martial, mostly for petty offenses. Among the more serious charges, just six soldiers were convicted for assault on a superior officer, and eleven were convicted for desertion. Army discipline so strictly applied to punish transgressions against military regulations or commanders’ orders was not invoked to control soldiers’ outrages against helpless Chinese. For an army that made a fetish of discipline and unquestioning obedience to orders, the incident implied that officers throughout the chain of command were either complicit in or condoned the massacre.

Newspapers scarcely mentioned the alleged massacre. At the outbreak of the war, IGHQ had accredited more than 120 reporters, artists, and photographers to cover the fighting and assigned them to army headquarters under strict guidelines. The home ministry’s censorship ensured compliance, but there was little to worry about because the correspondents became cheerleaders for the war and the military. Higher literacy rates, at least in the major cities, and improved printing technology extended their influence. Newspapers published extras, evening editions, and multiple editions that romanticized and popularized the war. During the immediate postwar period, numerous published accounts—some real, most fictional—enjoyed great popularity serialized in newspapers and the newly created monthly magazines.

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