The Army of Meiji 3 of 3 Parts

“Aoyama; Kanpeishiki no Zu”. Emperor Meiji holds a military review at army camp in Aoyama.

The Reorganized Superintendency

In May 1885 the army ministry revised the garrison regulations. The commander of each garrison became a division commander while the superintendent controlled two divisions and became a corps commander.48 This was the army’s first step to convert the fixed garrisons to more mobile and modern infantry divisions, but it also required a more thorough overhaul of the superintendency. With Meckel serving as an adviser, recently promoted Maj. Gen. Katsura, chief of the army ministry’s general affairs bureau, and other like-minded general staff officers set to work to reorganize the superintendency to accommodate the command and control requirements of the new division force structure.

Based on preliminary studies, in late 1885 Katsura recommended to Yamagata that the current superintendency be abolished as an operational headquarters and converted to the army’s training command. Simultaneously, the army would introduce a centralized promotion system based on competitive examinations, not seniority, and establish age limits for active-duty service. It would also revise current regulations that made promotion to full general conditional on command of large units during wartime and subsequently on wartime command. These measures were designed to sweep away the deadwood in the officer corps and promote outstanding younger officers by competitive examination based on individual talent.

With Yamagata’s blessing, in March 1886 Katsura established the Provisional Committee to Study Military Systems, a nineteen-member group chaired by Col. Kodama Gentarō, to consider army reorganization. Meckel advised the committee and met with Kodama on a bi-weekly basis to discuss force structure issues and the national army’s mission. Meckel also drafted position papers, including one that addressed the command and control implications of converting the fixed garrisons into mobile divisions.

Meckel saw no need for a wartime corps echelon because the army would be small—only seven divisions —and its strategy defensive: to repel invasion of the home islands. Relying on mobility, individual divisions could quickly deploy to their assigned defensive sectors in wartime and, with attached artillery and technical units, conduct independent operations, much like a small corps in a European army. Thus the division became the army’s operational maneuver element. If a corps echelon was superfluous, so was the current superintendency system, which functioned as a wartime corps command equivalent. According to Meckel, the superintendent could administer two divisions during peacetime, thereby providing unified training at all levels, but would have no wartime role.

In line with previous studies, Meckel further recommended the creation of an inspectorate who would supervise army-wide military training and officer education and report directly to the emperor. The inspector-general would be equal in rank to the chief of staff and the war minister (which replaced the army minister under the newly installed cabinet system, discussed below). Finally, he proposed a personnel section to manage officers’ promotions and assignments. War Minister Ōyama submitted Meckel’s recommendations to the cabinet on July 10, 1886.

Soga, Miura, and their allies adamantly opposed the abolition of the existing superintendency and its replacement by an inspector-general of military education under Yamagata’s control. From their powerful positions—Miura commanded the Tokyo garrison and Soga was vice chief of the army staff—they insisted that neither the general staff nor the war ministry (which had been established in December 1885) had jurisdiction over the regional superintendents because they reported directly to the emperor, and therefore an imperial decree was needed to change their positions. They rejected reforms such as competitive examinations for promotion and drew support from officers whose professional careers were tied to the traditional seniority-based promotion system. Lt. Gen. Tani (agricultural minister at the time but still on active duty) and Chief of Staff Prince Arisugawa likewise rejected the reforms, especially placing the inspectorate functions under the war ministry, which they believed vested excessive power in the war minister’s hands. According to rumors, Emperor Meiji agreed with them and hoped to appoint Miura as chief of staff. Yamagata, however, ignored the emperor’s preference and schemed with Ōyama to undercut Miura by removing him from command of the Tokyo garrison.

After a July 12, 1886, imperial audience with Arisugawa, Emperor Meiji temporarily postponed the initiatives to allow Prime Minister Itō time to broker a compromise. Itō got Arisugawa and Yamagata to agree that the newly established war ministry would manage infantry officer promotions and the inspectorate for all other branches. They also concurred that the general staff would control the new inspectorate based on Itō’s promise that the inspectorate would be subsequently reorganized. The army abolished the superintendency on July 24 and replaced it with the so-called new inspector-general, which was administratively under the war minister.

By moving the inspectorate’s peacetime administrative functions to the war ministry, the army empowered the war minister with the authority to control personnel promotion policies and to issue operational orders to garrison commanders. This change diminished the authority of the regional inspector-generals by converting them from an operational headquarters that issued orders to a training one that took orders. The 1886 revisions also dropped the requirement for wartime command for promotion to flag officer, made selection to full general a matter of imperial appointment, and replaced promotion by seniority with a promotion system based on competitive examination results. For their persistent opposition, Soga was transferred from vice chief of staff to the commandant of the military academy and Miura was transferred to Kumamoto. Miura resigned rather than accept the demotion. Both remained outspoken critics of the army’s direction.

The settlement left unresolved the relationship between the new division force structure and the regional inspectors because the latter still reported directly to the emperor and served in wartime as corps commanders. During the transition period to divisions, the war ministry, as Itō promised, again reorganized the inspectorate. The July 1887 imperial order finally standardized army-wide training by placing it under the new inspectorate general, which was directly subordinate to the emperor and coordinated all military training and competitive examinations. Yamagata, concurrently home minister, was appointed the first inspector-general but served only nine months, apparently to ensure that the new organization got off the ground. The agency was the forerunner of the inspector-general of military education established by imperial order in January 1893 to enforce army-wide proficiency standards.

General Staff Reforms

Regulations issued in December 1885 created ten ministries in the newly organized cabinet. The war minister (formerly the army minister) continued to manage the army’s administrative functions—annual budget preparation, weapons procurement, personnel issues, and relations with the Diet—and reported to the prime minister on such matters. The new rules allowed the chief of staff to report directly to the throne on classified military matters without informing civilian cabinet members. Notwithstanding the chief of staff’s direct access to the throne, the war minister was encouraged to report such occurrences to the prime minister. The chief of the council of state had previously controlled the other ministers and held military command prerogatives; the newly designated prime minister, however, would have no say in matters of military operations or command.

The new cabinet authorized a separate naval general staff under the navy ministry. Two general staffs—one army, one navy—necessitated further reorganization, and in March 1886 the cabinet established a centralized supervisory agency to separate operational military matters from affairs of state. The new agency, in effect a joint general staff, was responsible for joint planning and operational coordination. A neutral imperial family member, Prince Arisugawa, became chief of staff to keep the lid on simmering internal service discord. He had two vice chiefs of staff—one from the army, one from the navy—who directed their respective staffs, and a joint staff to conduct joint planning to enable the services to react quickly to emergencies. This restructuring harkened back to the arrangement under the council of state and reflected the services’ inability to resolve roles and missions. Instead, a compromise imperial figurehead presided over two competitive general staffs that operated independently of each other.

Arisugawa’s appointment as chief of the joint staff attempted to capitalize on the direct link between the army and the throne. The flawed organizational arrangement proved unsatisfactory, in part because army infighting over the nature of the joint staff’s authority continued unabated, in part because the differing expertise of army and navy officers complicated coordination, and in part because Arisugawa, like many of his veteran contemporaries, lacked the formal military education, specialized military knowledge, and technical expertise demanded in a rapidly changing army and navy.

To remedy these deficiencies, two years later—in May 1888—the army again reorganized the general staff, changing the name to the army and navy staff directorate, eliminating the vice chief positions, and replacing them with an army and a navy general staff responsible to a single chief of staff for imperial forces. Arisugawa became chief of staff and served as the emperor’s military adviser on matters of operational planning and national defense. Arisugawa, however, had no staff, only a deputy, and depended on the service staffs for advice. In theory, the chief of staff was the ideal mechanism to coordinate joint planning and large-unit operations, but the services refused to cooperate with each other, joint planning did not materialize, and attempts at unified command again failed.

Articles eleven and twelve of the new Meiji Constitution promulgated in February 1889 formally institutionalized the military’s prerogative of supreme command. Article eleven made the emperor supreme commander of the army and navy, and article twelve established the emperor’s authority to set the peacetime organization of his military forces. Constitutional scholars interpreted the former to empower the general staff to assist the emperor without reference to the cabinet, effectively placing the services beyond the control of the prime minister. This was a major goal of the oligarchs—to keep the army out of politics or, phrased differently, to keep party politicians and political factions from running the army.

Senior army officers also feared that under the new constitution one general officer could in theory control two separate service staffs, a situation that might impinge on imperial prerogatives of command. To prevent this possibility and to retain its dominant position in military affairs, army leaders convinced the emperor to eliminate the chief of staff and place the naval general staff under the new navy minister. The army general staff, however, would be independent of the newly created war ministry and enjoy direct access to the throne. Arisugawa became the chief of the newly reorganized general staff, and the serving army chief of staff moved to the vice chief position. This latest change made the chief of staff the de facto army chief of staff because the navy staff had to issue its orders through the navy minister, who did not enjoy direct access to the throne. The arrangement left the military without an integrated joint staff to oversee operational command and control.

Diehard conservatives like Miura detested the thought of a powerful centralized government, which had already displayed its corrupt nature by promoting regional factionalism within the army. They had devoted most of the decade of the 1880s trying to block the Satsuma-Chōshū monopoly on senior army posts and army reforms, only to see institutional reforms, a new force structure, a reorganized general staff, and a revamped administrative system that strengthened Yamagata, Ōyama, and their respective regional cliques’ grips on the army. Miura claimed that factionalism had led the restoration astray and that Japan’s proper course should be to field a small army tailored to defend the main islands. Together with army Vice Chief of Staff Soga and retired generals Tani and Torio he doggedly opposed Ōyama’s and Yamagata’s attempts to introduce a big army organized in a German-style military system.

Allied with Miura and Soga were an anti-mainstream group of officers, who formed a well-organized opposition centered in the Getsuyōkai, a fraternal organization of army officers established in 1881 by graduates of the military academy’s initial two classes. The Getsuyōkai originally encouraged research into the latest developments in military science to improve army officers’ professional expertise, contribute to national defense, and aid understanding of large-unit operations. Membership soon exceeded fifty officers. Other specialized professional associations for officers—from cavalrymen to veterinarians—proliferated throughout the army.

In 1884 the Getsuyōkai chairman, the Francophile commandant of the Toyama Infantry School, appointed Miura, Soga, Tani (now retired from active duty and director of the Peers Academy), and Torio (also retired and director of the government statistical bureau) the association’s advisers. The French faction of Miura and Soga dominated the organization, using its lectures, newsletter, and later its journal, the Getsuyōkai kiji, to lambaste Yamagata and the army leadership, denounce the army’s Prussian reforms, and promote a small-army, antiexpansionist agenda. Under Soga’s direction, the journal published biting critiques of senior officers, deriding them as superannuated veterans of the wars of restoration living on their past reputations, unaware of the advances in military science, and sitting idly at their desks while real soldiers were maneuvering troops in field exercises.

Stung by charges that they were ignorant of modern military technology and doctrine, top army leaders counterattacked. Maj. Gen. Nogi, a brigade commander, and Vice Chief of Staff Kawakami Sōroku, who had recently returned from a year in Germany, publicly dismissed the critics as irresponsible tyros whose conduct was detrimental to military regulations and undermined army discipline and military order. But the Getsuyōkai would remain a thorn in the army leadership’s side throughout the decade of the 1880s.

Filling the Ranks

The overwhelming majority of conscripts came from farming communities and were overrepresented in the army. Almost 80 percent of the 1888 cohort, for example, was drawn from primary industry (forestry, agriculture, and fishing) at a time when roughly 65 percent of Japanese worked in that sector. Mining, manufacturing, and construction—the second and tertiary sectors—accounted for about 35 percent of all workers but only 11 percent of conscripts in 1888.

In 1887 the army adopted the Prussian system of one-year volunteers to build a reserve officer pool. Instead of facing conscription after their student deferments expired, middle school graduates could volunteer for specialized training designed to produce reserve officers. Candidates volunteered for a one-year specialized active-duty service, at the end of which they were commissioned as reserve second lieutenants. They could select their branch of service, live outside the garrison confines, and were exempt from routine fatigue duties in the barracks. They wore special insignia on their uniforms and were promoted to superior private after six months. With their regimental commander’s endorsement and successful completion of qualifying tests after six more months, they became reserve officers. In exchange for the privileges, the volunteers paid for their clothing, food, and equipment, which the army assessed at 60 yen (80 yen for cavalry to care for a horse). These sums were far beyond the reach of most Japanese, accounting for the tiny number (only 0.7 percent) of volunteers of the total cohort.

About 100 men volunteered the first year of the program, but by 1897 more than 1,000 volunteer reserve officers were enrolled in the program, spurred in part by the 1889 conscription reforms described below.67 Following their year on active duty, reserve officers went into the reserves for seven years, which was better than three years’ active duty followed by nine years in the reserves. They were subject to annual call-ups to active duty to maintain their military proficiency.

Of the more than 35,000 volunteers between 1906 and 1916, almost half chose the infantry branch, but a quarter selected transport or intendance specialties and overloaded branches the army had scant use for. Subsequent reforms created an abbreviated six-month voluntary active-duty training course designed to replace continual student deferments. As the active force gradually grew from about 65,000 in 1888 to 77,000 in 1893, the army simultaneously built a responsive reserve force capable upon mobilization of doubling the size of the force in wartime.

Major changes in 1889 to conscription regulations also followed the Prussian model in order to build a large enlisted reserve that would fill out the wartime divisions. Legislation eliminated deferments and established four categories of service: active duty, first reserve, second reserve, and national militia (territorial reserve), making a clear distinction between active duty and reserve forces.

The new law also delineated induction categories: graded A through E, with A and B being the source of conscripts. In 1899 the B category was subdivided into two groups, identified by minor physical differences. An annual preinduction physical rated 20-year-olds for military duty in this manner: A, fully fit; B, fit with minor deficiencies such as weaker bone and muscle structure, rashes, scars, or tattoos that did not interfere with the execution of military duties; C, those between four foot, eight inches and five feet in height, ineligible for frontline duty but placed in rear service positions; and D, those shorter than four foot, eight inches or suffering from habitual illness or deformity. The “A” candidates were conscripted, served three years on active duty, and then automatically went into the reserves for another four years, available for recall to fill out wartime augmentations. The “B” group usually was placed in the first reserve, and the “C” group went into the second reserve. The first reserve served as replacements and fillers for wartime mobilization whereas the second reserve was assigned to the transport branch to augment the expanded wartime logistics table of organization. Reservists received ninety days of basic training and thereafter were liable for one call-up per year for training, not to exceed sixty days. These remained the induction categories through 1945.

Conscripts, who were forbidden by army regulations from marrying during their first three years on active duty, were separated by year-group (first-, second- , or third-year soldiers) for training purposes. Each year was subdivided into seven training periods. A recruit underwent six months of basic training (periods one through three), followed by six months of unit and field training with second- and third-year soldiers (periods four through seven). Third-year soldiers were less involved in drills and exercises, so their proficiency decreased as their longevity increased. The model stressed technical and weapons proficiency and march-discipline for rapid mobility. After 1889 the army emphasized leadership, the intangible or morale qualities of battle, and tougher discipline.

By the early 1880s, the army had adopted western (mainly French) court-martial regulations for various serious offenses such as mutiny, desertion, disobedience to orders, rape, and mistreatment of prisoners. Caning on the back or buttocks was a standard punishment. Concurrently, a system of harsh, informally administered corporal punishments to deal with minor infractions developed in the barracks. Slapping conscripts was routine, gang beatings were common, and harassment and bullying were constant. The aim was to guarantee absolute obedience to a superior’s orders and instill unquestioning compliance as a reflex or habit in the tractable soldier. Henceforth, a combination of informally administered punishments and officially established courts-martial enforced Spartan discipline, linked to the notion that one’s ability to endure physical hardship and suffering stoically was the essence of the Japanese spirit.

Parallel with the 1889 conscription reform, the army encouraged local jurisdictions with village and city neighborhood associations to honor departing conscripts with neighborhood send-offs and conduct ceremonies to recognize returning veterans. Except for the Imperial Guard, which recruited nationwide, each division was administratively responsible for four local regimental conscription districts (one for each regiment in a division). Because each regiment recruited locally, conscripts knew each other, but more important were known to villagers, neighbors, and local authorities, increasing local peer pressure on conscripts to do well in the army.

The army’s transition during the twenty-year span was remarkable. During the 1870s a hard-pressed, slapdash force had defeated samurai uprisings large and small, ending the warrior threat to the new government. It had crushed peasant uprisings and suppressed the people’s rights movement, eliminating the risk of popular insurrection. By the mid-1890s the army had organized itself into a modern force structure, tested concepts in extensive field exercises, and improved communications and support functions. Its professional officer corps was well versed in tactics and operational concepts, though somewhat weaker in military strategy. A highly trained and well-disciplined NCO corps ensured order and control in the ranks. Conscription reforms in 1883 and 1889 had produced a large, trained reserve force available for mobilization. The army also created a professional military bureaucracy that by 1890 had eliminated French influence in the army and introduced educational and structural reforms to ensure promotion based on merit and ability.

The institution was less successful in the formation of a general staff, which despite several reorganizations still could not coordinate joint planning, much less joint operations. Furthermore, the military’s new bureaucratic processes worked well so long as the civilian and military leaders shared common objectives and respected the informal policy-making apparatus. The gradual appearance of a professional officer class, however, promoted institutionalized processes and mechanisms that undermined the unofficial personality-dependent system. Over time, the emerging military bureaucracy would prove fatal to the traditional dominance of the army’s Chōshū and Satsuma officers because it rewarded professional expertise and education, not personal connections, regional affiliations, or past wartime service.