Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Japan, Army

The Imperial Japanese Army (Dai Nippon Teikoku Rikugun) defies easy or simple recounting, in no small measure because Japanese official histories of World War II begin in September 1931 with the start of the Manchurian Campaign. Thus, any account of the Japanese army and the war really has to cover a 14-year period and to be divided into two very separate parts. One of these parts concerns its campaigns both on the ground and in the air because the Rikugun, as with the navy, had its own air force. Also, the Rikugun was involved in two wars, one in East Asia and the other in the Pacific and Southeast Asia, that were largely separate from one another, and both contained a number of campaigns that again were very largely separate from one another. Thus, the war in East Asia divides into the campaign in Manchuria, 1931–1932; the Sino-Japanese War, 1937–1944; and the final phase of the war, after December 1944, which saw major Japanese withdrawals throughout southern China and then defeat at Soviet hands in August 1945 in northern China and Manchuria. This accounting leaves unlisted the period of Japanese encroachment in northern China and Inner Mongolia between 1932 and 1936, in which time the power of the Chinese Nationalist Party—the Guomindang, or GMD (Kuomintang, or KMT)—was neutralized in these areas, as well as the four-phase China war of 1927 to 1945.

The other part concerns the process by which the Rikugun came to dominate the political process in Japan and, in effect, to control the Japanese state. This was the most important single dimension of Rikugun activity because of its results and implications, but the process by which the army came to dominate the Japanese state was, in turn, the product of developments that reached back into the 1920s and beyond, at least to the Russian and Chinese Civil Wars. In the course of the these two conflicts, Japanese military formations found themselves undertaking operations without direct control and guidance from superior authority in Tokyo. This situation bred a habit of independent action, which over time came to be identified with the belief that action could and would not be repudiated by Tokyo. The first real example of this came in 1928, when Japanese military personnel from the Guandong (Kwantung) Army, the garrison force in Manchuria, murdered the local warlord, but the Army Ministry blocked all moves to have those responsible tried by courts-martial, on the grounds that such proceedings would be damaging to the army's prestige. The cabinet gave way, and having surrendered on such a crucial matter, it had no real basis on which to oppose deliberate insubordination when events revealed powerful support within Japan for the Guandong Army's action in 1931 and 1932 in overrunning Manchuria.

The Manchurian episode was crucial to the process whereby the Imperial Army in effect came to control the state. Officers of the Guandong Army staged the Mukden (Shenyang) Incident in Liaoning on 18 September 1931, and what followed amounted to a coup inside Mukden by the Guandong Army. After an emergency cabinet meeting in Tokyo, the Japanese government announced that it was committed to a policy of nonaggression within Manchuria, but the Army Ministry declared that it would not consult the cabinet about future policy but would be bound by the Guandong Army's decisions. The cabinet immediately denied the Guandong Army's request for three divisions and ordered the Korean command not to provide reinforcements for that army, whereon the Korean command did just that on 21 September. The government found itself confronted by a fait accompli and outmaneuvered at every turn by a military that played the card of public opinion against any attempt to halt proceedings inside Manchuria. The government fell in December; then, on 15 May 1932, the new premier, Inukai Tsuyoshi, was assassinated by a group of naval officers and army cadets.

This event marked the beginning of the military's domination of the political process within Japan because in its aftermath, the Rikugun would only nominate an army minister if a party leader did not head the government. After the 15 May incident, governments could only be formed with the assent of the military and only if they were prepared to accede to the military's demands. When Hirota Koki became prime minister in July 1936 in the wake of the army mutiny on 26 February 1936, he found that the army minister had effective veto power over all appointments. In practice, the army could refuse to appoint an army minister or use the threat of resignation in order to ensure compliance with its will. There was to be no basic change in such arrangements until Japan was overwhelmed by national defeat.

In terms of the major military commitments in this 14-year period, the Manchurian Campaign was of minor importance. There was no serious, sustained, or coherent resistance within Manchuria, set up by the Japanese as a puppet state known as Manzhouguo (Manchukuo, and after 1934 Manzhoudiguo [Manchoutikuo], the Manzhou [Manchu] Empire). The Sino-Japanese War, which began in 1937, was another matter. The ease with which Japanese forces overran northern China after July 1937 was testimony to the extent of Japanese success over the previous five years, but the real point was that the Rikugun found itself involved in a protracted war it had not sought and that tied down its resources. As in 1932, the Japanese navy instigated fighting in Shanghai in Jiangsu (Kiangsu) Province, and again, the army had to be deployed there to rescue its sister service: it could only do so by extensive mobilization and escalation of a crisis it would have preferred to have resolved through threat, intimidation, and a series of piecemeal Chinese surrenders, rather than war. The war and the Japanese military effort quickly widened.

There were some defeats along the way, the most notable being in front of Tai'erzhuang (Tai'erh-Chuang) on 6–7 April 1938. The next day, Imperial General Headquarters formally sanctioned an escalation of the war by ordering the capture of Xuzhou (Hsuchow), Jiangsu Province. This move enabled the Japanese military to link what had been two very separate efforts, in northern and central China, and then to develop the offensive that would result in the capture of the Wuhan cities of Hubei (Hupeh) Province in October.

The period after 1938 was notable for two developments, namely, the rice raids that began in Hubei Province in late 1940 and then the opening of the "Three All"—"Kill All, Burn All, Destroy All"—campaigns in Communist-held/infected areas in northern China. In the course of this and subsequent Japanese operations, the population of Communist base areas was reduced from an estimated 44 million to 25 million by a policy of mass deportations, murder, and deliberate starvation. The Communists were neutralized as a threat, with no major guerrilla activity in northern China for the remainder of the war, but as in all matters Japanese in this war, success was an illusion. By 1938, if not before, the Japanese army, with a million troops in China, found itself learning again the truth of the Clausewitzian dictum that it is easy to conquer but hard to occupy. The reason for this was the adoption by the GMD regime in China of a policy of protracted resistance that precluded negotiations. The Japanese countered with a strategic bombing offensive, but this did not bring the GMD leadership to surrender. Perhaps the only point of real interest in these campaigns was the first attempt by any armed force to use airpower to kill a head of state. On 30 August 1941, army bombers attacked a villa in Chongqing (Chungking) in Sichuan (Szechwan), where Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) was known to be taking part in staff talks.

These efforts ran concurrently with defeats at Soviet hands. Japanese commitments in China dictated a cautious policy in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia, but in 1938 and 1939, several small and two major clashes occurred between Japanese and Soviet forces. The first major clash took place between 11 July and 10 August 1938 in the area around Zhanggufeng (Chang-ku-feng) where Manchuria, Korea, and the Maritime Provinces met; the second occurred between May and September 1939 in the area between the River Halha and Nomonhan. In both cases, single Japanese divisions attempted to clear Soviet forces from their territorial holdings, but in the first action, the Japanese were checked, and in the second, they were subjected to attack by an enemy possessing overwhelming numerical superiority in aircraft, tanks, and artillery. Beginning on 20 August, the Soviets undertook an offensive that literally shredded the Komatsubara Force and then totally destroyed one infantry regiment on the banks of the Halha. By mid-September, the Japanese had brought three fresh divisions to Nomonhan, but by this stage, both sides had very little interest in continuing the battle, and a local truce was arranged: the Zhanggufeng and Nomonhan disputes were resolved in June 1940.

The defeat at Nomonhan coincided with the 1939 German-Soviet Non-aggression Pact, and Germany's act, together with the Anglo-French declaration of war on Germany, caused Japan to adopt a cautious policy and wait on events. The German victory in northwest Europe in spring 1940 was immediately followed by a change of government. On 21 July, Prince Konoe Fumimaro replaced the more circumspect Yonai Mitsumasa as prime minister. The two services' precondition for allowing Konoe to form a government was his prior acceptance of their demands for a treaty with Germany and Italy, additional credits for the army, a nonaggression treaty with the Soviet Union, and the adoption of a forward strategy in southeast Asia.

In the China theater, however, the international situation offered the army the means to isolate the Chinese Nationalist regime by intimidating the British and French colonial authorities in Southeast Asia. The German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 and the U.S. embargo of various goods, which was drastically extended that July, placed Japan in a situation in which a choice had to be made. At the navy's insistence, Japan's leaders decided to move into Southeast Asia to ensure access to raw materials. Without these assets, Japanese leaders believed their nation could not survive as a great power, even if this move meant war with the United States.

The army's role in such a war would be to provide garrisons in the islands that were to mark the defensive perimeter on which the Americans would be fought to a standstill. The navy's belief was that the fleet and land-based aircraft would be able to meet the Americans more or less on the basis of equality and thereafter fight them to exhaustion. A stalemate would then force the United States to reach some kind of negotiated settlement. Although this has been overlooked, the role of the army in the Pacific war was therefore very limited in one sense, and even in the initial phase, during which Southeast Asia was overrun, the commitment of the Imperial Army remained modest. The campaigns in Burma, Malaya, the Netherlands East Indies, and the Philippines involved only 11 Japanese divisions, the equivalent of a single army, and after these conquests were completed, no single campaign, whether in the southwest, central or north Pacific, involved a corps equivalent or more in the field until that in the Philippines in 1944 and 1945. Admittedly, the defeats Japan incurred in eastern New Guinea (March 1942 to December 1943) and thereafter along the northern coast of the island (December 1943 to May 1944) and in the central and upper Solomons (February to November 1943) did involve more than a corps equivalent, but these were a series of local defeats largely separated from one another. Probably no single reverse, even that on Guadalcanal (August 1942 to February 1943) at the very beginning of second-phase operations, involved more than two divisions.

The only defeat of corps-sized proportions incurred by the Rikugun prior to the Philippines Campaign was in Burma at Imphal and Kohima in the 1943–1944 campaigning season, the so-called March on Delhi that went disastrously wrong. The origins of this defeat lay in the ease with which the Japanese, with just one division, had frustrated a corps-sized British offensive in the Arakan in 1943, a campaign in which the Japanese outthought and outfought British forces with ease and one that bears comparison with the original campaigns of Japanese conquest in Southeast Asia.

In these 1941–1942 campaigns, the Japanese had no military margin of superiority, but they outfought individual enemies that were defensively dispersed and subjected to successive amphibious assaults by Japanese forces enjoying local air and naval superiority. The campaigns, conducted across a frontage of more than 3,000 miles, were characterized by economy of effort and even an almost aesthetic quality, as successive landings penetrated to the depth of Allied defenses.

Thereafter, the problem for Japan and the Rikugun was threefold. First, once they were no longer taking the initiative in the Pacific, Japanese garrisons were subjected to an overwhelming attack by massively superior Allied assets. No force could sustain itself against such an attack, and no resistance, however protracted and effective in terms of tying down U.S. military assets, could alter a pattern of defeat that brought American forces astride Japanese lines of communication to the south and took the war to the home islands. Second, the Rikugun deployed formations to the Pacific primarily at the expense of garrison forces in Manchuria and China, where these formations were not easily replaced. By 1944, ammunition shortages precluded Rikugun live-fire training. By August 1945, the class of 1945 was basically untrained, and the 1944 class was little better. The army, which had numbered some 24 divisions in the mid-1920s and 51 divisions in December 1941, raised 3 armored and 107 infantry divisions for service overseas: 1 tank and 55 infantry divisions remained in the home islands.

Despite these numbers, the quality of the army was declining because Japan quite simply lacked adequate industrial capacity to meet the requirements of total war. Japanese output in 1944 was equivalent to 4 percent of the American production of mortars, 4.7 percent of tanks, 8 percent of antiaircraft ammunition, perhaps 10 percent of all ordnance, and 6.5 percent of small-arms ammunition. With minimum capability, the divisions in the home islands in 1945 were singularly ill prepared to resist assault landings.

The Japanese army never, as it happened, experienced defeat in the home islands, but it faced defeat repeatedly on the continental mainland. The year 1945 saw Japanese forces defeated throughout Burma (with the exception of Tenasserim) and, in August, also throughout Manchuria, northern China, and Korea, as well as on Sakhalin and in the Kuriles, when Soviet forces put together a masterly short campaign. The Japanese forces numbered some 750,000 troops, but of these, some 300,000 were Manchurians suited only to garrison duties. The Japanese troops were mustered in 17 infantry divisions, equipped with 1,155 tanks, 5,360 artillery pieces, and 1,800 aircraft, but these were utterly routed by an enemy force consisting of 1 tank and 11 infantry armies. Seeking to consolidate what they held and to allow removal of formations to more important theaters, the Japanese had already begun major withdrawals within China, ending the period of Japanese successes that had begun in spring 1944 when Japan undertook a series of offensives throughout southern China. The Japanese conduct of these operations resembled their previous efforts in terms of brutality.

In July 1945, the Japanese army had 26 infantry divisions in China and another 7 in Korea, but even so, its position was hopeless. The extent of failure can be gauged by the fact that Japan managed to conjure into existence an alliance that included the world's most populous country; the greatest empire; the greatest industrial, naval, and air power; and the greatest military power. However unintentional, this was a formidable achievement, but it went in tandem with fundamental failure by the army leadership to comprehend the nature of the war in which it was involved. Drawing on its own highly selective interpretation of Japanese history and hobbled by the fact that, never having been defeated, it could not understand defeat, the army was dominated by an ethos that stressed a castelike reverence for rank and was strictly hierarchical. A very formal organization, it had no real capacity for flexibility and initiative at the lower levels. Its broad distaste for political and economic liberalism coexisted with its belief in what it deemed traditional Japanese martial values—specifically, its willingness to die in order to fight. The war was to prove, however, that sacrifice could not confound superior enemy matériel.

H. P. Willmott


Further Reading
Boyle, John. China and Japan at War: The Politics of Collaboration. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1972.; Cook, Haruko Taya, and Theodore F. Cook. Japan at War: An Oral History. New York: New Press, 1992.; Coox, Alvin. Kogun: The Japanese Army in the Pacific War. Quantico, VA: Marine Corps Association, 1959.; Crowley, James. Japan's Quest for Autonomy: National Security and Foreign Policy, 1930–1938. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966.; Dower, John. Japan in Peace and War. New York: New Press, 1993.; Drea, Edward J. In the Service of the Emperor: Essays on the Imperial Japanese Army. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.; Harries, Meirion, and Susie Harries. Soldiers of the Sun: The Rise and Fall of the Imperial Japanese Army. New York: Random House, 1991.
 

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