Relief Map of Japan

Japan was the principal Axis power in the Pacific, and fought what was effectively a separate war against the Allies from December 1941 to August 1945. Previous to the Pearl Harbor attack, she had been fighting a brutal undeclared war in China that alienated her from the United States and was a major contributing factor leading to the Pacific War.


Japan consists of four large islands plus many smaller islands with a total land area of about 145,000 square miles (376,000 km2). From north to south, the major islands are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. All are part of an island arc formed by the subduction of the Pacific Plate under the Asian Plate. Earthquakes are frequent and sometimes violent. A particularly severe earthquake in 1923 devastated Tokyo, and considerable assistance was donated by American citizens, which improved relations between the two countries for a short time. There are numerous active volcanoes in Japan, which overlie a sedimentary basement with some coal deposits and a few small oil fields. The latter fell very short of supplying Japan’s requirements. There are also some porphyritic sulfide deposits that supplied modest amounts of copper and small amounts of other metals. In general, though, Japan is poor in mineral resources.

The Emergence of the Modern Japanese Empire

The attempted Mongol invasions of Japan from Korea in 1274 and 1281 were pivotal in the emergence of a Japanese sense of nationhood. Following contacts with the Portuguese in 1542, the Japanese under Hideyoshi Toyotomi raised a large army equipped with firearms that may have been the best in the world at the time. However, the attempt to invade China via Korea in 1592 got as far as Pyongyang before the Japanese met a much larger if more poorly equipped Chinese army.  Following six years of some of the deadliest fighting the world had seen to that point, the Japanese withdrew from Korea. Fear of foreign influence and of firearms in the hands of ordinary peasants led to a massacre of Japanese Christians and the closing of the nation to the outside world in 1635.

The isolation was not airtight, since limited trade with the Dutch continued through the port of Nagasaki. This gave the Japanese rulers an opportunity to acquire Western scientific and technological knowledge, which was viewed as necessary to resist Western encroachments. However, the gunboat diplomacy of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853-1854 forced the Japanese to recognize that they had fallen far behind the West, and the resulting political and social turmoil led to the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate (military dictatorship) in 1867, the Boshin Civil War of 1868-1869, and the Meiji Restoration, which returned supreme political power to the Emperor and his advisors. The subsequent modernization of Japan was so rapid and successful that it won the admiration of much of the West.

By 1931 the Japanese Empire consisted of the home islands, Ryukyus, Kuriles, and Nanpo Shoto; Formosa, which was annexed in 1895; Karafuto, which was annexed in 1905; Korea, which was annexed in 1910; and the Mandates, which were awarded to Japan in 1919 and which Japan treated as an integral part of the Empire. Japan also held leases on the Kwantung Peninsula and Tsingtao and had extensive extraterritorial rights in Manchuria. In 1931 Japan occupied Manchuria and established the puppet state of Manchukuo, and after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937, Japan seized control of much of north and central China and the island of Hainan. In 1940, Japan compelled the French in Indochina to grant base and troop transit rights that amounted to a de facto occupation of the French colony.

The Japanese colonial empire was a political and strategic, rather than an economic, empire, and with the exception of Korea, which had long been seen as critical to Japanese national security, its acquisition was largely opportunistic. Because the Japanese had a close cultural and racial affinity with the peoples of Korea and Formosa, and because these territories were located close to Japan, they were much more closely integrated to the home country than were any of the Western colonies in the Far East.  The ultimate form and purpose of this integration was much debated in Japan, but no coherent view emerged, and a number of scholars (e.g. Myers and Drea 1984) have concluded that Japanese colonial policy combined the worst features of the "continental" colonialism behind the Nazi search for Lebensraum and the "overseas" colonialism best exemplified by the British Empire. Under the 1920 administration of the "commoner prime minister", Hara Kei, colonial policy reached its liberal apex with a proposal to grant representation of the colonies in the Diet. This proposal did not survive Hara's assassination, and colonial policy became increasingly illiberal: "Thus, as the empire evolved, Japan increasingly came to speak of the uniform obligations of all its subjects and less and less of the specific rights enjoyed only by Japanese citizens in the home islands" (Myers and Peattie 1984; emphasis in the original.)

Korea and Formosa were each ruled by a governor-general, usually a military man, who had sweeping executive, judicial, and legislative powers. Japanese rule in Formosa was relatively benign, in part because most Taiwanese passively acquiesced to Japanese rule, and in part because of the enlightened policies of an early Governor-General, Kodama Gentaro, and his brilliant civil administrator, Goto Shinpei. Korea was another matter. Most Koreans were strongly opposed to Japanese rule, and the first Governor-General, Terauchi Masatake, father of the future Pacific War field marshal, ruled with an iron fist. The March First Movement of March 1919 was brutally suppressed, with upwards of 7000 Koreans killed. The subsequent attempts at liberal reform ended with the growing power of the Japanese Army in national politics in the 1930s.

Consumption of rice by Koreans and Taiwanese actually dropped, in spite of large increases in productivity, because so much rice was shipped to Japan. Shifting of rice production abroad freed considerable resources in the home islands to speed the industrialization of Japan. The colonized peoples were compelled to substitute barley and millet for rice in their diets. On the other hand, provision of improved health facilities produced a significant increase in life expectancy.

Following the outbreak of war in the Pacific and the success of the Centrifugal Offensive, Japan administered the newly occupied territories as the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The Colonial Ministry was abolished in November 1942 and administration of Korea, Taiwan, and Karafuto was transferred to the Home Ministry, while administration of the occupied territories was transferred to the Greater East Asia Ministry.


Japan had a population of about 73 million people in 1941, plus approximately 30 million in Korea and Formosa. As late as 1936, the great majority of the population were poor peasants who barely produced enough to stave off starvation, and abortion and infanticide remained common practices until just prior to the Pacific War (Edgerton 1997). The ability of the Japanese population to adopt Western practices and technology was perhaps Japan’s greatest economic asset, since natural resources were limited. Japan has some of the most productive farmland in the world, due to its damp temperate climate and mineral-rich volcanic soil, but the terrain is so mountainous that arable land is scarce. While the population increased 143% from 1860 to 1941, the amount of land in cultivation increased from just 12% to 16%, with much of the newly cultivated land being marginally productive areas of Hokkaido. As a result, Japan was importing 20% of its food by 1941 in spite of heavy use of fertilizers and a Spartan national diet of 2180 calories per capita per day. Over 80% of this was grains and starches, of which over half was rice. Protein consumption was one of the lowest of any industrialized nation, with most Japanese eating just 65 calories of protein per day, usually as about three ounces of fish. Oddly, soybean was little used except as a condiment, amounting to just 8 grams per day.

The modernization of Japan was still far from complete in 1941. For example, the sanitation system in Tokyo still relied on vehicle pickup of sewage, which was transported to the countryside for composting. The shortage of fuel by August 1941 meant that sewage was being picked up by boat or bicycle-driven cart, which was inadequate to the demand.

Japan had to import almost all its essential raw materials, being self-sufficient only in coal. Virtually all of Japan’s iron ore, lead, oil, and phosphate were imported. Japan’s wartime strategy was to seize sources of these vital raw materials in southeast Asia, then set up an impenetrable defense perimeter that would force the Allies to the negotiating table. This strategy failed when the infuriated Allies proved unwilling to negotiate, and the defense perimeter proved vulnerable to leapfrog strategy.

An important factor in Japan’s collapse was the submarine blockade of Japan. Allied submarines destroyed half the Japanese merchant marine and isolated Japan from its resource areas. By the end of the war, the Japanese were out of oil, could no longer produce acceptable grades of steel or other metals, and were facing starvation.


The Japanese government theoretically derived its authority from the Emperor through the Meiji Constitution, which set up a cabinet and a bicameral Diet. The House of Representatives was popularly elected while the House of Peers was appointed by the Emperor. This gave the Japanese the trappings of a modern parliamentary democracy. However, the cabinet was appointed by the Emperor rather than the Diet, and thus was not directly answerable to the people's representatives. In addition, the armed forces answered directly to the Emperor, and the War and Navy Ministers were expected to be active duty officers of the corresponding armed services. This gave the armed forces considerable freedom of action independent of the civilian government, and either service could bring down the government by refusing to name a minister. These structural weaknesses, when combined with increasing militarism and nationalism in the larger society, were sufficient to allow the Army to turn Japan into an authoritarian military bureaucracy. In May 1938 the China "Incident" gave the Army a pretext to demand that the Diet pass a mobilization law that virtually ended any civilian control over the Army. By 1941 the Army (and therefore the government) were dominated by a triumvirate consisting of Tojo, Sugiyama, and Yamada.

However, unlike the European Axis, Imperial Japan never became a true dictatorship. Authoritarian rather than totalitarian, its government retained most of the trappings, and even some of the substance, of a parliamentary democracy throughout the war. Japanese courts imposed just 57 capital sentences during the Pacific War, and while the Army put forward its list of preferred candidates for the Diet election of 1942, not all the Army's candidates won. This is not to suggest that there were not serious restrictions on political expression, but it is clear that Tojo, unlike Hitler or Mussolini, was basically conservative in outlook and devoted to preserving the national polity (kokutai).

At the local level, the Home Ministry organized mandatory neighborhood associations in the fall of 1940. These were meant to perform various patriotic duties associated with mobilizing the entire strength of the nation for war. For example, rationed goods were typically picked up by representatives of the neighborhood associations at short notice whenever such goods became available. The representatives then distributed the goods to the families in the association, a task that often engendered considerable ill will. Almost every neighborhood association had at least one informer for the Tokubetsu Koto Keisatsu (Tokko or "Special Thought Police") and the fear of being denounced strained the social fabric to the breaking point.

The role of the Emperor during this time period remains obscure. It seems clear that MacArthur, believing that the Emperor was essential for a successful occupation, acted to protect the Imperial Family from prosecution at the Tokyo war crimes trials. The consensus of most historians in the immediate postwar period was that the Emperor was little more than a figurehead who only exercised his theoretical powers in the final crisis leading to the surrender. If this was the case, then the Japanese Army and Navy effectively answered to no one. However, more recent historical work suggests that the Emperor played a larger role in the conduct of the Pacific War than earlier historians acknowledged.

Another aspect of the relationship between Emperor and military was a long tradition of justifying insubordination and mutiny as attempts to protect the Emperor from the influence of corrupt advisers. Incidents of this kind took place as early as the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, and resumed in the turbulent years between the world wars. In the final months of the Pacific War, there was a real danger of the military kidnapping the Emperor, ostensibly for his own protection, if any move was made towards peace.

The Army emphasized  its special relationship with the Emperor by dropping the term kokugun  ("national army") in favor of kōgun ("imperial army") in the early 1920s.

Operational control of the Army and Navy was exercised through the Imperial General Headquarters, which corresponded roughly with the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. The service ministries were responsible for raising and training personnel and providing matériel and logistical support, like the corresponding U.S. Army and Navy Departments. However, in the United States, these departments remained firmly under civilian control, as did the supporting industrial complex. The Japanese military-industrial complex was firmly under military control. Furthermore, the two services distrusted each other to the point of maintaining separate industrial complexes, as discussed below. Imperial General Headquarters was divided into Army and Navy sections at different locations that hardly spoke to each other, leaving no ultimate decision maker other than the Emperor.

By the end of the war, for all practical purposes, power was concentrated in the hands of eight leaders: the Emperor, his principal adviser the Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Marquis Koichi Kido, and the six members of the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War.


Japanese politics in the late 1930s and early 1940s were dominated by the military and by various ultranationalist civilian movements. These organizations exercised considerable control over public discourse, both through the Kempeitai and through the civilian Special Police (Tokubetsu Koto Keisatsu or Tokko in short), known popularly as the "Thought Police."

Racism was a central element of Japanese ultranationalism. Japanese were taught that that they were shido minzoku, "the world's foremost people", and a professor at Kyoto University wrote a monograph promoting the theory that the Emperor was the embodiment of a cosmic life force and Japan was the true cradle of civilization. Militarism was a natural corollary of racism, as with Nazi Germany, and an Army pamphlet of 1934 stated that "War is the father of creativeness and the mother of culture" (Brown 1967). The rulers of Japan were as racist as the Nazis in Germany, with ethnic Japanese taking the place of "Aryans" and the Chinese arguably cast in the role of the Jews. Otherwise, the chief difference was a greater focus on the superiority of the the favored race and less emphasis on the inferiority of other races. Some writers have used the word racialism to distinguish the more self-centered racial philosophy of the Japanese from that of Western racists.

In spite of the efforts of the Army to indoctrinate the population, the Nationalist Party (which favored the Army) won only fifteen seats in the special election of 1937. The Imperial Rule Assistance Association, founded by Prime Minister Konoye Fumimaro in October 1940, was only partial successful in displacing the traditional political parties, and neither Konoye nor Tojo was able to make it the basis of a one-party state. Instead, the Army used its control of the Cabinet to marginalize the Diet.

One illustration of the state of politics in Japan was the mayor of Tokyo, Okubo Tomejiro. Okubo was a former Home Minstry bureaucrat, a leader within the Tokko, and a thug, who had led the persecution of suspected Communists. He was rumored to have blackmailed a prominent literary journal, Chuo Koron, for 5000 yen. Political corruption may be a common failing of human societies, but Japan was no exception.

Armed Forces

No nation had more courageous soldiers and sailors than the Japanese.  All believed that their lives belonged to the Emperor, and they were resigned to death in battle to a degree that astonished Westerners, as expressed in the martial song Umi Yukaba:

If I go away to the sea, I shall be a corpse washed up.
If I go away to the mountain, I shall be a corpse in the grass.
But if I die for the Emperor,
It will not be a regret.

This glorification of death reached such extremes that families of fallen soldiers were congratulated and normal mourning was considered shameful and inappropriate. Straus (2003) reports that among the recommended expressions to be offered to bereaved families were: "Congratulations on his having achieved the honor of a death in battle"; "This occasion was really one of honor"; or "It appears that he attained the long-cherished desire of a soldier." The bereaved were expected to respond with "Thanks to your kind concern he was able to achieve the honor of a death in battle. He certainly wanted this above all else. For us as family member it is enough that his death could repay the emperor's great beneficence."

Preparation of a young Japanese man to serve in the armed services began early. The public schools were heavily involved in militarization of children, and the primary reader for Japanese children, from which they first learned to read Japanese, began with "Advance, Advance, Soldiers advance!" (Peattie et al. 2011). This was reinforced by family, particularly relatives who were veterans, and neighbors. Historian Kawano Hitoshi (in Peattie et al. 2011) has described this process as the social construction of a soldier.

One need not suppose that this outward attitude reflected the inner feelings of individual Japanese. While it is common in most cultures for a person to put on an outer face that conceals private feelings, the inflexible, group-oriented Japanese culture of 1941 meant that the individual Japanese kept his inner life (honne) much more private than was the norm in the West, maintaining the orthodox public face (tatamae) even in diaries and to all but the most intimate friends. 

Japan’s biggest advantage at the start of the war was thus not quantity or even quality of weapons, but the superb preparation and training of its soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Japan’s subsequent military decline can be traced to the loss of its best warriors, and the failure to train adequate replacements, in the long battles of attrition that followed Midway.

There are indications, however, that this advantage had already started to erode in the Army even before war broke out in the Pacific, as a result of the long struggle in China. Kawano (ibid.) reports that interviews with veterans of 37 Division, a Class C "security" division in China, reveal little of the fanaticism that the Americans observed in the Pacific. Like Western soldiers, these Japanese were motivated less in combat by patriotism or other abstractions than by loyalty to their fellow soldiers. These soldiers also reported easy fraternization with their officers, and admitted that orders from incompetent officers were passively resisted and that, on rare occasions, soldiers even talked about murdering officers whose incompetence endangered their men. On the other hand, Kawano confirms that recruits were routinely subjected to a "baptism of blood" in which they were ordered to bayonet bound Chinese prisoners of war.

Army. The Imperial Army cultivated the notion of Yamato-damashii (大和魂), the "spirit of Japan" that supposedly guaranteed the invincibility of its armed forces in battle. However, the Imperial Army lacked the industrial base necessary for success in modern total war. Its superb troops were poorly equipped. The standard Japanese infantry rifle proved accurate and effective, especially from jungle cover, but Japanese machine guns and other heavy weapons were inferior to those of their opponents. The Japanese were especially lacking in artillery and in armored vehicles, though these were less important in jungle campaigns than on mainland Asia. The Japanese divisional wedge was very thin by Western standards, so that the number of support troops proved inadequate for sustained campaigns. Japanese soldiers in the far reaches of the Pacific suffered from hunger and lack of medical care because of the inadequacy of Japanese logistics, an area that had been persistently neglected from the time of the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. The Japanese General Staff did not originally include a logistics branch and transport officers were ineligible for admission to the War College. At the time of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, only 4 percent of military academy graduates were choosing to go into the logistics corps.

The Army had extensively debated its fundamental operating doctrine since the end of the First World War. Traditionalists favored a large, low-tech army oriented towards fighting short, limited wars. Revisionists wanted a smaller but better-equipped army suitable for fighting protracted wars on a total war basis. However, the attempt by revisionist Army Minister Ugaki Kazunari in May 1925 to implement a sweeping consolidation and rationalization of the army (gunshuku, "arms reduction") was largely thwarted by traditionalists led by Araki Sadao. The Army eventually tried to have its cake and eat it, maintaining troop levels while increasing the number of divisions by converting from a square to a triangular division TO&E, and equipping the troops at the expense of the civilian economy. For example, in May 1937, War Minister Ishiwara Kanji (who had played a leading role in the Japanese takeover of Manchuria) pushed through a five-year plan for converting Japan from light to heavy industry, expanding industrial output by a factor of two or three and increasing aircraft production tenfold.

The Japanese Army tried to compensate for material deficiencies with fighting spirit. Following the Takebashi Mutiny of 23 August 1878, the Army high command began inculcating soldiers with bushido ("the way of the warrior") as a way to improve discipline. This trend continued after the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, when at least one body of Japanese troops had to be driven forward to battle at bayonet point. Corporal punishment, already practiced informally, became institutionalized as part of the squad regulations of 1908. In June 1879 the Shōkonsha memorial to the dead of the Boshin Civil War was converted to the Yasukuni Shrine, dedicated to the uniqueness of the Japanese people and the divinity of the Emperor under state Shintō. Soldiers who fell heroically in battle were acclaimed as "war gods" (kami).

Emperor worship became an important element of Army discipline. The Imperial Rescript to the Armed Forces declared that orders from a superior officer were to be regarded as from the Emperor himself. This was considered awkward enough in certain situations that the Japanese word for "notification" was used instead of the word for "order". For example, instructions on comfort women, or on euthanasia of wounded soldiers who could not be evacuated, were couched as "notifications" rather than "orders". This avoided the implication that military prostitution or euthanasia were the will of the Emperor himself.

All these measures had a dark side that was manifest in a shocking record of atrocities committed throughout the Pacific and east Asia. Drea (2009) has described the transformation of the Army from a force noted for its good conduct in the Russo-Japanese War and First World War to the force noted for its brutality in the Second World War as a "sea change." Tillman (2010) has suggested that the decline of Buddhism and Confucianism in the face of state Shintō removed an important moderating element from Bushido.

The Army's 1929 field manual emphasized spiritual power and the use of the bayonet. Artillery was to be kept light and mobile to keep pace with fast-moving infantry. Encirclement and night attacks were favored and retreat was unthinkable. Troops were to fight to the last man, which implied that surrender was impermissible and probably accounted for Japan's failure to ratify the 1929 Geneva Convention on prisoners of war. Commanders were to indoctrinate their troops with a "belief in certain victory," a phrase first appearing in the 1929 manual that was echoed repeatedly during the war, even when victory was clearly unattainable. By the late 1930s, fighting to the death (which had not particularly been a feature of earlier Japanese conflicts) had become part of the Army's ethos, and was formally institutionalized in 1941.

The "belief in certain victory" encouraged a kind of fatalism that was highly detrimental to sound tactical judgement. Japanese military logic too often ran backwards: Victory was certain, therefore the enemy could not be as strong as they appeared, therefore the attack should go forward as planned. Belief in destiny to the point of being willing to take spectacular risks was not an attribute solely of Japanese commanders during the war, but it was far more pervasive in the Japanese officer corps than among their enemies. So great was the apparent Japanese fearlessness on the attack that Marine riflemen on Guadalcanal attributed it to the Japanese soldiers being drugged with opium, which the Marines sometimes found in Japanese field packs.

Corporal punishment was pervasive in the Japanese Army and Navy. Japanese author Tasaki Hanama described training of new recruits in the Japanese Army (Browne 1967):

Five old soldiers went down the line without warning, slapping each soldier soundly on his cheek. Those that could not keep their posture of attention were slapped more than the others. The sergeant then demanded of each recruit why he thought he had been slapped. As each gave what he thought might be the answer, he was soundly slapped again. Finally, one recruit, when his turn came said he didn't know. "That is right!" The squad leader said. "When you are slapped don't give excuses. As His Majesty has been pleased to admonish in his Imperial Rescript, 'Uninfluenced by worldly thoughts and unhampered by politics, guard well your single destiny of patriotism.' Our sole duty is to be patriotic to the Emperor. You need only obey what you are told."

This was naturally resented by enlisted men. Yokota Yutaka, a Kaiten pilot who survived the war, later wrote (Yokota 1962):

Some ... did not have to strike you to get things done. If you failed, they looked at you in a way that was worse than any physical punishment. They made you feel you had failed them, and you tried all the harder after that. That was the way to handle men, I thought. Harsh discipline, with beatings, only made you sulk and think of how you'd been mistreated, instead of the job you had to do.

Group punishment was also common, as it was felt that it would encourage the comrades of a man who fell short to apply punishment of their own. 

The Army was divided into warring cliques during the 1920s and 1930s. The Imperial Way (Kōdō) Faction, composed of admirers of former Army war minister Araki Sadao such as Yamashita Tomoyuki, emphasized fighting spirit and denigrated economic factors in warfare. It was opposed by, and by 1941 had largely lost out to, the Control (Tōsei) Faction of Tojo Hideki and Nagata Tetsuzan, which advocated economic planning to prepare Japan for a prolonged total war. Nagata had been assassinated in 1935, but Tojo had risen to the position of Prime Minister by the time war broke out in the Pacific. The Imperial Way Faction was responsible for an attempted coup on 26 February 1936 that was put down only through the direct intervention of the Emperor. This destroyed the Imperial Way Faction, but paradoxically led to the adoption by the Army of the Imperial Way tenet of Emperor-worship.

The strength of the Japanese Army was fixed at 17 divisions from 1930 to 1937, but with the outbreak of war in China the Army rapidly expanded. Seven new divisions were raised in 1938 and nine more in 1939. By December 1941 the Army had grown to 51 divisions plus a large number of independent mixed brigades. This rapid expansion seriously taxed the Japanese industrial base, and what had been a highly professional and reasonably (if not lavishly) well-equipped force was seriously diluted and many of its newer formations were very poorly equipped. Most of the green formations were sent to China to be blooded in battle, while the 11 divisions that were committed to the Centrifugal Offensive at the start of the Pacific War included some of the best formations in the Japanese Army.

Navy. The Imperial Navy was in better material shape than the Army when war broke out. Its sailors were well-trained and its main combat units were comparable in quality with those of Western navies. The Yamato, which was just being completed as war broke out, was the largest, most powerful battleship in the world. Japanese carriers lacked catapults and were somewhat lacking in underwater protection, but were otherwise the equal of their American counterparts. Japanese cruisers and destroyers were lacking in antiaircraft protection, but were armed with the deadly Long Lance torpedo, which was far superior to anything in the Allied arsenals.

Japanese aircraft shocked the West when they were first encountered. The Zero fighter was faster, more maneuverable, and had a longer range than most Western aircraft of 1941. It would be some time before its weaknesses were discovered. Japanese bombers were long-ranged, but vulnerable, and Japan never created a true strategic bomber. But Japanese light attack aircraft, such as the Kate and the Val, wrought havoc on Allied shipping.

Japanese naval doctrine had long adopted many of the same tactics as Western navies, including the line ahead battle formation and the circular cruising formation. But it also had its own peculiar flavor, captured in aphorisms such as nikuhaku-hitchū ("press closely, strike home") for its destroyer forces, ka o motte, shū o sei-su ("using a few to conquer many"), and kenteki hissen ("fight the enemy on sight"). ka o motte, shū o sei-su was reflected in the Japanese effort to make their ships, aircraft, and weapons individually superior to those of their opponents, a philosophy that culminated in the superbattleships.

The Navy was riven by factions by 1941, to the point where it had become "a group of semi-independent satrapies, of which the general staff was only the most powerful" (Evans and Peattie 1997). In particular, the Navy was split between the Fleet Faction, which dominated the Navy General Staff, and the Treaty Faction, which dominated the Navy Ministry. (The transfer of Yamamoto from Navy Vice-Minister to commander of Combined Fleet must be seen in this context.) This played into the hand of middle-level staff officers who were able practitioners of gekokujō (下克上 "loyal insubordination") and tended to be fanatically anti-British and anti-American. These officers did much to accelerate the Japanese plunge into war with the western powers.

Service Rivalry. One of Japan’s greatest military weaknesses was the bitter rivalry between the Army and the Navy. As was the case with most military powers, Japan’s armed services were insulated from each other by separate traditions and different skill mixes, and they competed for the same national resources. But, in addition, the Japanese Army was traditionally a stronghold of the Choshu clan, while the Navy was traditionally dominated by the Satsuma clan. The two clans had joined forces to bring about the Meiji Restoration, but became rivals in the new Japanese government.

Curiously for an island nation, the Army was historically the senior service. This went back to the Meiji Era, when the Army was given overall responsibility for national defense and the Navy reported to the Army High Command. The Navy did not even have its own general staff until 19 May 1893, and even then the Navy Chief of Staff was no more than a rear admiral, while the Army Chief of Staff was a full general. This disparity created deep resentment in the Navy, which was carefully fanned by Yamamoto Gombei (no relation to Yamamoto Isoroku), the father of the modern Japanese Navy. Yamamoto was not the first Japanese to promote the views of American naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan, but Yamamoto eagerly seized on Mahan's argument that imperial greatness rested on a powerful blue-water fleet. The stunning victory at Tsushima during the 1905 Russo-Japanese War bolstered the Navy's prestige and allowed it to secure greater independence, but the Japanese Navy never quite succeeded in convincing the nation that Japan was an island empire. The Navy was still overshadowed by the Army, particularly during the period of military oligarchy from the 1930s to the end of the Pacific War.

The Army and Navy could not even agree on a national strategy. The Army maintained a continental orientation and advocated a hokushin ("northern advance") strategy. The Navy argued for a Pacific orientation and a nanshin ("southern advance") strategy. Objectively, the Army's national strategy was more sound: There was nothing much in the Pacific that had not been claimed by the Western powers, while Manchuria and Korea were a power vacuum in the early 20th century, into which Japan might realistically expand its empire. However, the Navy could hardly justify a massive capital ship fleet to support the Army's continental strategy, and the Navy soon countered the Army's emphasis on Russia as the traditional enemy with an enemy of its own: The United States. That the United States was on friendly terms with Japan at the time was irrelevant, and the Washington Naval Treaty provided a pretext for the Navy to inflame opinion, first among its own officers, then the Japanese public, against America.

Long-term policy planning all but collapsed after June 1936, when the last Imperial Defense Policy was approved by the Emperor. By this time, periodic revisions of the Imperial Defense Policy had become little more than papering over of deep differences, and discussions in August of that year between chief Navy planner Fukudome Shigeru and chief Army planner Ishiwara Kanji went nowhere even after being brought to the cabinet level. This led to such anomalies as the Japanese Army taking responsibility for air operations in northern China and Manchuria and the Navy taking responsibility for air operations in central and southern China: One can only wonder how effective ground air support was in most of the China theater.  Ironically, the increased willingness of the Imperial Army to work with the Navy after 1939 only hastened the disaster for Japan that was the Pacific War.

Cooperation was good during the first six months of the war. The war plan had been carefully negotiated between the services prior to Pearl Harbor, and things went pretty much according to plan. Thereafter, cooperation between the services deteriorated. Each service claimed its own share of the shipping pool, with no effort to coordinate shipping, until it was much too late. Each service planned its own operations, and extensive negotiations were required to secure any assistance from one service for the operations carried out by the other. Aircraft and weapons factories were often divided into Army and Navy sections, with the doors between the two literally locked and barred to keep one service from pilfering scarce raw materials from the other. It was almost as if the war was fought by two uneasy and distrustful allies rather than sister services of a single nation.

Differences between the services were theoretically worked out at Meetings in the Imperial Presence, which were the highest decision-making mechanism in time of war, but these often merely papered over the differences. The conferences were little more than ritualized readings of positions worked out in advance by staff, and any issues that came up were invariably deferred until staff could study them in depth. Eight such conferences were held between 1937 and 1943. With the fall of the Tojo Cabinet on 15 June 1944, the new Prime Minister, Koiso Kuniaki, instituted the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War. This proved little more effective in governing the Japanese war effort, though by now the biggest split was between the military and the civilian politicians. The military refused to discuss operational matters with civilians, withheld information from Koiso, and ignored his recommendations.

The bottom line is that the Japanese never developed effective machinery for making the highest-level decisions. It was left to the Emperor to resolve disagreements between the services, a role he seems to have been ill-equipped to fill.


Benedict (1954)

Browne (1967)

Cohen (1949)

Cook and Cook (1992)

Dolan and Worden (1990)
Drea (2009)

Edgerton (1997)

Evans and Peattie (1997)
Frank (1999)

Goldman (2012)

Goodwin and Starkings (2017)

Grunden (2005)

Hastings (2007)

Hicks (1994)

Hotta (2013)

Hoyt (1993)

Johnson (1983)

Larrabee (1987)

Leckie (1962)

Marston (2002)

McClain (2002)

Miller (2007)

Myers and Peattie (1984)

Peattie et al. (2011)

Straus (2003)

Weinberg (2005)

Smith (2000)

Tillman (2010)

Yokota (1962)

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