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A Question for the Imperial Japanese Army

By Robert M. Citino
1/4/2012 • Fire for Effect

“What were you guys thinking?”

The Imperial Japanese Army was, by most standards, a first-rate outfit. Its officers were as smart and dedicated as they come and the enlisted ranks were filled with some of the toughest light infantry the world has ever seen. They hardly seem like the type of folks who would dive headlong into a debacle. And yet they did.

“How did you get into this mess?”

An equally good question. Launching a war that eventually saw Japan taking on the Chinese, the British (plus the Commonwealth), the U.S., and finally the Soviets simultaneously, the Imperial Army (kogun) turned itself into the 1940’s equivalent of Sisyphus.

Oh sure, just like Sisyphus, the first push up the hill was pretty successful, and the initial Japanese gains after Pearl Harbor still have the capacity to amaze: Malaya, Singapore, Java, the Philippines. But we need to be honest: in early 1942 Japan was a middle-level power that circumstances were allowing to punch above its weight. Much of the early success was due to the fact that its opponents were so unprepared (in some cases) or so distracted by the fighting in Europe (in others). The first Japanese offensive easily overran the Dutch East Indies, for example, and those oil-rich islands were some of the biggest plums in the Pacific. We aren’t being uncharitable, however, if we point out that the mother country was under Nazi occupation at the time. The same with the British colonies. Locked in its own life and death struggle with a fierce enemy on its very door-step, Britain could hardly concentrate on the defense of such far-flung locales as Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, or Singapore. Japanese planning and preparation were first-rate, to be sure, but they were operating in a uniquely favorable situation.

As everyone knows, that boulder has a way of rolling back, however, and when it rolled down on Japan, it rolled down hard. From mid-1942 on, the Japanese operational record was the very definition of futility. The kogun reeled from one defeat to another. Their American enemies alone outnumbered and outproduced it many times over, and they were able to pry the Japanese out of one defensive bastion after another. Every student of the Pacific War knows the chronology: the 1st Marine Division landing on Guadalcanal in the Solomon islands in August 1942; the landing of the 2nd Marine Division on Tarawa in November 1943 (the Gilberts); the 4th Marine Division on Kwajalein in January 1944 (the Marshalls); more “storm landings” on Saipan, Guam, and Tinian in June 1944 that gave the U.S. control of the Marianas.

And so it went. If U.S. forces wanted to take a position badly enough in this war, the Japanese had to yield, even with soldiers willing to kill themselves rather than surrender. Having to disperse forces all over the vast Pacific, they could never match what we might call U.S. “surge capacity”—the ability to concentrate rapidly for battle at a specific time and place. U.S. planners skillfully played on Japan’s vulnerability, bypassing dozens of islands and letting massive Japanese forces wither on the vine. In February 1944, for example, heavy U.S. air raids smashed the Japanese base at Truk in the Caroline islands. U.S. forces essentially ignored the rest of the chain, and they did the same to the immense Japanese base at Rabaul, turning the island of New Britain into a kind of guardless POW camp for over 100,000 Japanese soldiers. I won’t even go into the finale: the mech-heavy Soviet offensive into Manchuria in 1945 that shredded the Japanese Kwantung Army without breaking a sweat, or the U.S. atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They speak for themselves.

Let’s end where we began, with the question, “What were you guys thinking?” This was a war that Japan had a very small chance of winning. My (admittedly) non-scientific estimate would place it at 10 percent, maybe less. Your mileage may vary.

So, what were they thinking? I’m a historian, so you probably suspect how I’m going to answer this question. The key to Japan’s performance in World War II, perhaps even its decision to launch such a “senseless” war in the first place, lies in the past. The distant past.

Next week, let’s take a trip back in time. The year is 1853, and Japan’s world has just exploded.

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18 Responses to A Question for the Imperial Japanese Army

  1. lirelou says:

    Well, it’s fair to point out that when the Japanese made the final decision to strike at Pearl Harbor, they had already fought a campaign, and signed a non-Aggression pact with the Soviets. So for all intents, the USSR was out of the Pacific War until 9 August 1945, at which time it was up against an Army that had been drained to reinforce other critical points.

    Also, in the road to war, it helps to note the disconnect between the military and the Japanese civil government that existed in the late 20s and 30s, leading to military actions that the civil government had not approved.

  2. Bruce says:

    Don’t forget how skillfully the Japanese military/industrial complex used the cult of emperor worship to rally the people around their warlike ambitions. They had the most to gain from war and they honestly thought they would win, despite the odds. [Perhaps that’s where this is heading next week . . .]

  3. Tony Robertson says:

    Robert: I have often wondered, how would the war in the Pacific have developed, had the Japanese attacked British and Dutch imperial outposts, but not US bases in Hawaii, Wake, Guam, and the Philippines? Was that even a viable alternative for them, militarily and politically?

    Politically, I think it would have been hard for FDR to convince Americans to support our own military involvement in defending European colonies in East Asia. I recall that, later in the war, Americans dismissively referred to South East Asia Command’s acronym as standing for “Save England’s Asian Colonies”. Without a clear casus belli in Pearl Harbor, Wake, Guam, and Luzon, would Americans have supported going to war with Japan over Malaya, Singapore, Burma, and the NEI? I think that would have been a tough sell.

    Militarily, Japan seemed to have had sufficient naval and air strength in late ’41 to be able to afford to play defense against the US Pacific Fleet and USAAF planes in the Philippines.

    • Tom says:

      But the hardliners in Japan would have never tolerated having a large U.S. presence so close to their recent conquests in Asia. The Phillippines was seen as part of Japan’s defensive belt and they had to occupy it.

  4. Dave T says:

    You have raised a question that I have had on my mind for a few years. The Japanese strongpoints that we bypassed, what happened to those men during the remainder of the war? How did they survive without aid from the home islands? Some of them spent many months in that condition.

    A second question, after taking Guadalcanal and blocking the ability for attacks on our sea lanes to Australia, could we have conducted a purely naval offensive in the Pacific? I suggest that a large concentrated submarine force and mobile carrier forces could have strangled the raw material resources needed by Japan. The bloody cost of island invasions might have been avoided. Your thoughts? And anyone elses?

  5. Patrick H. says:

    All Japanese plans in the Pacific were based on a missunderstanding of the American people. They thoguht we were lazy and weak and would not fight. You have to remember that the Japanese were not planning to invade and defeat the US in Califorina. Their plan was to grab as much resource rich territory, dig in and bleed America into a negioated peace. The military planners idenitfied the US Pacific fleet as the main threat to this plan and that is why they went after it in Peral Harbor. I am of the opinion that the only way this would have worked was to invade and occupy at least a portion of the Hawaiian island to deny them to the US Navy.

  6. lirelou says:

    According to Australian accounts I have read, the Japanese in New Guinea had resorted to farming, and in extreme cases, cannibalism. I suspect that conditions for survival in bypassed locales depended upon the ability of the land mass and adjacent seas to support both the Japanese and the local population.

    The idea of a naval cordon sanitaire around the Japanese home islands while they were bombarded with conventional weapons from the air seems plausible, but I wonder what the estimated costs for the necessary period to bring the home islands to heel would have been. Meanwhile, we would have been required to wage campaigns in Southern China and Korea, at least. War planners did envision the Japanese reinforcing their forces their with what they had in Southeast Asia. Budgetary considerations and war weariness of the civilian population do enter into war planning. They were expecting the war to continue into 1946 and possibly 47 before the bombs were dropped.

    • Dave T says:

      I would disagree with the need to have campaigns in China and Korea. Korea would have been virtually impossible to supply anyway. The Pacific side of the war may have taken longer to end, however, I think an interesting case can be made that the loss of American lives would be less. It is all conjecture and hindsight, but an interesting topic nonetheless.

      • lirelou says:

        As I understand it, plans were on the table to take Korea and use it as a base for continued air operations against Japan. Likewise, there were plans for an Allied landing in southern China, for which reason the OSS became interested in developing an indigenous resistance in French Indochina that could slow down the movement of Japanese troops into Southern China. And the planning wasn’t all on paper. The United States was already rearming the French to the point that they could provide a two division Amphibious Corps for operations against Japan. When the war ended as it did, those two divisions, the 9th and 3rd Colonial Infantry Divisions, became the basis of the French Far Eastern Expeditonary Corps that fought the First Indochina War despite American efforts to keep it out..

  7. lirelou says:

    While the Japanese may have misunderstood us, I do not believe they went to war underestimating us as much as they did by overestimating their own capabilities. From a Japanese point of view, they had, in less that forty years, gone from being a feudal society to an industrial power who could play the colonial card as well as any European nation. First, they defeated Asia’s oldest and largest Empire, the Chinese. That gave them Taiwan, and rights to establish what would eventually become a colony over Korea, as well as toe holds in Manchuria and China. Then, they took on and defeated Europe’s largest land power, Russia. All the smart money in that war had been on Russia, and Japan’s victory was by the skin of their teeth. They were, after all, up against a much larger Army and Navy. But win they did, and by brokering that agreement, the United States put its first real footprint on the world stage. Having defeated two of the world’s greatest powers at the turn of the century, how could a greater Japan possibly fail to clip the fins of American naval power in the Pacific? Unlike ourselves, they were, after all, descended from Gods.

  8. Tony Robertson says:

    Regarding the bypassed, cut-off Japanese garrisons: I have been reading WWII history for 35 years, but not until recently did I discover much about Australian operations against several of them, in 1944-45.

    The AIF of WWII has always fascinated me – their 6th, 7th, and 9th Divisions were among the few individual units in WWII to face the armed forces of all three Axis powers (plus the Vichy French). They saved MacArthur’s bacon in ’42-43. (Eric Bergerud does an excellent job telling their stories in his book “Touched With Fire”). They were some of the best infantry of WWII, fighting in one of the purest infantry-centric theaters, New Guinea and adjacent islands.

    Yet later, they were misused and abused by the Allied (mainly MacArthur) high command. They were sent on rather futile and unnecessary missions, against bypassed Japanese forces, in operations that had little strategic value in defeating Japan. The Australian government contributed to this wasted usage of manpower, encouraging field commanders to attack garrisons in New Britain, New Guinea, and Borneo.

    Australian forces were hardly in the headlines at all, after 1943. They were relegated to the backwaters of the Pacific.

    • lirelou says:

      And if memory serves, Bergerud himself rates the Australians as the finest infantry in the Pacific Theatre.

  9. Thomas Kerr says:

    Tony Robertson raised some interesting points:
    1) Given the American oil embargo, Japan had to act. Could they have limited their assault to the oil fields of Indonesia and tin and rubber of Malaya without touching the Philippines let alone Pearl Harbour? Hmm, I suspect that this might have inspired some great speeches from Winston.
    2) What as waste of Australian lives was the assaults all the way to Balikpapan. Everything which I have read of Thomas Blamey suggests he was the least competent of any Australian commanders ever!

  10. Thomas Kerr says:

    Here is a technological note which substantially affected the war in the Pacific.
    If you look at the map, you will see that Japanese supply shipping ran largely north south. American submariners based in Fremantle or Honalulu complained that their torpedoes with new fangled magnetic fuses designed to explode underneath a ship and break its back, just didn’t work. But the Beauord refused to believe the sub skippers.

    I do. I am a geophysicist and can tell you that a long iron object – read ship – near the magnetic equator develops a rather weak induced magnetic fields at its bow and stern only. So a perfectly aimed torpedo passing under a freighter amidships ‘saw’ no magnetic field at all and did not detonate.Mind, a few near misses must have occurred off bow or stern and maybe caused some damage.

    Note that the magnetic detonator worked just fine in the North Atlantic where the earth
    s magnetic field is twice a strong as at the equator and the 50 degree inclination produces a magnetic dipole directly under the guts of a ship.
    How many subskippers careers were blighted by ‘torpedoes expended, no hits recorded’.? Mind you, there were few geophysicists in the world in 1942 and the few were all looking for allied oil.

  11. lyndon says:

    That’s the answer to a quandary: Why couldn’t American torpedoes sink Jap ships? Keep up the excvellent obversations.

  12. lyndon says:

    How many German soldiers died in Soviet P.O.W. camps?

  13. Morton Hughes says:

    Lyndon, 740,372 In 1955 when West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer visited Moscow to open diplomatic relations and free German prisoners of war, Nikita Khrushchev informed him that only 9,628 German \war criminals\ remained in Soviet gulags, out of the 750,000 who were believed to have been captured or kidnapped and imprisoned. When Adenauer asked what had become of the rest, Khrushchev replied, \In the ground! In the cold Soviet ground.\ My source is the book \Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the most dangerous place on Earth\ by Frederick Kempe, page 105. This figure also includes German civilians.

  14. caracoid says:

    Far and away the most difficult question to answer regarding Japan’s decision to start the war in the Pacific was its decision to attack the US. For what? The US would never commit troops to protect Europe’s eastern colonies, and America’s major holding–the Philippines–didn’t have the oil, rubber or raw materials the Japanese were primarily looking for. Without the US around, Japan’s war would have been tidily completed in a few months with little chance of the war-devastated formal colonial powers ever returning to take them back.

    This miscalculation by Japan’s military rulers has to rank amongst the most cataclysmic in all military history. And yet, nobody ever says anything about it.

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