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Japan’s Imperial Army: Its Rise and Fall, 1853–1945

By Edward J. Drea. 332 pp. University Press of Kansas, 2009. $34.95.

This is the perfect meeting of author and subject: Edward J. Drea, the preeminent American authority on the Japanese Imperial Army, provides what is by far the most incisive English-language examination of that force. Drawing upon decades of his own work and recent Japanese scholarship, he dissects the tortured history of an institution that evolved from servant to master of an emerging modern Japan.

Those seeking detailed campaign and battle analysis should look elsewhere. What Drea delivers is an intricate institutional history of clashing visions embodied by an array of diverse personalities. The men who created the Imperial Army played a key role in the modernization of Japan, but they also created a precedent of rabid factionalism. Early on, clan-based cliques divided the army they dominated. Leaders also clashed over whether to follow Prussian or French army models. They split over whether the army should confine itself to homeland defense or gird for operations outside Japan. The Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905 signaled that the Imperial Army possessed the will and the ability to project power. But it also displayed enduring deficiencies in logistics and intelligence.

After World War I, the army’s factions shifted from a split along parochial geographic lines to a fundamental divide over the sort of war for which Japan should prepare: Should the army emphasize manpower to permit decisive victory in a short war, or invest its scarce funds in modernization for protracted war? Meanwhile, the rivalry between the Imperial Army and Imperial Navy led Japan to a national strategy far beyond its means: simultaneous preparation for war with the Imperial Army’s chief enemy, the Soviet Union, and the Imperial Navy’s favored opponent, the United States.

Outside Japan, the savagery for which the Imperial Army became infamous between 1931 and 1945 is its still-reverberating legacy. Drea deftly explains why the code of conduct for individual soldiers and command—the encouragement of or indifference to a massive chronicle of murder, rape, and pillage—represented a perversion, not continuity, of ancient Japanese warrior mores. Pliable recruits entered the army indoctrinated by a social structure that glorified militarism and emphasized the individual’s subordination to a familial structure stretching upward to the emperor, the divine paternal symbol. Between 1920 and 1941, the army formalized the notion that surrender was an unbearable shame.

The Imperial Army marched the state into a disastrous war with China, then the United States. Early victories only masked deep flaws in Japanese war preparations and strategy. Unchecked divisions between the War Ministry and general staff as well as between army, navy, and the civilian government accelerated the debacle that would result from a disastrously myopic vision of Japan’s capabilities. Ironically, the Imperial Army’s most credible performance in its last decades was the speed and efficiency with which it disbanded itself.

In short, Drea’s rich book is not just a brilliant piece of military history; it is of enduring value for understanding Japan’s modern history.


Originally published in the February 2010 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here