The Japanese soldier was a product of his society, encumbered with certain
strengths and weakness like soldiers of all countries. He went by the
generic knick name of Heitai, just as the British went by Tommy, the Russians
by Ivan, and the Americans by Joe. He was generally a conscript between
the ages of 19 and 45. During the pre war years his term of service in
the active duty forces was for two years. During the war years it was
lengthened to three years.
His background was varied. Out of 100 typical Japanese soldiers you could
expect to find: 31 farmers, 30 factory workers, 15 White collar professionals,
seven or eight government employees, five teachers, three fishermen, one
or two miners, and six from various assorted professions. Additionally
you would observe that they all could read and write. One or two of them
would even be university graduates, two had graduated from a junior college,
11 had finished high school and 85 had finished the six grade, which was
the legal requirement for all citizens of the Empire. More surprising
at least 15 of them could read and write English. The education levels
may seem surprising but they were the result of an Imperial Rescript mandating
education by the Emperor Meji. The majority, a full 70%, came from the
homes of the poor.
Our generic Japanese soldier had been conscripted into the Imperial Army
since conscription began on 10JAN1873. In order to qualify for induction
he had to be at least 1.5 meters tall, his chest needed to be as broad
as half of his height, weigh at least 103lbs, and not be completely bald
Not everyone meeting the minimum qualifications was accepted, as late
as 1937 the rejection rates were running as high as 600 out of 1,000.
This greatly reduced the number of qualified candidates entering the lottery.
So worrying in fact was this escalating rejection rate that the government
responded by mandating 10-15 minutes of daily physical conditioning exercises
in the work place and that every city with a population of at least 100,000
must have a large four acre physical training complex .
Japanese soldiers were inducted into the Imperial Army on January 10th
out of deference to that being the day the conscription act was made law.
Induction day was a community wide celebration with families invited and
expected to attend attired in their finest traditional clothing. Commanders
made speeches emphasizing that the new soldiers were warriors in the service
of the Emperor and that the Army was merely an extension of the soldiers
home. A letter sent to the parents of each recruit by his commanding officer
asking for personal information reinforced this home like aspect and replete
with promises to keep the family appraised of their sons conditions and
progress. Each letter ended with a promise that he, the commander, would
act in the place of the soldier’s family, as his surrogate father
until such time as the soldier returned home. Then the soldiers, wearing
their new uniforms would exit the barracks and do a pass in review for
their new and old families.
It is likely that this pass in review would be quite smart as fully 75%
of the recruits had some form of previous military training. The program
was completely voluntary and started when he was eight years old. It involved
two hours per week of military training and four to six days a year of
military maneuvers. Though as the war years came, the training became
a part of the schools normal curriculum. He would not have been alone
in the ranks surrounded by strangers. Japanese Regiments each recruited
from a specific geographical area, furthering the family like atmosphere
of military service. Because the majority of soldiers came from poor homes
and had likely been contributors to the family’s income, the government
set up a series of allowances payable to the family while the soldier
was serving with the colors .
His hair was clipped very short and his uniform was generally ill fitting.
Often his boots were unpolished, his buttons undone and his hat was set
askew. In fact a Japanese soldier could fully expect to pass a full inspection
with a three or four day growth of beard. As part of his spiritual training
he was taught not to pay undue attention to outward appearances and too
expect only simple food. In order to control his spiritual influences
the Army censored all in-going and out-going mail, forbade pin-up posters,
made available reduced cost condoms, and subjected Heitai to a full medical
exam once a month. Interestingly he could drink on duty as long as it
did not interfere with the performance of his duty. He had Sundays off
from 0700 to 1800 and was benefited by 20 patriotic and military holidays
a year. But officers were held to a higher spiritual standard. Any officer
of the rank of Major or above who was found to be visiting a prostitute
would be cashiered from the service.
Japanese Infantry training was tough and was a process of gradual hardening
of mind, spirit, and body. In the pre-war years it lasted the entire first
year of an enlistment. During the war it was reduced to three months and
often done in the operational area itself. During the pre-war era the
typical training outline for a year went as follows:
January-May: Initial recruits training (typical military
topics, squad training, bayonet, and marksmanship. In February he would
go on a five-day cross-country march as part of building up endurance
and operational awareness of cold weather.
June-July: Marksmanship, field works, platoon and company training, bayonet,
and marching 20 miles a day.
August: Company and battalion training, field exercises,
swimming, combat marksmanship, bayonet, and marching 25 miles per day.
(March discipline as less stringent then in Western armies. Soldiers walked
they did not march, they picked up firewood on the go and drank from their
canteens when they wanted to).
October and November: Combat marksmanship, battalion
and regimental training, and the Grand Fall maneuvers which were considered
a spectator event by the public and conducted under the watchful eyes
of the Emperor himself.
The training was a gradual toughening up similar to what was experienced
in other armies. Three things stand out about Japanese Infantry training.
These three things are the focus on spiritual training (Seishin Kyoiku),
long distance marching and night fighting.
The spiritual training was considered the very foundation of all other
training. The motto was that Faith equaled strength. Its primary intent
was to draw up on traditional Japanese cultural norms and values as a
way to compensate for known deficiencies in equipment and technologies.
Later during the war it would be further emphasized to make up for lack
of conventional training and the lesser qualities of the recruits being
taken into the service. In the regime of spiritual training two things
should be noted. The first is the emphasis on bayonet fighting. It was
felt that because of the superior aspects of the Japanese warrior culture
that no foe could best them at a close in fight. That this close in fight
was the very best way to utilize the unique strengths of Japanese culture
over and against the strengths of any opponent. This belief was backed
up a long cultural history of Emperor Worship, which continually reinforced
this mindset and belief. The Japanese soldier never though of himself
as a soldier he though of him self as a modern day incarnation of an ancient
samurai warrior first and foremost.
Following this logic the Japanese soldier was taught that his most important
weapon was his spirit harnessed to his bayonet. His bayonet being the
modern version of the samurai sword. He was taught “The fixing of
bayonets is more than a fixing of steel to the rifle since it puts iron
into the soul of the soldier doing the fixing.” His rifle to which
that bayonet was affixed was also considered a symbol of his military
spirit and the personal property of his Emperor. Any neglect or misuse
of that rifle or bayonet was considered a corruption of the soul and an
act of irreverence towards the Emperor and the reflected divinity of the
soldier himself. Surprisingly, given the amount of marksmanship training
evident in the training schedules the Japanese soldier proved to be a
notoriously poor shot with his rifle. Even the snipers, which were reckoned
to be the very best in stalking and camouflage, were trained to engage
targets out to only 300 meters. Which contrasted greatly with his imaginative
use of machine guns and over all excellence with light mortars.
The spiritual training also focused on the Divine Emperor, frugal living,
and devotion to duty. The central focus for these values was the Imperial
Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors of the Emperor Meiji. The soldiers had
to meditate of this document for ten minutes every morning and would be
forced to recite parts of it by memory prior to eating supper. Failure
to correctly recite the text meant an empty stomach. So revered was this
document that it was read at a unit parade ceremony some four or five
times a year. The task of reading to the assembled troops being considered
a great honor amongst the junior officers. It is known that one time a
Junior Lieutenant publicly made a mistake when reading the text and out
of shame committed suicide.
No opportunity was missed to pound home the point of spiritual superiority.
Long route marches would often be taken with the terminus at a national
shrine or historic site. One of the most important sites, which he would
visit once a year, was the national soldiers shrine. Here was inscribed
the name of every soldier who had ever fallen in service to the emperor.
There was no such thing as an unknown soldier in the Japanese military
and the dead were not forgotten they were earnestly believed to be with
the living continuing the fight on the spiritual plane.
Besides using the spirit to overcome defects in technology and material
the Japanese believed that night operations could negate superior firepower,
especially artillery, and help their soldiers close in to the enemy where
their superior spirit and individual skills would win out. Typically the
soldiers spent two nights a week in night operations training. The individual
soldier was taught how to crawl slow and silent. Stealth was emphasized
to better enable the soldier to get close for the final attack. Stealth
was taught by having soldiers make sure their canteens were topped off,
their ammo pouches settled with wads of paper, their boots wrapped with
burlap and rags. He was taught to thrust hard and full with his bayonet
as studies had shown soldiers at night tended to short thrust wit the
They started their night training in the barracks area during early evening
wearing dark glasses, then at night when the moon was full, followed by
the darkest of nights through rough country. During this training they
were taught to fall flat on a regular basis to look up at the horizon
and to use off center vision. They focused on obstacle clearing, attacks
up to company in size, concealment, noise identification and prevention,
patrolling, security and orienteering. Navigation was by map and compass
and leaders kept troops in line by wearing white strips on their backs.
A single diagonal strip for platoon leaders, a white X for company commanders,
and some leaders even took to dosing their clothes in distinctive scents.
Before the war there was a noticeable lack of petty crimes and infractions
in the Japanese Amy. It was routine to go six months with out some one
in the guardhouse. A contributor to this was the paternal nature of relations
between men and enlisted. Soldiers were taught and encouraged to think
of their officers as daddy and their NCOs as mom. It was not uncommon
for soldiers to make purely personal calls on their leaders at home. Unlike
many armies in the west the Japanese officer was expected to mess with
his men, eating the same rations and suffering whatever privatations his
men did. The hitch was that the officer had to buy his own sword, his
own uniform and provide for his own billeting, the tradition being that
he lived off base. All of this on a very low salary. With that being the
case though, the word of the officer was considered the word of the Emperor.
This contributed to orders being obeyed but had the down side that many
officers would issue orders and then just assume that they had been carried
out. This lack of personal supervision was exacerbated by the long held
Japanese tradition of the local officer having complete independence of
action with in the area that was his responsibility.
At the beginning of the war in late 1941 the situation was already turning
grim for the Japanese Army. The Army had suffered high loses in Officers
and NCO’s in China. Between 1937 and 1941 Japanese losses in China
totaled 185,000 killed in action. This was due in large part to their
tactical construct valuing leadership and personal valor over administrative
and battle management skills. Their tactics also called for imaginative
and daring risks at he lowest levels which with the losses were becoming
harder and harder to implement. These losses and the expansion of the
army caused a rapid increase in promotions, a shortening of training classes,
and the induction and mobilization of poorer quality manpower. This resulted
n increasing disciplinary problems and reliance on the easiest of tactical
methods since the lack of training did not neglect the demands for personal
valor and warrior spirit. Much like the Imperial Navy soon ran out of
good pilots the Army was running out of good leaders at the critical troop
With the influx of new troops and the degradation of training especially
in the leadership problems soon developed. Disciplinary problems were
of the greatest concern because this ate away at what the Japanese believed
to be their greatest combat multiplier, their spiritual strength. The
men still rejected fear. The men still fought alone in the company of
their ancestors but when not in battle they were becoming hard to control.
The spiritual aspects began to take on new and ever more important primacy
as the training and quality deteriorated. What had been the weapon of
first choice in an arsenal of some was becoming a weapon of final resort
in an otherwise empty arsenal.
The dictum that there are only two possible outcomes to any battle was
honorable victory or honorable death. And the lack of skill and the poorly
trained replacements indicated that the later would soon be the final
outcome. Especially when shock action took precedence over firepower and
the ultimate aim of an infantryman was to take part in a charge, which
brought him face to face with his foe.
One of the primary causes of this falling off of efficiency and ability
was the lengthy and detailed nature of both officer and NCO training.
Officer training was open to all who met the basic educational qualifications.
As a result the officer corps of the Imperial Japanese Army was largely
made up of members of the lower middle class. This did enhance the mutual
affection between the leaders and the led as they often had similar backgrounds.
All graduates of state recognized primary school were eligible to set
for entrance examinations to the lower Officer education schools. The
acceptance rate to the lower school was one out of 60. This school was
two years in length and contained a rigorous curriculum of general subjects
with emphasis given to kendo, and Japanese history. Up on completion of
the lower school the graduate had to complete three months in the ranks.
This was followed by attendance at he upper school, which was again gained
by examination and recommendation. Here the schooling was wholly military
in character. This was followed by two months in the ranks as an NCO and
then final competitive examinations for commissioning. This type of commissioning
was the most common but it did have its limits. Those who did not go on
to the military academy afterwards could only rise up the ranks to the
rank of captain and would therefore be retired by age 48.
The Japanese did have set retirement ages for various ranks. This was
adhered to even during the war in most cases. An example of this was the
Commander of Japanese Forces at the Battle of Kohima-Impahl. Soon after
the battle he reached the mandatory retirement age and was retired rather
then reassigned to another command. Those who upon graduating at the top
echelon of their upper school class were eligible for the Japanese military
academy. This was done by examination after their two months as an NCO.
Classes at the academy were strictly military in nature. The top of the
class in the military academy could after a few years service apply for
the General Staff College.
The General Staff College was a three-year school with 50 slots allocated
per year. The average age of those beginning their course of instruction
was 30 and the average rank was that of a Major. Officer promotions in
the IJA had minimum time in grade requirements like most armies. These
were as follows: For 1LT – six months, for CPT – one year,
for MAJ – one year, for LTC – one year, for COL – one
year, for MG – one year, for LTG 1.5 years. Promotions above LTG
were at the discretion of the Emperor. There was a provision however for
both Officers and NCOs to be advanced two grades for especially meritorious
NCO training was just as laborious as officer training. It required time
with the troops and about one to two years at an NCO academy.
Though these training regimes look sound on the surface they were abbreviated
beginning in 1941 with the rapid expansion of the war effort. This expansion
of the number of units combined with the losses experienced in China made
for an accelerated promotion scale and the elevating of NCOs to officer
status to fill in the gaps. This at time when the quality of manpower
and training was also beginning to wane. Couple this with a doctrine devoted
to relentless attack led by the leader in person and the need for adaptability
of the lowest leaders to the situation spelled ruin for the IJA. Less
qualified and trained troops led by leaders adhering to the idea of personal
valor above all caused more and more rigidity to operations, which had
previously been governed by unpredictability.
Imperial Japan had basically three competing pulls on its total manpower.
These three competitors were the IJA, the Navy, and industry to produce
the goods and weapons needed by the other two. The total population pool
for the three factions, including men, women, and children according to
the 1940 census was, 73,114,000. The early year of victory in 1941 soon
turned to years of increasing struggle to raise enough troops to cover
new areas, new threats, and make up losses.
The year marked the beginning of an all too common story for the total
Japanese manpower situation. While Japan was able to raise 10 new Infantry
Divisions (six were dispatched to China with no organic artillery component
and four were dispatched to Manchuko with only light artillery) she was
trying to make up losses of five division equivalents in manpower. Japan
lost three division equivalents in the last four months of 1942 alone.
In raw numbers the manpower strength of the IJA from 1941-1942 only increased
by 300,000 troops though the area of operations more then doubled. In
fact after the first six months of offensive action in late 1941 and early
1942, Japan had added over a million square miles of land, 150,000,000
new subjects, and 150,000 western prisoners of war.
1943 saw a continuation of the same losing process. The Army alone in
1943 lost 40,000 troops who died in the sinking of transport ships. Though
Japan did manage to increase it’s over all strength from 2.4 million
to 3.1 million. 1943. But while it made great strides in increasing its
manpower total the cost of this increase hit industry especially hard
as only 380,000 deferments were given to industry. This lack of deferments
eroded valuable skilled workers which industry was unable to replace and
crippled industries ability to provided the weapons and hardware needed
by the increase in troop strength.
1944 brought renewed efforts to increase troop manning levels. The Japanese
were able to draft an additional 1 million new soldiers. This brought
the total under arms to 4.1 million. But this masked the fact that Japan
lost in 1944 alone, the equivalent of 15 division’s worth of manpower.
While these losses to death and wounds were horrific; equally troubling
to the Japanese high command were the losses incurred by the Allies island
hopping and bypassing of garrisons. This effectively removed those bypassed
forces from the lists of available troops. These losses due to bypass
were especially difficult in that they often contained large amounts of
engineering, signalmen, and logistics troops which Japan found much more
difficult, almost impossible, to replace then the common infantry soldier.
The last year of the war brought the notion of Total War home to Japans
stretched manpower levels. In 1945 fully 87% of the total adult (both
male and female) population of Japan was drafted into either industry
or the military. 50% of that total made up the Reserve army on the home
islands. This raised the total in the army to 5.5 million troops. Though
for these new troops basic training lasted only from four to six weeks
at most. And these new troops were usually only trained in rudimentary
infantry skills. Japan was no longer able to effectively train replacements
in the more technically skilled positions required.
The training of Japanese troops and leaders in the pre-war years was extensive
and at time innovative. Not many countries at that time issued a compass
to every soldier and expected him to know how to use it. The mass cultural
indoctrination was on a scale more pervasive then that of the Red Army
or even the Waffen SS. The Japanese soldiers training was meant to produce
a soldier who believed in his own innate superiority and that he should
look at all times for ways to use that superiority. It is hard to overestimate
the intangible effect of the spiritual training. It is after all what
the Japanese emphasized themselves. They intrinsically expected to fight
outnumbered and out gunned but believed that the spiritual quality of
each individual soldier would more than compensate for these deficiencies.
The cost of this mindset was that Japanese soldiers would fight for the
honor of their ancestors even when logic dictated they were dead. The
use of pre-battle funerals though strange to western minds and norms was
considered exemplarily and has its best parallels to the Jihad warriors
of radical Islam. But the continual demands for personal and individual
valor would severely degrade the Japanese military. The fact that the
training worked so well can be seen in the countless banzai charges carried
out later in the war when the spiritual weapon was the only way left to
counter not just allied superiority in fire power and material but to
counter the erosion of Japanese manpower and leadership quality and tactical
In the end it was their own strength, which proved their greatest weakness
and their training proved successful.