The source of strength for any military power lies in its people, from whom the common soldier is drawn. In 1939 there were approximately 100 million Japanese citizens, 70 million of them in Japan proper. Japan was a hardworking nation, eking out its sustenance from the often barren land of those myriads of tight islands, and it retained its competitiveness in commerce through the willingness of its workers to work longer hours for less pay. The standard of living was low but the level of literacy fairly high. It had an economy and a psychology which produced soldiers who were strong and willing, who were accustomed to hardships perhaps greater than those in the normal course of military life, and who accepted military service as an inevitable and honourable thing.
In World War II the Japanese soldier proved a tough enemy — daring in attack, stubborn in defence. Even when his position seemed hopeless to him he usually fought on to the death. Right up to the end of the war he showed little readiness to surrender and almost always preferred to die in battle or take his own life rather than fall into the hands of his enemies. Few Japanese prisoners surrendered voluntarily; most of them were either too weak or too ill to offer any resistance or to commit suicide.
The reasons for the Japanese soldier’s attitude and stern discipline lay in his early upbringing, his education, and his Army training. For several centuries before Japan adopted a European army system and introduced conscription (1872), the old warrior class — the Samurai — was held in high esteem. The makers of the twentieth century Japanese Army were quick to realise the advantages to be gained by continuing to foster this spirit, and so, by every means possible, the heroism and noble calling of the warrior were praised. When Japan started on warlike ventures and came out victorious, the prestige of the Army grew. The Japanese Army thus came to occupy a unique position in Japan and for the 10 years before World War II it played a major part in governing the nation.
Conscripts constituted the bulk of the army, and in normal times the term of service was two years. Most of the men in the ranks were peasants well suited to army life since their harsh frugal existence on Japanese farms had inured them to hardships. They were stocky, well built with powerful backs accustomed to carrying heavy burdens, and — at the same time — simple, docile and obedient.
Any male between the ages of 20 and 40 was eligible for military service and with an intake of about 150,000 conscripts a year the Japanese had a standing army of about 375,000 at the time of Pearl Harbor and about two million trained reserves. After the mobilisation which preceded Pearl Harbor the call-up age was lowered from 20 to 19 and the military service age raised from 40 to 45. Peacetime training programmes were also cut and by 1942 infantry soldiers were receiving as little as three months training before being sent to operational areas. (In many instances some training was given in operational areas — China being used as a theatre where troops could gain combat experience). The training periods of technical troops, such as signals and engineer personnel, were also reduced.
NCOs and officers were mostly recruited from young men who had attended higher educational establishments. Most of the regular officers were graduates of the Military Academy while NCOs were trained at one or other of the NCO schools in Japan and Manchuria.
Training at all levels was generally intense and thorough, and before he was sent to an operational area a Japanese soldier was instructed not only how to use his weapons but the reasons why he should fight and why he should not be beaten. He must live according to the Japanese soldiers ‘code’ — a directive covering three pages of very involved logic in very fine print which consisted, in brief, of five points:
- The soldier should consider loyalty his essential duty. ‘Remember that the protection of the state and the maintenance of its power depend upon the strength of its arms . . . Bear in mind that duty is weightier than a mountain, while death is lighter than a feather.’
- The soldier should be strict in observing propriety. ‘Inferiors should regard the orders of their superiors as issuing directly from Us’ (the emperor).
- The soldier should esteem valour. ‘Never to despise an inferior enemy, or to fear a superior, but to do one’s duty as a soldier or sailor — that is true valour.’
- The soldier should highly value faithfulness and righteousness. ‘Faithfulness implies the keeping of one’s word, and righteousness the fulfilment of one’s duty.’
- The soldier should make simplicity his aim. ‘If you do not make simplicity your aim, you will become effeminate or frivolous and acquire fondness for luxurious and extravagant ways.’
Finally, in the event of being prisoner, a Japanese soldier knew that he would be dishonoured and his family would have no pension. If on the other hand he died fighting he was assured of reward — his family would be honoured and receive a pension, and if possible his ashes would be sent back to Japan and buried at the national shrine of Yasekuni.
As a result of this system and training the Japanese soldier was highly disciplined, brave and ready to fight to the bitter end rather than surrender. And this attitude persisted even when he became conscious of Allied superiority in weapons and equipment.
On active service a Japanese private soldier was paid 10 yen (about £1 or $2) a month. Eight yen went home to his family, 1 6/10 yen was deducted for compulsory savings, and the rest was his to squander or keep.
Personal equipment was simple but practical. With a full complement of ammunition and rations the Japanese infantryman carried a load of about five kilograms. His helmet, which weighed another kilogram, had a high crown for protection against shrapnel and was an inconspicuous tan in colour — as was the star insignia on the helmet. In North China the helmet was often worn bonnet-fashion with straps tied under the chin and with a padded cloth as an inner liner to keep out the biting cold. A coarse net to hold leaves and twigs as camouflage was commonly worn over the helmet in the field.
For all ranks the army uniform was khaki in colour. (Marines and sailors dressed in the conventional blue and white). In North China and Manchuria great-coats of Australian wool were issued for wear in cold weather, together with a fur lining to go inside the soft cap which was the normal headgear. Footwear consisted of black or brown hobnailed boots, or — in hot climates — ‘tobi’ (canvas shoes with heavy rubber soles in which the big toe was separated from the remainder of the foot) were worn. Khaki woollen puttees were invariably worn by other ranks, and sometimes by junior officers. Belts and ammunition pouches were of heavy well-tanned leather.