Civil War and the New Imperial Army III

The military academy aimed to educate officers in western military science and tactics, but Japan lacked schools that taught foreign languages, western pedagogy, or natural sciences. Educational reforms of 1872 established four years of primary schooling and three of middle school, but attendance was not compulsory and most students did not graduate from primary school. Until the military preparatory schools produced their first graduates, the military academy operated on a transitional basis. During the three-year interval the provisional academy trained former samurai in French doctrine, including battalion echelon maneuver, drill, squad regulations, and the basics of field fortification. In the best of circumstances, which these were not, it would take a decade to educate youths for specialized military training.

In January 1875 the relocated military academy opened at Ichigaya (a former daimyō residence in Tokyo) under the direct supervision of the army ministry. Altogether 158 students enrolled in either a two-year course (for the infantry and cavalry branches) or a three-year curriculum (for the more technically complex artillery and engineer branches). Upon graduation, cadets were commissioned as second lieutenants. Under the tutelage of thirteen French instructors (including eleven military officers), cadets studied French, tactics, military organization, and debate. The army adopted French army doctrine and tactics because of the availability of French military instructors in Japan (who had been employed by the shogun), Japanese officers’ acquaintance with the French language through the Yokohama language school, and their familiarity with the French military system. Until 1877 the army relied exclusively on French military advisers, whose numbers reached a high of forty-three personnel in 1875.

Students who enrolled in the NCO academy’s twelve-month (later fifteen-month) course graduated as corporals eligible for competitive examination for entrance to the military academy. Initial confusion about the difference between the NCO academy and the cadet school led to cases of students entering both or dropping out of the NCO academy to enter the cadet school. Many selected that option, including three who later rose to the rank of full general. Others accepted NCO rank and with their academy colleagues would become the backbone and small-unit leaders of the new national army.

The reorganized NCO academy offered a two-year course of instruction exclusively for noncommissioned officer candidates. Conscripts volunteered for the course and required their regimental commander’s recommendation to attend. After graduation they were promoted to NCO rank. The army closed the academy in 1889 because it was attracting few volunteers, was soliciting men who had not been conscripted, and was producing lackluster graduates. The other source of NCOs was conscripts who volunteered for additional service after completing three years of active duty. Their respective regimental commanders had to endorse the application. Between 1889 and reforms in 1927, potential infantry branch NCOs learned their craft within the regiment through on-the-job training and by observing and learning from the regiment’s senior NCOs. Other branches had technical schools where their NCOs continued to go for training and instruction.

French instructors at the military academy relied on detailed explanations in exercises and drills, not innovation, to solve set-piece tactical problems. The order of battle rigidly divided formations into skirmishers, main force, and reserves. Officers learned their specific responsibilities within each echelon. The battalion (about 800 men) was the tactical unit for purposes of instruction, so little attention was given to large-unit operations. By stressing technical proficiency, the French advisers taught the Japanese to organize, train, and command military units from company to brigade echelon. By confining instruction to minor tactics and excluding strategy, however, they underestimated their students.

The military academy organized its core curriculum around military science, mathematics, and natural sciences. Subjects included tactics, military organization, weaponry, military geography, and engineering. French was the only foreign language taught until 1883 when the curriculum introduced German, followed by Chinese the next year and English in 1894. After 1877 the government retained a handful of French advisers as language instructors and ordnance technicians.

Military texts imported from the United States were popular among officers because commentators then hailed the American Civil War as the first modern war. Aspiring Japanese officers also read the French strategist Antoine Henri de Jomini, finding that his formulaic principals of warfare followed a rational progression they easily understood. Karl von Clausewitz was translated into Japanese during the late 1850s, but the Prussian strategist’s theory was deemed overly complex.

Under French direction the Toyama Infantry School emerged as the center for musketry, particularly after mid-1876 when Maj. Murata Tsuneyoshi, a Boshin War veteran and a Guard battalion commander, returned from his tour of Prussian and French ordnance and arsenal facilities. Murata quickly put his observations to work by designing extended firing ranges with moving and pop-up surprise targets. He also became the army’s leading designer of small arms. By 1880 Murata had produced his initial rifle at the Tokyo arsenal. After redesigns that included an eight-round magazine that made loading easier and increased firepower, in 1889 the Murata rifle was issued to all active duty soldiers. It remained the standard army rifle until 1910. Reservists continued to use the older Snider rifles.

The modern artillery guns used during the Franco-Prussian War (1870) impressed military observer Maj. Gen. Ōyama Iwao, who returned from Europe convinced that without an independent arms industry Japan would never be a truly sovereign nation. Acting on his advice, in July 1871 the military affairs ministry established the army artillery bureau to manage ordnance matters, including production of small arms, artillery, and ammunition. The same year an arsenal began producing obsolete French bronze mountain artillery guns to equip each garrison. In the mid-1870s the Guard imported the superior German-manufactured steel artillery piece from the Krupp factories, a practice that continued because Japan lacked iron ore and steel plants for casting. In 1879 the Osaka arsenal began manufacturing artillery guns using Italian techniques and fielded these bronze cannon army-wide in 1885. Besides the arsenals, the government retained control of strategic industries such as dockyards, machine shops, and woolen mills (which produced military uniforms). The nascent strategic factories were centers for the absorption and dissemination of modern manufacturing techniques and skills that contributed to capital formation.

The New Conscription Ordinance

The government’s two previous attempts to introduce national conscription had failed. Its third was more ambitious, more radical, and more controversial, particularly about the size of reserve forces. No unanimity existed about a conscription system. Yamada’s opinion, for example, had changed after his return from abroad, and he became an advocate of the militia system similar to those he had observed in Switzerland and the United States. Other officials wanted warriors, not commoners, to fill the ranks. Yamagata favored a Prussian conscription model. Others, including the French-trained Maj. Gen. Miura Gorō, the Tokyo garrison commander, wanted a French-style system.

Yamagata, however, understood the broader implications of national conscription. He distrusted the warrior class, several members of which he regarded as clear dangers to the state, making it foolish to rely solely on samurai to defend the government. Thus, Yamagata used conscription to get rid of the samurai volunteer army, curtail the warrior class, and simultaneously inculcate a mentality of national service for the sake of the emperor and the state. To eliminate preferential treatment for the warrior volunteers, Yamagata revived ancient imperial myths and largely fanciful traditions of military service to the imperial household to promote loyalty to the emperor while curtailing samurai independence. Conscription would likewise break down the old order’s feudal customs, promote the restoration’s goals, and create a future pool of trained soldiers available in times of foreign crisis and able to protect their homes in times of internal disorder. Furthermore, army indoctrination could translate the conscripts’ regional loyalties into national allegiance and send them home as veterans to proselytize army virtues, modernization, and proto-nationalism to their communities. This in brief was the notion of “good soldiers—good citizens.”

The January 10, 1873, conscription ordinance was based on the French model and provided for seven years of military service: three on active duty and the remainder in the reserves. There were liberal exemptions, including the obvious—criminals, hardship cases, and the physically unqualified—and the less obvious—heads of households or heirs, students, government bureaucrats, and teachers. A conscript could also purchase a substitute for 270 yen, an enormous sum that restricted this privilege to the wealthy. Less apparent but more enduring was the emphasis on primogeniture, which though eventually abolished would exert a lasting influence on the enlisted ranks. Under the new ordinance the 1873 conscript army was composed mainly of second and third sons of impoverished farmers who manned the regional garrisons while former samurai controlled the Guard and the Tokyo garrison. The long-term effect was the army’s custom of discouraging first-born male conscripts from making the service a career.

Because of the army’s small size and numerous exemptions, relatively few young men were actually conscripted for a three-year term on active duty. In 1873 the army numbered approximately 17,900 (from a population of 35 million); it doubled to about 33,000 in 1875.62 The 1876 cohort of 20-year-old males numbered about 300,000 candidates, of whom the army evaluated 53,226 as suitable for active duty. Assuming a one-third turnover as three-year enlistments expired, the army needed about 13,000 draftees annually, about one-quarter of those who passed the rigorous physical examination—or approximately 4 percent of the entire cohort. Until the conscription reforms in the 1880s, the percentage of conscripts fluctuated between 3 and 6 percent of the eligible cohort, making military service highly selective (see Table).

One’s chances of being drafted also varied considerably by region. In 1876 the physical examination disqualified more than 85 percent of potential inductees in the Tokyo and Osaka districts. In northeastern Japan, 70 percent of inductees failed, and even among those judged physically eligible for military service, not all were called to active duty.

Regardless of how few men were actually drafted, conscription irked all classes. Former samurai opposed the draft as a class-leveling device that cost them their privileges as the armed guards of the feudal elite. Peasants equated military service with the corvée system imposed by the Tokugawa regime and resisted this latest manpower levy. Others saw it as an unwanted intrusion into their lives, and although the conscription regulations contained numerous exemptions, these applied mainly to wealthier households. Some draft-eligible young men evaded conscription by self-imposed exile, moving from their home district to faraway remote Hokkaidō or distant Okinawa (which was not subject to conscription until 1898). Publishers offered manuals on how to beat the draft. Second or third sons adopted by other families as heirs and heads of households became known as “adopted conscripts.” But these measures were benign compared to the large-scale violent protests against conscription that took place in 1873.

Anti-conscription riots that year joined massive popular disturbances in Fukuoka Province over inflationary rice prices and demonstrations against new excise taxes on seafood and the abolition of the ban on Christianity. In May 1873 tens of thousands of peasants rioted in Okayama Prefecture, burning the homes of the wealthy as well as torching schools and burakumin (the untouchable class) residences, and murdering government officials and school teachers. Rioters destroyed about 400 homes and other buildings and killed or injured more than a dozen people. Among their demands were the elimination of conscription, compulsory education, and forced hair cutting. The Osaka garrison had neither the troops nor the equipment to deal with the mass demonstrations, leaving the government to hastily enlist 300 ex-warriors to suppress the uprising.

Despite severe penalties, including the beheading of more than a dozen demonstrators and the imprisoning of several hundred others, demonstrations quickly spread to neighboring Tottori prefecture, where in mid-June 22,000 people joined five days of protests demanding an end to conscription, compulsory schooling, and the newly adopted western calendar. By the end of the month tens of thousands of peasants rioted in Kagawa prefecture, where the authorities eventually executed several ringleaders and fined 17,000 people for joining in the disorders. Again the army needed outside help, which came this time in the form of fifty former warriors, to put down the demonstrations.

Although the demonstrators opposed the “blood tax,” a term to describe the conscription system that many peasants took literally, having heard wild rumors that the army would drain conscripts’ blood to make wine for the westerners, at root the mass protests demanded a reduction in soaring rice prices caused by rampant inflation as well as abolition of primary schools and the western calendar. Responding to the widespread unrest, Yamada Akiyoshi pronounced national conscription premature and proposed to postpone its introduction for about a decade. During that interval the government would educate the people in the values of the new nation, which in turn would make conscription acceptable to them. Meanwhile, a citizen militia led by professional officers could protect the nation. Soon afterward Yamada left the army to pursue a career in the law; he later would become justice minister. His opinions about the value of a militia system and a small standing army, however, continued to resonate with influential officers for the next two decades.

Army and Emperor

The new Meiji leaders relied heavily on the imperial institution to connect past to present when formulating national values. The army in particular stressed its links to the emperor to inculcate loyalty in the ranks. An imperial memorial issued on February 3, 1870, proclaimed the emperor a living embodiment of godhood and his throne a holy office established by the Sun Goddess and handed down in unbroken succession to the present. In 1872 the military department promulgated an imperial rescript (tokuhō) of eight articles that set standards of conduct for the new army by enunciating a soldier’s duties based on bedrock principles of loyalty to the throne, obedience to orders, courtesy and respect for superiors, and the prohibition of various types of disruptive conduct. Thereafter, when recruits entered the barracks for the first time they were welcomed with a ceremony that included their officers reading the rescript aloud to them, a practice that continued until 1934.

Besides issuing memorials, the emperor presided over military ceremonies, beginning in February 1870 when he reviewed about 4,000 troops on the imperial grounds in conjunction with the establishment of the ordnance bureau. In October 1871, Emperor Meiji observed his newly formed imperial bodyguard conduct field training exercises in a driving rainstorm. The following year he presented the new Guard infantry regiments their unit colors, inaugurating a tradition that continued until the end of World War II. In April 1873 he attended military exercises at Tokyo and led Imperial Guard cavalry troops through field maneuvers.

Emperor Meiji also presided over the military academy’s first commencement, in July 1878, publicly affirming the bond between the army’s officer corps and the imperial institution. To further strengthen identification with the throne, imperial family members routinely served in the military, although the court had not produced active warriors since the wars of the fourteenth century. They were exempted from conscription, preinduction physicals, and written qualification tests and were directly commissioned by an imperial order. In 1885, the year after the creation of aristocratic ranks and titles, young men from twenty-three newly ennobled families were transferred from the Peers School to the military academy, where they formed about 12 percent of the 108-man class.69 The emperor also promoted social changes. In 1873, January 4 became Tenchōsetsu (the emperor’s birthday), a national holiday. In March of that year he cut his hair in the western style, and in June he appeared in a western-style army uniform during a military exercise.

Tactics for the New Army

Until 1870, “modern” infantry tactics were found in an 1829 translation of a Dutch tactics manual. Concurrent with the new conscription system, the army adopted French tactical military doctrine, its 1873 infantry manual being a translation of the 1869 French edition. Training was conducted in squad-size groupings commanded by a corporal. Recruits received six months of basic instruction that included physical conditioning, platoon and company formations, dispersed movement, marksmanship, bayonet drill, basic sanitation, and military customs and ceremonies. Field training consisted of mandatory drills, execution of the manual of arms, rote memorization of set-piece tactical problems, and small-unit command and control. Instructors relied on strictly choreographed drill regimens, endless repetition, and iron discipline to get results. The army penal code issued in April 1873 prescribed severe punishment for disobeying superiors or conspiring against the government. In 1874 seventy soldiers were tried under the penal code; 530 were tried the following year.

In October 1874 the army created the corporal’s group, a squad-size unit of conscripts organized for drill and training purposes and overseen by a noncommissioned officer or junior officer. The system would eventually evolve into the squad section that regulated training, discipline, and conscripts’ lives in the barracks. Squad leaders initially handled only training, but revised regulations in 1880 assigned NCOs greater administrative responsibilities for the unit’s daily activities. Administration and management, however, were weak. Training regimens varied according to garrisons because of an absence of standardized training programs, frequent changes to drill manuals, irregular tables of organization, and the personalities and interests of commanders and NCOs. The army’s first standardized table of organization appeared in 1877 and established the strength of an infantry company at 160 enlisted and eight NCOs, each responsible for a twenty-man section.

Monday through Friday the conscripts awakened at 5 a. m. for morning drill followed by afternoon training sessions. After Saturday morning drill, they spent the day preparing their barracks for a 4 p. m. inspection. A Saturday-night bath followed inspection, and Sunday was a free day. Although the army conscripted from all classes of society, its officers and NCOs were drawn mainly from former samurai, and the traditional hierarchical relationship of samurai and peasant endured. Former warriors who became NCOs routinely beat or physically punished the farmer conscripts to instill discipline and ensure compliance with orders. Under such conditions, desertion flourished; of fifty conscripts sent by one domain, half deserted, one of them on four different occasions. It is true that the Imperial Guard received better training and equipment, but it too often relied on uncritical and uncomprehending imitation of western-style tactical drill because the army lacked a professional officer corps sophisticated enough to devise more appropriate methods.

Five years after the restoration, the new government had created a national army from scratch, fought a civil war, and imposed domestic order. It had established conscription, military schools and training facilities, and begun to standardize equipment and training. The army was small, depending on conscription as much for political reasons (to eliminate warrior influence) as social (as a leveling device) and economic (it was affordable). Significant differences about the nature of the armed institution remained unresolved; its deployment capability was haphazard at best, its personnel unproven, and its leadership divided. Standardized training and equipment were still lacking, and the effectiveness of military schools was still undetermined. The army had no popular base of support, conscription was greatly resented, and samurai bands were leading armed rebellions. On the positive side, the Meiji leaders had erected the framework for a national army that relied on the imperial symbolism of the emperor as the military leader, although they protected the army against direct imperial intervention in military affairs by establishing a system in which the emperor could rarely decide anything by himself. From these shaky foundations, the new army ventured into an uncertain and dangerous future.

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