CV Kaga converted from a Tosa-class battleship.
Mindful of America’s industrial superiority, Japanese authorities realized that any protracted war, even if waged defensively, would require as many aviation resources as the empire could muster. The solution lay in building fast, medium size merchant and passenger ships that could be quickly converted to effective auxiliary carriers. Soon after Japan formally withdrew from the naval limitation system in 1935, its architects began planning for the construction of the appropriate ships. The NYK Line was given a substantial subsidy to build two 24-knot vessels designed specifically for conversion to carriers. Laid down in early 1939, both ships possessed greater height between decks and a stronger main deck than normal in merchant ships and more wiring than a passenger liner needed, together with better subdivision and a longitudinal bulkhead in the engine spaces. The design allowed for the quick construction of hangars, elevators, and provision for extra fuel and aviation gas tanks. But the superbattleships absorbed so much matériel and funding that Japanese fleet construction, no matter how imaginative, had to suffer somewhere, and the sacrifices eventually fell upon the destroyers and destroyer escorts needed to keep Japan’s huge merchant navy safe from enemy submarines. After 1940, as the final bills came due on Yamato and Musashi, the construction of small combatants virtually ceased. Japanese shipyards built no destroyer escorts between 1941 and 1943, whereas the Americans built well over three hundred. “The importance of merchant shipping was simply not appreciated” by a naval high command that in the last analysis could think no further in assessing command of the seas than a climactic Jutland-like battle between two lines of battleships heavily supported by airpower.
This modified Jutland model led to further crippling follies. The Yamatos, the Zuikakus, and their scores of support ships that Japan rushed onto the building stocks after 1935 would require thousands of new sailors and hundreds of new officers to effectively operate, but the elitist nature of the Imperial Japanese Navy fatally hindered rapid and efficient expansion. The Jutland scenario gave no consideration to the manpower and, above all, training needs involved in waging and surviving a prolonged war of numerous battles stretching over the vast distances of East Asia and Oceania.
A “solicitous” promotion system designed to guarantee every graduate of the naval academy at Eta Jima, no matter how marginal, at least a captaincy during his career meant that the naval officer corps had to be kept deliberately small. Moreover, the number of officers accepted at the academy as well as the number of personnel enlisted (and ultimately drafted) into the ranks were based on the size of the fleet at hand; thus, personnel requirements were determined only after naval construction and armament budgets had been approved. “In a navy that supposedly took ten years to develop a truly capable lieutenant and twenty years for a commander, training should have anticipated the numbers of officers and men required by the level of armaments ten years on.” It did not. In the mid-thirties, as the fleet began to expand, there were fewer than ten thousand officers and not quite ninety-eight thousand enlisted men to crew not only a rapidly growing surface fleet but also dramatically expanding submarine and air forces, the naval landing force, and the shore establishments. According to historians David C. Evans and Mark R. Peattie, the navy went to war in December 1941 against the United States and Britain “short at least two thousand combat and engineering officers.” Manpower swiftly reached crisis proportions in 1942–1943 when new-construction manning needs were increasingly undercut by widespread casualties and fatalities among the most experienced officers and men in the fleet. Fatally bound to a lengthy and rigorous training regimen for all, the Japanese navy never did develop a coherent program for effectively training thousands of new officers and recruits in a short period. New officers and men proved increasingly unqualified for their responsibilities “and thus generally lowered the navy’s efficiency.” Not until the end of the Solomons campaign in 1943 did the Personnel Department of the Navy Ministry reconsider its manpower and training policies, and “by then, the ministry realized, it was already too late to do anything effective about the problem.”
As the 1930s waned the Japanese army moved farther and farther up the Yangtze and along the China coast, fruitlessly seeking the final great battle that would bring the enemy to his knees and to his senses. In the process the army and navy learned how to integrate ground troops with gunfire-support ships, land- and sea-based aviation, and even on occasion submarines in devastating “triphibious” assaults against enemy coastal positions. Japan became the first nation to effectively meld sea and airpower in action, thus dramatically increasing the mobility, impact, and general effectiveness of its fleet. But the Japanese never found the conclusive battle they were looking for. As with another foreign power in Asia years later, their high command continually searched for the light at the end of the tunnel, and commanders on the ground constantly asked for just that one more division or two that would finally resolve matters once and for all. All too soon, mounting frustration triggered unmitigated and repeated barbarism. Troops and airmen bombed, pillaged, and slaughtered indiscriminately and unmercifully. Tokyo never understood that the behavior of its troops in China forfeited all claims to international respect and understanding.
Japan could not conceal its atrocities. There were too many Westerners to witness them. Chief among the observers was a remarkable community of sailors. For nearly a decade after the first battle for Shanghai in 1932, Western cruiser and gunboat crews lying off the city or steaming up and down the Yangtze had a front-row seat for conflict. At one point in 1937, the men of the American gunboat Panay became victims of that conflict. The Yanks—and their British and French colleagues—quickly acquired a profound distaste and contempt for the Japanese that was in no way mitigated by the frequent cowardice and incompetence of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Chinese government and its troops. The sailors, and the reporters who followed them into the Chinese cauldron, conveyed their attitude toward the Japanese to the international community, further amplifying long-standing cultural and racial animosities that would inform the great global conflict that loomed ever larger.
In November 1938 Prime Minister Prince Fumimaro Konoe issued the famous— or infamous—“New Order” declaration in which the Japanese government formally pledged itself to the task of “fundamentally rectifying” nearly a century of Western imperial depredations in China:
[Nazi] Germany and [Fascist] Italy, our allies against Communism, have manifested their sympathies with Japan’s aims in East Asia. . . . It is necessary for Japan to not only strengthen still further her ties with these countries but also to collaborate with them on the basis of a common world outlook in the reconstruction of world order. It is high time that all of us should face squarely our responsibilities—namely, the mission to construct a new order on a moral basis—a free union of all the nations of East Asia in mutual reliance, but in independence.
Two years later, with Europe back at war and its own armies still slogging up the Yangtze, Admiral Sankichi Takahashi, former commander in chief of the Combined Fleet, confirmed that Japan’s proposed “new order in Greater East Asia” stretched from Manchukuo to Australia and eastward to the International Date Line. The new imperium would be “constructed in several stages. In the first stage, the sphere that Japan demands includes Manchukuo, China, Indo- China, Burma, Straits Settlements [that is, British Singapore], Netherlands Indies, New Caledonia, New Guinea, many islands in the West Pacific, Japan’s mandated islands and the Philippines.” Australia and what remained of the East Indies “can be included later.” Western observers noted that these statements were made not in advance of aggression, but in the midst of it. On the other side of the Pacific, fresh fictional accounts of an impending Pacific war had already appeared in American popular literature. A fuse had been lit.