Japan Triumphant, December 1941 to Spring 1942

Between December 1941 and early 1942, while Japan made its lightning conquest of Southeast Asia and the western Pacific, its navy and army appeared invincible to the Allies. Indeed, the Japanese victories owed themselves largely to skilful planning, along with the tactical and technological efficiency of their armed forces. The weak state of the US and British Empire also played an important part in facilitating Japan’s successes. Yet, as early as March 1942, the high command had to contend with many of the weaknesses which plagued its war machine, the most important of which was that neither the IJN nor IJA had the capacity to defeat the Western powers in a prolonged conflict. The Imperial forces were overstretched, and America had not been knocked out of the war. On the contrary, the US was preparing to strike back, and most importantly, it possessed the industrial resources to build a military force that was far superior to anything the Japanese could deploy. Yet the military leadership failed to comprehend the predicament it faced, and maintained that Japan could deal a crippling blow on its opponents and thereafter secure its conquests against enemy invasions. The misperception led the Japanese to embark on a number of failed ventures in the Indian Ocean and Pacific areas which eventually culminated with the IJN’s defeat at Midway in June 1942. The latter encounter was arguably the single battle which turned the tide of the war in the Allies’ favor, and emasculated Japan’s capacity to conduct further territorial conquests.


Reasons for Japanese Successes

The success achieved by the Imperial navy and army in securing control over an area stretching thousands of miles from Burma, all the way through the East Indies to the islands of the Pacific, in such a short period of time can be attributed to effective strategic and operational planning on the part of the high command, coupled with the fighting skill of the Japanese forces at the battlefront level. In addition, the poor level of preparedness which the Allied defenders demonstrated in areas such as Malaya and the Philippines played a distinct role in helping the invaders.

At the strategic and operational levels, the Japanese succeeded primarily because the navy managed to attain complete command over both the sea and airspace in the areas they intended to conquer. Furthermore, the IJN made good use of its limited strength by concentrating on key positions in the western Pacific. Throughout the period prior to the war, the navy strived to develop a way to optimize its resources. Commanders realized that a numerically inferior fleet had to rely on the element of surprise if it was to have any prospect of defeating its opponents, and focused on commencing wars with a preemptive strike. The idea was to destroy the American fleet before it could threaten Japan’s home waters. Indeed, the Pearl Harbor operation was among the most notable examples of how the attacking side could use secrecy and deception to catch the defenders off guard and inflict a devastating blow. With the navy able to achieve supremacy over the Pacific regions, the IJA could be assured that transports were able to carry troops to the areas of operations without facing any significant Allied interference. The army was also supported by a secure supply line which stretched back to the home islands. This meant that once onshore, troops received a steady flow of reinforcements and equipment to sustain their advance.

Japanese operational planning was also helped by an efficient intelligence network. For example, Colonel Tsuji Masanobu, chief of the Twenty-fifth Army’s operations staff, recalled how his officers conducted a detailed survey of the landing beaches in Malaya, and meticulously verified the possible routes for the inland advance. Japanese agents also carried out sabotage operations, destroying installations such as air bases, oilfields, and railway lines in a systematic manner. Equally impressive were their subversive activities. Winning the hearts and minds of the indigenous people in Southeast Asia had been a key objective for years. By the time the war broke out, the intelligence services had forged connections with key leaders of the Nationalist movements in most of the European colonies, and extensively spread anti-Western propaganda to the local population. As a result, the invasion received widespread local support. When the Imperial army entered the East Indies and Philippines, the colonial administrations collapsed almost overnight. In Malaya, thousands of Indian troops deserted the British army, and joined forces with the conquerors.

The Imperial forces also successfully devised tactics and weapons which enabled them to out-maneuver their opponents. In particular, the navy demonstrated how it had made a fruitful effort to develop the fighting capacity to secure control over the western Pacific areas. The Japanese sought to circumvent the disadvantages arising from their inability to match Western levels of ship construction, by building vessels with greater firepower and endurance. By the late 1920s, technicians and engineers had developed a number of sophisticated armaments that placed the IJN in a good position to compete with its US and British rivals. Battleships and cruisers were fitted with guns and torpedoes that outranged most of their opponents, as well as larger propulsion systems to increase their velocity and cruising radius. 6 In order to enable gun crews to deliver accurate fire, control towers were constructed with extra elevation so that they could house various pieces of equipment such as range finders, searchlight directors and firing calculators. Officers in the bridge were also able to locate their targets from a longer range. Naval ordnance performed well. The long-lance was the most advanced torpedo to be constructed for the duration of the conflict, and could hit targets up to 10,000 yards away at a speed of 45 knots. Torpedoes were also oxygen-propelled, which meant that they did not produce a wake, thereby rendering them difficult to detect. In the area of tactics, the Imperial fleet developed innovative ways of using modern technologies. Crews were adept at conducting night operations. This was an aspect which most navies, including the British and Americans, had neglected, mainly because maneuvers under the cover of darkness were deemed to be too complicated. Radio silence was also maintained in order to avoid revealing the ships’ positions. The Japanese fleet’s advantages became fully apparent at the Battle of the Java Sea, when they frequently managed to locate and sink Allied forces before the latter could react.

The IJN also made a painstaking effort to build up its air power. Under the 1937 fleet replenishment program, the 25,000 ton carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku, were constructed. In the same year, the navy air staff established the specifications for the Zero fighter, which was designed to fly with greater range, speed, and maneuverability than any rival interceptor. Mitsubishi was commissioned to construct the new fighter, and by September 1940, the first completed machine entered service in China. As a result, the Japanese were able to attain control over the skies in the areas where they conquered, and eliminate their opponents’ air forces. Bombardment operations were also carried out effectively. Aircraft manufacturers assembled a number of bomber types which launched torpedo and aerial attacks with a high level of accuracy. Naval pilots in particular were well trained, and demonstrated their capacity to take out enemy vessels both in port as well as in the open sea. The sinking of the British capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse off the coast of Malaya demonstrated the skill and accuracy of Japanese bombardment techniques. Aircrews often used several types of maneuvers in conjunction in an effort to overwhelm the defenders. Horizontal bombers initiated the raid, attracting the attention of anti-aircraft crews. Torpedo planes and dive bombers then followed, and were often able to operate without interference. Pilots pressed home their raids, even when they faced opposition. The result was often a highly efficient bombing pattern. The naval air service also provided support for the amphibious operations in the Dutch East Indies and Malaya, with good results. Flying boats conducted reconnaissance missions, while heavy air attacks were launched to take out communications facilities and coastal defense batteries. In order to achieve air superiority over the vicinity of the landing beaches and thus protect the landing parties from aerial opposition, the Japanese undertook to neutralize the nearby aerodromes.

Although the Imperial army was not as technologically advanced as the navy, its tactics nevertheless showed finesse. The most decisive advantage was the maneuverability and fighting skill of Japanese infantry units. In the area of amphibious operations, landing parties rarely faced troubles in securing a foothold on their objectives. The Japanese developed suitable equipment, including landing craft with hinged bows that allowed the quick unloading of troops and supplies. In Malaya, amphibious forces often chose beaches which the defending forces had considered unsuitable for landings, owing to the steep gradient and choppy tidewater. Adverse terrain and weather were not an obstacle, and on the contrary, the Japanese deliberately carried out their operations in such conditions so that they could appear where their opponents least expected an attack. The army also proved adept at conducting overland advances, particularly in the jungle terrain which prevailed in the Far East. Troops did not depend on motorized transport, and could overcome any natural feature, including hills, wooded country, and river crossings. By doing so, the attackers circumvented the main roads, where Allied forces had concentrated their defenses. Within days after the landing at Malaya, the IJA’s skilful outflanking moves left British forces with few choices apart from withdrawing and consolidating themselves in more tenable positions at the southern portion of the peninsula. The Japanese also regularly infiltrated their enemy’s positions. In the Philippines, small parties often broke through the gaps in the US army’s lines, remaining silent, and waited for reinforcements to arrive until a sufficient force was gathered to launch a small assault. Firecrackers and other types of ruses were then set off to confuse the defending troops over the location of the attacking force. Thereafter, the invaders overwhelmed the disoriented American soldiers by launching a full-scale advance. The Imperial army was also aided by the strong morale which prevailed within its rank and file. Troops conducted their advances with little concern for losses, and demonstrated an unquestioned dedication towards their organization. Lieutenant-General Hutton, who commanded the British forces in Burma, noted that the fundamental cause for the Japanese success was the extent to which soldiers had been imbued with an “offensive spirit.”

Finally, the Imperial forces were aided because the defending Allied forces were in a weak state. In regard to naval and air forces, the British and Americans not only lacked adequate strengths, but were poorly equipped and inefficiently trained. Part of the problem was that Western personnel held condescending views of the Japanese, and thought that the latter were incapable of putting up a serious contest. A more serious problem stemmed from the fact that the bulk of the Allied navies and air services were committed to the Atlantic theater, which meant the Pacific areas could not be defended with large forces. The most scathing criticisms, however, were directed at the armies. In many cases, the Americans and British outnumbered the Japanese, but lacked the tactical skill to forestall the invaders. Troops were inept at fighting in undeveloped country. In order to ensure that their positions could be defended, soldiers had to adopt more imaginative methods. Many British army officers conceded that their traditional procedures of employing fixed defenses were unlikely to work if the positions could be bypassed and were not held with adequate strength. Defending forces needed to conduct an aggressive patrol of their surroundings, and in situations where difficult terrain restricted the use of motorized transport, the proper deployment of foot soldiers was vital.

Allied commanders also conceded that their failures were due to a prevailing lack of discipline. A US officer who served in the Philippines noted how the morale of troops was unsatisfactory, and insisted that soldiers needed to undergo a “spiritual training” along the lines of the Japanese, in order to develop a more aggressive attitude. Likewise, General Pownall pondered how British troops were overly dependent on creature comforts and held an aversion to strenuous work, both of which gave rise to a situation where training was conducted without preparing troops for battle conditions. Western personnel who lacked the fortitude to fight in the trying conditions which prevailed in the jungles of Southeast Asia and the islands of the western Pacific were simply no match for the efficiently trained Japanese army, whose troops held a high level of stamina.


Siege of Pusan [now Busan]

Faced with some 15,000 attackers and their alien weapons, the city’s 8,000 defending troops stood no chance. The Japanese celebrated the capture of Pusan in 1592 with an orgy of bloodletting.

The Failure of the 16th Century Japanese Invasions of Korea

Sengoku Jidai: Mandate of Heaven

Sengoku Jidai: Shadow of the Shogun Collector’s Edition

Official Korean documents in the sixteenth century were dated according to the reign year of the Chinese emperor or the Korean king. Fifteen ninety-two, being the twentieth year of the reign of China’s Wanli emperor and the twenty-fifth year of the reign of Korean king Sonjo, was therefore referred to either as Wanli 20 or Sonjo 25. In everyday usage, however, a different and very ancient counting system was used to keep track of the passage of both the days and the years: the traditional cycle of sixty. Each increment in the cycle was given a name consisting of one of ten “heavenly stems” derived from the elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water, and an “earthly branch” of one of the twelve zodiacal symbols: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig.

Fifteen ninety-two was the twenty-ninth year in this cycle, the year called imjin, a name combining the ninth heavenly stem, seawater, with the sign of the dragon. The Koreans did not regard the year with any particular sense of foreboding. On the contrary, the advent of imjin may even have been considered fortuitous, for the year of the dragon was traditionally viewed as a time of opportunity and prosperity, tinged with just a hint of unpredictability.

Fifteen ninety-two changed all that. The events that would unfold on the peninsula beginning in May would sear the word imjin on the Korean consciousness as a synonym for death and destruction, the apocalypse, the end of the world. To this day imjin waeran, “the Japanese bandit invasion of the water dragon year,” remains the closest that Korea has ever come to the abyss. There have been other times in her history that have brought destruction and tragedy on a terrible scale, most notably the Korean War of 1950 to 1953. But nothing can ever surpass the utter desolation of imjin waeran—the burned-out cities, the scorched earth, the broken families and snuffed-out lives. Among a people as homogeneous as the Koreans, the memory of this catastrophe not surprisingly is still very much alive today, more than four hundred years after the event. Indeed, it might even be said that they have not entirely forgiven Japan for it. Imjin waeran remains to this day a sub-text to the resentment and at times animosity that Koreans still feel toward the Japanese for their occupation of the peninsula from 1910 to 1945.


It began on May 23, 1592. A dense mist hung over the sea off Pusan early that morning, obscuring any sign of activity offshore. Chong Pal, the sixty-year-old commander of the Pusan garrison, left the port early for a day of hunting on Cholyong-do, a forested island at the mouth of the harbor so named for its population of deer. Emerging from the trees some time in the afternoon, he was one of the first to spy the armada, “covering all of the sea,” approaching from the direction of Daema-do, as Tsushima was known to the Koreans. Suspecting that this could be the Japanese invasion that everyone was expecting and yet did not expect, Chong rushed back to Pusan to raise the alarm and prepare for the worst. Any doubts as to what he had seen were soon dispelled by corroborative reports from a lighthouse keeper farther along the coast and from a beacon-fire tender on a hill behind Pusan: a long battle line of ships, ninety in number, approaching from the south.

The lead ships of the Japanese armada soon reached the waters off Pusan harbor and dropped anchor. Kyongsang Left Navy Commander Pak Hong observed their arrival from his nearby base at Kijang and began to tally the numbers for himself. There were easily ninety, as reported. Then one hundred. Then one hundred and fifty. The afternoon waned, and the ships kept coming. Two hundred. Two hundred and fifty. Three hundred. The sun eased below the horizon, and still the number continued to climb. And Pak’s nerves began to fray.

Word of the Japanese arrival reached Kyongsang Right Navy Commander Won Kyun at his base on Koje Island to the west of Pusan that same afternoon. He could not at first bring himself to believe what was happening. In a dispatch to his colleague Yi Sun-sin, commander of the Cholla Left Navy based at Yosu farther to the west, Won reported that the approaching mass of ships was perhaps some sort of exceptionally large trade mission from Tsushima. As the afternoon progressed, however, and the number of ships crowding the bay off Pusan climbed to one hundred and fifty and beyond, Won was forced to the conclusion that an invasion was indeed under way and a disaster about to befall them.

Neither he nor Pak Hong, however, made any attempt that day or the next to attack the Japanese armada with the approximately one hundred and fifty heavy panokson battleships under their command, representing the bulk of the entire Korean navy. The two men simply watched and waited and sent off frantic dispatches, while the ships under their command, the most formidable weapons in the Korean arsenal and the first and most effective line in the nation’s defenses, sat idle in their ports.

For the Koreans, this frozen inaction on the part of Won and Pak was the first of many strategic errors that would be made in the early days of the Imjin War. For although the two naval commanders did not know it, the gathering armada, while numerically daunting, was in fact vulnerable to seaborne attack and could have been dealt a heavy blow before it ever had a chance to send a single man ashore.

In the order of battle he had signed two months before, Hideyoshi urged his daimyo to be particularly careful to get their troops safely across the sea to Pusan, warning them that “the loss of one man or one horse through bad judgment will be regarded as a grave offense.” To ensure their safety, the invasion plan had called for a force of battleships to travel in convoy with the transports to protect them from the very ships that now sat idle in the Korean naval bases of Kyongsang Province. But such convoying had not occurred. When the first contingents of the invasion force were leaving Nagoya for their forward staging areas on Tsushima, the navy was still assembling on the Inland Sea. When the transports were at sea between Tsushima and Pusan, the navy was only just arriving at Nagoya. In fact, it would be more than a week before Hideyoshi’s battleships would arrive at Pusan. Konishi had gambled that he could land his forces without their protection and was now in Korean waters with a fleet of light and largely unprotected transports—fishing boats really—that would have been no match for Korea’s panokson if the challenge had been made. Had a different admiral been in command of either Kyongsang fleet, one willing to put his ships to sea and strike at the enemy, the outcome of these first few days might have been very different indeed.

By nightfall on May 23 some four hundred ships bearing Konishi Yukinaga’s first contingent had successfully traversed the seventy kilometers from Tsushima’s northern tip and were crowding the waters off Pusan. At seven thirty in the evening a single vessel separated from this force and advanced into the harbor. Aboard was So Yoshitoshi, the Christian daimyo of Tsushima, also known as Dario, who had served as Hideyoshi’s emissary to the Koreans since 1589. Accompanying him was the scholar monk Genso, a member of the Tsushima mission to Seoul in 1589. The two men sent a letter to the commander of Pusan, Chong Pal, asking one last time that the way be cleared to China for the armies of Japan. They received no answer, and eventually returned in their ship and rejoined the armada.

The die was now cast for a war with Korea. So Yoshitoshi and his father-in-law Konishi Yukinaga may have come to Pusan hoping that a show of force would cow the Koreans into acceding to Hideyoshi’s demands, thereby avoiding the necessity of a fight. Chong Pal’s rebuff ensured that this was not to be. With a huge invasion army waiting behind them on Tsushima, there was tremendous pressure on these two daimyo commanders not to spend time trying to arrange a settlement with the Koreans. It was, thought Konishi, “the will of Christ” that they now go ahead and use armed force.

For the next several hours the Japanese armada sat motionless offshore as the Koreans watched anxiously from behind the walls of Pusan Castle. Then, at four o’clock the next morning, May 24, the landings began. First ashore were the five thousand men under So Yoshitoshi. He was the logical choice to lead the way, for having visited Pusan several times in the past he knew the lay of the land and the nature of the defenses better than any of Hideyoshi’s commanders. The arrival of this familiar and formerly friendly face may also have been intended to cause the Koreans at least momentary confusion. If so, it could not have lasted long. So and his men clearly had not come this time to conduct diplomacy or trade; they had come for war. They came ashore clad in armor of iron plates and leather shingles tied together to form a flexible yet nearly impenetrable shell. It covered their torsos and arms and formed an apron in the front. They wore flaring iron helmets, some with stylized buffalo horns and antlers screwed to the front, all with a jointed cowling affixed to the sides and back to protect the neck. High-ranking samurai rode horses. They wore grotesque war masks with fierce, grimacing faces, and were armed with two swords: a long katana and a shorter wakizashi, finely crafted, very expensive, and highly valued by their owner. Some may have carried bows as well, and a lesser number spears. They did not carry muskets. These effective but fundamentally dishonorable weapons went to the ashigaru foot soldiers, along with one “loan sword.”

Next ashore was So Yoshitoshi’s father-in-law, Konishi Yukinaga, at the head of seven thousand men. They followed an unusual banner featuring a huge, stuffed rendering of the white paper bags used by Japanese druggists to dispense medicine, a reference to the Konishi family’s traditional involvement in that trade. There were very likely crucifixes in evidence as well, for Konishi and his men, like So’s company, were all Christians. Konishi himself rode a fine horse that Hideyoshi had presented to him at Nagoya before his departure, with the exhortation that he use it to “gallop over the heads of the bearded savages.”

After Konishi came Matsuura, lord of Hirado, the sole nonbeliever in the group. Then Arima. Omura. Goto. A total of 18,700 men in all, dressed for combat, ready to kill. The predominant colors were black and red: black armor and helmets, red banners and brocade. The multitude formed up in ranks, then split in two. Konishi led a portion of the men a few kilometers southwest along the harbor front to the fort at Tadaepo at the mouth of the Naktong River. The fort’s defenders, under garrison commander Yun Hung-sin, managed to repel the first assault but were overwhelmed by the second and all put to the sword. So Yoshitoshi meanwhile led the advance on Pusan Castle itself. He formally called upon garrison commander Chong Pal one last time to surrender, asserting yet again that they were on their way to China and would not harm the Koreans if they would only step aside. Chong refused. Until he received orders to the contrary, he replied, he was duty bound to resist the Japanese advance.

The aging officer then turned to his men and made his orders clear. “I expect you all,” he cried out, “to fight and die like brave men! If any man attempts to turn and flee, I will personally cut off his head!”

The day was just dawning when the Japanese sounded their conch-shell trumpets to signal the attack. The ensuing battle was fierce but short, providing the beleaguered Koreans with their first taste of the stunning power of the arquebus. Their arrows and spears were no match for them. The defenders of Pusan Castle were felled by the hundreds by the flying slugs of lead that these strange “dog legs” spit out, a deluge of death that “fell like rain.” The garrison fought until all their arrows were gone. Then Chong Pal himself was killed, and with that, at around nine o’clock in the morning, all resistance ceased.

Once over the walls, “We found people running all over the place and trying to hide in the gaps between the houses,” samurai chronicler Yoshino Jingozaemon would later record. “Those who could not conceal themselves went off toward the East Gate, where they clasped their hands together, and there came to our ears the Chinese expression, ‘Manō! Manō!’ which was probably them asking for mercy. Taking no notice of what they heard our troops rushed forward and cut them down, slaughtering them as a blood sacrifice to the god of war. Both men, women, and even dogs and cats were beheaded.” That it was assumed the Koreans spoke Chinese is an indication of how little the Japanese knew of their foe.

According to Japanese records, 8,500 Koreans were killed in the fall of Pusan and 200 prisoners were taken. Among the dead was Chong Pal’s eighteen-year-old concubine, Ae-hyang. Her body was found lying beside the fallen commander. She had taken her own life.

Air War to Doom…

In December 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy was the world’s third largest. It may have been the best. It certainly had the best naval air arm.

Of its 1,500 pilots, nearly all had 600 or more hours of flying time, half of it in the combat aircraft they were flying. Most of the formation leaders had as much as 1,500 hours. The majority were veterans of combat over China, where the Naval Air Service had flown strategic bombing, close support, and air cover missions since the “China Incident” began in 1937.

Their aircraft were fully worthy of their pilots. The A6M Zero was the best carrier-based fighter in the world. The B5N Kate was equally adept at torpedo bombing and level bombing. The D3A Val was at least as good as the notorious German Stuka. The land based G3M Sally and the G4M Betty had long range and were good high-altitude bombers and excellent torpedo bombers. The Japanese rounded out their strength with several types of seaplanes and the H6K Mavis, a four-engined flying boat with incredible range. All of this was supported by a strong corps of some of the most expert mechanics in Japan.

The carrier-based planes, nearly five hundred strong, flew from nine modern carriers, including some of the best in the world. That was not only three times as many as the United States Pacific Fleet had, but more than the whole United States Navy’s carrier strength.

But by the summer of 1945, the Naval Air Service’s planes (too many the same early-war types) squatted under camouflage net ting and in caves, waiting for their mechanics to prepare them for semitrained pilots to take one last flight, crash-diving into a ship of the American invasion fleet-if they got that far. How the mighty had fallen.

But why?

The Japanese Naval Air Service died from the same cause as so much of the Japanese war effort-faulty grand strategy and a weak economic base. To be brief about the second, Japan had to import practically every essential item of a modern war economy except coal. And in 1944 alone, a fully mobilized American air craft industry produced almost as many planes (better ones, too) as Japan produced during the whole period of 1942-45.

The Japanese strategic stumble is less well known. Basically, they planned on a short war leading to a decisive battle that would put the enemy in a position that he would not have the political will to fight his way out of.

This strategy meant hitting by surprise, fast, hard, and often. Specifically, it meant preparing a defensive barrier stretching from the Kuriles in the north in a great crescent down to the anchorage of Truk in the Caroline Islands far to the south. Planes, destroyers, and submarines from these bases would hack away at the American fleet (what other one need Japan fear?) until it approached the Home Islands. Then the Combined Fleet would sortie at full strength and so thoroughly crush American offensive capabilities in the Pacific that the United States would seek a negotiated peace.

The concept of a short war has been attributed to the Samurai mentality; to the code of bushido, emphasizing daring and aggression; and to stark realism. The Japanese had not forgotten how narrowly they escaped running out of men and money at the end of the war with Russia, even after winning the decisive battle at Tsushima.

So their main naval striking force, the aviators, were polished to perfection for a short war. The force had once been composed exclusively of graduates of Eta Jima, the Japanese naval academy, survivors of a four-year curriculum that made Annapolis look like a prep school. In 1929 suitable enlisted men were admitted to the two-year flight training course, which washed out about 80 percent of the candidates. Then in 1931 potential pilots were allowed straight in from civilian life.

Having a larger pilot pool helped somewhat, but it also introduced the hierarchical Japanese class system into naval aviation. Physical punishment was allowed; initiative usually was not. This environment was not calculated to produce the best mind-set among the new lower-class pilots.

The planes they climbed into also had a few limitations. None of them had armor or self-sealing fuel tanks. Radios were in short supply, and so heavy and prone to static interference from unshielded ignitions that some pilots refused to carry them. And of course parachutes were bulky and implied an unthinkable willingness to be taken prisoner, and therefore were refused. They could have saved many pilots’ lives.

So the Japanese Naval Air Service flew off to an initial victory that slowly turned into doom.

They earned their first triumphs. Pearl Harbor was an attack on a scale that no other navy in the world could have executed until well into 1943. And while survivors were still getting first aid, off in the Philippines air strikes from Formosa (now Taiwan) were devastating American airpower in the islands.

General Douglas MacArthur helped the Japanese cause by failing to disperse his planes despite knowing the war had started. The Japanese fighter pilots who escorted the bombers were flying at extreme range, their fuel-air mixtures leaned out as far as they could go without stalling.

These were apparently amazing feats-but there was a scribble of handwriting on the wall at Wake Island. There, four Marine F4F Wildcats proved their toughness by taking to the air full of holes and not only shot down Japanese planes but damaged a light cruiser and sank a destroyer.

The Japanese went on running wild from Burma to the fringes of Australia. But they were losing as many as two hundred planes a month (army and navy) to operational accidents (read: piling up on a runway hacked out of scrub, ankle-deep in mud, and with a few rocks left for good measure). And pilots who died nosing-over in a pothole were just as dead as those killed dropping a bomb on an Allied warship.

The Indian Ocean saw a lot of that kind of bombing in April, when the Japanese carriers went east. The Japanese carriers also saw what a really determined defense could do-over Ceylon they lost forty to fifty planes.

Worse was to follow. Later in the spring the Japanese divided their carriers, sending two south to cover an attack on New Guinea and getting the rest ready. Warned by the code-breakers, the Americans stop-punched them in the Coral Sea, although losing one fleet carrier against one Japanese light carrier. The real blow to the Japanese was that one of their carriers had her flight deck wrecked and the other lost most of her air group-another dent in the supply of experienced Japanese naval pilots.

So both carriers missed Midway, where they might have turned the tide. As it was, the Japanese lost four carriers-giving them a shortage of first-class flight decks, from which they never really recovered. Many pilots survived, but hundreds of the veteran mechanics were not so lucky-and that was another irreparable blow.

The Battle of Midway also let one other plum drop into American hands. In the Aleutians, a Japanese diversionary raid left a flyable Zero upside down on an uninhabited island. Salvaging it, the Americans got it back in the air and tested it thoroughly. It did not influence the design of the F6F Hellcat (already flying when the Zero crashed), but it did allow the U. S. Navy to learn its opponent’s weakness and use its new fighter more effectively.

The Japanese now turned to an advance down the chain of the Solomon Islands, seeking another approach to cutting off Australia. (The Japanese services never agreed on a plan for invading that continent-but then, they hardly ever agreed on much.) They established an air base on the island of Guadalcanal. The United States promptly landed marines to seize the base. The Japanese counterattacked by air, land, and sea.


The Battle of Guadalcanal may have decided the Pacific War. It certainly decided the fate of the Japanese Naval Air Service. Bombing raids from Rabaul and carrier battles at sea took a toll on Japanese planes and pilots. The Japanese lost about seven hundred planes of all kinds, as well as most of their pilots-and many of the lost pilots were the irreplaceable veterans. The United States lost nearly as many planes, but fewer pilots and crewmen, and the U. S. pilot-training program had plenty of three-hundred hour pilots in the pipeline, just waiting for their new planes and carriers. The Japanese, on the other hand, were stretched so thin that to send a veteran pilot back to be a flight instructor would deprive a frontline squadron of an indispensable leader.

Meanwhile, Japanese pilot training hours were dropping below two hundred, few of those in combat aircraft. Most of the new pilots were being either siphoned off into new air groups or thrown straight into the maw of the Solomons campaign.

The Japanese evacuated Guadalcanal in January 1943. That ended Japanese strategic offensives in the Pacific. The rest of the year saw no great fleet clashes, because both sides were building up their strength for the next one.

The United States did a better job, both qualitatively and quantitatively. By the end of the year it could sweep the Gilbert and Marshall islands with strikes from five fleet and six light carriers, which then sailed south to eliminate Truk as a working naval base (along with most of the ships in it and all the planes on its runways).


The elimination of Rabaul as a barrier to the advance on the Philippines also proceeded with reasonable speed. The Japanese surface fleet fought aggressively at night, but the United States ruled sea and sky by day and island-hopped steadily “up the ladder of the Solomons.” In November 1943, it eliminated Rabaul as a fleet base. In the next few months, it effectively eliminated that base’s air power, which included several replacement air groups intended for the carriers of the Combined Fleet. This blockade ended up trapping yet more pilots and mechanics out of the war as effectively as if they had been in POW camps. From the roofs of their bunkers, they could contemplate new and superior American aircraft such as the P-38 and F4U Corsair swatting the last Zeroes out of the sky.

This did not improve a Japanese situation that was going from bad to worse. Mitsuo Fuchida, who had led the attack on Pearl Harbor, joined the staff of a land-based naval air group intended to defend the Marianas. He was appalled to discover that the group had fewer than two hundred planes and that the average training time for the new pilots was 120 hours-not enough time logged to let them even fly some of the new planes that were at last reaching the front safely, let alone use them in combat. The mechanics were in equally short supply and equally undertrained, likely to be hopeless with the new planes such as P1Y Frances, D4Y Judy, B6N Jill, and the magnificent long-range flying boat, the H8K Emily.

The Japanese needed more than new planes. They needed flight decks, as they had gained only one fleet carrier in the last year, and they needed fuel for both planes and ships. Unfortunately, while the East Indian oil fields were now producing again, American submarines were taking an increasing toll on Japanese tankers. They were also targeting Japanese destroyers, leaving both convoys and carriers with increasingly thin escorts.

Nor would it have helped Japanese morale to discover that the Americans had a complete set of the plans for the defense of the Marianas, correctly assumed to be the next major objective. Filipino guerrillas had retrieved the plans from a Japanese staff officer who’d swum ashore from a crashed plane.

So when the American Fifth Fleet and a multidivision Marine and Army landing force appeared off the Marianas, the Japanese response held few surprises. The Mobile Force sailed out, with new air groups aboard its five large and four small carriers. Meanwhile, the Americans had systematically eliminated all the Japanese aircraft based on the islands, craft which the Japanese had hoped would be an equalizer, and cratered most of the runways that the Japanese carrier planes were supposed to use for shuttle bombing operations.

Then the Fifth Fleet positioned itself west of the Marianas and waited for the enemy to come to it. On June 19, 1944, the Japanese came-four massive carrier raids, all of which were intercepted, three of which were nearly annihilated. The Japanese lost three hundred planes to American interceptors and anti-aircraft fire. The Americans had one battleship lightly damaged.

That same day, American submarines sank two of the best Japanese carriers. On the next day the Americans delivered a counterstroke, launching two hundred planes at extreme range and knowing they’d have to return at night.

They sank another carrier and two tankers, in addition to wiping out the few remaining Japanese planes. Then they headed for home. Many ditched for lack of fuel. Many more might have except that Admiral Marc Mitscher, commanding the fast carries, threw caution to the wind and ordered his ships illuminated. That grand gesture saved many plans and crews, and provoked no attacks.

The Battle of the Philippine Sea has been discussed in such detail because it was the greatest carrier battle of all time-and the death knell for Japanese naval aviation. The last carrier force it sent to sea was a diversionary force at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, four carriers with only 116 planes, and they were all sunk or lost.

Then Japan’s naval pilots flew into the shadowy land of the kamikazes, where they played an effective role. Certainly many of them must have gone in the same spirit as other pilots who thought that Japan was doomed: life in a defeated Japan would not be worth living, so why not go out doing as much damage to the enemy as possible?

May Americans never have to answer such questions. And may we try not to judge too harshly those who have.

Samurai and Ethics

As the country entered an enduring phase of stability and peace, without even any real foreign threat, warriors became superfluous. There were a number of peasant uprisings to put down, their lords’ honour to uphold, and a bit of policing, but little work for real warriors. Instead, they became bureaucrats and administrators. Their battles became mere paper wars.

These men who occupied the top class in the social order were acutely embarrassed by their almost parasitic life. They seized the least chance for real action to prove their valour, and they went to almost absurd lengths to justify their existence. As a rather ironic result, it was during this age of the redundant samurai that some of the clearest expressions of the samurai ideal, bushid (‘way of the warrior’), were to emerge.

Every Japanese knows the story of the Forty-Seven Rnin. A rnin (wanderer) was a samurai made masterless either by dismissal or by the execution or demotion of his lord. There were quite a few of them in Tokugawa Japan who roamed the countryside causing trouble for villagers and disquiet for the authorities. The forty-seven in question, however, are seen as the embodiment of samurai virtue.

In 1701 their lord, Asano Naganori (1665–1701) of Ak in Harima (Hygo Prefecture) had been insulted by Kira Yoshinaka (1641–1703), the shgun’s chief of protocol. Asano had drawn his sword in the shgun’s castle – a capital offence. He was made to commit seppuku, and his domain was confiscated from his family. Forty-seven of his now masterless samurai retainers vowed to avenge his death by killing Kira. They hid their intent for two years, pretending to lead a life of dissipation, then attacked and killed Kira in an unguarded moment, placing his severed head on their lord’s grave.

Though their behaviour was considered exemplary bushid they were nonetheless ordered to kill themselves for having taken the law into their own hands. Amidst scholarly discussion and public controversy they killed themselves in a mass seppuku. Their graves at Sengakuji Temple in Tky are now a major tourist attraction.

Descriptions of bushid from this period that are still popular today include Hagakure (In the Shadow of Leaves) of 1716 and Gorin no Sho (The Five Rings) of around 1643. However, one of the most interesting was written by Yamaga Sok (1622–85), who was himself a rnin. He had also been a teacher of one of the Forty-Seven Rnin.

Yamaga was perhaps the first to see bushid as a comprehensive philosophy.26 In his various writings he stressed aspects of it such as loyalty and self-discipline, as well as the importance of learning and cultivation of the arts and the rounded development of the whole man. Knowing one’s role in life, and knowing how to properly conduct relations with others, are particularly stressed. But he also struck a defensive note in his justification of the samurai’s apparent lack of functional usefulness to the society of the day. Yamaga argued that the samurai’s freedom from occupation proper allowed him to concentrate on perfecting his moral virtue and thus to serve as a model for the rest of society, disciplining the imperfect if necessary:27

The samurai dispenses with the business of the farmer, artisan, and merchant, and confines himself to practising this Way; should there be someone in the three classes of the common people who transgresses against these moral principles, the samurai summarily punishes him and thus upholds proper moral principles in the land.

There is here a reference to morality, but it is a different morality from the western concept. It is still not a question of good and evil, but of doing the expected thing in the context of social relations and orderliness. Step out of line, and one is summarily punished.

Yamaga’s account also has a heavy Confucian tone. Confucianists were very much concerned with knowing one’s place, honouring relationships, respecting order, and doing one’s duty. Because of these values, Confucianism was revived and promoted by the Tokugawa shgunate. In some aspects, however, it was modified to suit Japan. For example, Chinese Confucianism allowed for showing loyalty to conscience, but in Japan this became narrowed to loyalty to one’s superior. A Confucian adviser to the shgun was appointed, and a Confucian college was founded in Edo with shgunal support. The period produced many noted Confucian scholars, such as Hayashi Razan (1583–1657), Yamazaki Ansai (1618–82), Arai Hakuseki (1657–1725), and Ogy Sorai (1666–1728).

One major influence of Confucianism was on gender perceptions and by extension sexual relations. Texts such as Onna Daigaku (Great Learning for Women) of 1716 preached the ‘five infirmities’ of women – indocility, discontent, slander, jealousy, and silliness – and placed them in a greatly inferior position to men. Onna Daigaku observed that:28 ‘Without any doubt, these five infirmities are found in seven or eight out of every ten women, and it is from these that arises the inferiority of women to men.’ This lowly view of women was one reason why so many – if not most – samurai preferred homosexual relationships.29 Moreover, according to the sometimes-followed Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, too much association with the female yin could seriously weaken the male yang.

Confucianists and the shgunate did not really approve of homosexuality, but turned a blind eye to it. The shgunate was particularly prepared to be tolerant because in Japan’s case physical male homosexuality invariably reflected social rank, with the active partner always the senior.30

Confucianism was not always good for the shgunate. One of its ironies was that it encouraged ideas of merit and learning. This was allowed for in concepts of hierarchy and rank in China, which permitted some mobility on the basis of learning and meritorious achievement, and in later centuries this was also to some extent to be allowed for in Japan. However, encouragement of merit and learning did not necessarily work in the best interests of the Tokugawa shgunate and its policy of unquestioning orthodoxy and stability. Over time rather more critical and questioning attitudes emerged in some quarters than the shgunate wanted – though this should not be overstated, for obedience was still the norm.

The children of samurai and nobles were educated at home or at special domain schools, and wealthy merchants also set up private schools. Increasingly the children of other classes had the opportunity to study at small schools known as terakoya (literally ‘temple-child building’). These were originally set up under the auspices of village temples but soon spread to the towns. Tuition was usually very cheap or free, since the teacher was often a priest who taught as an act of benevolence or a samurai who taught for a sense of self-worth. As a result of this widespread education the literacy rate in the later part of the period is estimated to have been 45 per cent for males and 15 per cent for females, giving an overall rate of 30 per cent. This was arguably the highest in the world at the time. It set an enduring trend, for Japan still has the highest literacy rate in the world at 99 per cent.

Another point of Confucianist irony was that its encouragement of obedience to the ruler inevitably raised the question of who exactly the ruler was. It did not escape the notice of an increasingly educated population that in China the ruler was the emperor. This effectively meant the shgun could be seen as a usurper.

Doubts about the shgunate intensified from the 1700s with the revival of Shint, and early texts associated with it such as the Kojiki. Shintand the Kojiki were seen as something purely Japanese, and became part of kokugaku (‘national learning’). In some ways this was a continuation of the emergence of national consciousness, prodded by the occasional reminder of the outside world in the form of castaways, or foreign ships seeking reprovisioning rights or similar. It was also an expression of a feeling that Japan was a little too Chinese. Kokugaku scholars included such figures as Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801) and Hirata Atsutane (1776–1843). Motoori produced an annotated version of the Kojiki and was openly critical of things Chinese. Hirata argued the superiority of Shintand Japan and was to be part-inspiration for later Japanese nationalism and imperialism.

The idealisation of the way of the samurai, the revival of Confucianism, the spread of education, and the emergence of nationalism were all to play a part in the formation of modern Japan. So too, of course, did the conformism and orthodoxy that formed their setting.

Samurai: The warrior class of feudal Japan

The Samurai, the warrior class of ancient Japan, dominated that country’s political and social structure for centuries. The Samurai came into existence in the early thirteenth century with the establishment of a feudal society in Japan. As in medieval Europe, the large landowners dominated the economy in an agricultural society and therefore had sufficient monetary resources to pay for the best in military supplies. Thus, as in Europe, the ability to own armor, horses, and superior weaponry brought one an exalted social status to be carefully maintained. Thus, the Samurai were dedicated to perfecting their martial skills and living by a strict code of honor that supported the feudal system. At the height of the Samurai’s pre-eminence, loyalty to one’s overlord and the ability to defend his property and status, even to the detriment of one’s own property and status, became the pinnacle of honor.

The original soldiers of Japan were called bushi (“warrior”), from the Japanese pronunciation of a Chinese character signifying a man of letters and/or arms. The rise of these warriors to the status of a special class began with an interclan struggle in the late 1100s. The Genji and Heike clans were maneuvering for influence in the imperial court, and the Heike managed to obtain the upper hand. In the fighting that ensued, the Genji clan was almost completely destroyed, but two sons managed to escape northward from the area of the capital city, Kyoto. When the elder son, Yoritomo, reached his majority, he rallied his remaining supporters and allied with the clans of northern Honshu that looked down on the imperial clans, which they considered weak and effete. Yoritomo’s return renewed the fighting, and in the second struggle it was the Heike that were defeated.

In 1192 Yoritomo was named shogun (roughly “barbarian-defeating generalissimo”), the supreme military position as personal protector of the emperor. How- ever, as the emperor had more figurative than literal power, the position of shogun came to wield real authority in Japan. What national unity Japan had ever attained, though, came through the population’s belief in the emperor as the descendent of the gods that created the world. Therefore, the shogun could not seize the throne without alienating the people. The emperor could not rule, however, without the military power of the shogun to protect him and enforce the government’s will. Thus, the shogun became the power behind the throne in a mutually dependent relationship.

Yoritomo and his descendants enjoyed a relatively brief ascendancy, but by the middle 1300s factional struggles broke out. For a time there were two rival emperors, each with his warrior supporters. In the latter half of the 1400s, the Ashikaga clan went through an internal power struggle before it took control of the country, though that control was often merely nominal during the century that they ruled. As the emperor and the central government exercised less control over time, the local landed gentry, or daimyo, came to prominence and wielded power in the country- side. By alliances and conquests, these feudal lords enhanced their economic, political, and military positions, until by the late 1500s, there was serious fighting among these leaders, and the emperor had no shogun to protect him or display his authority. It was in the 1500s that the Samurai came to be a true warrior class of professional, full-time soldiers, sworn to their daimyo overlords.

The Samurai tended to dominate the command positions as heavy cavalry, while the mass of soldiers became pikemen. All soldiers, no matter their status or function, carried a sword. For the Samurai warrior, the sword became a symbol of his position, and the Samurai were the only soldiers allowed by law to carry two swords. Anyone not of the Samurai class who carried two swords was liable to be executed. The two swords were the katana, or long sword (averaging about a three-foot blade), and the wakizashi, or short sword (with the blade normally 16–20 inches long). The finest swords became the property of the richest warriors, and being a swordsmith was the most highly respected craft. Both swords were slightly curved with one sharpened edge and a point; they were mainly slashing weapons, although they could be used for stabbing. The short sword in particular was a close-quarters stabbing weapon and also used in seppuku, the Samurai’s ritual suicide. The blades were both strong and flexible, being crafted by hammering the steel thin, folding it over, and rehammering it, sometimes thousands of times. The sword and its expert use attained spiritual importance in the Samurai’s life. The other main weapon in Japanese armies of the time was the naginata, a long-handled halberd used by the infantrymen. It consisted of a wide, curved blade sharpened on one edge and mounted on a long pole. By 1600 this had been largely replaced by the yari, more of a spear. Occasionally, unusual weapons were developed, such as folding fans with razor- sharp edges.

The Samurai wore elaborate suits of armor, made of strips of metal laced with leather. The finished product was lacquered and decorated to such an extent that it not only was weatherproof and resistant to cutting weapons, but it became almost as much a work of art as was a fine sword. Armor proved unable to stop musket balls, however, and became mainly ceremonial after 1600.

Japanese armies also had bowmen, although most archery was practiced from horseback and therefore in the province of the Samurai. By the end of the sixteenth century, however,  Oda  Nobunaga (1534–1582) became the first of the daimyo to effectively adopt firearms. European harquebuses had been introduced to Japan in the 1540s by shipwrecked Portuguese, and Japanese artisans began to copy the design. Nobunaga fielded 3,000 musketeers in a battle in 1575 with such positive effect that the other daimyo rushed to acquire as many of the weapons as possible. The technology advanced little in the following generations, however, owing to Japan’s self-imposed exile from the rest of the world.

Nobunaga, starting with a relatively small landholding in central Japan, schemed and fought his way to become the strongest of the lords. In this time, the daimyo built huge castle/fortresses, equal to or better than anything built in Europe at the time. Nobunaga defeated many of the military religious sects on his way to dominance, but not surprisingly created a number of enemies, which allied and at- tacked his palace in 1582, burning it to the ground with him inside. Nobunaga was succeeded by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598), one of his commanders, who almost succeeded in accomplishing Nobunaga’s dream of unifying Japan under his rule. At his death in 1598 one of his vassals, Tokugawa Ieyasu, took control of half of Hideyoshi’s forces and won the battle of Sekigahara. He was named shogun in 1603—the first to hold that position in years—and finished consolidating his power in 1615 with the capture of Osaka castle, where the last remnants of the defeated Hideyoshi faction held out.

The Tokugawa shogunate lasted until the middle 1800s, when it was dismantled during the Meiji Restoration. This movement returned real power to the emperor and abandoned the traditional feudal state that had kept Japan isolated and technologically backward for more than two and a half centuries. During the Tokugawa period, however, the Samurai both experienced their golden age and sowed the seeds of their own downfall. The Samurai came to hold the ruling administrative positions as well as exercising military functions. The Samurai warrior, who had over time blended the hardiness of the country warrior with the polish of the court, was the pinnacle of culture, learning, and power. The problem was that Tokugawa had succeeded too well, establishing a peace that lasted 250 years. Without the almost constant warfare that had preceded the Tokugawa era, the Samurai warrior had fewer and fewer chances to exercise his profession of arms. He became more of a bureaucrat, and therefore he could not be rewarded in combat or expand his holdings through warfare. The Samurai class in- creased in numbers, but not through “natural selection” in combat, and their larger numbers in a more and more bloated bureaucracy brought about their economic slide. The merchant class grew increasingly wealthy, while the Samurai upper class became impoverished. The tax burden required to operate the government fell on the peasants, who turned to shop keeping rather than follow an unprofitable agricultural life. By the time the American Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1854 and “opened” Japan to the outside world, the artisans and merchants were the only ones in a position to deal with the new reality, and the Samurai’s status in society quickly dropped.

In spite of this setback, the martial attitude engendered by centuries of military rule never completely left the Japanese national psyche. The military became modernized with European weaponry, but the dedication to a martial spirit and professionalism remained strong in the new warrior class. In the 1920s and 1930s, the military came back into power and dominated the government, laying the ground- work for national expansionism to obtain the raw materials necessary to maintain and enlarge their military and industrial base. The cult of the Samurai, bushido (the “Way of the Warrior”), enjoyed a resurgence in the Japanese military. It showed itself in the brutal actions of the Japanese in their dealings with defeated enemies in China, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific, and in their dedication to death before dishonor in serving their emperor. The world saw first-hand the twentieth-century version of the Samurai in the extremely difficult fighting against Japanese soldiers during World War II and in the Japanese use of suicide tactics late in the war in an attempt to save their country from invasion and defeat. Japanese texts on Samurai philosophy and lifestyle, such as Hagakure and The Five Rings, still influence the views of the modern Japanese in their business practices.

References: King, Winston, Zen and the Way of the Sword (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Turnbull, Stephen, Samurai Warriors (New York: Sterling Publishing, 1991); Turnbull, Stephen, The Samurai: A Military History (New York: Macmillan, 1977).

Firearms in Japan

By the start of the 13th century Japan was already on a descending path from aristocratic-emperor rule to fragmented provincialism under warlord clans, to protracted civil war and anarchy. The Mongols twice tried to invade Japan but were repulsed at Hakata Bay in 1274 and 1281. The Kamakura shogunate ended in violence in 1333. The Ashikaga shogunate (1333–1603) was born into chaos and bloody strife as rival military houses backed rival imperial lines, and as turmoil in China spilled over into destabilization and civil war in Japan. This ‘‘War Between the Courts’’ lasted from 1336 to 1392. As central power collapsed Japan’s coasts and outer islands were preyed upon by wakō(pirates). In the mid-15th century more decades of civil war climaxed in a shogunal succession dispute, leading to the Ōnin War (1467–1477). Thus began a period known as the Sengoku jidai or ‘‘Warring States,’’ during which power shifted to the ‘‘Sengoku daimyo,’’ or military houses of the regions, and Ashikaga shoguns ruled only on paper. Several emperors despaired and fled ruined Kyoto; others were assassinated. This era of so-called gekokujōsaw general anarchy, widespread arson (a favorite weapon of the ashigaru), a plague of ronin, and ubiquitous civil warfare marked by endless small battles. One defense against this anarchy was the growth of jōkamachi (‘‘castle towns’’). A better defense would have been unification and pacification, but before 1560 no one among the daimyo could provide this.

The arrival of firearms in Japan changed all warfare and politics. Samurai faced gunpowder weapons (small rockets) at Hakata Bay, but not guns. Korea acquired firearms from China around 1300 but kept the technology secret from the Japanese for over 200 years. Some primitive Chinese firing tubes were used during the Ōnin War, but did not catch on. Japan acquired its first true guns not from China but from Europe, when several Portuguese merchants shipwrecked at Tanegashima. Portuguese records set the date as 1542; Japanese histories say 1543. What is important is that they brought with them two matchlock arquebuses. These merchants, the first Europeans to visit Japan, were followed by Jesuits, experts in forging guns and peddling Catholicism. Spanish traders arrived in 1581 with more guns and cannon, by which time some Japanese daimyo were manufacturing their own firearms and were already using them to overwhelm more traditional neighbors (in battle, perhaps as early as 1549). This is when large infantry formations first appeared in daimyo armies, partly in response to the breakdown of samurai loyalty during Sengoku, but also due to the introduction of peasant levies armed with arquebuses.

The last half of the 16th century saw the unification of Japan by three great warlords, each effectively using guns in combination with older arms to wage and win the Unification Wars. The first was Oda Nobunaga, who put an end to the Ashikaga shogunate and the old daimyo order. He conquered the most advanced and heavily populated third of Japan, crushing daimyo and Buddhist opposition by 1582. The second unifier was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who rose from modest origins to rule much of Japan from behind the imperial throne. Hideyoshi twice sent massive armies into Korea. He planned this as the start of an empire to include Indochina, Siam, the Philippines, and China, but was not able to conquer even Korea. In 1587 he ordered Christian missionaries to leave Japan. Ten years later he oversaw mass executions of Japanese Christians, whom he feared as a fifth column and as adherents of a subversive cult. In 1600, Dutch traders arrived and Western trade interests and influence looked set to make headway. The last of the unifiers, Tokugawa Ieyasu, triumphed at Sekigahara in 1600 and became shogun in 1603. His successors, the Tokugawa shoguns, chose a path of isolation from the West trod by Japan for 250 years. Having overcome endless civil wars and the arrival of strange and perhaps threatening foreigners, the Tokugawa steadfastly resisted externally induced change. This policy was undertaken at a time when China was overrun by the Manchus and penetrated by Europeans, India was conquered by the Mughals, and Europe itself was wracked by sectarian wars. However, the price of the Tokugawa ‘‘great peace’’ was suppression of creative social forces and a self-imposed technological and military inferiority to the West. The Tokugawa shoguns gave Japan political stability and domestic peace, albeit harshly enforced, along with seclusion from Western and Christian influence. Isolation was not as extreme toward Korea and China, however. Ieyasu restored relations with Korea in 1609 and during the Tokugawa shogunate Korea sent twelve major missions (tsūshinshi) to Japan. Westerners, on the other hand, met harassment and were forbidden to take up permanent residence. Thus English traders who arrived in 1612 left in frustration in 1623, while the French established no trade links with Japan in this period.

After 1613, Buddhism—its martial monks now disarmed and so mostly harmless—was reestablished as the state religion, while ‘‘Kirishitan’’ (Japanese Christians) were sharply persecuted. In 1614 all Catholic clergy were expelled. In 1618 other Christian missionaries were killed or forced to leave. A ferocious persecution of Christianity followed, including a series of ‘‘seclusion decrees’’ passed from 1633 to 1641. These aimed at tightening control over the daimyo, among whom a handful were ‘‘Kirishitan,’’ and ending all Christian subversion of Japan’s putatively homogenous religious and social order. Under pressure from enforcement of anti-Christian edicts by the Tokugawa inquisition, the Kirishitan Shumon Aratame Yaku, in 1637–1638 the Kirishitan of Shimabara rebelled. Mostly converted peasants supported by a few samurai, and with some aid from Europeans in the area, they were brutally crushed: some 35,000 were butchered in their last stronghold at Hara Castle. With the rebellion ended, survivors went underground as Kakure Kirishitan (‘‘Hidden Christians’’). Western trade also fell away: England’s East India Company left in 1623, the Spanish were expelled in 1624, and the Portuguese were thrown out in 1639. That left only the Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Compaagnie (VOC), and it was confined to the single entrepôt of Deshima. Chinese merchants were more welcome, but they too were controlled in their movements and trade. Additional ‘‘seclusion decrees’’ by Shogun Tokugawa Iyemitsu forbade any Japanese from leaving the home islands and enforced execution of all who returned from abroad, even shipwreck survivors. Shipbuilders were ordered not to construct vessels capable of ocean travel, trade with Europe was limited to regulated and authorized goods through Deshima, and all Korean and Chinese junks were directed to the confined port of Nagasaki. Korea retaliated by limiting Japanese traders to Pusan while China banned official trade with Japan, though an extensive private trade (smuggling) flourished that was permitted by the shoguns as a valued source of intelligence on the wider world.

There has been a fierce argument among military historians as to whether or not the Japanese ‘‘gave up the gun’’ during the long Tokugawa shogunate. At one level, they clearly did not: firearms were still produced in Japan and gun militia were maintained under strict shogunate and bakufu control. Yet, prohibitions on anyone other than samurai owning firearms (but also any other deadly weapon, including bows and swords) were enforced by occasional gun and ‘‘sword hunts’’ in the spirit of Hideyoshi’s 1588 decree banning ownership of military weapons by commoners. The main argument in favor of the ‘‘Japan gave up the gun’’ thesis is that after the isolated rebellion of 1637–1638 it saw no more battles for 200 years, not until 1837. But it would be more accurate to say that Japan gave up civil war rather than guns. Once Japanese made war again in the second half of the 19th century they took guns out of storage, bought modern models from the West, and took to battle again with real gusto.

Suggested Reading: W. G. Beasley, The Japanese Experience: A Short History of Japan (2000); J. Hall et al., eds., Japan before Tokugawa (1981); George Sansom, A History of Japan, 1334–1615 (1961); R. Toby, State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan (1984); Conrad Totman, Early Modern Japan (1993).

Rockets in WWII Japan

In Japan there was a clear recognition of the potential importance of rockets, but relatively little that the Japanese scientists could do about it. Japan is a nation that lacks natural resources, and at the time had limited industrial experience. Like many centralized states, it had a cumbersome bureaucracy and a tendency for rival organizations to seek to outdo each other.

In the early years of World War II, both the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy were looking at developing 8in (20cm) rockets. The Army’s 8in rocket was a spin-stabilized projectile equipped with six vents to impart both spin and propulsion. It was designed to be launched from a Type 4 Rocket Launcher, in reality a mortar. By contrast, the Japanese Navy developed their own rival version. Their 8in rocket was designed to be launched from simple wooden troughs or even from holes in the ground.

The Japanese also developed the Type 10 Rocket Motor which was a simple propulsion unit intended as a launch facility for aerial bombs. They later produced a rocket 18in (44.7cm) in diameter; it was an unsophisticated projectile that was used in action on Iwo Jima and had a maximum range of over a mile (2,000m). Although it was inaccurate, it delivered a warhead of 400lb (180kg). Interestingly, this rocket was also spin-stabilized. This rotation around the axis had the potential to stabilize a rocket in flight, just as the Congreve rocket had in a previous century.

The Imperial Japanese Army focused their efforts on developing an air-to-surface missile while the Navy concentrated on the design of surface-to-air missiles. The Army decided to develop their Igo missile, while the Navy’s project was the Funryu (Raging Dragon) rocket.

The Igo-1-A was a winged cruise missile constructed by Mitsubishi from wood and metal. It was 16ft (5.77m) long, and had a wingspan of 10ft 9in (3.6m). It had a launch weight of 3,080lb (1,400kg) and could deliver a 1,760lb (800kg) warhead at a velocity of 340mph (550km/h). The rocket motor was a Mitsubishi Tokuro-1 Type 3 which fired for just 75 seconds. There was also an Igo-1-B produced by Kawasaki which was of similar design but delivered a somewhat smaller payload. Both versions of the Igo-1 were launched from an aircraft at about 5,000ft (1,500m) some 6 miles (about 10km) from the target. An onboard altimeter established the missile on a straight and level path and it was then radio-controlled by the pilot to the target. The missiles left no smoke trail and it was difficult for the aircraft pilot to aim them accurately. The rockets were fitted with a tail light for use at night – but under these conditions, although the pilots could see the drone, they now had difficulty in seeing the target. The final refinement of the Igo rocket was the Igo-1-C, developed by the Aeronautical Research Institute of Tokyo Imperial University. Rather than being guided by radio, the Igo-1-C was ingeniously designed to home in on the shockwaves produced by ships when they fired their guns.

Meanwhile the Navy were developing their Funryu rockets, and planned to produce four versions. Like their Igo counterparts, they would be radio-controlled to the target. In the event, only the Igo-1-A and Igo-1-B went into production, and none was ever fired at the enemy.

Air-to-ground missiles were not seriously considered by the Japanese until March 1944. The Army continued to prefer spin-stabilized rockets, while the Navy wanted devices stabilized by fins. Had the two services combined forces, an optimized design could well have been agreed but, as it was, the age-old rivalry persisted and each service pressed ahead with their own ideas. The air-to-ground missiles were to be fitted to the Kawanishi N1K-J Shiden (Violet Lightning) aircraft which were to be specially modified to carry six of the rockets ready to attack the fleet of ships that the Japanese believed to be on its way to invade the homeland. In the event, the aircraft never achieved full operational status before the war’s dramatic end. Japanese plans to fire off a salvo of rockets were never achieved; instead each rocket was launched singly, in the manner of firing off a mortar, and so little useful benefit was ever achieved.


Japanese Rocket Artillery of World War II

Shisei four Formula 7.cm試製四式七糎噴進砲 –

Type 4 20.cm Rocket Mortar 四式二十糎噴進 Rocket Mortar from 1943 –

Type 4 40.cm Rocket Mortar 四式四〇糎噴進 Rocket Mortar from 1943 –

Shisei 15.cm Tarenso 試製十五糎多連装噴進砲

Experimental Multiple Rocket Launcher from 1944 –