Letters from Iwo Jima is a Japanese-American war film directed and co-produced by Clint Eastwood, starring Ken Watanabe and Kazunari Ninomiya. The companion piece to Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, this film depicts the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective and is almost entirely in Japanese, although it was produced by American companies DreamWorks, Malpaso Productions, and Amblin Entertainment.


A tiny Pacific island about 650 miles due south of Japan, Iwo Jima would have remained inconspicuous except that the World War II battle over its control (19 February–26 March 1945) turned out to be one of history’s most savage battles. Before emerging victorious, the U.S. Marine Corps suffered 26,038 casualties (6,821 killed; 19,217 wounded) among some 70,000 soldiers deployed, whereas only 1,083 of the island’s 22,786 Japanese defenders survived to be captured: a fatality rate of 95 percent. Honored cinematically by two Hollywood docudramas—Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and The Outsider (1961)—the Battle of Iwo Jima received renewed attention with Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (2006). Eastwood’s original intention was to tell both the American and Japanese sides of the story, but as production developed, it became obvious that there was simply too much disparate material for one film so Eastwood decided to split it into two films. The screenplay for Letters, written by Paul Haggis and Iris Yamashita, was based on two sources: letters left behind by Iwo Jima’s Japanese garrison commander, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (1890–1945), and Kumiko Kakehashi’s So Sad to Fall in Battle: An Account of War, also based on Gen. Kuribayashi’s letters. Letters from Iwo Jima was shot right after Flags, and almost entirely in Japanese, despite the fact that it was produced by American film companies, as mentioned. Except for Ken Watanabe, the Japanese cast members were selected through auditions in Japan.


Originally entitled “Red Sun, Black Sand” and budgeted at $19 million, Letters from Iwo Jima was shot over a 32-day period in the spring of 2006. Whereas Eastwood shot the Iwo Jima beach landing scenes for Flags in Iceland (which features black volcanic sand like Iwo Jima’s), he shot the Iwo Jima beach scenes for Letters at Leo Carrillo State Beach in Malibu and had black sand trucked in from Pisgah Volcano, a volcanic cinder cone 321 feet high and 1,600 feet across in the Mojave Desert, about 30 miles from Barstow, California, a site also used for filming. The scenes featuring Japanese-dug caves and tunnels on Iwo Jima were actually shot in and around an old silver mine at Calico Ghost Town in Barstow. A flashback scene that shows Gen. Kuribayashi receiving a gift of a Colt .45 from an American friend at a farewell banquet at what is supposed to be the Fort Bliss Country Club near El Paso, Texas, was actually shot at the clubhouse at the Griffith Park Golf Course in Los Angeles. The battleship USS Texas (BB-35), now a museum ship stationed in La Porte, Texas, was used for close-up shots of the fleet for both movies. Location filming wrapped on 8 April, and the cast and crew then headed back to Warner Bros.’ Burbank Studios, where more interior scenes were shot on Stage 21. At the very end of the shoot, Eastwood, Watanabe, and a smaller group of crew members went to Iwo Jima for a single day to capture the on-location shots.

Plot Summary

In 2005, Japanese archaeologists exploring tunnels on Iwo Jima find something in the dirt. The scene shifts back 61 years, to Iwo Jima in 1944. Pfc. Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) and his crew dig trenches on the beach. Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) arrives to assume leadership and surveys the defenses currently set up on the island [19 June 1944]. He saves Saigo and his friend Kashiwara (Takashi Yamaguchi) from a beating by Capt. Tanida (Takumi Bando) for “unpatriotic speeches” and orders the men to start digging underground defenses in Mount Suribachi. Kuribayashi and Lt. Col. Baron Takeichi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a famous Olympic gold medalist show jumper, clash with some of the other officers, who do not agree with Kuribayashi’s defense-in-depth strategy. Kuribayashi posits that the American troops will have an easier time breaking through the beach defenses and suggests that the mountain strongholds stand a better chance of keeping them out. Unclean water and malnutrition lead to multiple deaths by dysentery, including the loss of Kashiwara (Takashi Yamaguchi). Kashiwara’s replacement, Superior Private Shimizu (Ryô Kase), comes under suspicion of being a Kempeitai (Military Police Corps) spy dispatched to identify and track disloyal troops. Not long after Shimizu’s arrival, the Americans arrive, overwhelm the island, and attack Mount Suribachi. Ordered to retreat by Kuribayashi, the commander of the Suribachi garrison orders his soldiers to kill themselves rather than concede. However, Saigo flees with Shimizu, and the two decide to battle on. They come upon other soldiers and try to flee the mountain with Lt. Oiso under the cover of darkness. Marines discover them and kill all except Saigo and Shimizu. The Japanese counterattack, but suffer major casualties. The surviving soldiers go to meet up with Col. Nishi while Ito leaves for the U.S. lines with a trio of landmines and a plan to detonate them beneath an American tank. As the battle continues, Nishi is rendered blind by shrapnel and calls on his men to retreat. Nishi then goes into a cave and a gunshot is heard, signaling his suicide. Shimizu surrenders to the Americans, but is then shot by the man guarding him. Meanwhile, a starving Ito succumbs to despair; when found by U.S. Marines, he surrenders. Okubo is killed, but Saigo reunites with Kuribayashi, who plans a final attack. That night, during the attack, most of Kuribayashi’s men perish, and although Kuribayashi is badly hurt, his aid, Fujita, carries him to safety. The following morning, to die with honor, Kuribayashi commands his aid to behead him, but a Marine shoots Fujita before he can proceed. Saigo, after burying some of the documents and letters that he was ordered to burn, comes upon Kuribayashi and, after Kuribayashi commits suicide, tearfully buries him. An American Marine discovers Kuribayashi’s gun near Fujita’s body and tucks it into his belt. Saigo, recognizing the gun, flies into a rage and attacks the Marine and his fellow troop members with a shovel. He is knocked out, and then awakens to see the sun setting. The film flashes forward to 2005, where archeologists finish their excavation and discover the bag of letters that Saigo buried.


Letters from Iwo Jima had its world premiere at the Budokan Arena in Tokyo on 15 November 2006. The movie went into wide release in Japan three weeks later (9 December 2006), ran until 15 April 2007, and grossed the equivalent of $42.9 million: a bona fide box office hit. The film’s commercial (and critical) success in Japan was due to the fact that it was in Japanese, used Japanese actors, and presented a refreshingly respectful depiction of WWII Japanese soldiers—a far cry from the crude racist propaganda of American World War II–era war films or those made in the decades that followed, which were less crude but continued to traffic in stereotypes and often employed non-Japanese actors using incorrect Japanese grammar and non-native accents to portray Japanese characters. Put into limited release in the United States for the Christmas 2006 weekend, Letters from Iwo Jima ran for 21 weeks but, not surprisingly, earned only $13.75 million—a third of the Japanese box office gross. Total foreign sales of $54.9 million, combined with domestic returns, boosted the film’s final take to $68.7 million—almost $50 million more than it cost to make. After Flags of Our Fathers underperformed at the box office, DreamWorks swapped the domestic distribution rights with Warner Bros., which held the international rights. The critical response in the United States matched the acclaim the film received in Japan, with many American film critics naming Letters from Iwo Jima the best film of 2006. The movie also earned a Golden Globe for Best Film in a Foreign Language and received four Academy Award nominations, winning an Oscar for Best Sound Editing.

Reel History Versus Real History

Noriko Manabe (a Japanese doctoral student in ethnomusicology at CUNY Graduate Center in 2007 who is now a music professor at Temple University) offered a summary of Letters from Iwo Jima’s inaccuracies, as catalogued by Japanese bloggers. Acknowledging that Japanese viewers “appreciated the film for its anti-war message, its sentimental story, and its surprisingly sympathetic stance for an American director,” Manabe also noted that “an articulate minority” have taken issue with the film’s historical inaccuracies, for example, all the scenes looked “too clean—those battles, let alone our cities, were far more wretched … Some reviewers commented that Kuribayashi’s assertion that there was ‘no support’ was not accurate, as kamikazes (suicide pilots) had sunk several American warships … Several commented about the unnaturalness of the characters’ behavior and dialogue (‘would a low-ranking soldier like Saigo have used such rough language, in that era?’) Another pointed out, ‘All the mistakes in the customs of the period bothered us. Shoji screens were never used for the front door—how can you knock on paper? And young people had been wearing Western clothing, not kimonos, since the 1930s.” For Manabe, “The greatest concern is that the film fails to explain why the Japanese felt the need to defend a seemingly insignificant island so fervently—the fear that the firebombing of Japanese cities, already devastating to civilians, would intensify were the Americans to gain Iwo Jima as a launching pad for air strikes. In not explaining this background, viewers felt that the film catered to the stereotype of the Japanese as lemming-like fanatics.” Manabe also noted that “viewers raised objections that ‘good’ was being equated with being America-friendly. As one user stated, ‘Only officers who had been to the U.S. are depicted as rational and smart, while all other Japanese officers are evil and barbaric, as per the American stereotype’ (Manabe, 2007). Unaware of the film’s many inaccuracies, most American viewers and film critics embraced Letters from Iwo Jima as a laudably liberal-minded revisionist war film finally humanizing an often-demonized people—which it is, to a significant degree. However, as Ms. Manabe points out, the subtle truth is that, despite its pretenses to the contrary, Letters remains stubbornly Amerocentric in its cultural orientation and ideological predilections

Kawanishi H6K5

Specifications (Navy Type 97 Flying Boat Model 23 – Kawanishi H6K5)

Allied Codename: Mavis (Transport versions were given the Allied codename “Tillie”)

Type: (H6K1, H6K2, H6K4 & H6K5) Nine Seat Long Range Reconnaissance Bomber. (H6K2-L, H6K3 & H6K4-L) Eight Seat Long Range Troop & VIP Transport with room for up to 18 passengers.

Accommodation/Crew: (H6K5) Pilot, Co-pilot, Bombardier, Navigator, Radio Operator, Flight Engineer and three gunners.

Design: Kawanishi Kokuki Kabushiki Kaisha Design Team led by Yoshio Hashiguchi and Shizuo Kikahura.

Manufacturer: Kawanishi Kokuki Kabushiki Kaisha (The Kawanishi Aircraft Company Limited) at Naruo Mukogun Hyogoken, near Kobe.

Powerplant: (H6K1) Four Nakajima Hikari 2 nine-cylinder air-cooled radials, rated at 840 hp for take-off and 700 hp at 1,200 m. (H6K1 Model 1, H6K2, H6K2-L, H6K3 and H6K4 Model 2-2) Four Mitsubishi Kinsei 43 fourteen-cylinder air-cooled radials, rated at 1,000 hp for take-off and 990 hp at 2,800 m. (H6K4 Model 2-3 and H6K4-L) Four Mitsubishi Kinsei 46 fourteen-cylinder air-cooled radials, rated at 930 hp for take-off and 1,070 hp at 4,200 m. (H6K5) Four Mitsubishi Kinsei 51 or Kinsei 53 fourteen-cylinder radials, rated at 1,300 hp for take-off, 1,200 hp at 3,000 m and 1,100 hp at 6,200 m. All versions of the aircraft used three-bladed metal propellers.

Performance: Maximum speed 190 mph (304 km/h) at 8,000 ft (2440 m) and 239 mph (385 km/h) at 19,685 ft (6000 m); cruising speed 161 mph (260 km/h) at 13,125 ft (4000 m); service ceiling 31,365 ft (9560 m); climb to service ceiling in 13 minutes 23 seconds.

Fuel Capacity: 1,950 Imperial gallons (8864 litres).

Range: Normal range 3,067 miles (4939 km) on internal fuel with a maximum range of 4,204 miles (6770 km).

Weight: Empty 27,117 lbs (12380 kg) with a maximum take-off weight of 50,706 lbs (23,000 kg). Loaded weight was typically 38,581 lbs (17,500 kg).

Dimensions: Span 131 ft 2 3/4 in (40.0 m); length 84 ft 1 in (25.63 m); height 20 ft 6 3/4 in (6.27 m); wing area 1,829.92 sq ft (170.0 sq m); wing loading 21.1 lbs/sq ft (102.9 kg/sq m); power loading 7.4 lbs/hp (3.4 kg/hp).

Defensive Armament: One 7.7 mm (0.303 in) Type 92 machine-gun in forward turret, one 7.7 mm (0.303 in) Type 92 machine-gun in an open dorsal position, one 7.7 mm (0.303 in) Type 92 machine-gun in each beam blister and one flexible mounted 20 mm Type 99 Model 1 cannon in tail turret.

Disposable Ordnance: Two 17.7″ (44.9 cm) 1,841 lbs (835 kg) Type 91 Mod 2 or 1,872 lbs (849 kg) Type 91 Mod 3 torpedoes or up to a maximum of 4,409 lbs (2000 kg) of bombs attached to the wing support struts. The normal operational bombload would have only been 2,205 lbs (1000 kg).

Variants: H6K1 (4 prototypes), H6K1 Model 1 (3 modified from the prototypes), H6K2 Model 11 (10 aircraft 1938-39), H6K3 (2 aircraft in 1939 completed as VIP transports), H6K4 Model 22 (major production version – 127 aircraft completed between 1939-42), H6K5 Model 23 (36 aircraft completed in 1942), H6K2-L (unarmed transport – 16 completed between 1940-42), H6K4-L (unarmed transport – 20 completed between 1942-43 with another two aircraft being modified from H6K4 airframes in 1942).

Avionics: None.

History: First flight (prototype) 14 July 1936 by test pilot Katsuji Kondo.

Operators: Japan (Imperial Japanese Navy)

Units: 8th, 801st, Toko and Yokohama (later 802nd) Kokutais.


The air arm of the Imperial Japanese Navy had gained its first experience of large flying boats from the Kawanishi H3K2, or Navy Type 90-11 Flying Boat. This had its beginnings in the British Short Brothers K.F.1 prototype designed for the Japanese navy which, after a first flight on 10 October 1930, was soon sent to Japan where it served as a pattern for four H3K2s, built by Kawanishi under the supervision of a British technical team. This emphasises how, in its early involvement in aviation, the Japanese industry was dependent upon copying the designs of foreign manufacturers. From their study of these designs and the constructional techniques adopted, Japan ‘s young engineers gained valuable experience in a comparatively short time. By the early and mid-1930s they had acquired sufficient knowledge to start the design and development of a number of first-class aircraft.

When, in 1933, the navy considered the moment had come to acquire a larger and more efficient flying boat, Kawanishi was given a specification against which it was required to submit proposals for two alternative designs with three and four engines, identified as the Type Q and R respectively. Unfortunately the proposals were not satisfactory, and in early 1934 the navy issued a revised and more demanding specification, which called for a cruising speed of 137 mph (220 km/h) combined with a range of approximately 2,795 miles (4500 km). This performance (if achieved) would better that of the Sikorsky S-42 flying boat, which had made some important pioneering flights. Kawanishi’s reappraisal of the requirement resulted in a new design, identified initially as the Type S and the work of a team headed by Yoshio Hashiguchi and Shizuo Kikahura, who had both had an opportunity of studying flying boat design at Short Brothers in the UK.

Required to fulfill the roles of bombing, reconnaissance and transport, the prototype had a slender and graceful two-step hull above which was mounted a parasol wing, the wing having a stabilizing float strutted and braced beneath its undersurface just outboard of midspan, and mounting at its leading edge four 840 hp (626 kW) Nakajima Hikari (Splendour) 2 nine-cylinder air-cooled radial engines. The tail unit, strut-mounted high on the rear fuselage, comprised a monoplane tailplane and twin fins and rudders, and for normal operations use the hull provided accommodation for a crew of nine.

First flown on 14 July 1936, the H6K1 prototype in early tests showed a need of hull modification to improve water handling, and the more extended manufacturer’s tests and service trials that followed this work revealed the type to be satisfactory but underpowered. Three more prototypes were ordered, all with Hikari 2 engines originally, but the first, third and fourth of the prototypes were each given four 1,000 hp (746 kW) Mitsubishi Kinsei (Golden Star) 43 fourteen-cylinder air-cooled radial engines before they entered service in January 1938 under the designation Navy Type 97 Flying Boat Model 1. Simultaneously, the type was ordered into production and eventually a total of 215 of all versions were built, the initial H6K2 production model being generally similar to the re-engined prototypes except for minor equipment changes. Armament comprised three 7.7 mm (0.303 in) machine-guns on trainable mounts in bow, power-operated dorsal turret and non-powered tail turret, and up to 2,205 lbs (1000 kg) of bombs could be carried. Two generally similar aircraft, which were equipped to serve specifically as VIP transports had the designation H6K3.

The major production version was the H6K4 which had greater fuel capacity and improved defensive armament comprising four 7.7 mm (0.303 in) machine-guns in bow, two side blisters and open dorsal position, plus one 20 mm cannon in a tail turret. Its powerplant was unchanged initially, but from August 1941 the Kinsei 43 engines were replaced by 930 hp (694 kW) Kinsei 46 fourteen-cylinder air-cooled radial engines which gave better performance at altitude. Final armed military production version was the H6K5 which, generally similar to the H6K4, deleted the open bow gun position and introduced a turret with a single 7.7 mm (0.303 in) machine-gun immediately to the rear of the flight deck, and performance was improved by the installation of uprated 1,300 hp (970 kW) Kinsei 51 or 53 radial engines. In 1939 two H6K2s had been modified to serve as prototypes for an unarmed version for use as a military staff transport and for operation on the long over-water routes of Dai Nippon Koku K.K. (Greater Japan Air Lines).

Following successful testing the company began production of the H6K2-L, based on the early H6K4 with 1,000 hp (746 kW) Mitsubishi Kinsei (Golden Star) 43 engines, and equipped to accommodate 18 passengers. Sixteen of this version, plus two similar aircraft converted from H6K4s, were supplied to Dai Nippon Koku K.K. (Greater Japan Air Lines), being followed by 20 H6K4-L unarmed transports for the Japanese navy; these later aircraft differed by being based on the H6K4, with Kinsei 46 engines, and were provided with additional cabin windows.

The H6K saw early operational service during the Sino-Japanese War, but was used extensively with the outbreak of the Pacific war, the armed versions receiving the Allied codename ‘Mavis’ in 1942, by which time the increasing capability of fighter aircraft ranged against the type was such that it could no longer be deployed in a bomber role. Instead the type found increasing reconnaissance/transport use in areas where comparatively little fighter opposition could be expected, many remaining in service until the end of the war .The unarmed transport versions were given the Allied codename ‘Tillie.’   


Kawanishi H6K1 ‘Type S’ Prototypes – The first prototype had a slender and graceful two-step hull above which was mounted a parasol wing, the wing having a stabilizing float strutted and braced beneath its undersurface just outboard of midspan, and mounting at its leading edge four 840 hp (626 kW) Nakajima Hikari (Splendour) 2 radial engines. The tail unit, strut-mounted high on the rear fuselage, comprised a monoplane tailplane and twin fins and rudders, and for normal operations use the hull provided accommodation for a crew of nine. First flown on 14 July 1936, the H6K1 prototype in early tests showed a need to improve water handling, so the forward step was moved back 1 ft 7 11/16 inches (50 cm). The more extended manufacturer’s tests and service trials that followed this work revealed the type to be satisfactory but underpowered. The second and third prototypes were delivered in 1937, with a fourth being completed in early 1938. The last three prototypes differed from first by having increased span ailerons, enlarged fins and a redesigned dorsal turret installation.

Kawanishi H6K1 Model 1 – Following the completion of Service Trials, the first, third and fourth prototypes were re-engined with 1,000 hp (746 kW) Mitsubishi Kinsei (Golden Star) 43 radial engines and entered service in January 1938 under the designation Navy Type 97 Flying Boat Model 1.

Kawanishi H6K2 Model 2 – First production model being generally similar to the re-engined prototypes except for minor equipment changes. Armament comprised three 7.7 mm (0.303 in) machine-guns on trainable mounts in bow, power-operated dorsal turret and non-powered tail turret, and up to 2,205 lbs (1000 kg) of bombs could be carried. In April 1940 this version was redesignated Model 11. Ten aircraft were built but the seventh and eighth aircraft were modified as experimental transports.

Kawanishi H6K3 – Two more aircraft virtually identical to the H6K2 were completed for use as VIP Transports and designated H6K3.

Kawanishi H6K4 Model 22 (Model 2-2 & 2-3) – The major production version was the H6K4 which had the fuel capacity increased from 1,708 Imp. gallons (7765 litres) to 1,950 Imp. gallons (8864 litres) and improved defensive armament comprising of two beam blisters, each holding a single 7.7 mm (0.303 in) machine-gun (this replaced the dorsal turret), two open bow positions, each holding a single 7.7 mm (0.303 in) machine-gun and an open dorsal position with a 7.7 mm (0.303 in) machine-gun plus one 20 mm Type 99 Model 1 cannon in a tail turret. Its powerplant was unchanged initially, but from August 1941 the Kinsei 43 engines (Model 2-2) were replaced by the 930 hp (694 kW) Kinsei 46 (Model 2-3). A total of 127 aircraft were completed (with both engines) and were jointly redesignated Model 22.

Kawanishi H6K2-L – Following successful testing of the H6K3, the company began production of the H6K2-L, based on the early H6K4 with Kinsei 43 engines, and equipped to accommodate 18 passengers. Sixteen of this version, were completed and delivered to the Kaiyo (Ocean) Division of Dai Nippon Koku K.K. (Greater Japan Air Lines) which assigned the type to the Yokohama-Saipan-Palau-Timor, Saigon-Bangkok and Saipan-Truk-Ponape-Jaluit routes. Modifications included the removal of all armament, and the interior fuselage arrangement was revised to provide for the installation of a mail and cargo compartment in the hull forward of the cockpit, galleys behind the cockpit, a midship cabin with seats for eight or sleeping accommodations for four followed by an aft cabin with 10 seats and aft of this were toilets and another cargo compartment.

Kawanishi H6K4-L – Unarmed transports based on the H6K4 using Kinsei 46 engines and supplied with additional cabin windows. Production totaled 20 aircraft but a further two H6K4 aircraft were converted to the transport standard. For some unknown reason the tail turret was retained, but without armament. 20 aircraft used by the Japanese Navy with the two converted aircraft being supplied to Dai Nippon Koku K.K. (Greater Japan Air Lines).

Kawanishi H6K5 Model 23 – Generally similar to the H6K4, deleted the open bow gun position and introduced a turret with a single 7.7 mm (0.303 in) machine-gun immediately to the rear of the flight deck, and performance was improved by the installation of uprated Kinsei 51 or 53 engines. 36 aircraft.

Yamato (1941) Part I

IJN Yamato by Chris Flodberg 

The tower carried Type 21 and 22 radar, the main battery range-finder, and Type 98 low-angle fire control director. Uppermost bridge deck is the combat bridge, with compass bridge below. The conning-tower top with its periscopes is just above the 155mm (6.1in) turret.

IJN Yamato as built. The deck plan reveals the distinctive hull shape, reaching maximum beam towards the stern. The ‘wings’ carried Type 96 25mm AA guns in triple mounts.

‘Suicide mission’ On 6 April 1945 it was sent to help repel the American landings on Okinawa in an operation code-named Ten-go, generally considered a large-scale suicide mission. Yamato was to be beached on the island to act as a fixed artillery fortress. With nine escorting craft but no air protection, it was attacked on the 7th, southwest of the Kyushu Islands, by around 400 American bombers and torpedo bombers in three waves. The attacks began at 12:37 and, hit by six bombs and 11 or more torpedoes, Yamato was progressively disabled and partially flooded, with little power and no steering. At 14:23 the ship capsized, one of the two fore magazines exploding at the same time. Around 2055 of the crew were killed or drowned.

The class were to be ‘super-battleships’, bigger, more heavily armed and better-protected than anything else afloat. Intended to enforce Japan’s mastery of the Pacific, they made a minimal contribution to the country’s war effort.

The design of the Yamato class battleships grew out of Japanese resentment at the outcome the 1921 Washington Naval Treaty and the 1930 London Naval Treaty. These negotiations, in which Great Britain accepted parity with the United States, forced Japan to agree to a 5:5:3 ratio in capital ships – three for every five in the Royal and US Navies. When Japan invaded Manchuria, China in 1934, the League of Nations imposed sanctions upon Japan, at which point Japan dropped out of the League and abandoned all naval treaties. Already inferior in numbers, the Imperial Japanese Navy planned to redress the balance with ships more powerful than those of its rivals and likely enemies, so the designs for a new class of battleship that began at this point were unrestricted by any of the previous treaty limitations.

During the years 1934 to 1937 about twenty-four different designs were drawn up. Displacements ranged from 49,000 to 69,000 tons, speeds from 24 to 31 knots, various forms of a combined steam and diesel power plant were considered, and main gun calibres from 16in to 18in. Twin, triple and even quad mounts were proposed for the main armament, in different arrangements, including a layout similar to that of the British battleship Nelson. By late 1935 a design requirement of nine 18in guns in three triple turrets and a top speed of at least 27 knots had been established. The use of diesel engines was dropped from consideration, as the Japanese Navy was having trouble with some of their larger diesel power plants, and the complexity and cost of removing and replacing them in a capital ship would be too high. By early 1937 the final design of this new class of battleship was completely steam powered. The final design was approved in March 1937, but the first vessel, Yamato, could not be laid down until improvements to the yard facilities could be completed. The navy yards were well set up to construct battleships, but not on the scale of these new behemoths. The construction facilities had to be widened, lengthened and the approaches dredged deeper.

The Japanese wanted to keep the construction of this new class of warship a total secret, so there was a complete restriction on photography, as well as the construction of a roof over part of the building slip; there was even a gigantic curtain of rope used to block any view of construction and at Nagasaki a 400-ton camouflage net. These efforts to keep information from the Americans were generally successful, and by 1942, although the US Navy knew of the construction of at least two new battleships, they only had a rough sketch of the vessels. In fact, the US Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence assumed that these vessels were armed with 16in guns and displaced 45,000 tons, and did not know the size of the main guns and the actual displacement of the battleships until after the war.

After the extensive modification to the Kure, Nagasaki, Yokosuka and even the Sasebo naval shipyards, which also included heavy lift equipment for the construction of these massive warships, Yamato’s keel was laid down in the dry dock at the Kure Navy Yard on 4 November 1937.

Prior to this, extensive research was conducted in hull model tank testing to develop the most efficient hull form possible. It was found that the large bulbous bow reduced hull resistance by over 8 per cent, as well as increasing buoyancy forward in heavy seas. It was also discovered that careful streamlining of the propeller shafts and the bilge keel added at least half a knot at full speed. Because of this research Yamato was able to achieve her maximum speed of 27.5 knots and an efficient cruising speed of 16 to 18 knots with only 150,000shp on a vessel displacing over 70,000 tons. Because of the extreme breadth of the hull, Yamato’s draught was only four feet more than other battleships in the Japanese Navy that displaced 30,000 to 40,000 tons less.

Other innovations incorporated in the construction of these warships included the methods of hull plating, using a mixture of lap- and butt-jointed plates. The smoother butt-jointed plating was used fore and aft to reduce frictional resistance in those higher water pressure areas, while the stronger lap-jointed method was used over the central portion of the hull. Extensive use of electric welding, new to shipbuilding at that time, was also made, although more of this assembly technique was used in the construction of the superstructure than in the hull.

Another innovation in the construction of the Yamato was the use of the armour plating as part of the actual hull structure, as opposed to an add-on. This made the armour an integral part of the hull, thereby increasing the strength of the hull as well as reducing the weight of its construction. The weight of Yamato’s armour was the heaviest of any warship ever built, and the ship was divided into the most watertight compartments (1147) of any battleship in history. These features made this class by far the most difficult battleships to sink by bombs and/or torpedoes.

The Musashi’s keel was laid down on the slipway at the Mitsubishi Industries Dock Yard in Nagasaki on 29 March 1938. Later, from May to November of 1939, the boilers, reduction gear and steam turbines were installed into the hull of Yamato. Although the Musashi was laid down five months later than Yamato, her construction was progressing at a faster rate, so that Musashi’s propulsion machinery was installed at approximately the same time as Yamato’s.

In July of 1939 the Mitsubishi Dock Yard also began the construction of a 10,000-ton freighter, the Kashino, which was purpose-built for transporting the massive 18.1in main gun barrels and the associated turrets. These were constructed at the Kure Arsenal and had to be transported by this ship to Nagasaki for installation aboard Musashi. For this role the hull form was unique and unusually broad for a freighter of this size, in order to accommodate the huge barbette and main gun turret assemblies. Kashino was completed in July 1940, after a couple of grounding accidents during her trials delayed her commissioning. This in turn delayed the construction of the Musashi by at least two months. The freighter was then used to transport further mountings to Yokosuka for the third Yamato class battleship.

The keel of this ship was laid down on 4 May 1940 in the dry dock at the Yokosuka Navy Yard. At this time the third member of the Yamato class was not yet named and was known simply as ‘Warship No 110’. She was to be built to a design slightly modified from that of the Yamato and Musashi, with slightly thinner armour, designed to withstand hits from 16in shells, as opposed to 18in shell protection of her sister-ships. Her beam was three feet narrower in an effort to increase her speed and she was to be fitted with the then new 3.9in twin mount AA weapon, as opposed to the 5in twin AA mounts fitted on the Yamato and Musashi.

In an effort to preserve the secrecy surrounding these warships, the mighty Yamato was ‘launched’ with little fanfare (actually floated out of the dry dock at the Kure Navy Yard) on 8 August 1940. Construction of her superstructure began at this point, as did the laying of her wooden decks. For these decks Japanese ‘Hinoki’ cypress was used, a relatively new timber first fitted to the Imperial Japanese Navy flagship Nagato. This wood was laid in smaller 5in widths, compared with the customary 7in wide teak planking fitted on all previous Japanese battleships.

The Musashi was launched on 1 November 1940, setting a record weight for a conventional slipway of 35,737 tons. The fourth and final Yamato class battleship had its keel laid down on 7 November 1940 in the same dry dock in which the Yamato had been built at the Kure Navy Yard. At that time this vessel was known as ‘Warship No 111’, and was to be a duplicate of No 110, a modified Yamato class.

Work was progressing at a steady rate on both the Yamato and the Musashi throughout early 1941. The gigantic size of these two warships was becoming apparent as the superstructures took form. The construction of the main gun turrets had actually started as far back as early 1940, but their complexity meant that they were not ready much before the point of completion of the entire vessel. Yamato had her main gun barrels installed during the months of May to July 1941.

In early October 1941 the Kashino transported the first of the massive 18.1in gun barrels for the second of the class, and thereafter would make regular trips from the Kure Naval Ordnance Arsenal to the Mitsubishi Industries Dock Yard to transport the turret components and the rest of the main gun barrels for the Musashi.

By late October, Yamato was running her trials in the Inland Sea, which went on into November. Numerous short voyages out to the Inland Sea were needed to calibrate and work up all equipment, including weapons, machinery, rangefinders, and many other aspects of this completely new weapons platform. Her final fitting out and adjustments after trials continued into December 1941.

The nine 460mm (18.1in) 45-calibre guns were the heaviest ever used afloat. The triple turrets each weighed 2516 tonnes (2774 tons). Barrel length was 21.13m (69ft 4in), they weighed 162 tonnes (178.6 tons) and had a range of 44km (27.3 miles) at an elevation of 45 degrees. The HE shells weighed 1460kg (3219lb). The secondary armament was 12 155mm (6.1in) guns mounted in four triple turrets and 12 127mm (5in) guns in twin mounts. Building was done on the raft body principle, with the vital areas contained within side armour of 410mm (16in) thickness, tapering towards the bottom to 75mm (2.9in), topped by a 200mm (7.8in) armoured deck and terminated by transverse bulkheads. Only the barbettes, flue gas uptakes and trunks for command systems, all heavily armoured, protruded through the ‘raft’.

Underwater defences

Torpedo protection consisted of a bulkhead and a torpedo bulge with a maximum width of 3m (10ft), and to guard against explosions from below the side armour was continued as a floor 80–50mm (3.15–2in) thick beneath the magazines, with a space of around 4m (13ft 6in) to absorb explosive energy. Altogether there were 1065 watertight compartments below the armoured deck, and 82 above.

Instead of the ‘pagoda’ style superstructure of previous Japanese battleships there was a tall octagonal tower-mast, reaching 28m (92ft) above the waterline, with relatively few external features, though signalling wings were built out at bridge level. Control and chartrooms were arranged round a central armoured cylinder. A 15m (49ft) rangefinder surmounted the tower, with gunnery control centres above and below. The upper bridge extended forwards some 5m (16ft 4in), flanked by triple searchlights on each side.

Kampon line

The hull attained its maximum beam aft of the mid-point, part of the design scheme sometimes referred to as the ‘Kampon line’ and intended to minimise the stresses caused by the ship’s great length and the massive weight of the turrets. Despite its huge dimensions, Yamato was intended to be a fast ship, and at one stage diesel propulsion was proposed for the two outer shafts, with turbines for the inner ones. In the end an all-turbine drive was chosen, as in the original plan.

In Service

The surprise attack on the US Navy at Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy on 7 December 1941 not only caught the Americans off-guard but also the citizens of Japan and the yard workers constructing the Yamato class battleships. Yamato herself was commissioned on 16 December 1941 and became part of the First Battleship Division as third ship, with Nagato (flagship) and Mutsu. They would train together during the remainder of December and on into February 1942. On 12 February Yamato became the Flagship of the Combined Fleet, under the command of Admiral Yamamoto.

During this time work on the Musashi was pushed forward as quickly as possible, and the Mitsubishi Dock Yard assigned more workers to accelerate her construction. In the meantime the IJN was seriously reconsidering the construction of any more battleships. The successful attack upon the US Navy at Pearl Harbor and the sinking of the Royal Navy capital ships HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse dramatically emphasised the increasing potency of air power, and suggested a need for more aircraft carriers. In January 1942, work was ordered to be stopped on Warships No 110 and No 111, the modified Yamato class battleships, until the strategic direction of the IJN could be determined. By February, work resumed, but at a much reduced pace in an effort to finish the hull for No 110 in one year.

The Yamato remained in Japanese waters for the next few months, training her gun crews with particularly thorough drills, made necessary by the characteristics of the new monster 18.1in main armament. These weapons required a new approach to firing because their muzzle blast was so powerful it would shatter anything in its path. Crew members had to take complete cover, anti-aircraft gun mounts had to be covered with blast-proof shields, vents had to be faced away from the direction of discharge, and any optical devices had to be protected. Members of the future crew of her sister-ship Musashi were also aboard for this training.

On its first operational sortie Yamato, as the Imperial Japanese Navy Fleet Flagship, departed Japanese waters with a massive task force bound for Midway Island. The planned assault on that US Navy base was to be the next step in the Japanese advance across the Pacific Ocean, but in the ensuing Battle of Midway the US Navy won a decisive victory over the IJN in what turned out to be a massive duel between aircraft carriers alone. All four of the aircraft carriers in the IJN’s primary strike force were sunk, but the greater loss was that of the air crews from those carriers – a loss that the IJN was never to recover from. The Yamato was with the main invasion force, which turned back after the loss of the aircraft carrier force, and the entire operation was cancelled, with the fleet returning to Japan.

This battle changed the direction of planning within the Imperial Japanese Navy. There was a drastic and immediate need for more aircraft carriers after the traumatic losses at Midway, and it was at this time that the IJN made the decision to convert Warship No 110 to an aircraft carrier. The hull was about 50 per cent complete, with the propulsion machinery installed, which enabled the Yokosuka Navy Yard to make the conversion with less effort. The vessel was then given the name Shinano, but her completion as a carrier was never to be realized, as she was torpedoed by the USN submarine Archerfish on 29 November 1944 while being relocated to avoid destruction from American bombing of the Japanese home islands. At the time the ship’s fitting-out was far from complete, but she remained afloat for seven hours after four torpedo hits, barely assisted by the poorly organised efforts of an inexperienced crew, which must have been attributable to the basically sound underwater protection system. Also during the summer of 1942 the construction of Warship No 111 was halted and the 30 per cent complete hull was scrapped. Another battleship of a modified Yamato design (actually a modified No 110 design), known as Warship No 797, scheduled to start construction in the summer of 1942, was cancelled and was never laid down.

At this time the construction of the Musashi was delayed by at least three months due to the decision to fit her with flagship accommodation. In order to finish fitting her out and to run trials, she had been moved from Nagasaki to Kure. Musashi was commissioned into the IJN on 5 August 1942 and was assigned to Battleship Division One with Yamato, Nagato and Mutsu. However, Musashi remained at Kure for the next five months for additional fitting out and extensive trials and training of her crew in the Inland Sea. In September 1942 Musashi received the IJN Type 21 radar, with its massive antenna atop the main gun director arms. She also received four additional 25mm mounts on her main deck fore and aft of the wing triple 6in secondary turrets, both port and starboard. During this time, in August 1942, the Yamato sailed for the IJN forward base of Truk, in the Caroline Islands, about 1000 miles north of the Solomon Island chain. The Yamato was stationed at Truk with other IJN battleships of the Kongo class, who were very active during this time with the Guadalcanal campaign, but Yamato would remain idle for the next few months.

During the month of December 1942 Musashi exercised in the Inland Sea with the battleships Nagato, Yamashiro and Fuso. When she was finished with her training and post-trial refits, she was transferred to Truk, on 22 January 1943. Admiral Yamamoto then transferred his flag from the Yamato to the Musashi on 11 February 1943, but both battleships remained idle through April and into May 1943, even though the battleships Kongo and Haruna, also based at Truk, were still very active with the Guadalcanal campaign. On 18 April USAAF P-38 fighter aircraft, acting upon code breaking information, intercepted Admiral Yamamoto’s ‘Betty’ bomber transport aircraft and shot it and another down, killing the IJN fleet commander and most of his staff. By early May Admiral Koga had replaced Yamamoto as Fleet Commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy Combined Fleet. Musashi departed Truk bound for Yokosuka on 17 May 1943, eventually making a call at Tokyo, carrying the ashes of Admiral Yamamoto for his state funeral. Yamato had departed Truk one week prior to Musashi, bound for Kure Navy Yard.

In June of 1943, Musashi was cleaned up and prepared for an inspection tour by Navy Yard officials. The Japanese Emperor Hirohito visited the Musashi for a festive dinner and a tour of the entire battleship, including the crew’s quarters and the anti-aircraft defence position on the upper bridge. This was the one and only time the Japanese Emperor visited either one of his two super battleships.

During the month of July 1943 both Yamato and Musashi underwent a refit and upgrade at the Kure Navy Yard. Both battleships were dry-docked for hull cleaning and repainting, and the new paint job was extended to the entire superstructure and armament. Yamato received her first radar system, IJN Type 21, with its massive antenna atop the main director arms. Musashi was fitted with her second radar, the IJN Type 22, on both the port and starboard bridge top. Yamato received four additional 25mm AA mounts on her main deck fore and aft of the wing triple 6in turrets, both port and starboard. By the end of July 1943, with their refits and modifications complete, Musashi departed for Truk, followed by Yamato in mid-August.

On 18 September 1943 American forces attacked the Japanese-held island fortress of Tarawa with carrier-borne aircraft, in what was a prelude to the invasion of that island. In response to this the IJN Combined Fleet sortied from Truk for the Eniwetok atoll. This force included the battleships Yamato and Nagato, two fleet carriers, a light carrier, heavy and light cruisers and destroyers. Musashi, Fuso, Kongo and Haruna remained at Truk in reserve. The operation ended in anti-climax: after not making contact with the US fleet, Yamato and the IJN Fleet returned to Truk by the end of September.

Yamato (1941) Part II

In October the IJN was convinced that an attack by US forces upon Wake Island was imminent. Admiral Koga sortied with Yamato, Musashi, Nagato, Fuso, Kongo, Haruna, two fleet carriers, one light carrier, a large force of heavy and light cruisers and numerous destroyers in an effort to intercept the US fleet. Admiral Koga stationed the Task Force 250nm miles south of Wake Island, but was unable to make contact with the US Navy, and the IJN fleet returned to Truk at the end of October after another unsuccessful attempt to engage the enemy. As it turned out, the American Navy then raided Wake and the Marshall Islands in early November after waiting for the Japanese Navy to retire from the area. Unsuspected by the Japanese, the Americans were intercepting and reading IJN coded transmissions, which made them better able to anticipate most of the moves made by the Japanese Navy.

Yamato departed Truk on 12 December 1943, as the main escort for a force of two fleet carriers, troop transports and destroyers, bound for Yokosuka, Japan. After reaching Japan, Yamato would turn around, and with destroyers, sail back to Truk, herself loaded with troops and supplies. As she was approaching Truk on the return voyage, on 25 December, she was hit by one torpedo from a spread of four from the USN submarine USS Skate. The detonation of this torpedo on Yamato’s starboard side, abreast the No 3 turret, crushed some 30m of her anti-torpedo blister, causing 3000 tons of water to flood into the No 3 turret magazine and into one of the adjacent engine rooms. More importantly, Yamato’s side armour failed due to a flawed joint between the upper and lower belts. Counter-flooding added 2000 tons of water to reduce the list and enable her to continue on to Truk, where she arrived the next day. Yamato underwent emergency repairs at Truk for twelve days in preparation to departing for Kure for more extensive repairs on 10 January 1944. En route, Yamato was spotted by two US Navy submarines, but they were too far away to make a successful attack, and she arrived safely at Kure on 16 January 1944.

Yamato was immediately dry-docked at Kure to repair her failed side belt armour and the torpedo damage, which took until 3 February 1944. Yamato then went to the fitting-out pier for a major refit and modifications. She had both the port and starboard triple 6in secondary gun mounts removed and the superstructure extended outward to accommodate additional AA weapons: six twin 5in DP gun mounts were installed, three port and three starboard, on the new superstructure. Twelve triple 25mm AA mounts were also added, six port and six starboard, as well as two additional 25mm directors, IJN Type 13 radar on the mainmast and Type 22 radar on the port and starboard bridge top. Yamato completed these major alterations in early April 1944, at which time she ran trials in the Inland Sea until late in the month.

During this time Musashi remained at Truk, with other units of the Combined Fleet, until on 4 February 1944 an over-flight by American PB4Y patrol bombers, alerted the IJN that an air raid by US carrier-based planes was imminent. Musashi, along with other warships, departed for Yokosuka, Japan, on 10 February. Truk was then attacked by US carrier aircraft for two days, 17–18 February, in what was one of the most successful carrier operations of the Second World War. The Japanese lost two light cruisers, three destroyers and thirty-five other naval and merchant supply vessels, as well as over 250 aircraft destroyed on the ground. Musashi arrived at Yokosuka on 15 February 1944, loaded troops and supplies and departed for Palau on 24 February, with Admiral Koga aboard.

En route to Palau Musashi and her escorting three destroyers encountered a massive typhoon. Army munitions, fuel and vehicles stowed on the deck of Musashi were washed overboard or jettisoned during this storm. The Japanese Army troops aboard Musashi were crowded below with her crew, which made living conditions extremely difficult. The battleship was forced to slow to 6 knots to allow the three destroyers to keep station with her. After arriving at Palau, 29 February 1944, Musashi remained there until 29 March, when due to the impending American air raids, she departed for the Philippines. Just before, on 28 March, Admiral Koga decided not to travel aboard Musashi, but rather to travel by aircraft to the Philippines.

At almost 6pm on the day Musashi departed Palau, she was hit by a single torpedo, just as she cleared the channel to the open sea. Luckily for her, only this one found its target out of a spread of six fired by the American submarine USS Tunny. The hit, in the port bow, caused 3000 tons of water to flood many forward compartments. She was forced to stop to make emergency repairs, which lasted well into the night, but once the patching-up was deemed adequate, she headed for a new destination, Kure.

Admiral Koga and his staff may have felt lucky to avoid the set-back, and on the night of 31 March 1944 they took off from Palau in a pair of four-engined Kawanishi ‘Emily’ flying boats, bound for the Philippines. However, they ran into a fierce typhoon, both planes going down: only Admiral Koga’s Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Fukudome survived, found at sea days later by the Japanese Army.

When Musashi arrived at Kure on 3 April 1944 she was dry-docked right away to repair the torpedo damage to her hull. It was planned that Musashi was to receive the same major modifications applied to her sister-ship Yamato, but there was a shortage of material and time. Her superstructure was modified in similar fashion to that of Yamato, but she was only to receive temporary 25mm triple AA gun mounts in place of the proposed 5in twin mounts. Additional 25mm gun directors were installed, as well as the IJN Type 13 radar antenna on the mainmast. Musashi ran her post-refit trials from the end of April to early May, and then sailed with six light carriers and destroyers for Okinawa on 10 May 1944.

Yamato had left Kure on 21 April 1944 for Manila in the Philippines with a load of troops and supplies. She would stop there just long enough to disembark the troops and supplies for that base and then departed for Singapore on the 28th. Upon her arrival at Singapore (1 May 1944), Yamato was designated as Flagship of Battleship Division One, Admiral Ugaki transferring from Nagato, which had been temporary flagship while Yamato and Musashi were in Japanese waters. On 11 May Yamato steamed for the IJN anchorage at Tawi Tawi, off the northern coast of Borneo, dividing the Sulu and Celebes Seas, with BatDiv 2 and 3, arriving on 14 May 1944. Meanwhile, Musashi arrived from Okinawa on 16 May, joining BatDiv 1 and Admiral Ozawa’s Mobile Fleet, consisting of BatDiv 1’s Yamato, Musashi and Nagato, BatDiv 2’s Fuso, and BatDiv 3’s Kongo and Haruna. All six of these Japanese battleships participated, with cruisers and destroyers of the Mobile Fleet, in battle exercises and joint gunnery drills in the Sulu Sea during the period of late May and into early June 1944. During one of these gunnery drills Yamato and Musashi shot to a range of 22 miles.

While this was happening the American Navy staged an invasion of the island of Biak, on the north-western coast of New Guinea on 27 May 1944. In response the IJN Mobile Fleet at Tawi Tawi sailed in three groups between 30 May and 11 June. Yamato and Musashi, with cruisers and destroyers, sortied on 10 June, but soon sighted a submarine periscope and in the confusion of wild manoeuvring the two super-battleships almost ran into each other, Musashi coming to a complete stop to avoid colliding with Yamato. This operation was cancelled, and by 17 June Yamato and Musashi had joined with other units of the Mobile Fleet to counter the US Navy’s latest offensive, the invasions of Guam and Saipan in the Mariana Islands. In the opening phase of the resulting Battle of the Philippine Sea the Japanese Navy launched hundreds of carrier-borne aircraft to attack the US Navy invasion fleet, but were utterly destroyed in a one-sided engagement that became known as the ‘Great Marianas Turkey Shoot’. The defeated IJN Mobile Fleet then retired north, first to Okinawa to refuel, then back to various naval bases in Japan, Yamato and Musashi to Kure Navy Yard, arriving on 29 June 1944.

Both super-battleships received a refit while at Kure during this time. They were fitted with five triple and five single 25mm AA open mounts on the main deck at the fore and aft ends of the superstructure. It was known that Yamato had some of, or possibly the entire main deck planking replaced at that time. Both warships would complete this refit about 7 July 1944.

The Mobile Fleet departed Kure for Okinawa on 9 July, Yamato and Musashi steaming in company with Nagato, Kongo, cruisers and destroyers. After refuelling at Okinawa, they split into two groups, with Group A (Yamato, Musashi, cruisers and destroyers) departing Okinawa, 10 July, for the Lingga Roads anchorage, just south of Singapore. En route, Group A then split into two parts with the super-battleships dropping anchor at Lingga and the cruisers and destroyers at Singapore, both arriving on 17 July 1944.

The majority of the Imperial Japanese Navy was concentrated at the Singapore anchorages in an effort to counter the American forces in what the Japanese suspected to be their next assault, the Philippine Islands. Yamato, and Musashi, with Nagato, Kongo and Haruna, all battleships, participated in gunnery drills both day and night, with the addition of radar guided fire-control systems. These battleships and other units of the Imperial Japanese Navy would train, practice and undergo maintenance while based at both the Lingga Roads and Singapore anchorages and naval yard, July through mid-October 1944. Also during this time, both Yamato and Musashi had their main decks painted a very dark grey; the tinting for this paint was the soot from their funnels. During September 1944 Musashi had her vertical surfaces painted a very dark grey from former Royal Navy paint stocks found at Singapore after the British surrender.

On 18 October 1944 Yamato and Musashi, with Nagato, Fuso, Yamashiro, Kongo and Haruna, sailed from the Lingga Roads anchorage for Brunei Bay, on the north-western coast of the island of Borneo, arriving there on 20 October. At Brunei Bay the IJN Fleet refuelled and resupplied for one day and prepared for an operation dubbed ‘Sho-I-Go’ (Victory). They would sortie from Brunei Bay on 22 October in two large task forces, heading for what was to become the largest naval battle of all time – Leyte Gulf.

The massive four-day engagement that is known as the Battle of Leyte Gulf was actually made up of a number of actions that took place within this time frame. The first of these was a small but disastrous engagement for the Japanese Navy usually called the Battle of the Palawan Passage. Under the leadership of Vice Admiral Kurita, Force A, comprising the battleships Yamato (with Admiral Ugaki aboard), Musashi, Nagato, Kongo, Haruna, with cruisers and destroyers, left Brunei Bay and steamed north by north-east along the coast of the island of Palawan, north of Borneo. En route Force A was ambushed by two American fleet submarines, Darter and Dace. At 5:30am on 23 October 1944 each submarine fired a spread of six torpedoes at the oncoming Japanese task force. Vice Admiral Kurita’s flagship was the heavy cruiser Atago, which along with her sister-ship Maya were sunk, while another sister-ship, the Takao, was severely damaged, but managed to limp back to Singapore. Losing three major combatants before engaging the enemy fleet was a serious blow to the IJN, but Vice Admiral Kurita was rescued from the sea by a destroyer and later transferred to the battleship Yamato. The two American submarines waited until nightfall and attempted to move in for the kill on the damaged Takao, but suddenly Darter ran hard aground and became a total loss, although her crew were later rescued by Dace, providing for the Americans a satisfactory conclusion to the Battle of the Palawan Passage.

Force A re-grouped and through the night Vice Admiral Kurita’s reduced but still powerful task force continued on their course towards the Philippine Islands. In the early hours of the morning Force A was headed in a easterly direction, rounding the southern end of the island of Mindoro and proceeding through the Tablas Strait. The new day brought a new battle: at 8:10am on 24 October Yamato spotted three American scout planes at 31 miles distant, shadowing Force A. Musashi was busy for over an hour trying to jam the scout planes’ radio transmissions, but obviously to no avail.

By 10:18am a wave of at least 45 American aircraft was sighted, and at 10:26am Force A opened fire on the approaching aircraft, thus beginning the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea. By 10:45am this first attack was over, the American aircraft having concentrated their attentions on Musashi. Several near miss bombs cause minor leaking in her bow, while another hit atop turret No 1, but with no effect. A torpedo, however, hit Musashi on her star-board side amidships, causing major flooding. The shock from the blast of that torpedo hit also jammed Musashi’s main director. Counter-flooding corrected the list and the super-battleship steamed on with about 3000 tons of water and a 1-degree list to starboard. After a brief lull, at 11:54am Force A detected more aircraft approaching.

By 12:45pm the next wave of American carrier-based aircraft attacked Force A, concentrating upon the capital ships. This group of aircraft was of the same strength as the last, and the mixture of dive and torpedo bombers scored two bomb hits, five near misses and three torpedo hits amidships on the port side on Musashi, as well as two bomb hits on Yamato. Yamato was able to maintain speed and her fighting capability, but Musashi, with severe damage to the AA gun mounts and crews and down six feet by the bow, was slowed to 22 knots. Both of the super-battleships were firing their shotgun-like AA shells at the attacking aircraft from their main armament during these engagements. Aboard Musashi, as one such shell was being loaded into the breech, a bomb fragment somehow found its was down the muzzle of the centre gun of the No 1 main turret and caused the 18.1in AA ammunition to ignite, destroying the interior of the turret and rendering it inoperable. Just as this wave of attacking aircraft departed, another swooped in for a further attack.

At 1:30pm 24 carrier aircraft attacked, again concentrating upon Musashi, then showing visible signs of distress. Although Force A slowed to help Musashi keep up and protect her with the fleet’s AA fire, Musashi received damage from strafing by American fighter aircraft, two bomb hits abreast the No 3 main turret, four bomb hits abreast Nos 1 and 2 main gun turrets, and four torpedo hits on the hull. The first torpedo hit was starboard amidships, the second was on the starboard bow, the third portside abreast No 1 main gun turret and the fourth was portside amidships. Musashi was then down 13 feet by the bow with speed reduced to 19 knots. Yamato received only minor damage during this attack, but once again, it was followed almost immediately by another, this one aimed at Yamato and Nagato.

At this time, 2:15pm, Vice Admiral Kurita ordered Force A to increase speed to 22 knots, leaving Musashi behind. During this fourth attack by American carrier aircraft, Yamato was hit by five bombs, causing major damage and giving the ship a 5-degree list to port. Counter-flooding and damage control reduce the list to less than 1 degree, but she was down at the bow by 2 feet. Nagato received two bomb hits, temporarily slowing her to 20 knots, but she managed repairs and was able to return to the fleet speed of 22 knots. The heavy cruiser Myoko was also hit by a torpedo in the stern and disabled. She would later limp back to Singapore. This attack was over by 2:45pm.

In the meantime Musashi slowed to 8 knots and had dropped far behind Force A, the effects of the serious damage from the numerous attacks escalating all the time. Again, at 2:55pm, yet another wave of American carrier aircraft pounced on the crippled battleship. A force of 69 aircraft pounded the super-battleship in this fifth attack upon Force A. Musashi received four bomb and three more torpedo hits, and numerous near misses during this assault. As the American aircraft left the scene, they reported that the super-battleship was trailing oil, on fire, wreathed in heavy smoke, and dead in the water. Damage to Musashi is difficult to determine at this point. She had received hit after hit, and the number of dead, especially amongst her AA crews, must have been staggering. Nonetheless, her damage control teams – or what was left of them – were able to counter-flood and somewhat control her list. They were able to get the vessel moving once again at 8 knots, although by this stage her bow was almost under water.

But there was no respite: a sixth attack by American aircraft began almost as the previous wave flew off. It seemed like whole wings of US Navy aircraft were circling, waiting for their turn at the struggling giant. The American air crews were amazed that any battleship could withstand this level of punishment, but they pressed home their attacks regardless. The next round began at 3:45pm with another combined dive and torpedo bomber attack, aimed at the Musashi alone. She was hit with ten bombs during this phase, decimating what was left of the AA gun crews. One bomb hit the bridge, killing over 50 crew; another penetrated to the boiler rooms, knocking out two of them. Also during this attack Musashi was struck by as many as nine torpedoes, hitting her on both the port and starboard sides, some in the vicinity of previous hits, the explosions digging deeper into the already ravaged hull. As the last of the American aircraft departed the area at about 4:20pm, they observed a burning, smoking wreck of what used to be one of the most powerful battleships ever constructed, dead in the water, listing at least 9 degrees, with a couple of destroyers moving in to lend assistance.

Musashi took on an 11-degree list to port, but this was partially corrected by counter-flooding, although only for a short time. The flooding by this stage was uncontrollable and progressing at a steady rate. She was able to get underway, at about 5 knots, but soon even this would not be possible. Force A reversed course about 4:30pm and was headed back towards Musashi, but Vice Admiral Kurita soon realized that her situation was hopeless and resumed his original course eastward towards the island of Samar, although he did instruct the heavy cruiser Tone and destroyers to remain with Musashi and lend what assistance they could. The captain of the doomed battleship was then attempting to head north towards the Bondoc Peninsula to beach the ship. The port anchor was let go, anything not bolted down was jettisoned, and even the crew were moved to the starboard side aft, in an attempt to counter the list. Crawling along at 4 to 5 knots, the bow down 26 feet, forecastle awash, the engines finally gave out and she slowed to a stop, still burning in the area of the superstructure. At 7:15pm, when Musashi’s list had increased to 12 degrees to port, the captain gave the order to prepare to abandon ship and for the crew to assemble aft. By 7:30pm, with most of the crew drawn up on the aircraft deck, her list having then reached 30 degrees to port, the captain finally gave the order to abandon ship. Musashi slowly rolled over to port and capsized at 7:36pm, at location 13°07’ North by 122°32’ East, about 2.5 miles south-west of Bondoc Point. Three destroyers rescued about 1379 crew, plus 635 survivors from the heavy cruiser Maya, sunk the day before. Including those lost when the ship went down, casualties totalled about 1023 of the crew.

IJN Yamato by Chris Flodberg

Yamato (1941) Part III

Japanese sources indicate that Musashi was hit by eleven torpedoes and ten bombs, while American records stated that they hit her with twenty torpedoes and seventeen bombs, plus fifteen near misses. In either case, this was a massive amount of punishment that no warship could survive. Approximately 260 US Navy aircraft attacked the IJN surface fleet in this 6-hour running battle across the Sibuyan Sea, during which the Japanese were only able to shoot down 18 American aircraft.

The remains of Force A, with battleships Yamato, Nagato, Kongo and Haruna, cruisers and destroyers proceeded out of the Sibuyan Sea that night, towards the open ocean and the Philippine Sea. Yamato had sustained three bomb hits, but they caused minimal damage. At the time of the sinking of Musashi, Force A was midway down the west coast of the island of Burias, and by 9:00pm they were rounding the northern tip of the island of Ticao and headed south towards the entrance of the San Bernardino Strait. Force A passed through that strait in single file at about midnight.

Yamato, Vice Admiral Kurita’s flagship, then entered the Philippine Sea in the early hours, of 25 October 1944, steaming in a easterly direction. Force A changed course to the south, along the eastern coast of the island of Samar, towards Leyte Gulf and the American invasion force landing there. Kurita’s intention was to attack the American amphibious shipping with his battleships and cruisers.

At 5:23am Yamato’s radar picked up ships further to the south, in the path of Force A’s advance, near the south-eastern end of the island of Samar. By 5:45am Force A sighted ships on the horizon, identified them as six small aircraft carriers, with cruisers and destroyers. Yamato immediately opened fire on these ships, but the remainder of Force A was not able to open fire until they were within range (which was at 5:58am). This was the beginning of what was to be called the Battle off Samar. The actual task force under attack by Force A was six escort carriers, three destroyers and four destroyer escorts, and as Yamato and Force A fired at the American carriers, the US Navy destroyers and DEs put up a smoke screen to help defend their carriers. Yamato launched some of her observation aircraft to help spot her fire upon the US carriers, and about the same time aircraft from the US escort carriers, armed with whatever weapons were to hand, made diversionary attacks on Force A.

About 6:55am American destroyers charged out of the smoke screen towards the Japanese force, launching a torpedo attack. The Japanese battleships concentrated their fire on the threat posed by the American destroyers, while the Japanese cruisers continued to fire at the carriers. The US torpedo attack was partially successful, even though the only hit obtained was on the heavy cruiser Kumano, putting her out of action and forcing her to retire towards the San Bernardino Strait. However, torpedo wakes were spotted by the battleships, causing them to scatter, with Yamato and Nagato turning north in an attempt to outrun them, putting them out of the battle area. Kongo and Haruna remained, but were kept busy dodging torpedo wakes and attacking aircraft. At 7:30am the IJN heavy cruiser Suzuya was hit and disabled by near misses from bombs. Meanwhile, the American escort carriers were able to hide in rain squalls in their area.

The rain squalls came to an end about 8:00am and the Japanese assault on the USN carriers and escorts recommenced. The IJN heavy cruiser Haguro led Chokai, Chikuma and Tone south in an attempt to catch the American escort carriers, while Yamato, Nagato, Kongo and Haruna battled the escorting destroyers. Yamato fired on a charging US destroyer, which disappeared in a cloud of smoke, and Kongo dealt like-wise with another destroyer. The battle-ships then turned their attention to the escort carriers but, of hundreds of rounds expended, only a few hits were obtained. In this one-sided running battle between Japanese big-gun surface ships and the American escort carriers and destroyers, the Americans managed to fend off near-certain annihilation by the sacrifice of the destroyers, which attacked with torpedoes several times, causing the Japanese battle force to scatter and giving the carriers time to escape. The Japanese battleships and cruisers were able to sink only three American destroyers and one escort carrier. The Americans did have the advantage of carrier aircraft to attack the Japanese force, and these caused significant losses, sinking the heavy cruisers Suzuya, Chokai and Chikuma. Vice Admiral Kurita ordered Force A to reverse course several times, which enabled the American escort carriers to escape to the south towards Leyte Gulf. At about 12:30pm American carrier aircraft attacked Force A, which turned north to evade them and retreat. Yamato was undamaged in that engagement, but Nagato was hit by one bomb on the foredeck (with minor damage), Kongo was damaged by several near misses, but Haruna was unscathed. At 4:55pm, Force A was again attacked by US carrier aircraft, but not damaged.

About 9:00pm on 25 October 1944 Vice Admiral Kurita’s fleet, lead by Yamato, entered the San Bernardino Strait, headed west. All that remained of the once powerful Force A were the battleships Yamato, Nagato, Kongo and Haruna, the heavy cruisers Haguro and Tone, and destroyers. During the night, Force A was joined by the badly damaged heavy cruisers Kumano and Myoko as they limped westward, back through the Sibuyan Sea.

Dawn on 26 October 1944 found Kurita headed south through the Tablas Strait, east of the island of Mindoro. At about 8:00am the exhausted Japanese task force was attacked by US Navy carrier aircraft for about one hour. Yamato was hit by two bombs with only minor damage, but the light cruiser Noshiro was sunk. Several other warships were slightly damaged by near misses, but they managed to regroup and continue south. At 10:40am, approximately 30 USAAF B-24 bombers made a high-level attack. No direct hits were scored, but there was damage to Haruna from several near misses. On 27 October in the Palawan Passage the battleships refuelled several destroyers running low on fuel. Also on that day, Force A buried their dead at sea (29 on Yamato), and following day arrived back at Brunei Bay.

Yamato and the other warships refuelled upon their arrival, but were unable to replenish their ammunition until 6 November, when a carrier and light cruiser arrived from Japan carrying those supplies. During that time minor repairs were carried out aboard Yamato and the other warships present. On 8 November the battleships Yamato, Nagato, Kongo and Haruna put to sea for four days to avoid air attacks on Brunei Bay. Battleship Division One was disbanded on the 15th and Yamato became flagship of the IJN Second Fleet.

On 16 November Yamato, in company with Nagato, Kongo, the light cruiser Yahagi and destroyers, sailed from Brunei Bay for Japan, but en route the task force was ambushed by the American submarine Sealion. At 3:00am on 21 November, in the Formosa Strait, the American submarine fired first the six bow tubes, and after turning, the four stern tubes at the IJN task force. Three or four torpedoes struck Kongo and one hit a destroyer, which sank immediately. Kongo sheered out of line and took on a severe list; she eventually sank at about 5:30am, just north of Formosa. Yamato and the rest of the task force safely reached Japan, entering the Kure Navy Yard on 23 November 1944.

Yamato went into the dry dock at the yard two days later for a very much needed repair and refit. Bomb damage to her super-structure and fore deck was repaired and all but two of the single 25mm AA mounts were removed and replaced with nine triple 25mm AA mounts, giving her a final outfit of 152 of these light AA guns. On 23 December Vice Admiral Ito would assume command of the Second Fleet and on 1 January 1945 Yamato, Nagato and Haruna were assigned to the reactivated Battleship Division One, Second Fleet. By 3 January Yamato had been undocked and the repairs and refit were complete by 15 January. She departed Kure for Hashirajima Anchoring Area, located 30–40km south of the naval base at Kure.

On 10 February 1945 BatDiv 1 and the Second Fleet were disbanded and Yamato was assigned to Carrier Division 1. Perhaps indicative of the nervous state of the ship’s crew, on 13 March while still sitting at the Hashirajima Anchorage, Yamato accidentally fired on Japanese aircraft overhead. Four days later she returned to Kure Navy Yard and on the 19th a massive air raid by US Navy carrier aircraft was launched against the yard and the warships in Kure Bay. Yamato steamed out to the Inland Sea and was hit by one small bomb on her superstructure. On 28 March the majority of the fleet, including Yamato, was ordered to Sasebo Navy Yard on the north-western coast of Kyushu, but was recalled the same day as US Navy carrier aircraft raided southern Kyushu. At this point the Imperial Japanese Navy planned to anchor its remaining warships in remote locations to make it more difficult for the Americans to find them.

On 3 April 1945 Admiral Ito received new orders: Yamato, the light cruiser Yahagi and eight destroyers were to undertake a ‘Kamikaze’ mission against the American invasion forces attacking Okinawa, a mere 400 miles to the south-west of Kyushu. The next day was spent on AA gunnery practice, and on the 5th a detailed planning meeting took place aboard Yamato for her final mission as flagship of the Surface Special Attack Unit. This mission was named ‘Ten-Ichi-Go’, which translated literally meant ‘Heaven Number One.’ The mission was to steam undetected to the north-west of Okinawa and make a high speed run in on the American invasion forces and destroy as many enemy vessels as possible. At that time, the task force was topped up with almost all the remaining fuel oil the IJN could muster – but not enough for a round trip.

On 6 April 1945 Yamato and the other warships of the Surface Special Attack Unit departed for their final mission, sailing at 3:30pm. The Japanese task force was spotted by the American submarine Threadfin at about 9:30pm, which reported the sighting to the US Navy forward head-quarters on Guam. During the night Yamato and the task force passed the southern end of Kyushu and headed west into the East China Sea. The Japanese task force had some air cover, based on Kyushu, but it was sporadic at best. About 8:30am on the 7th the IJN task force was spotted by an American search aircraft from the carrier Essex, and later by more American aircraft. By 11:30am small groups of aircraft had gathered and were circling above IJN task force, waiting for more to join.

The attack upon Yamato and her task force finally began at around 12:30pm and lasted about twenty minutes. This first wave comprised 280 aircraft from nine US Navy aircraft carriers, and almost immediatel, a destroyer was sunk, while Yamato’s bridge was strafed. She was then hit by two bombs, amidships and on the aftermost secondary 6in turret. Yamato was hit by two more bombs in the same vicinity, causing severe damage to her after superstructure and the 6in magazine, and producing a fierce fire in this area. Torpedoes began to strike the ship from port – a lesson learned by the Americans in their attack upon her sister-ship Musashi was that the massive breadth of the Yamato class battleships required all torpedo hits to be on one side only; hits on the other side merely saved the Japanese crew the task of counter-flooding. In this first wave of attacks Yamato took four torpedo hits on the port side, causing about 3000 tons of flooding, initially resulting a 6-degree list, but soon corrected to about 1 or 2 degrees. At the same time strafing of the superstructure by fighter aircraft also reduced the number of operational 25mm mounts. During this first wave of attacks, the light cruiser Yahagi was hit by one torpedo and went dead in the water.

The second phase began at 1:00pm, and during this attack American bombers launched their torpedoes from many directions, ensuring multiple hits. Yamato was hit by three or four torpedoes to port and one to starboard. The portside hits caused the ship to take on a severe list of 15 to 18 degrees, but the starboard hit in effect produced counter-flooding that reduced the list to 10 degrees. Yamato was in a very poor state by that time, because with a list at 10 degrees or more she could not use her main batteries, which fired special ‘shotgun’ AA rounds, against the swarms of American aircraft. There were several bomb hits, decimating more of the AA gun crews stationed in the open mounts, highlighting one of the shortcomings of the Yamato class design – the AA mounts were grouped so closely together that one large bomb hit knocked out several at a time.

Within 5 or 10 minutes of the second attack ending, at 1:45pm the third wave of US Navy aircraft descended upon the Yamato and the IJN task force. This time Yamato was hit by three large bombs amidships, which blew holes in her main deck and even blasted several of the shielded deck-edge 25mm AA mounts right off the ship and into the ocean. Another bomb hit the foredeck, severing the port anchor chain, with the 15-ton main anchor and chain sinking to the bottom of the sea. There were also numerous near misses that sprang leaks in the hull plating and caused significant interior damage due to concussion. Yamato was hit by four torpedoes during this attack that sealed her fate. Three of them were on the port side, with the fourth on the starboard side. Many of the firerooms and machinery spaces were holed and flooded, reducing Yamato’s speed to a mere 10 knots, running on one shaft. Both the main and the auxiliary rudders were out of action and in a hard-over position to port. She was on fire in the area of the after superstructure and smoking heavily, steaming in a large slow circle, out of control.

In the meantime, the other warships of the IJN Surface Special Attack Unit were taking a beating. The light cruiser Yahagi was already dead in the water from a torpedo hit in the first wave, but was hit by a total of twelve bombs and six additional torpedoes by the end of the third wave of attacks. Yahagi sank rapidly at 2:05pm on 7 April 1945, in position 30°40’ North by 128°03’ East. By the end of the attacks, four of the original eight destroyers in the Surface Special Attack Unit had also been sunk. The first, Asashimo at position 31°00’ North by 128°00’ East, with Hamakaze and Isokaze together at position 30°40’ North by 128°03’ East, very near to the light cruiser Yahagi. The destroyer Kasumi was sunk at 30°57’ North by 127°57’ East. The survivors, the damaged destroyers Suzutsuki Hatsushimo, Yukikaze, and Fuyuzuki, all managed to rescue survivors and return to Japan.

The Yamato, however, was doomed, and the end was near. At about 2:15pm the after magazine temperature warning lights were flashing on the bridge, but that magazine could not be flooded because of the complete loss of power in the battleship by 2:20pm. The list was so severe by then that loose objects and damaged AA gun mounts began to topple into the sea. At 2:23pm Yamato rapidly capsized to port, so much so that many crewmen were still below decks, as there was not an ‘abandon ship’ order given. As the massive and once mighty battleship rolled over to about 120 degrees, her magazines erupted into one of the most massive explosions ever recorded. There was a brilliant flash, followed by a large mushroom cloud of smoke, rising thousands of feet into the air. This was seen as far as 125 miles away. When the smoke cleared, nothing was left. When Yamato set out on this last mission, she had a crew of about 3332 men, of whom only 279 were rescued by the four remaining destroyers. Admiral Ito was not among them. She sank at 30°22’ North by 128°04’ East, in the East China Sea, not half-way to her intended destination.

In total, during all of the attacks over a two-hour period, the Yamato was hit by thirteen torpedoes (eleven to port and one to starboard), eight bombs, and numerous near miss bombs that did great shock damage. The destruction was so massive, and the blows so rapid and repetitive, that the damage-control parties had little chance to counter the flooding. In fact, many of these teams were wiped out by the intense pounding Yamato was taking. Because of the close proximity of the light AA mounts, grouped tightly around the superstructure, bomb hits and strafing were very effective in knocking them out, quickly eroding the ship’s defensive capacity. It was at this time that what was once the third largest navy in the world, steadily decimated throughout the Pacific War, ceased to exist as a viable fighting force. In sharp contrast, the American forces deployed in this attack – approximately 386 carrier-based aircraft of 180 fighters, 75 dive bombers, and 131 torpedo bombers – lost 10 aircraft and 12 air crewmen.

Successful class?

Japan’s most able naval designers, engineer Hiraga and Captain Fujimoto, made major contributions to the design of the class, which was generally recognised as a highly successful and effective one despite going beyond all previous bounds of size. However, none of the Yamato class achieved results comparable to their size, expense and power. Musashi was sunk by aerial bombs and torpedoes. The third ship, Shinano, was converted while building to a carrier. Newly completed, it was sunk by torpedoes from the US submarine Archerfish on 29 November 1944. Construction of the fourth ship, never named (No.111), was suspended in November 1941 when it was about 30 per cent completed, and finally abandoned in September 1942. A fifth had been envisaged but no construction order was placed.


Yamato July 1943 (total: 12 x 5in + 36 x 25mm)

Four 25mm triple open mounts added on weather deck abreast superstructure

Yamato April 1944 (total: 24 x 5in + 98 x 25mm)

Six 5in twin open mounts added on superstructure

Twelve 25mm triple enclosed mounts added on superstructure and weather deck

Twenty-six 25mm single open mounts added on weather deck

Musashi April 1944 (total: 12 x 5in + 115 x 25mm)

Eighteen 25mm triple open mounts added on superstructure and weather deck

Twenty-five 25mm single open mounts added on weather deck

Yamato July 1944 (total: 24 x 5in + 113 x 25mm)

Five 25mm triple open mounts added

Musashi July 1944 (total: 12 x 5in + 130 x 25mm)

Five 25mm triple open mounts on weather deck

Yamato March 1945 (total: 24 x 5in + 152 x 25mm)

Six 25mm triple enclosed mounts added on weather deck

Fifteen 25mm triple open mounts added on superstructure

Twenty-four 25mm single open mounts removed from weather deck

Japan To Asia: The Sino-Japanese War I

An informal and passive defense strategy remained the basis of national military policy, but developments in Russia and China during the late 1880s convinced Yamagata that Japan’s inability to project military power overseas would relegate the nation to a perpetual second-class power status. Acutely aware of Japan’s weakness, he pursued a cautious foreign policy of limited expansionist goals on the Asian mainland and reshaped Japan’s army into a force capable of protecting the nation’s sovereignty and interests.

In January 1888 Army Inspector-General Yamagata declared that the construction of a Panama Canal, a Trans-Siberian railway, and a Canadian-Pacific railroad would shift the thrust of western imperialism from Africa into East Asia. A clash between Britain and Russia over India was likely, and Korea was a flashpoint because of competing Chinese, Japanese, and Russian interests. He was confident that the army could repel a Russian invasion of Japan by concentrating two or three divisions against the beachhead, provided the government improved the communications infrastructure of telegraph and rail lines, finished construction of coastal fortifications, and fully funded seven infantry divisions.

Retired general Soga agreed that Russia was the threat but questioned the conventional wisdom that dictated that an island nation like Japan should depend on a strong navy as its first line of defense. Rather than invest heavily in a vast naval establishment, which could not protect thousands of miles of coast anyway, Soga proposed a small standing army (90,000 regulars and 60,000 reservists) and coastal fortifications linked to the rail and road network. Even Russia, he reasoned, could transport no more than two corps (30,000 troops) by sea to Japan at one time, leaving the invaders far outnumbered by a mobilized militia and army of about 150,000 men. A small navy operating from offshore islands could harass any enemy fleet and disrupt its maritime line of communication. These joint measures would prevent any invasion. Lt. Gen. Miura aired similar opinions in a series of newspaper articles written in 1889 that maintained that Japan’s topography was unsuitable for European-style, division-echelon operations. An enemy force could land anywhere along the lengthy coastline, so instead of expanding the army, the government would be better off to organize and deploy militia units at strategic locations to repulse an enemy landing.

Irritated by the Getsuyōkai’s directors’ recurrent criticism, angered by the association’s independent opinions, and displeased with the proliferation of other officer associations, in November 1887 the war ministry had ordered the consolidation of all military fraternal associations under its approved organization, the Kaikōsha. Prominent officers assigned to the war ministry and general staff left the society, urged their peers to quit, and pressured their juniors to do the same. The Getsuyōkai directors, however, refused to disband, and Soga and Miura continued their drumbeat of opposition to overseas expansion. Having previously alienated their powerful civilian political backers over the issue of treaty revision, Miura and Soga were vulnerable, and army authorities seconded both to the reserves in December 1888, thereby purging the army of its last vestiges of its Francophile faction. Tani was seconded to the reserves the following year.

In February 1889 five division commanders petitioned War Minister Ōyama to amalgamate the Kaikōsha and Getsuyōkai; he complied by dissolving the Getsuyōkai, disbanding all other professional officers’ societies, and forbidding study groups within the army. Thereafter Kaikōsha chapters, which doubled as officers’ benevolent societies (members paying a small fee that went into a relief fund to assist officers’ families), promoted the army’s official orthodoxy, set standards for behavior and skills, evaluated junior officers for promotion and recommendation for advanced schooling, and played a major role in determining a young officer’s career progression. The implicit lesson was that the army attached little value to critical research or questioning of its prevailing orthodoxy.

The inaugural imperial Diet convened in 1890. Many of the elected representatives were landowners and spent much of the session trying to cut land taxes, the main source of government revenue. As a consequence, the legislature consistently reduced or rejected the cabinet’s costly budget requests for riparian and defense projects. It also steadfastly opposed the army’s ambitious plans for nationwide railroad improvements because many of its members were unwilling to raise taxes to pay for the projects. Government critics such as retired general Tani Tateki, now a member of the House of Peers, unfurled the banner of fiscal responsibility to oppose expensive railway construction projects, promote Miura’s less costly militia scheme, and champion investment in coastal defense construction. Now prime minister, Yamagata had to compromise to muster enough votes in the House of Peers to pass a reduced military construction bill to pay for a strategic railroad network.

The government-designed rail network’s major trunk lines converged at Ujina, the port of Hiroshima in western Japan, enabling the army to move units rapidly either for purposes of coastal defense or overseas deployment. Although narrow-gauge lines were easier and cheaper to build, the cabinet opted for broad-gauge rails, whose greater load capacity allowed fewer, larger cars to carry more troops. The government-stimulated construction touched off a railroad boom and increased the demand for imported steel for rails, which, added to imported steel for warships and weapons, resulted in an unfavorable balance of trade and caused severe domestic inflation. By 1893 shrewd investors cashed out and the speculation bubble of hyperinflated railroad stocks burst, adding to the nation’s financial woes.

Besides their shaky financial underpinnings, the new rail lines had questionable military value. Strategically the railroads often ran too close to existing coastal routes and, as Prussian Maj. Klemens Wilhelm Jakob Meckel had previously warned, left the tracks susceptible to interdiction by hostile naval gunfire. The general staff and the chairman of the Railroad Conference Board, Vice Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Kawakami Sōroku, heeded the Prussian’s advice and wanted the railroads relocated farther inland, but Ōyama insisted that construction through precipitous mountain ranges would be technically more difficult, more time consuming, and much more expensive than a coastal route. Besides, Japan’s growing navy could protect the coasts and the coastal railroads from enemy naval bombardment and invasion. Kawakami resigned from the board in disgust.

The army’s quest for strategic mobility during the 1880s rapidly transformed Japan’s transportation infrastructure. Army engineers completed the great military port at Ujina in 1885 and upgraded coastal batteries, military ports, naval bases, and arsenals throughout the country. The completion of a new railway line connecting Kobe and Hiroshima in mid-1894 removed the bottleneck between eastern and western Japan, and the army also improved and widened roads leading to the ports to accommodate heavy artillery caissons and divisional baggage wagons. The modern transportation infrastructure opened previously isolated regions to commercial expansion as textiles, foodstuffs, and coal could be moved cheaply and easily for sale or export. It also enabled the expanding army to move troops and equipment rapidly to ports of embarkation for overseas deployments.

The Soldiers of the Sino-Japanese War

In 1893 the army had about 6,000 officers and 12,000 NCOs. Its almost 60,000 conscripts lived in garrison barracks where they trained with their respective regiments. Six months of basic training emphasized repetition in everything from military courtesies and calisthenics to small-unit formations and marksmanship. Rote memorization and constant repetition were necessary because a large percentage of the conscripts were either completely or functionally illiterate.

Although statistics are incomplete, as late as 1891, more than 60 percent of all conscripts fell into those two categories (with almost 27 percent being completely illiterate). Only 14 percent had graduated from a primary or higher school, though the army regarded 24 percent as having comparable practical or work experience. Superstitions abounded, especially among the peasant conscripts, who found themselves in a barracks amidst strange new things. A frequently cited example was the case of peasant conscripts who, having never seen a wood-burning stove, worshiped the one in their barracks as a religious idol.

Between 1891 and 1903 the number of middle schools (at the time male-only) almost quadrupled, to more than 200, three-quarters of them built in rural areas. Enrollment quintupled to around 100,000 students. By 1900 functional illiteracy had declined, but it was still above 30 percent (actual illiteracy 16.8 percent) and remained constant throughout the decade. Until the educational reforms in 1920 that instituted compulsory grammar school education, between 10 and 15 percent of all young men undergoing an induction physical lacked any formal schooling. Thereafter illiteracy rates became negligible—less than 1 percent—but as late as 1930 almost 40 percent of conscripts had not graduated from primary school.

The army was attuned to educational changes and concentrated on indoctrinating an increasingly literate public and conscript force with themes of Japan’s uniqueness by virtue of the unbroken imperial line. To spread its message, the army subsidized the publication of cheap, widely distributed commercial handbooks that explained how to organize simple public ceremonies for troops like hearty send-offs, welcome-home celebrations, or memorial observances. Army propaganda in the pamphlets explained that conscripts should be grateful the emperor wanted them for his army, underlining their soldierly duty to meet and obey imperial injunctions and reminding them, “As the cherry blossom is to flowers, the warrior is to men.” Military values were steadily seeping into the popular culture.

Despite the army’s numerous and impressive accomplishments, the institution of the early 1890s was by no means a state-of-the-art fighting force. Its weaponry and military technology lagged far behind western standards. By the late 1880s, for example, steel-gun technology had rendered bronze weapons obsolete, but lacking the sophisticated new technology the Osaka arsenal continued to manufacture bronze field and mountain guns. This in turn retarded the artillery school’s experiments with smokeless powder because the residue fouled the bronze weapons, making them unusable. Likewise, manufacturing capacity restricted shell production, and the army could not stockpile large quantities of munitions. General staff planners compensated by compiling ammunition consumption tables based on statistical data derived from the Satsuma Rebellion in expectation that a central general headquarters would carefully control the field commanders’ expenditure of artillery rounds. The rebellion’s legacy of light artillery was reinforced by Meckel’s later pronouncement that mountain artillery hauled by packhorses was better suited for Japan’s rugged landscape than heavier field artillery pulled by teams of draught horses. The army considered large-caliber guns (larger than 150 mm) defensive weapons for use in coastal fortifications. On the positive side, gunners studied direction and range findings techniques and became proficient at controlling indirect artillery fires.

The Tokyo arsenal was producing Type-18 Murata rifles, a single-shot weapon. The advanced Type-38 Murata, a five-round clip-fed version, was not standard equipment in the mid-1890s, and only the Imperial Guard and the 4th Division were initially equipped with a prototype repeating rifle. Clothing and weapons were standardized. The field uniform was a black jacket and white pants complemented by a soft black kepi. In 1889 the army adopted the French-style sword. Demands to return to a Japanese samurai sword were rejected after a five-year study concluded that the samurai sword was impractical in modern warfare because both hands were needed to wield it.

The army diet consisted of polished white rice, fish, poultry, pickled vegetables, and tea. Attempts by Japanese doctors to introduce white bread or a hardtack biscuit into the daily ration in the early 1890s failed, but the biscuit did become part of the emergency field ration. Soldiers received just over two pints of cooked white rice per day even though anecdotal evidence showed that cutting the rice with barley prevented beriberi, known as Japan’s national disease during the Meiji period. Between 1876 and 1885 about 20 percent of enlisted troops suffered vitamin deficiencies and contracted beriberi; about 2 percent of them died. Field tests of a ration of barley mixed with rice conducted in 1885–1886 dramatically reduced beriberi cases (from almost 265 per 1,000 to just 35 per 1,000), but vitamin theory was still an unproven and contentious hypothesis. More significant, conscripts and officers alike regarded adulterated rice as penitentiary food (in fact, since 1875 it was prison fare) and considered it unfit for loyal soldiers of the emperor, a case of cultural imperatives inhibiting disease control.


Prime Minister Yamagata’s fifteen-minute maiden address to the Diet in March 1890 outlined a geopolitical strategy based on a line of sovereignty and a line of interests to protect Japan’s vital national interests. He observed that once the Trans-Siberian railway was completed, Korea would fall under the Russian shadow. Accordingly, national security could no longer depend simply on a primary line of defense on Japanese shores but demanded the capability to protect a forward line of overseas interests, chiefly in Korea, where Japan had to prevent Russia from using the peninsula as a springboard to invade the home islands. The inference was that Yamagata wanted to carve out a buffer zone beyond Japan’s boundaries, but his speech described a neutral Korea as the focus of Japanese interests and identified Tsushima Island as the first line of defense along his line of sovereignty.

Fears of a Russian invasion had fed Japanese nightmares since the 1850s, but until the 1880s the army was too weak to do much about it. Following Meckel’s guidance, the army refined counter-amphibious doctrine and tested it during a new joint grand exercise conducted in March 1890 near Nagoya. The stylized scenario had a predictable outcome (the invaders lost), but the army displayed its imagination and creativity by moving large units by rail and testing field telegraph communications to improve command and control. The emperor lent importance to the inaugural event by presiding over the maneuvers dressed in an army uniform and observing the culmination of the exercise during a driving rainstorm. Thereafter he attended special army grand maneuvers on ten occasions, always wearing his army uniform, a practice that dated from public appearances in 1880 as supreme commander.

The 1890 and 1892 maneuvers field-tested the new mobile division tactics, an operational departure and a significant shift from the traditional doctrine of waterline defense. After a May 1893 mobilization exercise revealed that reserve NCOs and junior officer platoon leaders were less proficient than their regular counterparts, the war ministry redoubled efforts to improve reserve training.

The same year, the ministry reorganized the tondenhei (the militia the authorities formed from samurai settlers in Hokkaidō in the 1870s) into an under-strength division because the available Hokkaidō cohort was still too small to fill a full division’s ranks. Finally, the war minister also revamped the wartime table of organization to draw on the approximately 150,000 strong first reserves (120,000 more in the second reserve) to field a wartime division of 18,500 personnel (the Imperial Guard strength was set at 13,000). The expanded wartime division added one infantry company per battalion (twelve total), strengthened the cavalry squadron and field artillery regiment, and added two engineer companies and a transport battalion. Wartime mobilization required additional reserve officers and NCOs, and the army expanded its one-year volunteer system to train and build a larger reserve officer pool.

More young men were conscripted for active service, but a rapidly growing population provided a larger available cohort, and the percentage of those conscripted remained fairly constant. Draft resistance or evasion was negligible—less than 1 percent of the cohort per year between 1882 and 1896. Each year about 3,000 youths skipped the annual physical exam or appeared late for testing,24 which suggests the system had become institutionalized and accepted by the larger society (see Table 5.1).

Training reforms instituted in 1888 devoted more time to unit exercises and field maneuvers. Company commanders were expected to display initiative and seize tactical opportunities without waiting for orders from higher headquarters, but the revised 1891 infantry regulations perpetuated Meckel’s inflexible massed columns and skirmisher formations. Planners projected losses of between 25 and 50 percent during operations. In order to sustain the offensive under such conditions, officers and NCOs were expected to enforce iron discipline during the tactical advance. Army authorities relied on intensive indoctrination in the intangibles of élan and esprit to promote each soldier’s sense of obligation to the nation and his unit as well as his determination to press home attacks whatever the cost.

Imperial General Headquarters, Planning, and Wartime Performance

Although the services had conducted joint maneuvers, interservice cooperation and coordination faltered because the army was determined to retain its primary role in national defense. In 1886 the navy embarked on its first replenishment plan and saw the establishment of a naval general staff with a corresponding resentment among naval leaders about their service’s second-class status. The admirals’ push for a totally independent naval general staff was countered by the generals’ insistence that wartime operations had to be based on peacetime plans prepared by a single authority—the army. Advocates couched their arguments against the cabinet’s push for joint general staff in terms of imperial prerogatives, span of control issues, and administrative requirements. The fundamental debate, however, was about the future of the army; its strategic role, its force structure, and its force design.

In January 1893 the cabinet presented the navy’s proposal for an independent staff to the emperor, who harbored reservations that interservice staff rivalry might interfere with wartime performance. The army was willing to accept an independent naval general staff provided that during wartime the army chief of staff was in charge of an imperial general headquarters (IGHQ). Several days later Prince Arisugawa, the chief of the joint staff, recommended that the IGHQ chief of staff should be from the primary service—the army—and serve as the emperor’s chief of staff. This would unify the services’ planning and operational efforts as well as ease imperial concerns that separate staffs might create serious coordination issues.

Emperor Meiji approved the establishment of a separate naval general staff on May 19, 1893, creating two parallel and independent chains of command whose chiefs reported directly to the emperor during peacetime. That same day, Meiji sanctioned regulations to organize an imperial general headquarters directly under the emperor to control wartime operations. An army general officer would fill the post of chief of the IGHQ staff to ensure that service’s primary role in national defense. During wartime he had the authority to issue operational orders sanctioned by the emperor, and the army vice chief of staff and the naval chief of staff served under him.

Operational Planning

Military strategy, such as it was, relied on mobile divisions to defend the homeland, a fixed defense anchored by coastal fortifications, and an offensive strategy against China in case of emergency. Col. Ogawa Mataji, the chief, second bureau, of the general staff, guided the first serious planning for offensive operations against China. His 1887 draft employed an eight-division (six regular and two reserve) expeditionary force to seize Peking. Six divisions would land near Shanhaiguan at the head of the Bohai Gulf and then advance on the capital. The remaining two divisions would land further south (along Changkiang coast) to prevent Chinese armies from relieving Peking. Ogawa’s plan was mostly wishful thinking because the Japanese navy could neither maintain a line of communication to the continent nor transport such large numbers of troops overseas. His operational concept did serve as a strategic statement to justify the army’s budget for its five-year expansion program and became a point of departure for subsequent general staff planning that influenced Vice Chief of Staff Kawakami’s thinking.

Officially the army continued to advocate a strategic defensive. In February 1892, for example, Kawakami submitted an operational plan to the emperor that apparently outlined a counter-amphibious campaign against an invasion. Unofficially the army had a clear awareness that it might be fighting a war on the Asian continent. Since 1889 Kawakami had overseen contingency wartime planning directed against China. The army’s Plan “A” for a war against China and Korea landed forces along the head of the Bohai Gulf near Shanhaiguan and then moved them west to fight a decisive battle on the Zhili (Hebei) plain. With imperial approval, Kawakami and other senior staff officers conducted a terrain reconnaissance (described as an inspection tour) in north and central China during mid-1893 to gather intelligence on Chinese forces and defenses.

The team’s evaluation of the state of Chinese army training, coastal defenses, and munitions factories as well as Kawakami’s firsthand observations convinced him that Japan could defeat the Chinese army because the latter lacked mobilization and logistics capabilities, had no standard doctrine, and neither operated nor trained as a modern combined arms force. Army leaders excluded civilian ministers from their subsequent operational planning, justifying the action as necessary to protect the prerogative of supreme command from political interference. This military bias against civilian authorities ignored the need to integrate national political and military strategies, isolating army planning from the larger context of Japan’s political and diplomatic objectives.

Peasant uprisings in Korea in the early 1890s and the kingdom’s growing dependence on China threatened Yamagata’s strategic benchmark of a neutral Korea. In the spring of 1894 Korean peasants rebelled against the radical reforms imposed by the court, blaming the Korean elite and foreigners, especially Japanese, for their impoverishment. The Korean emperor appealed to China for help, which in turn dispatched troops to Korea to suppress the Tonghak Rebellion. The intervention violated China’s 1885 agreement with Japan whereby both countries withdrew their troops from Korea and promised advance notification to the other should they return. In these explosive circumstances, the general staff dispatched an officer to Pusan for firsthand assessment. His May 20 dispatch described an organized rebellion, led by a rebel army armed with some modern weapons and an effective command and control system that was determined to overthrow the government. Because the prospect of an anti-Japanese faction seizing power was unacceptable, he recommended sending troops to protect the more than 9,000 Japanese nationals residing in Korea.

Japan To Asia: The Sino-Japanese War II

At a June 2 cabinet meeting Prime Minister Itō discussed unconfirmed reports from the army attaché in Tientsin, later proved erroneous, that 5,000 Chinese troops had moved into Korea. Despite its dubious quality, Kawakami and Foreign Minister Mutsu Munemitsu used the intelligence to justify military intervention. It was later alleged that the two conspired to conceal information from Itō that negotiations had taken a favorable turn and calm was returning to Korea. Regardless of Kawakami’s and Mutsu’s conduct, the full cabinet likely drew the lesson based on previous Japanese setbacks in Korea in the 1880s that in order to preserve the military balance it had to commit forces before China did. With compromise impossible, war with China was inevitable.

The cabinet dispatched troops to Korea the same day, and Meiji instructed his military leaders, referring to them as his daimyōs (military lords), to establish a mechanism to handle wartime matters. On June 4, senior officers from each service, following the emperor’s guidance to cooperate, met at the war minister’s residence and, after haggling most of the day over command procedures, finally agreed to establish an imperial general headquarters in accordance with the 1893 regulations. The Chief of the Combined Staff, Prince Arisugawa, received imperial approval to open imperial headquarters in the general staff building on June 5, the same day the first echelon of the 5th Division mobilized for deployment to Korea.

During the almost two-month interval between the establishment of IGHQ and the declaration of war against China on August 1, the service staffs refined a two-stage operational plan. The 5th Division would prevent a Chinese advance in Korea while the navy eliminated the Chinese fleet in order to secure control of the seas. Phase two had multiple options contingent upon naval success. In the best-case scenario, the navy would defeat the Chinese fleet and secure control of the seas, which would allow the army free passage to land on Chinese soil and advance to the decisive battle on the Zhili plain. If neither navy could gain supremacy, the army would occupy Korea to exclude Chinese influence. If Japan lost control of the seas to the Chinese navy, this worst case foresaw attempts to rescue the beleaguered 5th Division in Korea while simultaneously strengthening homeland defenses to repulse a Chinese invasion. In other words, the army’s contingency plans were both offensive and defensive, depending on the outcome of the naval operations.

The government had initially moved cautiously. On June 2, Itō ordered the army to avoid clashes with Chinese, and Ōyama notified the 5th Division commander that his mission was to protect Japanese citizens and diplomatic outposts in Korea, not fight Chinese. Itō’s resolve hardened after Mutsu provided attaché reports in mid-June that the Russian forces in northeast Asia were too few in number to intervene militarily in Korea. With Russian intervention unlikely, the army unilaterally implemented its plan to land in Bohai Gulf in anticipation of a decisive battle on the Zhili plain.

Civilian ministers were not involved in the army’s planning and had to rely on the military’s professional expertise to prepare the nation for a possible war. Unfettered by civilian restraint, army generals likewise expected the navy to escort troop convoys to the continent, but had neither consulted with their naval counterparts beforehand nor considered the necessity of securing command of the sea before sending any transports. This haughtiness led to Captain Yamamoto Gonbei, the navy minister’s secretary, to remark caustically that if army engineers built a bridge between Kyūshū and Korea the generals could probably fight the campaign all by themselves.

On July 2 the full cabinet with the respective chiefs of staff present agreed on war. The first IGHQ imperial conference met in the palace on July 17 with the emperor and twelve senior officials, including the chief of the combined staff, the army vice chief of staff, the war and navy ministers, and the naval chief of staff in attendance. Privy Council Seal Yamagata was the only civilian in the room. Prime Minister Itō and Foreign Minister Mutsu then demanded the same access, and the emperor ordered the service chiefs to allow senior civilian officials to participate in IGHQ’s conferences, which convened every Tuesday and Friday. The general staff presented its operational plan to the emperor on August 5, and the same day IGHQ moved onto the palace grounds.

Emperor Meiji played a significant, if mostly symbolic, role in mobilizing the people for war. Despite his own reservations—allegedly remarking, “This is not my war”—he compliantly relocated along with IGHQ to Hiroshima, ostensibly to be closer to his troops fighting in Korea. Meiji always appeared in an army uniform at Hiroshima, the first time the image of the emperor as the supreme commander was consciously cultivated for the common people. He lived a Spartan existence to set an example for his subjects. His quarters had no separate bedroom, and each evening orderlies cleared a chair or desk as a place for him to sleep, evidently a sign of his willingness to share the deprivations of his loyal forces.

The army acted circumspectly in June and July, carefully developing a three-month campaign in anticipation that British mediation would end any fighting by October. In mid-August, the general staff’s main objective was to secure the Korean peninsula militarily before the arrival of winter weather. After China refused Japanese demands conveyed through the British, Itō resigned himself to a longer campaign and the necessity of a spring 1895 offensive. In mid-September IGHQ displaced to Hiroshima, where Itō could keep a closer eye on the field armies to ensure a unified national policy. Reminiscent of the Satsuma Rebellion, the imperial relocation hampered timely and effective liaison with the foreign ministry and the bureaucracy that remained behind in Tokyo.

Kawakami’s certitude in victory aside, the army hedged its bets by deploying troops overseas while simultaneously bolstering homeland garrisons and coastal defenses. Only after the September 17 naval Battle of the Yalu did IGHQ announce that the navy’s victory reduced the likelihood of invasion and release homeland defense garrisons to reorganize into infantry regiments. IGHQ still retained almost 100,000 mobilized reserves in Japan throughout the conflict, most of them engaged in logistics support duties.

The mobilized army grew to more than 220,000 men, including all seven regular divisions, which at wartime strength numbered about 125,000 personnel. The army relied more heavily on the reserves for its NCOs and infantrymen (40 percent of wartime NCOs and infantrymen were reservists) than for its junior officers (only 10 percent). Senior officers and division commanders were, with two exceptions, Boshin War veterans, as were most brigade commanders.

The campaigns of the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) may be described briefly. On June 12 a brigade from the 5th Division landed at Inchon, the port of Seoul, followed throughout the month by the rest of the unit. Peking ordered its small (500-man) force in Kunsan to withdraw to Pyongyang by sea on July 15, but the Chinese commander declared that course too dangerous, refused the order, and demanded reinforcements. Eight days later three transports carrying Chinese troops and equipment sailed for Korea.

On July 25 Captain Tōgō Heihachirō, commanding the armored cruiser Naniwa, intercepted the third transport as it approached the Korean coast. Although the Chinese ship was sailing under British registry and Japan and China were not at war, Tōgō sank the vessel. Soon afterward, Japanese and Chinese troops clashed near Kunsan, and on August 1 Japan officially declared war on China. By mid-August IGHQ concluded that a decisive battle on the Zhili plain was infeasible before the arrival of winter. Anticipating a short war, the army found itself in a prolonged struggle and commenced planning for a spring 1895 campaign.

The general staff’s objective was to secure the Korean peninsula militarily before the arrival of winter weather and then land forces near Shanhaiguan. The navy, however, was unable to bring the Chinese Northern Fleet into battle and in mid-August temporarily withdrew from the Yellow Sea to refit and replenish its warships. As a consequence, in late August the general staff ordered an overland advance on the Zhili plain via Korea and the capture of bases on the Laiodong Peninsula to prevent the Chinese forces from interfering with the drive on Peking.

IGHQ activated the First Army (two divisions) under Yamagata’s command on September 1, and in mid-September the First Army occupied Pyongyang as the Chinese retreated northward. The navy’s stunning September 17 victory in the Battle of the Yalu surprised everyone. Yamagata wrote that although the rapid fall of Pyongyang was unexpected, it paled next to the totally unforeseen naval triumph. Japan’s newly won maritime supremacy allowed Ōyama’s Second Army (three divisions and one brigade) to land unopposed in mid-October on the Liaodong Peninsula, about 100 miles north of Port Arthur (Lüshun), the great Chinese fortress that controlled entry to the Bohai Gulf.

Yamagata’s First Army pursued the Chinese across the Yalu River in late October, but by that time attention had shifted to Ōyama’s Second Army, which on November 8 occupied Dairen (Lüda). Spearheaded by Lt. Gen. Nogi’s 2d Division, the Second Army next seized the fortress and harbor at Port Arthur on November 25. Farther north, Yamagata’s offensive stalled, beset by supply problems and winter weather.

The western powers were caught off guard by the apparent ease of the Japanese victories, an impression the authorities in Tokyo encouraged. Foreign military observers attached to the respective armies and experts of all kinds attributed Japan’s success to its modernity and westernization. The obvious advantages of standardized doctrine, weapons, and equipment complemented a well-educated professional officer corps versed in western-style modern warfare, technologically proficient, and able to maneuver division-echelon forces. Well-organized and well-trained reserves were efficiently mobilized and confidently used. Superior Japanese morale, especially after the early victories, benefited from superb fighting spirit, or esprit, under the leadership of well-trained and capable junior officers and NCOs. Finally, the Japanese soldiers had a commitment (perhaps defined as nationalism) defined by specific objectives and accepted a common ethos that subscribed to a goal greater than individual or regional interests. But these strengths, the army’s hallmarks throughout its existence, masked serious structural flaws that might equally define the Japanese military institution. The most glaring shortcoming was the army’s logistics system.

Logistics tables and doctrine were based on homeland defense, not overseas operations, and the general staff had conducted no detailed logistics planning during the prewar period. Furthermore, in January 1894 Japan lacked sufficient shipping to move a single division overseas. The general staff purchased ten transports from foreign companies in mid-June, but chronic shortages compelled the army to charter more than 100 commercial vessels from the Japan Mail Line. The navy contributed twenty-three additional ships, including armed escorts, a hospital ship, and a repair vessel.

Persistent shipping bottlenecks delayed the Second Army’s landing on the Shandong Peninsula, which in turn was partly responsible for IGHQ’s decision to extend the campaign into the spring of 1895. Even after occupying Korea and the Liaodong Peninsula, the army still faced an uncertain, perhaps precarious, future because in March 1895 some 200,000 Chinese troops were reportedly massing on the Zhili plain. With available shipping committed to sustaining the expeditionary armies, the general staff in desperation deployed combat units to China with the promise that their unit equipment and supplies would follow eventually.

The army hired 153,000 civilian contractors, laborers, rickshaw men, and coolies to sustain its war machine, many of them desperate for any work because of the economic depression afflicting Japan. These auxiliaries were neither trained nor outfitted in military uniforms. Wearing bamboo hats, pale blue cotton jackets with tight-fitting sleeves under a happi coat with their unit’s number painted on it, and straw sandals, they looked like the coolies they were. Porters carried the army’s supplies on their backs, dug its fortifications, and accounted for most of its sanitary corps personnel. Thousands perished in the cold or from epidemics. Besides being exempt from military orders and discipline, contract laborers received extra pay for hazardous duty, causing resentment among soldiers, who did not get a bonus.

Koreans were reluctant to support the expeditionary army with labor or goods because they, like most disinterested western observers, initially doubted the small island nation could defeat the mighty Chinese empire. Forcibly impressed Korean coolies pilfered supply trains, by some accounts stealing 25 percent of the army’s rice stockpile. Korean porters and their Japanese counterparts deserted in droves, and in an extreme case an overwrought Japanese battalion commander took responsibility for the delays in moving supplies forward by committing suicide.

Available maps were of poor quality and often misleading about the condition of roads and rail lines. Trusting the map, no one had reconnoitered the rail line between Pusan and Seoul that in places was impassable, forcing bearers to portage supplies and further delaying resupply. The main road to Seoul, shown clearly on maps, was little more than a narrow, poorly graded dirt track that meandered through mountains and into valleys. Water-filled rice paddies along either side reduced traffic to a single file that moved at the pace of the slowest wagon.

When available, the wartime daily ration consisted of polished white rice, meat, vegetables, Japanese pickles, and condiments. The field ration contained dried boiled rice, tinned meat, and salt. Soldiers also foraged for food and confiscated chickens, cattle, and pigs from Chinese and Korean households. Various food combinations were tested, but none was superior to dried boiled rice and a hardtack biscuit for the emergency field ration. Paradoxically, the chaotic logistics situation determined the Japanese decision to attack Pyongyang. After reaching Seoul, the First Army was so desperate for food that troops had slaughtered the oxen that had pulled their now empty supply wagons. Officers exhorted the soldiers to capture Pyongyang with promises of mountains of Chinese rations awaiting them. Besides these logistics problems, epidemic outbreaks hampered operations.

There were about 3,500 sanitary corps troops, two-thirds of them reservists, and the army had to hire large numbers of contract workers to carry litters, dig latrines, and construct field hospitals. Maintaining a potable water supply under field conditions was probably their most difficult task. Sanitary teams purified water from wells, streams, and rivers, and officers forbade troops from drinking the water in train stations or port terminals and instructed units to boil water before using it for cooking or brewing tea. Despite these efforts, there was an outbreak of cholera in the army for the first time since 1890.

On paper, each division established six field hospitals that served as treatment and collection points, but because of the shortage of sanitary troops about half that number of field hospitals were built. Military doctors and pharmacists were too scarce to treat the epidemic outbreaks. Opiates used in anesthesia were a controlled government monopoly, and the army had to negotiate with the Home Ministry to purchase 80 percent of the nation’s annual supply. To relieve the burden on doctors and sanitary corps personnel, army instructors trained conscripts in field sanitation procedures and basic nursing skills. The government rallied soldiers’ relief organizations under the umbrella of the Japan Red Cross. Nevertheless, the scale of even a very limited war had almost overwhelmed a medical corps that had to resort to temporary emergency measures to compensate for a lack of planning, intergovernmental coordination, and proper stockpiles.

Battlefield Performance and Discipline

Japanese infantrymen fought as they had trained. Massed columns facilitated rapid mobility during the approach to the enemy. Upon contact, the columns maneuvered into a skirmish line supported by densely packed ranks of riflemen who rushed forward en masse for a short distance, threw themselves on the ground, and then repeated the maneuver. Junior officers led frontal assaults in short rushes and supported by light artillery. The tightly packed formations preserved unit integrity and fire discipline, ensured tactical command and control, and created the mass and momentum for a successful assault. The Japanese consistently took advantage of terrain to mask their movements and rushes but were willing to cross open ground to get at their objectives.

The army compiled no comprehensive analysis of its wartime campaigns to derive “lessons learned,” although postwar reports by the frontline infantry units did identify deficiencies. The esprit de corps established among individual squads in an infantry company, for example, improved unit cohesion in battle, but individual companies were reluctant to sacrifice their solidity to support a neighboring unit, thus reducing overall aggressiveness and effort. The peacetime pace of the attack in training proved too rapid to be maintained in combat conditions, and when soldiers could not sustain the training tempo, their morale fell. Troop morale also wilted under heavy enemy fire, particularly when nearby comrades were killed or wounded. The revised 1898 infantry manual nevertheless validated massed formations relying on bayonet attacks because that was the only way for a company commander to control his unit. It devoted great attention to fighting spirit and morale because the army deemed these intangible qualities the keys to victory. As a consequence, postwar training became more demanding on the theory that enduring physical hardship would develop willpower that conscripts could draw upon to sustain their morale and discipline in the turmoil of battle.

The army suffered 1,161 killed in action, including 44 officers and 118 NCOs. With the Japanese constantly on the offensive, the retreating Chinese had little chance to take prisoners and captured just eleven Japanese, ten of them overage porters. The only soldier taken prisoner was suffering from a head wound. Officers actively discouraged the notion of surrender, warning the troops of the terrible fate that awaited them in Chinese hands. Yamagata, for instance, cautioned his officers not to allow themselves to be taken prisoner because the innately cruel Chinese would kill them. Instead, it was the Japanese who committed the worst atrocity.

The New York World reported in late November that Japanese troops had massacred as many as 60,000 Chinese during a four-day period following the capture of Port Arthur. More conservative recent estimates are that about 2,000 Chinese were killed, apparently in retaliation for Chinese soldiers mutilating Japanese corpses. Whatever the numbers, there was no doubt that something dreadful had happened at Port Arthur, despite the Japanese government’s vigorous denials.

Foreign Minister Mutsu’s memoirs dismissed the reports as “exaggerated” but acknowledged that “some unnecessary bloodshed and killing did occur.” He believed some provocation had occurred and that most of those killed were Chinese soldiers out of uniform. Two weeks after the incident, Ōyama admitted that in the confusion of street fighting it was difficult to avoid killing civilians who were intermingled among the Chinese soldiers.

The Japanese government would later claim that numerous Chinese soldiers refused to surrender, discarded their uniforms for mufti, and were killed during mopping up operations. Yet the cabinet held no inquiries because an investigation might embarrass the army by implicating senior officers in war crimes. The cabinet’s underlying fear was that a trail of responsibility might lead to Ōyama’s headquarters and force his recall. If that happened, Yamagata would take command of all field forces, an outcome neither Itō nor Mutsu wanted.

The government also tried to conceal the massacre because it tarnished Japan’s image in world opinion as a civilized nation that the foreign ministry had burnished during ongoing negotiations for treaty revision. Commanders had issued strict orders to protect westerners, especially missionaries, for two reasons. First, they wanted to avoid provocations that might lead to western intervention; second, they wanted to demonstrate that Japan was a civilized nation that respected western standards of international law, which in turn would further the government’s efforts to revise the unequal treaty system.

A double standard, suffused with attitudes of racial superiority toward the Chinese, likely contributed to the massacre at Port Arthur. Expecting a rich and cultured civilization, Japanese soldiers were disillusioned when they saw firsthand the filthy conditions and hardscrabble existence of impoverished Chinese. Admiration turned to contempt and debasement. These perceptions dovetailed with notions of Japan’s uniqueness and superiority to produce popular racial stereotypes of the Chinese and China as a decaying civilization.

Army discipline reflected the larger society’s propensity to settle disputes privately without recourse to formal courts or tribunals. Moreover, the army’s concept of military discipline applied to ensuring offensive spirit and obedience to orders, not to disciplining the ranks in a formal fashion. Field courts-martial boards convened 2,000 cases during the war, more than 70 percent of which were to try civilians working for the army. About 500 soldiers, almost all conscripts, were convicted by courts-martial, mostly for petty offenses. Among the more serious charges, just six soldiers were convicted for assault on a superior officer, and eleven were convicted for desertion. Army discipline so strictly applied to punish transgressions against military regulations or commanders’ orders was not invoked to control soldiers’ outrages against helpless Chinese. For an army that made a fetish of discipline and unquestioning obedience to orders, the incident implied that officers throughout the chain of command were either complicit in or condoned the massacre.

Newspapers scarcely mentioned the alleged massacre. At the outbreak of the war, IGHQ had accredited more than 120 reporters, artists, and photographers to cover the fighting and assigned them to army headquarters under strict guidelines. The home ministry’s censorship ensured compliance, but there was little to worry about because the correspondents became cheerleaders for the war and the military. Higher literacy rates, at least in the major cities, and improved printing technology extended their influence. Newspapers published extras, evening editions, and multiple editions that romanticized and popularized the war. During the immediate postwar period, numerous published accounts—some real, most fictional—enjoyed great popularity serialized in newspapers and the newly created monthly magazines.

Japan To Asia: The Sino-Japanese War III

The popular narratives of warfare suited the army’s self-image and were part of a more general appeal to the literate public to support the armed institution. A credulous press abetted the army’s propaganda effort, and potential critics always faced the threat of censorship or worse. Still, in an era when imperialism and nationalism were in full bloom internationally, uncritical patriotism was not only easier and safer but also more accurately reflected widely held and accepted popular opinions of Japan’s place in the world.

High Command and Field Initiative

In theory the IGHQ unified civil-military functions as the place where the emperor, his military chieftains, and Prime Minister Itō devised national and military policy. In reality the central headquarters was pitted against ambitious field commanders who unilaterally tried to set military policy. Against their better judgment, Itō and army leaders bowed to Yamagata’s insistence that he be appointed the First Army commander. By the time 56-year-old Yamagata arrived at Inchon on September 12, the First Army had already captured Pyongyang. A few days later he caught cold while bathing in a river, developed complications, and although chronically ill refused evacuation and participated in a minor engagement on the Yalu in late October.

By early November, Yamagata believed that the war had reached a critical stage, and he had no intention of squandering opportunities by remaining idle.65 On November 3 he sent IGHQ three options for an active winter campaign: (1) land the Second Army at Shanhaiguan; (2) combine the First and Second armies on the Liaodong Peninsula; or (3) send the First Army to attack Mukden (Shenyang). From a base at Mukden, Yamagata would reorganize his army for the spring offensive against Peking and check the resurgence of Chinese forces in the region. IGHQ rejected the recommendations and ordered the First Army into winter quarters.

In mid-November, Yamagata received intelligence that the Chinese were massing on his northern flank and again recommended an offensive. He complained that the enforced inactivity had dampened troop morale, allowed the Chinese to take advantage of the lull to improve their defenses, and conceded to the Chinese a secure rear area in Manchuria that Japan would need in order to fight the Zhili plain battle. IGHQ replied ambiguously but did not reject his latest recommendations outright.

The Second Army’s capture of Port Arthur in late November with fewer than 300 casualties was all the more impressive because the army had publicly implied that it would be a hard fight with heavy losses. Yamagata likely realized that the striking victory had overshadowed his command, and, anxious to secure his place as a martial leader, disregarded IGHQ’s operational guidance to avoid large-scale winter operations. On December 1, he unilaterally ordered the First Army to advance on Mukden, expecting to divide Chinese forces and open the way for a decisive battle the following spring. The IGHQ learned of his offensive four days later, by which time it had abandoned any plans to attack Peking because of fear of western intervention. The central headquarters, however, had not notified a frustrated and sick Yamagata of its changed thinking. In short, neither the general staff nor the First Army knew what the other was doing.

Yamagata expected to draw supplies from Japanese depots at Pyongyang, but planners had calculated on sustaining the First Army in static winter quarters, where it would need fewer, not more, supplies. Furthermore, the logistics line of communication was in disarray despite the IGHQ’s efforts to add thousands of supply wagons and tens of thousands more teamsters and laborers. Yamagata’s frail condition added another variable.

Yamagata had never recovered his health, suffered further complications from stomach trouble and diarrhea, and in November was so ill that the First Army’s surgeon-general suggested that he return home to recuperate. Soon afterward several reports reached Vice War Minister and concurrently Military Affairs Bureau Director Maj. Gen. Kodama describing Yamagata’s deteriorating physical condition and the fear that his weakened constitution might not survive the harsh winter. Prime Minister Itō was reluctant to recall Yamagata, concerned that the embarrassment might force the proud ex-samurai to commit suicide. He thus bypassed the cabinet and had the emperor write to Yamagata on November 29 expressing concern for his health and requesting his return to Hiroshima to brief the court on the overall military situation. An imperial envoy departed Hiroshima on December 5 carrying Meiji’s message, but it took him three days to reach Yamagata’s headquarters.

Yamagata eventually returned to Hiroshima on December 17, by which time the First Army’s offensive was well under way, pulling it farther and farther from its supply depots. Although the initial push succeeded, by mid-December the plunging temperatures froze Manchurian roads, making it slow and hazardous for horse-drawn wagons to move along the slippery ice-coated surfaces. Frozen rivers could bear the weight of a column of troops, but not the weight of their horses and wagons. Most soldiers had no winter clothing and faced the howling winds and blizzard conditions in their summer uniforms, tattered by months of campaigning. Respiratory diseases reached epidemic proportions. Many troops had not received boots and were still wearing straw sandals or low quarter shoes that left them susceptible to frostbite.

Itō’s revised strategy, issued on December 14, called for the capture of the Chinese naval base at Weihaiwei on the Shandong Peninsula to prevent surviving North Fleet warships from interfering with Japanese shipping in the Bohai Gulf. The fortress overlooking the naval base was taken on February 2, 1895, although Maj. Gen. Ōtera Yasuzumi, commander of the 11th Infantry Brigade, was killed in the fighting, the only Japanese general officer lost in action during the war. The Chinese fleet, caught between Ōyama’s army and the Japanese navy’s blockade, surrendered its few intact warships by mid-February. In Manchuria, the First Army, under new command, defeated Chinese forces, leading to negotiations that produced the Treaty of Shimonoseki, signed on April 17, 1895.

The treaty compelled China to recognize Korea as an “independent state,” pay a large indemnity, and cede to Japan control of the Liaodong Peninsula, railroad concessions rights in southern Manchuria, and Taiwan. Just six days later Russia, Germany, and France forced Japan to return the Liaodong Peninsula. The Tripartite Intervention shocked the Japanese public, who were still elated by the outcome of the war, and made it painfully clear that Japan, though a regional power to be reckoned with, remained at the mercy of the West. A sense of national humiliation was palpable, and a determination emerged, encouraged by the government, to avenge this wrong. The immediate object of Japanese passion was Russia, seen as the ringleader in the intervention and the inevitable future enemy.

Postwar Gains and Problems

Japan’s acquisition of Taiwan and Japanese special interests in Korea had serious unforeseen consequences. On May 25, 1895, indigenous Taiwanese had declared an independent republic, and an estimated 50,000 insurgents, concentrated in the southern part of the island, took up arms. Four days later the Guards Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Prince Kitashirakawa, landed unopposed in northern Taiwan, where the Chinese governor-general and the 9,000-man Chinese garrison promptly surrendered. The Japanese opened a new governor-general headquarters in Taipei on June 2 and requested immediate reinforcements to crush the rebellion. The Guards and the 2d Division—almost 50,000 troops, supported by 26,000 civilian contractors—conducted a punitive campaign against the rebel strongholds and by the end of October declared Taiwan secure, although counterinsurgency operations continued until March 1896. About 700 Japanese troops were killed or wounded fighting the guerrillas, but epidemics claimed 20,000 more, among them Prince Kitashirakawa. Punitive expeditions to suppress armed uprisings continued until 1907, and thereafter army and police cordon operations enforced a nervous peace with the indigenous mountain tribes. Tokyo gradually reduced its military presence and formed the Taiwan Garrison, eventually reorganized in 1907 as the permanent table of organization and equipment (TO&E) formation, consisting of two infantry regiments, each with a mountain artillery company.

After 1895 the Japanese government became more active in Korea, where decade-long internal power struggles had aligned court factions with Japanese, Chinese, or Russian sponsors. Tokyo attempted to solidify paramount Japa-nese influence in Korea through diplomacy, loans, and the creation of a Japanese-trained military force (kunrentai) of about 800 men to counterbalance the American- and Russian-trained palace guard. In September 1895, Miura Gorō, then a member of the House of Peers, was appointed minister to Seoul, the senior Japanese official in the country. Miura was unwilling to allow Russian predominance at Japanese expense, but his efforts backfired in early October when the Korean queen engineered a court order that dissolved the kunrentai.

In Miura’s mind this was the first step in a court-based conspiracy to assassinate pro-Japanese senior officials in the Korean government, which would likely be followed by requests for Russian intervention to restore order. Miura staged his own countercoup on October 8 when a gang of more than twenty Japanese and Korean cutthroats broke into the palace, murdered the queen, and burned her corpse in a nearby wood. Miura first notified Tokyo that no Japanese were involved in the crime, but foreign ambassadors soon revealed Japanese culpability. The foreign ministry recalled Miura and about forty other Japanese while Itō assured the western powers that Miura had acted independently without instructions from the cabinet.

The queen’s murder touched off an explosion of anti-Japanese violence in Korea, where local peasant militias led by Confucian-educated gentry murdered several Japanese residents. The Korean king dismissed pro-Japanese officials, executed the Korean conspirators, and requested Russian assistance. In February 1896, Russian troops entered Seoul. Around the same time, about 100 Japanese sailors went ashore to restore order on the Pusan-Seoul highway and protect the Japanese-owned telegraph lines against sabotage. A May agreement between the Japanese and the Russians allowed the stationing of small matching garrisons in Seoul and Pusan, ostensibly to protect Japanese residents and property.

Ejecting China from Korea destabilized northeast Asia by exposing the military weakness of the Chinese empire and touching off a scramble among the imperialistic western powers to carve up East Asia and Pacific territories. In 1897 the United States annexed Hawaii and Germany occupied Tsingtao, China. The following year the United States moved into the Philippines. By mid-1898 Britain had leased Weihaiwei after the Japanese withdrawal as well as the New Territories. The looming Russian threat most concerned the Japanese government, which relied on diplomacy to defuse it.

The Nishi-Rosen Agreement signed in Tokyo on April 25, 1898, stipulated that neither Japan nor Russia would appoint military instructors or financial advisers to Korea without prior mutual agreement. Russia further agreed not to hinder the development of Japanese commercial and industrial relations with Korea. Russia withdrew its military and financial advisers following the agreement, but it still occupied Port Arthur, reinforced Manchuria, and expanded its financial stake in northeast Asia. In 1899 Britain and Germany divided the Samoa archipelago and Germany occupied various South Seas territories, the Bismarcks, New Guinea, and the Caroline Islands. Russia continued to push deeper into Manchuria and was double-tracking the Trans-Siberian Railway, which was scheduled for completion in 1903.

Japan retained its privileged position in Korea and acquired a new colony of Taiwan. There was no dispute about the government’s responsibility to protect Japanese interests in Korea against Russian encroachments. Taiwan’s position, however, was ambiguous. Did the island anchor Japan’s southernmost defenses, or was it a springboard for offensive expansion into China and points south? Should the empire passively defend Korea and shift resources to Taiwan for a southward expansion, or was Korea a base to move into southern Manchuria and North China? The army had to confront the new regional and strategic realities, a proposition made more difficult because the western powers now identified Japan as a serious competitor in northeast Asia. The course of Japan’s expansion—north or south—plagued strategy formulation for the next fifty years and was the nation’s strategic legacy from the Sino-Japanese War.

Postwar Army Plans

On April 15, 1895, two days before the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, Yamagata, recently appointed war minister and concurrently inspector general, recommended to Emperor Meiji a ten-year military expansion to protect Japan’s newly acquired overseas territory. Ten days previously, Yamagata had made a similar proposal to Foreign Minister Mutsu because Japan needed a larger army in order to maintain stability in East Asia. Though Yamagata was a geopolitical thinker who grasped Japan’s strengths and weaknesses and trusted his innate caution to guide the nation and army through its formative period, he was not a professionally educated officer. He displayed a narrow grasp of modern combined arms warfare and had little understanding of the rapid technological advances that were revolutionizing the role of field artillery in warfare. Military expansion simply meant more troops, and he wanted to double the infantry strength of each division without proportionate increases to artillery and supporting branches. Put differently, Yamagata wanted bigger, not more, divisions.

The general staff likewise wanted to expand the army, but in a more balanced and professional manner. Its approved October plan called for a thirteen-division force structure, and in 1896 the general staff incorporated the thirteen-division troop basis into wartime contingency planning premised on forward offensive operations to preserve or expand overseas interests. Army expansion began in 1898, according to an amended plan to field six new divisions, two new cavalry brigades, and two new field artillery brigades. One brigade (two regiments) from each regular division formed the cadre for a new division. The two regiments of the remaining brigade were divided into cadre to create two brigades (the existing one and a newly organized one). The process took three years, incrementally adding cadre and conscripts to bring the new regiments to their full 1,800-man peacetime strength, and was operational by 1903. Each regular division also organized a depot brigade responsible during wartime for garrisoning occupied territories. Depot units were usually issued obsolete weapons and equipment.

Almost doubling the force structure likewise nearly doubled the conscription rate. By 1904 the army was inducting almost 20 percent of the annual cohort and assigning double the number of those examined to the reserves (see Tables 5.2 and 5.3).

More junior officers were needed to lead the expanded ranks, and in 1897 the army opened six regional preparatory cadet schools to complement the army central preparatory school in Tokyo. Accepting junior cadets between 13 and 15 years of age, the preparatory schools charged six yen a month for expenses, which effectively limited the entrants to sons of middle-class families who could afford the tuition. Each school had about fifty cadets per class enrolled in a three-year preparatory course that consisted of a standard middle-school education except for the emphasis on foreign languages and overdose of instruction on military spirit. Graduates matriculated to the eighteen-month main course at the central preparatory academy. Critics maintained that the school’s narrow curriculum stunted students’ intellectual curiosity, fostered excessive competition and cliques, and produced martinets. Because graduates from the preparatory schools also matriculated at the military academy, the average academy graduating class mushroomed from about 155 between 1890 and 1894 to 663 between 1897 and 1904. Likewise, the staff college more than doubled its annual graduating classes, from twenty to about fifty officers.

Modernization accompanied the expansion. In 1897 Murata’s redesign of his original rifle produced a five-shot repeating rifle with a smaller, lighter 6.5 mm round that enabled the infantry to carry more ammunition in their cartridge belts (between 150 and 180 rounds). The increased rate of fire compensated for the bullet’s alleged lack of killing power and shorter effective range. The general staff and war ministry wanted an artillery gun mobile enough to keep pace with a fast-paced infantry advance and capable of moving across the primitive road networks and tracks of northeast Asia. With new modifications and technological advances in artillery weapons occurring in Europe at breakneck speed, any investment in artillery was a gamble because imminent breakthroughs might soon render today’s wonder weapon obsolete by tomorrow.

The case of the Type-31 artillery gun is illustrative. This 1898 model was a rapid-fire gun whose carriage absorbed the recoil. Because the gun did not move with the recoil, it did not have to be manhandled back into its original firing position after each firing, allowing for a more rapid and accurate rate of fire. It suffered developmental problems, forcing the army to import more than 600 semi-processed field artillery guns and their equipment (gun carriages, ammunition caissons) from German manufacturers. Within a few years, however, the superior range and higher rate of fire of the Russian 1904 field artillery gun made the German guns obsolete. In October 1904 the Japanese government had to strike a secret deal with German industrialists for 400 of their latest-model field artillery guns.

Following the Sino-Japanese War the army gradually changed to a khaki uniform because the color showed fewer stains, particularly the bloodstains that had adversely affected troop morale during combat. At the time of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion soldiers still wore white trousers, but four years later everyone was outfitted in khaki. The army also adopted high boots and gaiters to prevent a recurrence of frostbite and trench foot experienced during the Sino-Japanese War. Individual soldiers were issued rain capes as well as aluminum canteens and mess kits. Blankets remained in short supply because Japan’s woolen mills could not fill the demand.

Postwar military budgets skyrocketed; in 1898 more than half the national budget went toward underwriting military expansion and modernization, a process made more expensive because the navy was simultaneously modernizing its fleet. The military budget of 1896 was 73 million yen—more than three times that of 1893—and in the peak year of 1900 it exceeded 100 million yen. The army invested about half its budget to pay the greatly increased personnel costs associated with additional manpower and about one-quarter to pay for weapons. The navy conversely used more than two-thirds of its budget to pay for new capital ships (almost quadrupling its tonnage by 1902) and only one-sixth in personnel because its manpower was only one-quarter that of the army. By 1903 military spending accounted for about one-third of the national budget. It remained at that level for almost the next twenty years.

The cabinet funded the expansion program through a combination of reparations paid by the Chinese after the Sino-Japanese War, the sale of bonds, foreign loans, and increased consumption taxes. These measures enabled the government to reduce the land tax slightly and gain the political parties’ approval for the budget. The Russian threat and the imperialist race to gobble up China motivated the Diet’s passage of huge military budgets, but politicians also took bribes, accepted a large pay raise for lower house members, gained access to patronage appointments, and enacted franchise reforms in exchange for their votes. Large military expenditures continued even during the financial panics of 1897–1898 and 1900–1901, in part because the government tapped into citizens’ postal savings accounts when its bonds were downgraded on the world market (see Table 5.4).

There was good reason to spend the money. Northeast Asia at the turn of the twentieth century was a powder keg waiting to explode. The Japanese military was in the midst of rearmament, expansion, and modernization to counter the Russian military threat in northeast Asia, but the services were divided over a north or south approach to long-term strategy. Korea was a strategic liability, its people hostile to Japan, its rulers untrustworthy, and the peninsula insecure as a rear area base. China verged on chaos as the old regime vainly struggled against internal reformers and external aggressors. Russia was a menacing presence in Manchuria and had staked out a strategic position on the Liaodong Peninsula. Japan’s military goals for regional supremacy and stability in northeast Asia mirrored Russia’s objectives and set the two empires on a collision course. These competing and irreconcilable versions of regional security made the war with a major western power inevitable.