Of all the soldiers who fought in the Second World War, none were treated worse by their own leaders than the Japanese.
Japanese soldiers were expected to put up with hardship under which modern militaries would crumble, while back home, the higher-ups squabbled and bickered over Japan’s dwindling resources.
In this article, we shed light on the true scale of the dysfunction in the Japanese military.
During the entire Second World War, the Empire of Japan suffered 2.3 million military casualties. But most of these people weren’t killed in combat. The lowest estimates place the percentage of total deaths caused by starvation and related disease at 60%, well over one million. Many historians place the percentage much higher.
Why did so many Japanese soldiers starve to death?
The issue supplied. Japanese troops were cut off from their bases of supply more often than any other force. In Japan’s ill-fated invasion of India from Japanese-occupied Burma, General Mutaguchi initially had pack animals haul his heavy weapons and ammunition. But these pack animals were also his army’s supply of protein, and when they had all been eaten, soldiers had to haul artillery pieces themselves. They also relied on capturing Allied supplies, which worked only as long as Allied bases fell to their advance. All it took was one particularly stubborn defense at the Battle of the Admin Box for starvation to set in among the Japanese.
Interestingly, the British had faced similar shortages in the early stages of the Burma Campaign. What did they do? They retreated.
Rather than risk their men going hungry, the British pulled back closer to rear echelon supply bases. Mutaguchi did the opposite. He ordered his soldiers to fight harder. Within weeks of his invasion, his divisional commanders were retreating without orders; over half their number had already starved to death.
Similar issues pervaded the Japanese in the Pacific. Allied submarines proved particularly effective in destroying Japanese supply ships, and those that managed to avoid them were often sunk by aircraft. Japanese shipyards didn’t have the resources to replace these losses, so, as the war went on, Japanese forces farther away from the Home Islands were increasingly left to their fate.
From Soldiers to Farmers
Under conditions that would have forced other generals to fall back and regroup, the Japanese toughed it out. Perhaps the most ludicrous example of this was at Rabaul on the island of New Britain, just east of New Guinea.
Roughly 100,000 Japanese soldiers garrisoned here in 1942 were completely cut off from their bases in Japan, but they didn’t starve. On the contrary, they ate better than most of the soldiers serving
elsewhere in Japanese-occupied territories.
Their solution to the food problem was total self-sufficiency.
Many of the Imperial Japanese Army’s conscripts had been either farmers or fishermen before the war. When they were cut off in Rabaul, they simply resumed their previous trades. Unskilled soldiers were put to work clearing jungle while farmers sowed rice and vegetables in the newly cleared fields.
A special brigade was also put together to go fishing each day, supplying the men with protein. Additionally, surplus vegetables were traded for the locals’ chickens and pigs. Within a year, the Japanese garrison in Rabaul had become a community of subsistence farmers and fishermen. This was confirmed by a report from the Netherlands Forces Intelligence Service.
“Opportunities for living off the land have been extensively explored and developed, with a resultant economy … as well as a probable dietary improvement. Vegetable gardens are found wherever Japanese Army Units are stationed. This is convincingly verified by the aerial photographs which reveal extensive garden clearings in the occupied sections of Bougainville and New Britain.”
The transformation of an enemy military base into a farming community bemused the Allies, and they largely left the Japanese to it.
But how dysfunctional does your supply situation have to be for this to become the best solution?
Command and Control
While issues with supply developed during the course of the war, other issues were present right from the start. One of these was Japanese command and control, or complete lack thereof.
Militaries go through phases of strategic thinking.
Some ideas will be picked up at the right time and go on to become doctrine, only to be supplanted a decade or two later by the next big idea. In the 1930s, the Imperial Japanese Army was overcome by an idea called “Gekokujo.” This term doesn’t fully translate to English, but its closest approximation is “insubordination” or “domination of a senior by a junior.”
This has largely been left out of the official narrative of the war.
Imperial Japan is seen as fiercely hierarchical, and to some degree it was, but that didn’t stop lower-grade officers from pursuing their own goals instead of supporting their governments.
The best example of this phenomenon was operations carried out by the Japanese Kwantung Army in occupied Manchuria. This force comprised Japan’s most battle-hardened troops, and their officers were out for glory. Orders from Army high command were considered to be no more than guidelines, and they laughed at their instructions from the civilian government in Tokyo. Field-grade officers took charge of all operations, including settling disputes on the border with the Soviet Union.
For any other country, letting captains and majors decide foreign policy against the wishes of the central government would be tantamount to mutiny. But in the spirit of Gekokujo, Tokyo accepted it.
They continued accepting it even after the Kwantung Army deliberately started wars with Mongolia, the Soviet Union, and Nationalist China. Rather than admit their failures, the army declared that to pull out would damage morale and undermine the sacrifice of their men.
This effectively barred the civilian ministers from controlling the army and forced the actions of hot-headed officers on the Empire’s frontier to be retroactively endorsed. As if that wasn’t enough, the generals declared that, as the Emperor was the ceremonial head of the military, only he could tell them what to do.
Imperial Japan had effectively lost control of its army before the Second World War properly began. But the dysfunction doesn’t stop there.
Research and development are absolutely critical in times of war. New weapons and better equipment could mean the difference between a tremendous victory or a catastrophic defeat.
The Japanese knew this, of course, but instead of combining their resources and scientific knowledge, they divided it.
The Imperial Japanese Army and Imperial Japanese Navy had separate R&D programs, the results of which they guarded jealously. Before the war, Japanese researchers had made great leaps in radar technology, and both the Army and Navy were interested in its military applications.
Both had about 300 researchers working on the project in separate parts of the same building.
The researchers were forbidden from talking to their counterparts, and no information was shared between them. Though they had started out ahead, by the end of the war, Japanese radar technology was three to five years behind the Allies’.
The story was the same in the manufacturing plants.
Captain Wennacker, the German military attache in Tokyo, recalled,
“During a tour of the Nakajima aircraft plant, I was first guided by several naval officers around the navy’s development and manufacturing division of the plant. At the conclusion of the tour, the navy men opened a door that had been kept tightly closed. Here the naval officers bade me good-bye, and on the other side of the door a group of army officers took me on a tour of their section of the plant, an area to which the navy officers had no access.”
The petty rivalry between the army and navy seriously hamstrung Imperial Japan’s scientific and technological advancement both before and during World War II. If they had put their differences aside and worked together, who knows what they might have achieved.
Facing this level of dysfunction, what Imperial Japan managed to accomplish in the Second World War is genuinely incredible. No other country’s soldiers were forced to become farmers because of constant food shortages, no other country had junior officers drawing their own borders with world powers, and no other country squandered its technological and scientific capabilities so efficiently as the Imperial Japanese.
But what do YOU think? Where else do YOU think did Imperial Japanese dysfunction manifested?
Which of these sins do YOU think is the worst? What do YOU think Imperial Japan would have achieved had they put aside their squabbling? Let us know in the comments!