How strict was Japanese Army Discipline? - Axis History Forum

How strict was Japanese Army Discipline?

Discussions on all aspects of the Japanese Empire, from the capture of Taiwan until the end of the Second World War. Hosted by Hisashi.
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Postby rcocean » 20 Jan 2010 19:39

I never read of about the Japanese Army shooting their own soldiers for desertion or disobeying orders like the Heer or the Red Army. IRC, the Heer shot 12,000-15,000 of its own soldiers and Red Army shot tens of thousands in the Stalingrad Campaign alone. Certainly, the Japanese officers & NCO's slapped and beat subordinates.

Did the the Japanese have numerous executions, "penal battalions" or blocking units? If not, was this because the Japanese didn't enforce discipline in a draconian way? Or because the Japanese were such so good at motivation and training, harsh discipline was unneeded? Or was it because the Japanese never had to raise a true mass Army full of drafted Civilians and commit it to large scale combat?

Any thoughts or information would be appreciated.

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Postby cstunts » 21 Jan 2010 21:47


IMO this would have been just about unthinkable in the culture of the Japanese military. A Japanese soldier, generally speaking--and I mean just as a generalization, nothing more--would have preferred to die rather than refuse to fight. The Japanese culture of the time was such that failure to do one's duty in the military (one of the three great "obligations" impressed upon every individual Japanese) or make every possible effort to do so would have been more painful than death to most. This is a very difficult matter to quantify for our rationalist-loving Western minds, it seems to me, but after having read & studied many, many Japanese veterans' accounts of their experiences in Dai Toa Senso, it is definitely my belief.

Discipline was extremely tough, nonetheless. However, it was predicated not upon abuse so much as upon shaming the individual into fearing failure more than death. In few cultures is the will to make every conceivable effort more deeply rooted than in the Japanese, I think. This is still apparent today in everything from sports to interpersonal dealings.

Both structurally and culturally the Imperial Japanese military (IJA and IJN) evinced a more collective mode of responsibility, and this led to more decentralisation as well. This fact--and it is a fact--is still not properly grasped by many buffs or historians even now, and that is unfortunate. It explains much that might appear incomprehensibly mysterious otherwise.

Failure was often a personal perception rather than a military fact; thus GEN Yamashita ended upon exiled to Manchuria or some remote place until the war's end was nearing; GEN Homma was considered a failure, and removed; RADM Tanaka lost his command, and VADMs Nagumo and Takagi were shunted off to the backwater of Saipan with trivial responsbilities in comparison with their earlier commands, etc.

The Japanese did raise enormous masses of civilians for their armies, etc. BTW. I am not certain it was structured or perceived as a Draft as ours was, but AFAIK military service certainly wasn't optional...The Japanese economy & society in general had been on what amounted to a wartime footing since the mid-1930s, in effect.


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Postby rcocean » 22 Jan 2010 02:10

Thanks for response, CS. Everything you say makes a lot of sense. Basically, the nature of Japanese society rendered "penal Battalions" and executions unnecessary. I wonder how deep the historical roots of the "no surrender" policy was. IOW, was it ingrained in Japanese society or was it "helped along" by massive propaganda and schooling.

My comment on civilians in the Army was trying to differentiate between the Soviet/German situation from the Japanese one. Yes, Japan was at war from 1937 on, but IRC they had lost only 100,000 KIA in China by 12-7-41 and their army in China only numbered a couple million. In the USSR and Germany you had societies that had to draft every able man under the age of 35 and put them in combat. Millions were killed or disabled and both sides experienced defeat on a massive scale - you had large scale land fighting for four years. The Japanese OTOH sent what a 1.5 million men (?) overseas to fight the Anglo-Americans. The Japanese army grew enormously in the last year, but I think most the men stayed in China/Japan/Formosa, etc.

Sorry for the rambling response.

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Postby cstunts » 22 Jan 2010 05:19


"IOW, was it ingrained in Japanese society or was it "helped along" by massive propaganda and schooling."

IMO, both. Definitely.
And the roots of Japan's wartime economy and social order predate Dai Toa Senso by well over half a decade. Giant maneuvers involving military and civil forces in Japan proper to test largescale mobilization schemes dated back to the 1920s.

One other essential thing that is not properly grasped is the martial nature of Japan itself, and not merely in the period of her great leap forward from the 1870s on...The history of Japan's wars doesn't merely go back a few centuries. It goes back millenia. This was a nation much acclimated to warfare, justly proud of its military culture and heritage, and with tremendously subtle and complex relationships--often of a "tribal" (I mean regional) nature--governing its military, political, economic & civilian sectors. Yet, withal, of a far greater social homogeneity--in every sense--than any other Asian nation in that period.
One might see in this the basis for their feelings of kinship with the Imperial British--two proud peoples, that is--and with good reason. There are similarities, although I won't press the analogy too far.

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Postby Ron Sundby » 27 Jan 2010 03:26

I am going to venture a somewhat expanded explanation of the high level of discipline in the Japanese society during WWII, slanted toward making it easier for westerners to understand. This is material I used in a research paper submitted in 2007 for a graduate level history class. I apologize if it is a bit long and would welcome any criticism from our forum members from Japan who obviously know much more about this than I do.

The basis for such a disciplined society in Japan, and hence such a disciplined military, was a Japanese philosophy called Kokutai.“Kokutai is generally translated as ‘national polity’; it implies the inseparability of religion, state, and society.” (Royama Masamichi & Takeuchi Tatsuji, The Philippine Polity: A Japanese View, New Haven, Yale University 1967.) That is certainly unique in comparison to western political philosophies which consistently separate religion, state, and society into three distinct and separate entities. Compared to some eastern philosophies though, kokutai is not all that unusual. Kokutai’s pinnacle was the emperor, the father from whom all good things flowed. He was, at the same time, the head of the religion, the government, and the society. He was the father of a single racial and spiritual family based on the Shinto gods, Confucian moral codes, conformity, and universal decorum. All was unified in him. All belief, all duty, the function and submission of every section the state and of society, the very life of every citizen was owed to him. By extension absolute loyalty was due to every institution within the state and society, all of which derived their authority from the emperor, as well as to every policy of the state which was, in essence, an extension of the emperor. “In the West, the state and society are considered distinct entities, and when they tend to fuse together are described with an unlovely word: totalitarianism.” (Royama, pg vi.) Japan embraced this all inclusiveness.

It was no coincidence, or accident of history that the Japanese were as strongly imbued with the spirit of kokutai as they were. They had been intentionally inculcated through decades of education. Agnes Aliman’s thesis on education in Japan argues for a cyclical nature to Japan’s historical periods and to the education given in each period. According to her there were six periods between 1869 and 2000 which make up three rotations of the cycle. Within each cycle is a swing between liberal and conservative periods. Cycle 1: 1869-1890 The Meji Restoration with moves toward liberty, individual rights, and democracy. 1890-1912 Imperialistic nationalism, democracy wanes. Cycle 2: 1912-1931 The Taisho Democracy, attempts contain the absolutist system. 1931-1945 Militarism, ultra-nationalism, and the suppression of democracy. (Aliman, Agnes Shari T., The Transition and Transformation of the Japanese Educational System Between Two Historical Phases: 1868-2000, Quezon City, University of the Philippines 2003)

With the Meiji Restoration came the idea of universal free education, at least at the elementary level. The Imperial Rescript on Education was issued on 30 October 1890. In it the Emperor Meiji barely mentions education at all:

Know ye. Our subjects:
Our Imperial Ancestors have founded Our Empire on a basis broad and everlasting and have deeply and firmly implanted virtue; Our subjects ever united in loyalty and filial piety have from generation to generation illustrated the beauty thereof. This is the glory of the fundamental character of Our Empire, and herein also lies the source of Our education. Ye, Our subjects, be filial to your parents, affectionate to your brothers and sisters; as husbands and wives be harmonious, as friends true; bear yourselves in modesty and moderation; extend your benevolence to all: pursue learning and cultivate arts, and thereby develop intellectual faculties and perfect moral powers; furthermore advance public good and promote common interests: always respect the Constitution and observe the laws; should emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the State; and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial Throne coeval with heaven and earth. So shall ye not only be Our good and faithful subject The Way here and forth is indeed the teaching bequeathed by Our Imperial Ancestors, to be observed alike by their descendants and the subjects, infallible for all ages and true in all places. It is Our wish to lay it to heart in all reverence, in common with you, Our subjects, that we may all thus attain to the same virtue.
The 30th day of the 10th month of the 23rd year of Meiji.
Retrieved from ... _Education"

The citizens are encouraged to virtue; to filial devotion and proper relations; to modesty, moderation, and benevolence; to promote the public good, and common interests; to respect the Constitution and laws; and to offer themselves ‘courageously’ to the state in time of emergency. The purpose: to maintain the prosperity of the Imperial throne, and thus the state. Education itself is barely mentioned, education is the way to virtue through the “teaching bequeathed by Our Imperial Ancestors.” This is not a call to education; it is a call to kokutai through education. Here is a rescript read to every citizen, at all important school events, and which every student was required to study and memorize for fifty-five years. I doubt that this emphasis on spiritual education was merely coincidental with the swing from Aliman’s first, liberal, period into the second, conservative, period. The Imperial Rescript set the tone that would suffuse Japanese education until the end of WWII with a much heavier stress laid on patriotic and moral indoctrination than on the intellectual subjects.

Note that during the third period of Aliman’s cycles, when the swing is back to liberal ideas it is not a swing which returns to full democratization, but is rather an attempt to limit the extent of the conservatism of the previous period. Japan’s educational system continued on course without deviation. This allowed the fourth period, the period during which Japan fights WWII, to begin at a point already well on its way to conservatism. By the middle of the fourth period Japan was in the grip of ultra-nationalism which had as its foundation an ultra-observance of kokutai which had been inculcated into the entire population over a period of more than three generations through the national education system. “The post-Tokugawa, pre-war educational system had a hierarchy wherein compulsory education was only offered, at government’s expense, for six years at the elementary level. Beyond that students had to spend for middle school, higher school, and universities. For those in the lower income bracket who could not afford the more expensive middle school and university, they attended the vocational or the technical schools. Others in search of higher education went to the normal schools and the military schools where they became teachers and soldiers respectively.” (Aliman, pg 52.) By using the schools to give every student a complete nationalistic indoctrination and by shunting a large proportion of the labor force into vocational, technical, normal, and military school the state leadership was supplied with a large work force which was both skilled and absolutely, even fanatically, loyal.


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Peter H
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Postby Peter H » 27 Jan 2010 12:37

Good(and interesting) information Ron.

Some findings from 1942 as well:
Japanese Army Discipline and Morale 1942

I think we also need to distinguish between battlefield breaches of discipline(as discussed so far) and those more minor episodes in the back areas.

Reservists combined with drink was a problem in China in 1942.

To generalise that all Japanese were somewhat "robotic" willing warriors(not that anyone has done this here),needs looking into further.

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