++Niitaka-yama nobore++* "Climb Mount Niitaka", the Wabun code (a form of Morse code) message signalling the go-ahead for the attack on Pearl Harbor
In attack and defense We need warships like floating iron castles Our floating castles, Shall defend all points of Imperial Japan. Our warships of pure iron shall destroy Those nations that make an enemy of, The Land of the Rising Sun.
—March of the Imperial Japanese Navy
The Army and Navy of Imperial Japan.
Japan, 1867. Commodore Perry had visited Japan to display some Gunboat Diplomacy a decade-and-a-half or so ago, and the potential onslaught of Europeans to dominate Japan the way they did the rest of Asia has galvanized a clique of low-ranking samurai from the southern fiefdoms of Satsuma and Chōshū into leading their European-style private armies against the Tokugawa Shogunate. They seize the boy-Emperor Mutsuhito at his Residence in Kyoto before the Shogun can secure him. The Shogun is dealt a heavy PR-blow by this, and many lesser Daimyos refuse to come to his aid as it would appear that they were going against the Emperor. The Shogun's forces slug it out, but are eventually driven off Honshu entirely and flee to Hokkaido where they set up a short-lived Republic in Hakodate. Eventually, this too falls, and Japan is more or less united under a new government, which moves the Emperor to Edo (renamed Tokyo) and proclaims the start of the Meiji ("Enlightened Rule") era.
To cut a long story short, the government was much more powerful than it was before. Its new powers were ostensibly based upon the "restored" power of the Emperor — restored to what it was in Legend, that is. Hence, "restoration" and not "revolution". The oligarchy of southern middle-class ex-samurai hid behind the Emperor, using him as a rallying point for State Shinto and Japanese Nationalism. Unexpectedly for the oligarchs, Mutsuhito himself proved to be a charismatic and effective ruler, and became the Meiji Emperor in truth, dominating those who had intended to use him as a figurehead.
History is a fickle thing, for if Perry had not returned to America due to the American Civil War, Feudal Japan may not have had the chance to develop into Imperial Japan. Noting how China (the hegemonic power of East Asia for millennia) wasn't doing so well these days, and how it seemed to have a lot to do with the Western Empires, Japan decided that China was no longer the centre of learning and culture they had acknowledged it as for the last thousand years, and figured that it was time for another radical change. Where before, Japan had adopted Chinese religion, culture, medicine and natural science with a view to incorporating them into their own understanding of the world, now it was time to take on Western Science and medicine, to industrialize and become an Imperial power... hopefully, without losing sight of what it meant to be Japanese in all other respects. Broadly, they succeeded. A postal service from Britain, a School system from France, a Prussian Constitution — thus the trappings of democracy like voting and elections and parties without actually granting the resultant MPs any real powers — and so on.
In a fanatic stance change to hold the West in awe and/or amusement, some went as far as advocating for intermarriage with Europeans to bring "superior racial stock" into Japan. In short, the West was the new China, and this called for a revision in all their administrations. There was very quickly a backlash against this sort of attitude, and there was a certain crisis of identity caused by the rapid changes in Japanese society. There was a renewed emphasis on retaining an essential Japanese-ness, which after flirting with Social Darwinism manifested itself in the form of a burgeoning belief in Japanese supremacy, not inferiority. Because, they reasoned, who else could come so far in so short a time? This was clearly a demonstration of the Japanese people's innate superiority, above and beyond that of the Western powers. Japan could do all they could — Imperialism and everything — and do it better.
By the turn of the century, it had a fledgling modern army and navy, trained by German and British consultants respectively - all Japan's 1904-battleships having been bought wholesale from French and British shipyards. The army and navy proved themselves during the Sino-Japanese War, in which the Japanese (unexpectedly, as Japan's forces were much smaller) emerged clearly victorious, and the Russo-Japanese War in which the Japanese managed to inflict a series of surprising defeats upon the Russian Army (surprising in that no one at the time expected them to be able to defeat Russia at all.) Tsar Nicholas II decided to negotiate an end to the war despite the imminent collapse of the Japanese war effort because his government didn't know Japan was teetering on the edge of socio-economic collapse, the bill for continuing the war was very large when his own empire was also teetering on the edge of socio-economic collapse, and the the total destruction of both of Russia's Fleets by the Japanese made a counter-invasion of Japan impossible, at least in the near term.
The war was a pyrrhic victory for Japan militarily and economically, and the peace-deal — mediated by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt vis-a-vis the Treaty of Portsmouth — forced them to give back what little they had gained. Nevertheless, it was a massive boost for its international standing. Japan's victory created major ripples in the world — a tiny Asian power beating Russia? — leaving many considering Japan's potential. The Japanese Army had impressed most observers with their ability to withstand severe privation while showing great initiative, pluck and dash in the face of enormous casualties. The Japanese Navy had used superior strategy and tactics to defeat a numerically superior enemy in detail. Japan believed they had learned two important lessons: respect was gained and maintained via the use of a plenitude of modern military hardware, and gains made on the battlefield today can easily become losses on the negotiating table tomorrow. The Social Darwinists rejoiced: what clearer sign could there be that the Japanese were a people ascendant, not just a "fitter" race, but the fittest?
As the 20th Century progressed, the government of Japan came more and more under the sway of militarism. Under the Meiji constitution, both the Army and Navy ministers had to be serving officers. This effectively gave the military an absolute veto over the civilian government because the cabinet would fall whenever the army or navy withdrew their support. While this did not prove a problem during the reign of the forceful and charismatic Mutsuhito (Meiji), it allowed the military to effectively dominate the government under his weak and sickly son Yoshihito (Taisho), and essentially dictate the education and upbringing of his grandson, Crown Prince Hirohito (Showa). Meanwhile, the younger cadres of army officers were coming more and more under the increasingly violent sway of various expansive ultra-nationalist movements. Thus, as the government came more under the sway of the military, the military came more under the sway of the militarists, thus laying the groundwork for the great paroxysms to come. The Navy, by contrast, was more cosmopolitan, and locked in a constant struggle with the army over limited resources. So in the The Roaring Twenties through The Thirties the political battles which really mattered in Japan were between the army and navy instead of political parties.
Japan joined World War One late on the side of the Allies, and received a nominal share of the rewards, including most of Germany's imperial possessions in the Pacific. However, their Japanese-European Racial Equality Proposalnote which had nothing to do with universal racial equality or non-existence - the proposal insisted that races existed, despite the biological evidence, and that the Japanese Race was on-par with The European Raceswas rejected by the other major powers (Italy, France, the British Empire, and the United States). They also developed an imperialist attitude towards China to match the European powers, forcing numerous concessions from the Chinese. Ultra-nationalist sentiment abounded, and the military, having cast itself as the creator and guarantor of Japan's new place in the world, seized virtually all power, often by killing people who got in their way, eventually reaching the point where the Imperial Army numbered in the millions while the Imperial navy absorbed nearly one quarter of the entire gross national product (soldiers being cheaper than battleships).
The army led Japan into an invasion ofGuomindang China, which - after overcoming Guomindang resistanceat the 1937 Battle of Shanghai - appeared successful, but ultimately proved an open-ended manpower sump: China was simply too large to conquer outright. Japan could not find enough manpower to do more than take and hold the major cities of coastal China and the mid-lower Yangzi, and the railroads that linked them. However, the invasion in turn committed Japan to a dangerous clash of interests and sentiments with America and Britain (although there had already been tension between the three since the 1921 breakdown of Anglo-Japanese alliance in favour of US-Commonwealth co-operationnote Sensibly, Australia and New Zealand saw the more culturally similar, radically-more-powerful, and less militaristic USA as being a better guarantor of their security, this being the result of a climate of heightened suspicion and conflicting interests in China and the Pacific). The U.S. in particular was annoyed at Japan's war with China and felt that its interests there and in The Philippines were threatened. Consequently, the USA embargoed strategic goods such as oil in response to Japan's continued refusal to negotiate with the Guomindang. And since the U.S. was virtually Japan's sole supplier of steel and petroleum at the time this embargo threatened dire consequences for the Japanese economy.
Japan's leadership, unwilling to negotiate with the Guomindang, terrified at the vulnerability that came with their critically low fuel reserves (they were down to just a few months' supply), and above all unwilling to lose face by negotiating with the United States decided to take advantage of the ongoing World War to take the raw-resources they needed. Despite their poor performance in the border-clash at Nomonhan/Khalkin Gol, the Japanese were confident that a collapsing Soviet state would still be unable to offer them real resistance if they launched an offensive to take Soviet Siberia. The Wehrmacht's performance in the Baltic States and Belorussia in the first two weeks of Unternehmen Barbarossa seemed to confirm the imminent defeat of the USSR and sparked a wave of enthusiasm for such an operation... however, the Wehrmacht's lacklustre performance at Smolensk made it clear that Japan's pre-invasion assessment of the USSR capabilities had been correct after all: Germany was too weak to defeat the USSR in a decisive campaign and was also unlikely to prevail in a lengthy war (as she had just half the industry and 1/3 the number of men fit for military service).
But there was another way Japan could take advantage of Germany's weltkrieg to avoid looking bad. The Navy could be used to seize the materials they needed by capturing the Dutch East Indies for their oil fields and British Malaya for its rubber, both also yielding much-needed supplies of tin and copper. Believing that the USA would declare war on them if they tried to do so, if only to protect the Philippines, they also decided to conquer the Philippines and raid various U.S. military bases.
Pre-supposing U.S. involvement proved to be Japan's undoing. Holland may have already fallen to Germany and (with only 4/5 of Germany's industry and just twice that of Japan) Britain really would have been unable to fight a war against Japan as well, but the United States was not yet engaged in the war and the USA's industrial and commercial strength was more than ten times that of Japan in all categories, from automobile production to the banking sector and actually exceeded all of the other combatants, Axis and Allied, put together (with the striking exception of the USSR, which despite being the second-greatest industrial power had no commercial sector). As virtual ruler of two continents the United States had its own independent supplies of virtually every strategic resource imaginable... and with the world's largest and best-funded network of major research universities, jump-started by immediate and effective cooperation with the British, the USA had a useful technical edge which translated into gear and weaponry that wasn't just common/more numerous but also just plain better (unit-for-unit) than anything Japan could producenote In just three years, for instance, the USA produced several dozen times the number of warships that they lost in the first day of the war in a raid on Hawaii... and the new ones were vastly more combat-effective than the ones they replaced[. So while the junta had been right to assume that the Allies note Britain in particular, the war fed into the growing independence movement in British India, and the utter lack of enthusiasm for the Pacific War after the German defeat in May 1945 troubled British High Command to no endprobably didn't want victory over Japan as much as Japan wanted victory over The Allies, the simple fact was that with the USA onboard the Allies didn't need to want it as badly; reality was on their side.
The Navy's decision to include the United States in their offensive meant that Attack Plan South was hopeless and their defeat was inevitable. Despite their astonishing initial successes in seizing nearly all of south-east Asia save Burma and New Guinea, their increasingly out-dated and out-numbered forces were contained in little over a year and pushed back across the Pacific over the course of the next four years. A British-American Army overwhelmingly composed of ethnic Indians and Chinese, respectively, managed to halt the Japanese advance in the mountainous jungle of northern Burma - but had been unable to defend the 'Burma Road', the Guomindang's sole over-land link to the outside worldnote The Soviets could no longer run their (1937-41) horsecart+truck supply-chain to them through Mongolia and Xinjiang because now that they had been brought into the war they needed their entire stock of non-rail transport for themselves.. The U.S. Navy destroyed their sea and air forces while the Guomindang absorbed the bulk of the Japanese Army in China. Australia and New Zealand teamed up with the U.S. to recapture New Guinea then went West to liberate Indonesia when the U.S. turned North to recapture the Philipines. Japan's merchant fleet was devastated by the depredations of the U.S. Navy's submarines and Japan's numerous island garrisons were either cut off and left to "rot on the vine" or taken by overwhelming assault by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. Two all-out, and rather pointless, Imperial Army offensives in China and Burma - meant to destroy the Guomindang once and for all and capture British India - failed and led to disastrous reversals.
Finally, Japan's towns and cities were bombed, burned, and flattened by huge armadas of American strategic bombers under the rather grisly General Curtis LeMay while an ever-tightening naval and aerial blockade around the whole (food-importing) island chain was supplemented by a intense tactical aerial campaign that destroyed Japan's internal transportation infrastructure. By May 1945, Japan remained as the lone Axis holdout against almost literally the entire world. With the Japanese military still unwilling to surrender, and hoping to avoid a planned invasion that was projected to result in millions of Allied and Japanese casualties, the United States elected to try to intimidate the Japanese into surrendering using a new weapon of unprecedented power: the atomic bomb.
The first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th. Shocked, the Imperial government turned to their last hope, a negotiated settlement brokered by the Soviet Union. The Soviets responded by renouncing the Russo-Japanese nonaggression pact that had spared them the necessity of guarding their back while they were fighting Germany and invading Manchuria on August 9th. The Red Army's Far Eastern Strategic Offensive was wildly successful, with over a million Japanese soldiers taken captive and the remaining half-million in retreat down the Korean Peninsula and onto the North China Plain. While this had little effect on the outcome of the war—Japan was already effectively defeated by this point—it did serve to reinforce the hopelessness of the Japanese position, while also achieving its primary purposes of serving notice to the other Allies that Soviet interests in Asia would not be ignored and strengthening the Soviet position in Asia for the eventual postwar conflict to come.
Despite losing their last hope for a negotiated peace the Imperial government continued to publicly refuse to surrender unconditionally while preparing for the inevitable in private. The last nail was the atomic bombing of Nakasaki on August 9th. Fearing the prospects of dozens of such bombings, The Showa Emperor, who had been deeply disturbed when he'd toured the devastated areas of firebombed Tokyo, became convinced that surrender was the only way to preserve the Japanese people and perhaps his reign. After last-minute offer to surrender on the condition that they be allowed to keep the emperor was rebuffed, and despite a last minute coup attempt by militaristic junior officers, Japan's leadership finally declared the country's unconditional surrender on 15 August, 1945. The announcement came as a great relief to everybody, who really didn't see the point in another (few) million dead - and to the United States, who didn't actually have any more Atomic Bombs, and wouldn't for several months.
The military complex of Imperial Japan was forcibly dismantled, governmental power was effectively handed over to the U.S. military (with General MacArthur having the final say on anything the Diet did, earning him the nickname of 'Shogun'), and land and economic reforms were made to break the power of the Zaibatsu - some seven corporations who had, under the patronage of the Army and Navy, accounted for more than 90% of Japanese GDP in 1938. These reforms didn't actually work in the long run, as the Zaibatsu rebuilt themselves (as the more loosely-affiliated "Keiretsu") in the decades that followed , but they did drive the understanding between the government and big business underground, as well as giving the Diet's politicians time to consolidate their power bases and deal with these corporations on a more equal footing when they returned starting in the 1960s.
While the democratic reforms — making the Prime Minister and Cabinet the country's actual leadership, abolishing the military, and removing the Emperor from the Cabinet — had their intended effect, many of the economic ones (including those designed to protect labor unions, which were increasingly seen as hotbeds of Communist sympathy) were rolled back in the face of the Korean War; it was the ramping-up of industrial production to help out the U.S. in this conflict that, together with huge amounts of foreign investment, helped kickstart Japan's post-war economic recovery in earnest. Control of the country was handed back to the Japanese in 1952 and at the same time, a National Safety Force (later renamed the Self-Defence Force) was formed. This was born out of the rise of hostile Communist governments in East Asia (i.e. Mao's People's Republic of China, which had in 1949 been declared after Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War) and the realization that Japan would effectively be defenseless without U.S. troops to occupy it (said troops also being rather expensive). Its creation was bitterly contested well into even the 1980s, despite assurances of civilian control and non-belligerence, and its naming (with its tortured Insistent Terminology to avoid blatantly military terms) reflects this; even so, politicians continue to battle over just what the Japanese military's role should be in modern world affairs.
Awesome, but Impractical: Partly in anticipation of being outnumbered in any major war right from the start, the IJN had a tendency towards wanting to have the individually biggest and baddest of something, regardless of its actual use. Case in point Yamato-class battleships: when Yamato was launched it was the most powerful example of a type ship that had just been rendered obsolete. Yamato and Musashi went on to borderline-embarrassing careers of being held back from fighting because they guzzled large amounts of oil, the very resource Japan was critically low on and had gone to war to seize. When they finally were committed to battle Yamato scored no confirmed hits before turning away to dodge torpedoes from a handful of tiny American destroyers and destroyer escorts that each weighed less than one of her gun turrets. Her sister ship Musashi never even got this far, having been sunk by carrier aircraft before even seeing an enemy vessel. Yamato's final mission saw her and 5 of her escorts at the bottom of the Pacific, managing to down a piddling 12 American planes in the process. The best that can be said about them is that their massive bulk and incredibly thick armor did result in the ability to absorb a very large number of hits before going under.
The IJN were also obsessed with outranging their enemies, which resulted in some good things (the Zero fighter and the legendary Type 93 "Long Lance" torpedo) and others which fell clearly into this category.
The Type 91 and Type 0 "diving" shells, designed to follow a reliable underwater trajectory when they fell short, theoretically increasing the odds of a hit against vulnerable parts of a ship below waterline. Unfortunately, this made them very unreliable when they scored a direct hit above water and prone to passing clean through unarmored targets without even exploding (see Yamato above; this is a major part of why it performed so pitifully against those destroyers), more than negating any advantage gained.
The Mitsubishi G4M3 medium bomber (Allied code name "Betty") sacrificed bomb load, defensive armament, armor and self-sealing fuel tanks for speed and enormous range to allow them to support a fleet battle far out at sea. Unfortunately flying them beyond the range of their fighter escorts quickly proved to be suicidal, meaning they'd sacrificed basic survivability and effectiveness for extreme range they couldn't use.
Type 98 mortar shells. Good for scaring the enemy, not good for much else.
The I-400 class aircraft carrying submarines. An impressive technical achievement and perhaps strategically effective in the right circumstances, but incapable of inflicting significant damage on an enemy, as they could carry only three planes.
The 8-8 Fleet program was the 1920s belief that Japan needed a fleet of 8 modern battleships and 8 battlecruisers to defend the Home Islands. It was never carried out; partially because of the Washington Naval Treaty, partially because there was no way Japan could have afforded it.
The Imperial Japanese Army almost counts as a Badass Army because it had such an incredible amount of pluck. But it had almost no sophistication or finesse unlike the Imperial Japanese Navy, and Allied troops tended to "give" several times more than they "received" from the IJA. The reverse was true, however, for much of the war in China since most (but not all) Chinese 'troops' were poorly coordinated formations of ill-equipped and ill-led irregulars and militiamen under abysmal leadership.
Batman Gambit: Attempted by the IJN but not with much success. The Midway operation was based on the idea that the U.S. forces would react in exactly a certain way. See also Complexity Addiction. It certainly didn't help that, since the IJN's radio codes had been broken, the U.S. forces knew how the Japanese wanted them to react.
In addition, the U.S. successfully pulled a Batman Gambit on the Japanese by tricking them into confirming that the codename "AF" stood for Midway by broadcasting an alert about a water shortage in the clear, banking on the Japanese to pass on that info in code that AF having a water shortage. Note that this wasn't done to convince the U.S. codebreakers in Hawaii - they knew they were right - it was done to convince the Naval Intelligence staff in Washington who wanted reassurance.
Beam Me Up, Scotty!: The Japanese Navy never called the type 93 torpedo the "Long Lance". That term was coined by American historian Samuel Eliot Morrison after the war. It was so evocative that it stuck.
Likewise, the Japanese never used the term "Kamikaze" as a general term for suicide attacks. The actual phrase was tokubetsu kōgeki tai, or "Special Attack Force", usually abbreviated to "Tokkotai" or just "Tokko". The term "Kamikaze" came from a press release about one of the first attacks in the Philipines. To make matters even confusing, the actual squadron name used the formal pronunciation shinpu; the Allied translators managed to get it wrong through Alternate Character Reading. Like "Long Lance" the term "kamikaze" was reimported back into Japan after the war.
Yamamoto never said "I fear we have a awakened a sleeping giant", although the quote does sum up his general attitude of the situation.
Better to Die than Be Killed: Suicidal or near suicidal behavior in desperate circumstances actually had many examples in World War II among many belligerents; it was rare among Americans only because of their limited, and relatively 'comfortable', involvement - exceptions like Torpedo Squadron Eight abound of course. It is very easy to dismiss this attitude as being uniquely Japanese; but to do so dismisses the universality of desperation and self-sacrifice. Most war-time examples fell under suicide by enemy, and the suicidal tactics of some Imperial personnel are in many ways a more extreme extension of this principle. Suicide as atonement for failure was, however, unique to Japan; Japanese culture romanticised - and romanticises - suicide to a degree almost unheard of elsewhere. Also worth noting are the cultural understandings of surrender; through most of the world it was - and is - not usually considered a disgrace to surrender as long as one has put up a damned good fight - especially when continuing to fight servesno purpose. In contemporary Japan, there was no such thing as (honourable) surrender.
In fact, in some cases, the obsession with "honorable" suicide hit Insane Troll Logic levels. During the undeclared border war against Soviet Union at Khalkhin Gol, an undermanned Japanese reconnaissance unit put up such tenacious defense that the big Red Army encirclement operation (that had quickly trapped the Japanese forces there in a 'pocket', but didn't have the numbers to 'seal' it properly) had to just bypass them. It took them five days to reduce them to the point where their commander ordered them to break out (which saved the lives of nearly 2/3 of his men) after a defense executed with such skill that General Zhukov - the Soviet Commander - remarked that he'd like nothing so much as to give their commander a medal. For having "disgraced the army by fleeing the battlefield," however, Lt. Colonel Eiichi Ioki was forced to commit suicide after the battle. On the other hand the overall Japanese Commander, General Michitaro Komatsubara, was criticised for losing the battle but never for his decision not to order his troops to break out of the pocket (though that may have had something to do with the fact that he was probably a spy as the result of a 'Honey Pot' trap laid for him by the NKVD during his time as a military attache at the Japanese Embassy in Moscow).
Big Brother Instinct: Many Americans felt this towards the Filipinos, and some also felt it towards the Chinese - they felt they had done a lot to prevent China from being carved up between the other Imperial powers, for instance, as a result of their 'Open Door' policy to China (The USA feared that a China dismembered by the other Imperial Powers would tax or even ban goods imported from the USA. As in her dealings with Latin America, an 'Open Door' policy suited her interests as it meant she could continue to trade with them on her own terms without the expense and unpopularity of actually having a formal Empire). FDR in particular strongly believed that China had a rightful place as one of the world's great powers, a belief that tended to blind him to Chiang Kai-Shek's shortcomings as China's leader. Likewise the Japanese government promoted this kind of pan-Asian-solidarity as a post-facto means of legitimating their Asian Empire.
The Japanese legitimately believed their propaganda. Tojo was crying during the formation of the East Asia Prosperity Sphere
Arguably some of the southeast Asian people believed it as well, at first... since the Japanese appeared to have liberated them from the European powers (Britain, Holland and France) that previously held so much sway over them. But it didn't take long for them to realize that Japanese domination was little better and often worse, particularly when the tide of war turned against Japan. The Filipinos were already well along in the process of becoming independent from the U.S. so they never really bought into it. Indonesians and Burmans, though, did, and the fact that their independence was more-or-less given to them by the Japanese still haunts Indonesian politics.
Bigger Is Better: Some of the ship designers in the IJN had this idea when they built the Yamato-class battleship, which still holds the record for largest battleship ever made afloat. However, as the war demonstrated (detailed in Impossibly Cool Weapon below) size is not everything when it comes to battleship construction. Due to lower quality steel available to Japan and inferior projectile design, the Yamato would actually have been pretty evenly matched with an Iowa-class battleship, despite having larger guns and outweighing by more than 10,000 tons. Except the Iowa-class battleships were a good 20% faster.
Blatant Lies: After the disastrous defeat of the Battle of Midway, the Japanese militarists claimed a victory in their propaganda saying that the Allies were cowed. The Imperial Navy even lied about their losses to the Imperial Army.
Indeed, General Tojo, who was the prime minister, did not know what happened at Midway until seven months after the battle.
Eventually, this came to haunt them, as their increasingly exaggerated claims made it look like the Allies had unlimited resources while anyone with a map could see that each new "great victory" was closer to home than the last one.
Cannon Fodder: The Imperial Japanese Army was notoriously callous about the lives of its troops. Nicknames for the common infantryman such as "senrin" (0.011 yen, after the price of mailing a conscription notice) or "teppodama" (literally "bullets", in being that expendable). The Imperial Navy achieved this reputation among its airmen during their duty in the South Pacific: of the pilots who went to Rabaul, almost none ever came back, the IJN's pre-war aviators wasting away under the strain of combat in the most malignant theater in which a major war has ever been fought. Pilots were known to state that no one went home unless they were dead.
Averted in China, where 'ordinary' Guomindang troops were almost always outnumbered by their Japanese counterparts. 'Help' from regional and local militia, and warlord troops, was little better and often worse than no help at all, especially when they ran for it. A trope frequently used by the Guomindang itself when they were forced to fight set-piece battles- they would use the militia and warlord troops (strengthened by as small as possible a force of 'corset-stiffeners', regular Guomindang troops) on the defense while they used their own troops to encircle the attacking Japanese forces (who were notoriously easily lured into frontal attacks in which they would frequently 'outrun' their supply lines).
Also averted in the Philippines where General Homma was conservative with his troops, to the point of being criticized by other officers.
The Captain: Hara Tameichi, captain of Amatsukaze and later commander of Destroyer Squadron 27 aboard the legendary Shigure, which came through several of the fiercest naval engagements of the war unscathed under his leadership. He was highly critical of his superiors' inflexibility during the war and one of the few Japanese ship captains to survive and write a memoir of his experiences afterwards.
Cold-Blooded Torture: During World War II it was known to tie the wounded to a tree, torture them and leave them with a sign that said "It took him a long time to die". Naturally, the Allies didn't like that.
A common favorite of Japanese soldiers was to force bayonet blades or katanas into the vaginas of non-Japanese Asian women.
Also notorious is when Japanese soldiers in trucks held bayonets and katanas off the side as they drove past the POWs of the Bataan Death March. Many times trucks and tanks would swerve to run over any prisoner who collapsed or otherwise fell out of the column.
Case in point: Japanese aviators prefered coordinated dogfighting maneuvers like loops, rolls, immelmans, etc. while their allied counterparts prefered uncoordinated evasive maneuvers like skids, slips yaws, and snap rolls. Uncoordinated maneuvers weren't nearly as pretty but they were much more effective if your main goal was to live to fight another day—provided you didn't lose control of your aircraft, which may have killed as many Allied pilots as the enemy.
Complexity Addiction: The Imperial Japanese Navy had a serious problem with creating incredibly complex battle plans which involved a half-dozen groups of ships that couldn't support each other or be easily controlled. While as theories their plans were often highly elegant, they were also stupidly vulnerable to Murphy's Law and usually based on incredibly optimistic assumptions that the enemy would do exactly as predicted.
Cool Plane: The Mitsubishi A6M Type 0 Naval Fighter, otherwise known as the Zero. Paid a unique tribute among Japanese aircraft in that most Allied pilots referred to it using the diminutive of its name rather than its assigned Allied codename, the Zero was quite probably the best dogfighting aircraft of the Second World War and had incredible range, with a combat radius of over 550 miles. But it lacked engine power, armor, sufficient quantities of ammunition, and self-sealing fuel tanks. Never outturned, the Zero could be defeated by first generation Allied fighters using superior tactics and proved a death trap in the face of later Allied fighters that could easily outclimb, outdive, and outrun it. If fact, pilots of Warhawks and Wildcats (which were not nearly as nimble but had far superior armor and armament) quickly learned that the way to defeat the best dogfighting plane in the world (at the time) was by not dogfighting it. Allied pilots would use their planes superior power and speed to set themselves up above a Zero, do a diving attack and fire a short burst (which was usually more than enough to turn a Zero into a fireball). If the attack did not work, they would use the speed of the dive to get away, gain distance and altitude from the Zero, and repeat. Only very inexperienced or foolhardy pilots would attempt a turning fight with a Zero.
Not to be outdone by the Navy, the Imperial Japanese Army's Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa (Peregrine Falcon, Allied code name "Oscar") was actually less heavily built and armed than the Zero and consequently even more maneuverable and eventually even more vulnerable once allied pilots figured out not to dogfight it.
By 1944, Japanese had developed high performance fighters that could theoretically go toe-to-toe with the Allies' best, notably the Ki-83 Hayate of the Army and the N 1 K 1Shiden-Kai of the Navy. However, by this time, the quality of manufacture from Japanese industries had fallen to unacceptable levels, there were hardly any good pilots or maintenance personnel left, high-grade fuel was impossible to come by, and Japanese flying units were outnumbered by absurd margins, meaning that none of these planes had a chance to shine.
Cool Ship: Japanese destroyers were feared in the Solomon Islands. They were well commanded and tended to get the better in night surface actions for a long time.
Japan had, hands down, the best heavy cruisers in the world. A larger main battery than U.S. ships (and much larger than British ships), comparable armoring, and torpedo tubes to boot. It wasn't until the post-war Des Moines-class CA that the U.S. produced a truly superior ship, via automatic 8" guns.
Those very same torpedo tubes however, would prove their undoing on several occasions due to the highly volatile Type 93 torpedo. The results when the tubes were hit by aerial bombs or even relatively small caliber weapons fire were predictably disastrous. No Japanese cruiser survived the detonation of its own torpedoes.
Cool Versus Awesome: IJN versus USN. The two best navies of World War II; even the closest runner-up, the Royal Navy, simply didn't have the doctrine, ships, technology or aircraft to have fought either of themnote which they learned the hard way off the coasts of Malaya and India. This couldn't contrast more when comparing the IJA and U.S. Army, however. The U.S. Army had a huge advantage over the IJA in terms of logistics, supplies, armament, fire support, and tanks. They were both about even in number because most Japanese troops were in China and most American troops were in Europe.
Crippling Overspecialization: The Type 93 torpedo made Japanese destroyers deadly in night surface engagements, but most of them lacked dual-purpose guns and high angle directors, making them dead weight as far as fleet anti-aircraft defense was concerned, and largely ineffective at even defending themselves against air attack other than by dodging. A lack of advanced antisubmarine weapons and doctrine also made them relatively ineffective escorts. Both proved to be major disadvantages in a war fought mostly against aircraft and submarines.
Cultured Warrior: Well, that was the samurai stereotype anyway. But don't expect much from the troops.
The reconquest of Burma by the British took it in the other direction. note The Battle of Sittang Bend is remembered by old Fourteenth Army Hands as the complete destruction of a Japanese Army with few British losses. The Japanese were caught trying to retreat across a river and were slaughtered
The wrong end: most later operations in New Guinea. At least once the casualty ratio climbed to well over 1000 Japanese to 1 Australian.
Battle of the Philippine Sea and Battle of Leyte Gulf. They pretty much destroyed the Japanese Navy and Airforce.
Six months after the empire declared war on Britain and the US, every battle turned into this in favor of the Allies. Iwo Jima, Saipan, The (land) Battle of Leyte, the Phillipines Campaign, etc. The latter had 14,000 American and Australian soldiers killed, and 340,000 Japanese soldiers killed. Though in some battles (China, the Burma and Borneo campaigns come to mind), the losses were about even. Which is the closest the Japanese came to winning.
The Soviet invasion of Manchuria. It makes sense, since Japan had pulled back its best and most loyal soldiers to the island, their marines, navy, and airforce had been wiped out, and the majority of the forces in Manchuria were poorly equipped and low-morale conscripts, but damn.
Earlier than that, there was the undeclared Japanese invasion of The Soviet Union's effective protectorate of Mongolia. It's hard to determine exactly, but most historians agree that the casualty ratio was about two Japanese to every one Russian killed, mostly due to the Japanese light armor being outclassed by massed Russian armored assaults. It didn't help that Marshal Georgy Zhukov was in charge of the Red Army forces.
The Battle of Tsushima. Granted, the Japanese did outnumber their Russian foe, but they still sank or subsequently captured almost all of Russia's Baltic Fleet, while losing only three torpedo boats.
This could be in large part attributed to the Russian Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky, who had no battle plan to speak of and was going to conduct the battle by the seat of his pants (see his infamous quote "I will lead is as I will!"). He might've at least hoped to pull it off (even though Togo, already notified of Russian advance, had managed to ambush them and cross Rozhestvensky's T, putting him at distinct disadvantage), but he was incapacitated early into the battle, and his second-in-command, Adm. Nebogatov, had even less idea of what he was doing.
And to be totally fair to the Russians, they were anchored off Madagascar for a month or three while Rozhestvensky was a bit busy having a nervous breakdown in his cabin, likely contemplating the fact that the Russian navy hadn't won a sea battle since 1723.
There's a reason the Battle of the Philippine Sea is more commonly known in the U.S. as the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot": the IJN's air power effectively ceased to exist.
Cycle of Revenge: the inevitable result of a war that was grounded in mutual racial prejudice, started with a sneak attack and quickly proceeded to atrocities.
Because of the nature of ocean warfare, the entire conflict between Japan and the U.S. boiled down to a contest of who could out-determine the other. A lack of resources meant that Japan didn't have the long-term replenishment capacity of the U.S., but because of Pearl Harbor, they started out with a head start and more ships on the balance sheet. If Japan blinked first, they would sue for a beggar's peace and likely give up their Pacific conquests with harsh terms. If America blinked first, they would see the time and effort of rebuilding their fleet to recapture those conquests as not being worth the cost. And say what you will, but as time passed and Japan's new territory shrunk island by island, ending with hundreds of thousands of Allied troops poised to invade the home islands themselves, they never blinked.
Some holdouts continued fighting the war for up to thirty years after it was over. They had to locate Lt. Hiroo Onoda's former commanding officer and fly him to the Phillipines to relieve him of duty before he would lay down his arms. Fortunately he'd survived the war and was still alive, otherwise Onoda might have never given up.
David Versus Goliath: In all of its major campaigns, Japan (and later, their small empire of Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and Manchuria) was out of its weight classification. This was modified by the fact that the Manchu and Russian Empires were highly vestigial at the time, wracked with financial problems and having to fight Japan at the limits of their ability. The situation for the Chinese wasn't any better in World War II, being a poor and low tech nation in the middle of a civil war. But the last time around was a very different matter; Japan could never have mustered the economic and logistical power to defeat the United States, the richest nation on the planet, and one of the most high tech. The best it could have hoped for (and indeed, it was the grand strategy for the war) was to press the U.S. and inflict such damage that they would deem it not worth the trouble and expense to rebuild and recapture their conquered territories. At their most mouth-frothingly optimistic, there were plans to capture Hawaii, perhaps after a Curb-Stomp Battle at Midway wiped away most of the surviving American forces, but those never made it off the drawing board. Unfortunately, Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor infuriated their enemy so much that, apart from having to divide its efforts with the European Theatre of the war, was prepared to stomp Japan at nearly whatever price. The Dutch East Indies were in disarray following the Netherland's defeat in Europe and taken by surprise, as were British Malaysia and Hong Kong, French Indochina, and the American Philippines, but after that All bets were off.
Death from Above: A very valuable strategy they often employed on all fronts. The Americans proved to be better at it, however.
Defeat Means Friendship: After defeating Japan, the U.S. occupied it with some real intelligence to allow it to rebuild a healthy and prosperous industrial economy. As a result, Japan has been largely a close ally of the USA ever since.
Driven to Suicide: In the Battles of Saipan and Okinawa the Imperial Japanese military did everything they could to encourage their civilians to commit mass suicide. They had every reason to expect their civilians would receive the same harsh treatment they had inflicted on the Chinese, and stood to lose a great deal of face if the Allies turned out to be magnanimous.
Eats Babies : Some "comfort women" (forced sex slaves) testified that they were forced to eat meat stew made from the chopped remains of babies cut out of other sex slaves. There are other recorded instances of Imperial troops engaging in cannibalism, either as an act of ceremony or simple desperation.
The Empire: At its height, Japan ruled one of the largest empires in history, expanding out of the home islands in all directions, though most of it was empty ocean: Westward into China and Korea, Eastward into the Pacific islands, southward into the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and Taiwan, Southwest into British Burma, Singapore, and Malaya, Southeast into the American Phillipines and Guinea, and North into Sakhalin. The only place they didn't briefly annex that they invaded was the Soviet Union's puppet state in Mongolia, in the undeclared Soviet-Japanese Border Wars, or the Second Russo-Japanese War.
Enemy Civil War: The bureaucrats of the IJN and IJA had this going on constantly. This is not uncommon of course, but in this case it was taken to extremes that severely hurt Japan's war effort.
The entire war against America was arguably the result of an Enemy Civil War within the IJN; Headquarters didn't want to attack Pearl Harbor or the Philippines. Combined Fleet did, and their entire staff threatened to resign if not allowed to, in essence hijacking the strategic planning process. Midway came about in almost the exact same way.
This is also what happened in course of sparking off the "Manchurian Incident," The Second-Sino Japanese War, and the undeclared border war against Soviet Union in 1939. They were all started by local commanders while the high command was internally divided or even disapproving of adventurism.
From Japan's perspective, this helped them a lot in the Second-Sino Japanese War.
Even Evil Has Standards: Ironically enough, Imperial Japan was one of the friendliest nations to fleeing Jewish refugees, refusing to hand over its tiny Jewish population to the Nazis and not questioning the large number of potentially illegitimate exit visas issued by Chiune Sugihara, Japanese consul to Lithuania, and offering safe haven to the Jewish refugees who reached Japan and Japanese controlled-territories through other means (upwards of 40 to 50,000 Jews escaped Nazi persecution either by taking refuge in Japanese Empire/occupied territories or by transiting through them with Japanese government's tacit approval to other places that would take them in). Compare this to the relative indifference towards Jewish refugees exhibited by the US, UK, and other Allied powers at roughly the same time period.
A possible explanation for some of this is that Japanese government officials in the late 19th and early 20th centuries read anti-Semitic literature about how Jews had supposedly grown rich by exploiting Christians, but not having the Christian background that such anti-Semitism was based on, interpreted it to mean that Jews had magical money powers or extremely good business sense.
Some Japanese were also grateful for the aid given them by Jewish American banker Jacob Schiff during the Russo-Japanese War. When Japan was running out of money to buy munitions and other material to sustain the war and nobody would lend them money, Schiff single-handedly arranged for a series of large loans that eventually made up roughly half of Japan's war expenditures. Of course, this reinforced the beliefs of some Japanese that Jews did indeed have magical money powers and it would be a good idea to be on their side.
Some Nazis expressed this attitude towards the Japanese campaign in China. During the Rape of Nanjing, German businessmen (some of whom were Nazi activists) were active in aiding Chinese victims of Japanese atrocities, for example.
Final Battle: Leyte Gulf doomed Japan even though there was considerable land fighting afterwards. Leyte was also the last large fleet action ever to be fought - some say in all of time.
Operation Olympic/Coronet, the invasion of the Home Islands, would have been the ultimate in final battles as far as WW2 went, with even its planners describing it as a "blood-soaked apocalypse". Fortunately, the atomic bomb rendered it unnecessary.
Fragile Speedster: The Imperial Japanese Military had this as its entire war doctrine. As shown by their operations in the Phillipines, the East Indies, New Guinea, Burma, Malaya, and the other pacific islands, the Imperial forces were adept at launching fast, coordinated, surprise assaults with their powerful navy and elite marines supported by light armor. The fact they had the second best navy of the time only made them more mobile. Their actual army however was, compared to the Americans, Australians, Soviets, and British, rather low tech and crude, never employing anything bigger than what a Soviet commander would consider 'light' tanks. Even though it was large and fanatically devoted, it was at a severe disadvantage against the Western Allies and the Soviets in drawn out land battles.
Their air forces were also an example of this; the infamous Zero fighter had relatively light armament, no armor, and no self-sealing fuel tanks, but they were very maneuverable. Their main bomber was similar, only moreso: There, strength and armament were sacrificed for speed and range and needlessly so, as the extra range was essentially useless since flying beyond the range of their fighter escorts was suicide; all the extra gasoline did was make them burn better. Ironically the Zero wasn't particularly fast at its top speed, but it was very nimble which meant it could almost-literally fly circles around heavier fighter craft, an obvious advantage in a dogfight.
For the Evulz: Some of the things Japanese grunts did for fun were truly horrifying and pointless. For example, see Eats Babies. Generally speaking, living in Japanese-occupied territory was close to living hell if you happened to be the "wrong" kind of person.
Four-Star Badass : Admiral Togo Heihachiro, victor of Tsushima (Russo-Japanese War), was the Folk Hero of the IJN. And with good reason. He led the IJN to victory where IJA had failed miserably.
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto: ambitious, politically adroit, intelligent, and with a gift for picking good subordinates, he was a prophet of air power and managed to reach nearly the pinnacle of his profession despite having advocated some extremely unpopular causes. Yet Yamamoto's strategic vision ultimately failed him; Pearl Harbor was the sort of victory that Japan believed would win the war, but actually cost them any chance of the negotiated peace they needed to gain something from it. Sending Shokaku and Zuikaku to support the Coral Sea operation cost Japan its margin of superiority in carriers, and lead directly to the annihilation of First Air Fleet at Midway. Failing to commit the Combined Fleet at the beginning of the Guadalcanal campaign ultimately resulted in a defeat by attrition.
Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa. Regarded by his adversaries as the only competent Japanese carrier commander of the war, he was renowned in his own Navy for his intellect and his outspokenness; any mention of Ozawa will invariably quote one of his staff as saying he "did not suffer fools gladly."
Hopeless War: Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto warned any war with the U.S. that lasted longer than six months after the Pearl Harbor attack would become this, and he was right almost to the day with Japan's defeat at the Battle of Midway costing them their ability to take the offensive as the American Navy.
Insane Troll Logic: The Allies "forced" Japan to attack them by refusing to sell their own oil which Japan of course absolutely needed to sustain their brutal colonization of China.
Insane Troll Logic, or rather the realization of it, is the reason why the Japanese public grew to hate the military fairly quickly after the Battle of Saipan, when it became obvious even through the propaganda that Japan was in way over its head.
This had a political purpose as well. It represented an anchor in the past during the Meji Reformation.
Post-War MacArthur forced the Emperor to deny he was divine in a speech but it was not the best phrased and was ambiguous, apparently.
In fact, Mac Arthur maintained a version of this in order to make the U.S. occupation of Japan work as smoothly as possible, by adding the Emperor's seal of approval, figuratively speaking, to the policies of the U.S. military in Japan. It worked reasonably well at the time.
Government Conspiracy: Elements in the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy. The requirement that Army and Navy Ministers be serving officers gave their respective general staffs effective veto power over the civilian government, but the conflicts among and within factions within the two services meant that Japan was a military-industrial anarchy, more or less. There wasn't even a single cabal of generals that made all the decisions (primarily because their own juniors frequently assassinated them for not being militaristic enough!). There was an Emperor with a defined but small power, and a military force with an undefined but massive power. General Hideki Tojo was named Prime Minister largely because it was hoped his role as the head of the Kempetai (military state police) gave him the power to bring the rest of the military to heel. It didn't work.
It did not help that General Tojo, as the prime minister, was the head of government, but he was not the top general in the army so that he actually had superior officers above him, which did much to confuse who was really in charge.
As an example: When the U.S. landed at Guadalcanal, there were 16 Japanese dive bombers sitting at Rabaul, Nine of them were loaded for a ground-attack mission against a target in New Guinea. They did not have the range to strike Guadalcanal and return, nor were they armed with weapons that could significantly harm a ship. The dive bombers were ordered to attack at once. This gesture was absolutely relished by apparently every officer involved except the squadron leader, but it cost them nine perfectly good aircraft and eighteen veteran aircrew for nothing.
Similarly, after the USN destroyed 3 of Nagumo's 4 carriers in a matter of minutes at the Battle of Midway, Nagumo could have pulled Hiryu westward and engaged the USN at extreme range (or even better, retreated entirely to the safety of Yamamoto's Main Force). Instead, he closed range on the USN, which allowed him two near-fatal sorties against the USN (both expended on Yorktown) but kept him in range of the enemy long enough for Hiryu to be attacked and destroyed. Events such of these are attributed to the IJN officer corps rewarding the "physical courage" of charging headfirst into battle at the expense of the "moral courage" to recognize the value of saving near-irreplaceable IJN war assets. So you have a situation where a very high-ranking IJN officer did the math and (perhaps subconsciously) decided it was better to see his fleet sunk than to concede defeat and ensure (as best he could) the continued existence of the IJN's carrier forces.
See above for the aftermath of the undeclared war against Soviet Union in 1939. Putting up a successful defense for days against hopeless odds and saving many of the men by pulling out sensibly when the battle is already lost is a "disgrace" while stupidly keeping the whole army stuck in the death trap by not pulling out is "honorable." This was repeated countless times during World War 2, with Japanese troops staying put in badly exposed positions for far too long then senselessly getting themselves killed in suicide charges.
Hong Kong surrendered to the Japanese on the 25th of December, 1941. Merry Christmas!
Singapore surrendered on 15th February, 1942 — Chinese New Year.
Impossibly Cool Weapon: The Yamato. Which did almost nothing but is the most famous ship in the IJN because it was the largest battleship ever and thus fulfills the Rule of Cool.
Also katanas, though perhaps "impossible" in the other direction. The Japanese soldiers were kind of obsessed with blade weapons, going so far as to stick bayonets on machine guns. They were also among the last to abandon the "sword bayonet" (actually a knife blade, just a ridiculously long one) in favor of the more practical knife bayonets that every other major power in WWII was using.
Many of the IJN's destroyer designs, but in particular the Shimakaze. 45 knots flat out for an extended period, fifteen torpedo tubes to sink an entire opposing squadron at a crack, six 5" guns. The most powerful destroyer of the Second World War. Like Yamato, she did barely anything worthy of mentioning and was destroyed by overwhelming air attack along with nearly her entire task force.
The I-400 class submarines. Submersible aircraft carriers that actually worked... but they took nearly three years to build and could only carry three planes each. Enough to attract an enemies' attention, but not enough to inflict significant damage.
Improvised Weapon: Kamikazes, satchel charges, pipe bombs, and even bamboo spears (and bizarrely enough, bayonet lugs for bamboo poles, perhaps the ultimate expression of the above-mentioned obsession with bladed weapons) at the bitter end, All more-or-less suicidal.
Irony: Japanese pilots who came from a culture that subordinated individual goals to the group effort (individual scores were not officially tallied, just squadron totals) predominantly fought as individual warriors following the samurai aesthetic while the American pilots, who came from a society that prizes individuality and did tally individual scores learned how to beat their enemy by fighting as a team.
Furthermore, this went further into each air force's basic operational philosophy: The Japanese kept their individual warrior pilots on the front lines for as long as they could survive, racking up tremendous totals of kills, but all too often dying with only woefully inadequately trained replacements left. Meanwhile, the Allies noted their aces, and pulled them out of combat to train new pilots in the interest of a greater fighting force as a whole. The result is the Japanese unwitting emphasis on individual duty and glory left their air force as a whole no match against the Allies whose increasing superiority in technology was complemented by new pilots well trained by aces who sacrificed their chances of individual glory for the greater good of their nations.
The Japanese pilots' level of cooperation also wasn't helped by the poor-quality radio on their planes.
Japanese Spirit: They had plenty of this. What they needed was more Japanese firepower.
Katanas Are Just Better: The IJN officers had cheap, mass-produced katana that were used for torture and executions rather then fighting. Of course, fervent about the samurai spirit they did use these for combat but few if any were trained in their proper combat use, and often broke or chipped their swords.
Indeed, the Katanas also caused said officers to have a Highly Conspicuous Uniform on the battlefield, and they often found themselves drawing fire from the American troops as a result.
Officers from the old samurai families often took their ancestral swords, placed into the mass-produced hilts, into battle. While the blades were of much higher quality, it didn't make any difference in modern warfare. It did, however, result in quite a few high-quality blades ending up in GIs' duffle bags on the way back to the United States.
When Japan began modernizing in late 19th century, the army forbade use of old katanas and issued European-style straight-swords and cutlasses in their place. Katanas were reintroduced in the Japanese army only in 1930s!
The Laws and Customs of War: Played straight and then subverted later. Interestingly the Japanese were complimented widely for their gracious adherence to this during the Russo-Japanese war. They did not have this reputation during World War II.
Imperial German POWs during WW1 so enjoyed being interned by the Japanese that some of them emigrated there after their release!
Karmic Death: The architects of the U.S. firebombing campaign considered it a justified response to Japanese atrocities. After the war Japan was essentially a pre-Industrial Age wasteland with almost no cities still standing and came very close to mass famine as their transport system was in ruins.
Karma Houdini: Arguably many Japanese officers and grunts from the war. Particularly the ruling family.
Klingon Scientists Get No Respect: Staff, supply, maintenance, logistics and all other support services that weren't sufficiently glorious were neglected or ignored, with disastrous results. Even the famous Pearl Harbor raid suffered from insufficient planning and poor staff work. It only succeeded because the airmen were sufficiently skilled to overcome the flaws in the plan. For instance, they failed to attack the oil tanks because they were never even considered as targets believe it or not. (Any face-saving assertions to the contrary were invented after the war.) Their otherwise intrepid destroyer forces spent little or no effort on the tedious and unromantic subject of anti-submarine warfare, much to their later cost as their merchant fleet is largely wiped out. And troops invading islands in the South Pacific often found airfields littered with derelict aircraft, often with very little wrong with them, that the undermanned and under-trained Japanese maintenance crews lacked either the parts or the expertise to repair.
This was especially apparent with regards to the development of the Japanese radar. During 1920s and 30s, Japanese scientists were at the forefront of the technology that would eventually lead up to the operational radar. However, Japanese military leaders remained ignorant of these developments—even though several of these scientists (such as Yoji Ito) were serving in the army and navy when World War II broke out (in capacities that had nothing to do with radar, at least at the beginning of the war). Proposals for using radio waves for direction finding and detection, made by scientists like Kinjiro Okabe in 1930s, (when British and Germans were starting their own radar development in secret) were turned down by the military as "impractical." Most Japanese military leaders did not become aware of the radar until they captured a British set in Singapore and, even then, they were not aware that the radar's "Yagi antenna" (later "Yagi-Uda") was named after Japanese scientists who invented itnote Yagi Hidetsugu and Uda Shintaro, two researchers in the Imperial Tohoku University in Sendai. Originally it was known as just "Yagi antenna", as Shintaro Uda, its actual inventor, didn't know English, and the design was publicized in the West in a paper by his advisor, prof. Yagi, even though he mentioned Uda in the paper. Only after the war the history of the invention became widely known..
As a practical matter, however, they were silliness of the first order; a massed assault was WWI stuff (and the sort of propagandized insanity that got people worked up to them belonged to wars hundreds of years older than that), and artillery, the machine gun and semi-automatic rifles had grown more numerous and deadlier since their days of breaking such assaults on the Somme. The results were... predictable, and the Japanese would have been better served by staying on the defensive.
Leave No Survivors: The armed forces of Imperial Japan during WW2 came frighteningly close to treating this as standard operating procedure. Note that they also applied this policy to themselves: Japanese units were expected to suffer 100% casualties (no unwounded survivors) win or lose (note the lyrics of the Imperial Navy Anthem above) and a surprising number actually succeeded.
U.S. soldiers in the Pacific Theater came pretty close too for various reasons. The fact that Japanese soldiers were taught to consider victory and death the only honorable outcomes of battle was a major factor; it was rare that a Japanese soldier would even attempt to surrender, though it did become more common once the war was obviously hopeless. Made even worse in that some who pretended to surrender were carrying live grenades or trying to lure their enemies into an ambush, leading the Allied forces to shoot many Japanese soldiers who actually may have been trying to surrender. Finally, it simply is not possible to underestimate the sheer, unabashed, unadulterated racism of both sides due to wartime propaganda.
Allied soldiers sometimes misused the common image of the Japanese soldiers as those who believe that it is Better to Die than Be Killed; they would kill Japanese prisoners, claiming they had "committed suicide". These killings were motivated partially by revenge for Japanese atrocities, and partly by simple racism.
The Japanese Sixth fleet actually issued explicit orders to Leave No Survivors from torpedoed merchant ships, ironically at the behest of the Germans. Approximately half of their submarine captains simply refused to obey these orders and they were dropped after most of the captains who did obey complained that the massacres were ruining morale.
This attitude increasingly characterized U.S. submarine captains and pilots who sank Japanese ships, both warships and civilian. Machine gunning of Japanese survivors in water by U.S. submarine crews and planes was commonly reported (for example, by USS Wahoo against survivors of Japanese freighter Buyo Maru and by U.S. PT boats against survivors from sunken transports after the Battle of Bismarck Sea).
Made of Explodium: The Type 93 "Long Lance" was a scarily good torpedo. It was significantly faster than other WW2 torpedoes and had longer range than even most heavy cruisers' guns. They even developed battle reload gear so they could launch twice as many as anyone else. But it got its range and speed from using pure oxygen (where other torps would have compressed air). A lot of Japanese destroyers (and several cruisers) were lost when their torpedoes exploded. The reloads just made the problem worse.
Heavy cruiser Chokai is the only warship to have ever lost a gun duel with an aircraft carrier, much less an escort carrier; a 5" shell from USS White Plains detonated inside her torpedo room, and the resulting explosions wrecked her.
Moment Of Awesome: Battle of Tsushima in the Russo-Japanese War. Albeit the Russians had to fight on foreign waters halfway across the globe.
Their simultaneous invasions of the Philippines, Malaysia + Singapore and the East Indies count. Heck, the fact that they could hold off the U.S. as much as they did (it could have done much better in several battles) is a case of sheer awesomeness.
Churchill himself considered the utter curbstomping of the British and Australians by the Japanese at Singapore the greatest disaster in the history of the British military. This is mainly because the British outnumbered the Japanese three to one, the Japanese were starving and out of supplies by the time they attacked, and the British were in a fortified position. And they still lost.
Sinking Prince of Wales and Repulse off Malaya. With their planes, the Japanese sunk not only the two major battleships of the British Navy, but the primacy of the warship class once and for all.
The rescue of the dying garrison on Guadalcanal could also qualify.
Some of the naval battles in Guadalcanal too.
Never Live It Down: In parts of East Asia, Japan's reputation can still come off like this.
Never Recycle Your Schemes: Inverted. The IJN in the South Pacific had a bad habit of repeating successful operations, in part due to their lack of fleet staff officers. They sometimes got away with it twice, but they rarely got away with it more than twice, either running into a U.S. Navy ambush or more often a minefield.
Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Yamamoto's Pearl Harbor attack prevented the "Decisive Battle" fleet engagement in the Central Pacific that the IJN had spent thirty years preparing for and probably would have won.note The plan included massive nighttime volleys of Type 93 "Long Lance" torpedoes, which the U.S. Navy was not prepared to defend against. With all of their pre-war plans dashed, both sides had to improvise and the Allies proved much, much better at improvisation.
Similarly, Yamamoto refused to use the combined fleet to counterattack at Guadalcanal, believing that it wasn't the appropriate situation for the decisive battle either, and eventually ended up losing more ships and aircraft from attrition than he would have risked in an immediate counterattack.
Off with His Head!: Japanese soldiers used to have contests to see who could decapitate the most Chinese prisoners. This even made positive headlines in papers back in Tokyo.
Western prisoners-of-war were also subject to execution by Katana. A well-known example of this was Leonard Siffleet.
Officer and a Gentleman: Almost always averted with the IJA. More often played straight with the IJN, because naval warfare is commonly thought of as a battle between ships, not between men; in addition, both sides in a naval battle have a mutual common enemy - the ocean.
Played straight with Lt. Colonel Baron Takeichi Nishi, Officer, gentleman, nobleman, and Gold Medalist in equestrian showjumping at the 1930 Los Angeles Olympiad where he made many Hollywood friends. Posted to Iwo Jima, he may have been the only Japanese officer the U.S. specifically wanted to capture alive, as they broadcast daily appeals for his surrender.
In 1592, Hideyoshi first tried to force an alliance on and then invaded Korea in order to secure it as a staging ground for a wider assault on China in a bid for domination of the Far East. This may have been part of his efforts to end the Warring States (Sengoku Jidai) period by occupying his samurai and allied warlords with a hopeless war of conquest while he rebuilt the country. It's generally assumed that Oda Nobunaga would've done the same had he lived to complete the unification himself.
In 1798, Honda Toshiaki (a vocal opponent of British imperialism) said Japan should rule the entire Pacific Rim and relocate the capital to the Russian Far East peninsula of Kamchatka—because he reasoned that Kamchatka, being at the same latitude as London, would have the same climate.
Only Sane Man: Isoroku Yamamoto, mentioned above, seemed to be the only man in the country that thought an unprovoked attack on America might be a bad idea. Being utterly loyal to his nation, Yamamoto would naturally do everything he could to craft the best plan to attack America once it was decided to do so, even if he thought the attack itself was a bad idea. So he planned the Pearl Harbor attack, figuring that if his country was going to start a war they probably couldn't win, he should at least try and go for the juggular rather than opening by attacking the USA in the Philippines only.
Subverted by Homma and Yamashita, other "sane men".
Admiral Raizo Tanaka, considered by many Americans the best destroyer commander in the IJN, was relieved of duty for pointing out Imperial General Headquarters had set impossible objectives during the Guadalcanal campaign.
Captain Tameichi Hara raised eyebrows and hackles for daring to protest the complacency and inflexibility he saw in his superiors, especially since events kept proving him right. Most notably when his Shigure was the only ship to survive the Battle of Vella Gulf after he was the only Captain who objected to repeating the previous operation without changes.
Even before World War II, there was Lt. Col. Eiichi Ioki, who put up heroic defense against the main Soviet offensive at the strategic Fui Heights for five days during the Battle of Khalkhin Gol against overwhelming odds and had the good sense and skill to extract his surrounded, outnumbered, starving, worn out, but still mostly alive troops when the situation became hopeless (which, itself, took a masterful maneuver). Naturally, he was forced to commit suicide after the battle.
On a general level, The Japanese cultural tendency to avoid frank or blunt language and open disagreement sometimes lead to overly complex plans couched in excessively vague terms, and sometimes they even resorted to Blatant Lies in order to save face.
On a specific level, the Allies's more advanced radio equipment gave them superior tactical flexibility if used properly. For example, fighter team tactics were only possible with effective voice radios, which the Allies had and the Japanese lacked until the end of the war (Japanese radios themselves weren't that bad, just prone to interference because they lagged in developing shielded ignition systems)
Ironically, this outlook wasn't actually that unpopular at the times, and even among the Allies there were some (most notably Russians, though largely because they had difficulty with producing enough radios to equip everyone) who subscribed to the idea that the radio was overrated for the lower level of the chain of command. On the other hand, when this prowed a wrong assumption, Soviet Union invested an enormous effort to fill its ranks and vehicles/aircraft with as much equipment as needed, while Japanese continued to stick to it, once again demostrating their lack of flexibility.
Proud Warrior Race: The concept of Yamato damashii, the spirit of the Japanese race, played a major role in the self-image of Japan's armed forces.
Pyrrhic Victory: The Russo-Japanese war, especially after the West (US and Europe) essentially forced Japan to give back their conquests.
The Imperial Navy's fleet faction spent years fulminating against the Washington and London Naval treaties, which limited their forces to 60% of the U.S. Navy. But when Japan finally withdrew from the treaty regime in 1939 their celebrations were cut short when the U.S. responded with a huge naval construction program they could never dream to match. They'd been so focussed on breaking the treaty limits they'd forgotten they had no hope of staying even close to 60% without them. Part of the thinking behind the Pearl Harbor attack was a desire to strike before bulk of the new ships arrived in 1942 and the odds became insuperable.
Rape, Pillage, and Burn: Often used as a reward to soldiers for winning battles. The IJA often gets compared to a barbarian horde for this very reason. This was especially prominent in China, and still causes bad blood between Japan and other Pacific nations. IJA soldiers themselves referred to this as the three "alls": kill all, steal all, burn all.
Reliably Unreliable Guns: Other than the generally excellent Arisaka rifles, most of the small arms the IJN and IJA were saddled with were mediocre at best.note The "Baby Nambu" pistol, a standard officer's sidearm, probably takes the cake, as not only was it unreliable and expensive to produce (despite being designed to the contrary), but also some features that were intended to make it cheaper actually meant that if assembled wrong way (which was ridiculously easy to do) it tended to violently disassemble itself during shooting. "Papa Nambu", its WWI predecessor, was more reliable, but even more expensive and still could've been accidentally assembled in such a way that it would irreparably jam after the first discharge. The successor, the Type 14 Nambu, was in most respects an improvement, but like the other Nambu pistols suffered from firing an underpowered round and excessive bulk, and also had a flawed firing pin design that was prone to breakage. Rather than bothering to implement any of the suggested improvements to fix that problem, the IJA merely issued spare firing pins; apparently officers and NCOs were supposed to disassemble their pistol and replace the firing pin in mid-battle if necessary. No wonder so many of them preferred using their swords. And then there was the Type 94 Nambu, an attempt to design a cheaper and smaller pistol that would be suitable for pilots, tank crews and other personnel who operated in cramped spaces. It succeeded in those goals, but also "succeeded" in being one of the worst military handguns ever issued. Particularly infamous was the exposed sear, which made it possible for the pistol to fire without the trigger being pulled. If a soldier was careless and forgot to engage the safety, falling on his side could result in being shot in the leg by his own holstered gun. Not only did the army and navy use different machine guns, they often used different cartridges, unnecessarily complicating supply and manufacture. Though with the prevailing athmosphere of militaristic anarchy that reigned in Japan at the time, they probably considered that as an advantage, because incompatible cartridges couldn't be pilfered by one branch to the detriment of the other.
Oddly enough, most of Japan's machine guns and all of its pistols of this era were designed by the same man, Colonel Nambu, who designed the exceptionally strong and reliable bolt of the Type 38 Arisaka (replacing the considerably less rugged bolt his mentor General Arisaka designed for the original Type 30). While some of his machine guns had innovative concepts, "innovative" doesn't always mean "effective", and they weren't. His best machine gun designs were blatant copies of European weapons.
Nambu consistently failed to understand the need to provide a primary extraction cycle to gently unseat the fired cartridge case before ejection, which meant that the cartridges had to be coated with oil that attracted dirt which jammed the guns. He even engineered the primary extraction sequence out of most of the European weapons he copied. Nambu's designs are notorious for poor use of energy throughout their action cycles, which gives them a distinctive staccato "stuttering" sound when fired and prevented them from developing a functional belt feed system.
Perhaps the ultimate example of Nambu's work was his type 11 machine gun, which used an innovative feed mechanism that took the standard five round stripper clips or chargers for the 6.5mm Arisaka rifle. In theory this simplified supply and allowed any soldier to top up the gun in a pinch. In reality it had the same primary extraction problems and required an oiler. The hopper tended to collect dirt and mud which the oiled cartridges then carried into the action. The standard rifle round proved to be too powerful for it, meaning the Japanese had to issue special ammunition anyway, and since the special MG ammo was physically interchangeable with the rifle ammo misloading one into the other invariable resulted in a jammed MG or a missed rifle shot.
Imperial Japanese artillery was generally of fair to good quality, with some excellent, especially naval guns, but the shells they fired tended to be unreliable and prone to low-order detonations if they went off at all. For example, only half of shells that hit USS South Dakota at the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal exploded, and none of them penetrated her armor. Their aerial bombs were just as bad, though the armor piercing bomb that blew up USS Arizona worked perfectly.
Ironically, during their previous major naval war the reverse was true. Russia lagged behind in upgrading its artillery to the high-explosive shells, and their fuses were of atrocious quality. So while the Russian gunnery was generally no worse (and maybe even better) than the Japanese one, about half of the (old-fashioned, black powder charged) shells that hit, refused to explode, and those that did often weren't powerful enough to break the armor, while the Japanese picrate-based shells were devastating.
Russo-Japanese War: One of the Imperial Army's three main wars. A minor victory (if at all) for Japan, but major in the sense it grew more audacious and the European powers (save Britian, who'd already signed an Alliance with and built all their battleships for them) started taking it more seriously.
While the losses were about even, and Japan gained very little out of the war, Russia still came out of the war a lot worse for wear, as the people trusted the government less, many prisoners were taken, and over fifty thousand people died due to economic deadweight.
Another preview of things to come: during the war, the Japanese military actually had many soldiers captured, at about the 1/1/1 (killed/wounded/captured) ratio that most other nations at war expect. The Japanese high command decided the idea of Japanese soldiers giving up was entirely unacceptable, and began the culture of no-surrender, which blossomed fully in World War II.
Schizo Tech: While the Imperial Japanese Navy and its air arm were easily a match for any force until 1942, the Imperial Japanese Army was just only adequate by the time it started its invasion of China in 1931. Although far better organized and equipped than the disunited Chinese military forces (which were often led by warlords nominally aligned with the Nationalist government), the Japanese military had made few attempts at improvement since the 1920s and was severely lacking in motor vehicles and automatic firearms, never mind armored vehicles and artillery. As the invasion proceeded deeper inland, it stalled for reasons that had a lot to do with over-extension of their forces. Although there were attempts at modernization of the IJA after their major defeat at the hands of the Soviets at Khalkin Gol, the changing political and strategic situation involving the United States meant that this had to be put on hold, with the unenviable side-effect of complicating logistics as they were half-way into replacement of older equipment with newer weapons chambered for newly-developed and entirely different ammunition. By 1945 the Japanese army was woefully out of date, and contemptuously swept aside by the Soviets in Manchuria.
The main reason why the IJA was so woefully equipped was that the IJN took priority when it came to resource allocation and development. Case in point, the IJN's marines, the Special Navy Landing Forces, were considerably better trained and equipped than most of the Army's rank-and-file. Whereas their ground-based counterparts largely had to make do with obsolete bolt-action rifles and a number of old heavy machine guns, the SNLF could count upon getting first pick of the latest armory goodies, including the few submachine guns that were in the inventory.
Perhaps the ultimate example: The famous Zero fighters were delivered from the Mitsubishi factory in oxcarts because the roads to the nearest airfield were too primitive for anything faster. Late in the war they were finally able to upgrade to horse-drawn wagons and they had trouble finding enough suitable horses to even do that. Upgrading the roads proved to be beyond their resources.
Aircraft operating in China were often refueled by hand, with buckets.
Senseless Sacrifice: Japanese fatalism meant many Japanese pilots probably died needlessly because nobody even bothered to look for them after they were shot down. Japanese veterans envious of the extensive Allied air-sea rescue system noted that aside from the obvious morale benefits it was inherently wasteful to not even look for men they'd spent years training.
Even stranger is that, prior to World War II, Japanese pilot training was more rigorous than their counterparts elsewhere in the world, with relatively few successful graduates, meaning that the pilots being lost earlier in the war were even harder to replace than their enemies'. Yet, Japanese leaders were, in general, incredibly careless with this irreplaceable resource.
Seppuku: A fatalistic culture, the Japanese were extremely devoted to suicide, preferring (what they believed was) an honorable death to captivity. At least in theory (read: propaganda). The Japanese people had been told that capture by Americans would be A Fate Worse Than Death, and given what soldiers who had returned from fighting and occupation duties in China had done to civilians, (not to mention the Allies' own propaganda) it didn't seem far-fetched that the Allies would be their equals in barbarity. Some survivors of Saipan and Okinawa murdered their whole families before being captured by American soldiers to "save" them from the barbarians. The survivors were surprised by the relatively civilized way in which the occupiers behaved (yes, rape and murder happened, but just at the level you'd expect from a typical occupation force and not on anywhere near the scale they were expecting), despite their brutality during the battle itself. Finally, more Japanese surrendered on Okinawa than in previous battles, in part because the war was clearly lost and because the U.S. made a deliberate effort to convince Okinawan civilians to surrender using their Hawaiian relatives.
Shoot the Medic First: The Japanese were notorious for targeting Allied medics. They had virtually no medics of their own.
So Last Season: Ironically, the Type 93 torpedo. Any torpedo could be dodged if you knew it was coming and had room to maneuver. A successful torpedo attack usually required surprise and most took place in darkness, restricted waters, or in the middle of a melee. Once the Allies fielded radar Japanese torpedoes became much less effective, and it's worth noting that the only successful torpedo attacks during the ultimate sea battle at Leyte Gulf were launched by the U.S. Navy.
The Yamato class battleship. While one of the best battleships ever built, the concept of heavily armored battleships with massive guns had been increasingly obsolete by the time that they were designed, only hanging on a thread that aircraft carriers were still a new and unproven concept, until the Battle of Toranto and ironically, Japan's own attack on Pearl Harbor put the nails in the coffin. Both ships that were completed as battleships proved to be utterly hapless against American aerial attacks when they finally made their combat debut.
The brilliant Japanese offensives in 1942 were a textbook case of the disproportionate advantage that planning, speed, shock, and surprise provide to experienced veterans, which the Japanese had in abundance due to their previous decade's incursions into China. Their reversals in 1943 were primarily due to the allies closing that "experience gap" and becoming veterans themselves, By 1944 the Allies had the added advantage of second generation weapons while the Japanese were losing their most experienced men to attrition or trapped on bypassed islands.
The often-revered A6M Zero is designed around close-range low-speed dogfighting. Although undisputedly good in that role, its Crippling Overspecialization in the increasingly obsolete tactic led to its ultimate downfall. Its ultra-lightweight airframe, designed for maximum maneuverability, led to extremely poor structural strength that severely limited its dive speed (there had been accounts of Zeros disintegrating from dives at speeds that are well within the safety range of most fighters from its time), as well as virtually no armor of any sort or self-sealing fuel tanks, which tends to make it burst into flames when taking hits, as well as having an insanely low rate of survival for pilots whose aircraft were hit, which Japan cannot replace. The Allies exploited the Zero's weaknesses to great effect once they were learnt.
A Japanese Military School at the time was so rigorous that you could tell officers because they were the smallest and thinnest; they had been half-starved during adolescence. The IJN was out at sea in all weathers practicing. And so on.
Japan decided to build its air forces (both Navy and Army) around small numbers of excellent pilots, rather than large numbers of very good ones. It paid off well in the carrier battles of 1942, where Japanese pilots pressed home successful attacks against great odds. It also resulted in the effective destruction of Japanese airpower in 1943 as the prewar aviators went to places like Rabaul and Wewak from which they would never return. Imperial Japanese airpower had to be rebuilt from scratch afterwards.
Saburo Sakai, noted IJN fighter ace and one of the few lucky enough to survive the entire war, opined that "the Navy placed almost superstitious belief in the idea that brutality made better enlisted" and by all accounts the Army was worse. The use of harsh physical punishment against an enlisted man was considered routine, and many of those men were so brutalised by this treatment they became capable of doing truly horrific things in turn.
One of the reason Japanese destroyers had such a fantastic performance was that the Japanese designers considered one cubic meter of living space per man (basically, a berth, a locker, and that's all) perfectly sufficient for destroyer crews, and the washing was done in a single communal bath per ship under a CO-mandated schedule, usually weekly. The space thus freed went to the engines and fuel reserves. Yamato-class battlships were nicknamed "hotels" by their crews because they had as much as three times more living space, real mess halls (instead of food being delivered from the galley directly to the berthing compartments), pool baths and public showers. Yet, space per crewman onboard even the Yamato class battleships was far smaller than their Allied counterparts (e.g. roughly half that of the Iowa class battleships).
The aforementioned food (for the enlisted, at least) commonly consisted of just plain white rice, and, maybe, some vegetable curry to break the blandness of the staple. Fish and meat were uncommon, and fresh fruit and vegetables only when available. While white rice was regarded as an upper-class dish by most of the enlisted men (who were usually conscripted from the peasant stock), it lacked B vitamins and has led to the resurgence of beri-beri in the IJN. The Navy had to issue the special rice-and-barley mix to combat it (ironically, the men hated it).
The Army, if anything, was even worse. Navy at least served its ratings' food already prepared, while in the IJA the soldier was expected to cook his own meals. Each week they were issued a bag or rice, several small cans of meat or fish, a bottle of soy sauce, a pack of miso and two cellophane bags of pickled radishes and plums, and that's basically it. While in garrison, Army at least opened special stores where the soldiers might buy everything else, such as fresh vegetables (and gave them an allowance to do so), but in campaign the only way was foraging, which often led to the troops brutalizing the locals again.
There was no real means of redress upwards, so humiliation was taken out on lower ranks going down the chain of command, with ever increasing brutality. So what started out as a minor insult from a General to a Colonel ended up with some recruit being (literally) slapped into near total blindness. And for the recruits, there was only one set of people they could take these frustrations out on...
Sword and Gun: Japanese officers were equipped with a cheap, mass produced shin gunto and an eight millimeter Nambu pistol. The sword was almost never used for combat and the Nambu wasn't good for much more than committing suicide so Japanese officers often bought better swords and pistols privately.
Taking You with Me : Japan used this as its strategy in World War II, hoping the Allies would not have the nerve to go through with it. The Allies not only did "go through", but unfortunately for Japan, the Allies had More Dakka and used it well. Japan simply could not take enough with them to make up for what the Allies "took".
This was their plan in the event of an Allied invasion of the home islands. They pulled back as much troops and tanks as they could to Japan, drafted millions of citizens into militias (including elderly suicide bombers and schoolchildren with knives) commandeered all available boats and planes to use as kamikazes, and spread propaganda to convince their citizens to hold mass suicides. Had the invasion gone through, most estimates predict that it would've resulted in more American deaths than World War 2 and any other war they were involved in or would be involved in combined, and about fifteen percent of Japan's population. Fortunately, the Soviet invasion and the atomic bombs made it unnecessary.
Tank Goodness: Completely averted. Japanese tanks were, until roughly mid-Thirties, decent vehicles for their time. Their Type 97 Chi-ha tanks were an even match for virtually any other light tank of that era, and were immune to most of what the poorly equipped Chinese could throw at them, namely rifle bullets and homemade grenades. Standards advanced rapidly however, and by 1944 the Japanese faced both a gross qualitative and quantitative disadvantage against the Allies.
M3 Stuarts pulled hastily out of the North African theatre in 1942 and sent to Burma to provide support during the long retreat wiped the floor with Japanese tanks, despite being a light tank outclassed by the Afrika Korps.
The extent of that disadvantage is evident in the fact that late-30es Allied designs, such as British Matilda (even nicknamed "Queen of the Jungle" by the soldiers) and Soviet BT tanks, were successfully employed against Japan until the very end of the war, despite being long obsoleted in the European theater.
There's also the matter that while Japanese considered Chi-Ha a medium tank, by the world standards it was a light tank, and thus completely inadequate when faced off with anyone with better armor than the Chinese. Japan never deployed a true medium tank, not to mention a heavy one, in any significant numbersnote the only possible candidate, Type 3 Chi-Nu, had a whooping build number of 144, and was a no match for the Allies' armor anyway, and all such designs remained in prototype or field test stages at best.
Even in the Light tank category, the Chi-Ha was laughably inadequate. Suffering from subpar speed comparable with an actual medium tank and poor ammunition quality (the shells would shatter upon impact on enemy armor), the American M3 Stuart and the aforementioned Soviet BT could deal with it easily.
It's worth noting that an Australian constabulary unit on postwar occupation duty discovered that there wasn't a single bridge in their entire operations area (a rural prefecture in Southern Honshu) capable of handling the six ton weight of a Staghound armored car. It's hard to create much of a tank arm when you can't even deploy them within your own country.
Technician Versus Performer: The USN thought of itself more as a technician of war and the IJN more as a performer. This is especially apparent in the air war, where U.S. tactics were far more analytical and thus far more effective. On paper, Japanese warships were equal in most respects to their foreign contemporaries but with superior speed and armament, and they held important technical advantages in areas like optics and torpedoes. In reality, the Japanese scrimped in less visible areas like durability, stability, survivability and habitability to get those speed and armament advantages and they lagged in some other critical technical areas that were to prove their undoing. However the Japanese policy of making up for any technical disadvantages with superior training worked well on land, air and sea until eclipsed by the superior technical developments of the Allies and their more practical training regime such as the aforementioned practice of pulling their aces out of combat to be Veteran Instructors.
Underestimating Badassery: Both America and Japan did this to each other to some degree at the start of World War II. Indeed Japan's whole plan was based on the assumption that a nation of shopkeepers would give up pretty quickly in the face of a true Proud Warrior Race. Conversely, none of the Allies were prepared for the string of humiliating defeats Japan handed them during the six months following Pearl Harbor.
Khalkin Gol, where Japan learned you never, under any circumstances try to invade Russia, as they basically achieved nothing there. The Japanese went in remembering the victory in the Russo-Japanese War, but they managed to forget how pyrrhic it was. They ended up losing some 30,000 soldiers, almost twice as much as the Russians, and retreating. This largely settled debate within the Japanese military about where they should look for new territories to conquer, though the prospect was briefly raised again in June-July 1941. When Operation Barbarossa failed at Smolensk in July-August, though, they dropped it for good.
Unobtanium: America and The British Empire placed an embargo on oil and other resources to Japan before the war as they really didn't want it to be used by Japan to beat up China, where they had their own interests including the local Balance of Power. The Japanese could not carry on military operations without such things and withdrawing would lose face. Thus they decided that they should attack Malaya and The Dutch East Indies, which was fair enough, but also the USA's Philippines - all on the grounds that a quick and successful offensive and a "magnanimous" offer of peace (to let them keep China and maybe some other stuff) would end the war. It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.
What the Hell, Hero?: Prior to and during the war, the military held an exalted and powerful place in Japanese society. However, after the war, the remnants of the Japanese military experienced a terrible backlash of popular discontent from the Japanese people. This was primarily due to a potent combo of long-standing grudges against the military's high-handed ways, that the Japanese people saw them as failures, and for being the people who brought economic and physical ruin on their country. The American occupation troops found themselves in the bizarre position of defending Japanese veterans from their own people.
Conversely the veterans themselves also felt betrayed by the military, because the Allies had shown them that they could win a war without treating their troops like Cannon Fodder
We Are Struggling Together: The Empire of Japan and Germany weren't very good allies. The Japanese actively ignored military strategies that would benefit their allies, i.e. expanding southwards into the Dutch, British, and American held territories in the Pacific rather than invading the Soviet Union alongside Germany and their allies. Germany also got pissed at Japan for launching a full scale invasion of China, as they wanted the Guomindang as allies against the Soviet Union, even briefly helping them against Japan until the Axis Powers were formed and they forced the recall of General Alexander von Falkenhausen and his team. On top of this, they actively worked to undermine each other's racist ideologies; see Even Evil Has Standards.
Ironically, despite bringing America into the war being just as disastrous for Germany as it was for Japan, Hitler was delighted at the news of the Pearl Harbor attack. He saw Americans as a "mongrel nation" that lacked the good sense to maintain Aryan supremacy, and assumed that the warrior race of Japan would have no difficulty.
We Have Reserves: The Guomindang ultimately had to use a strategy of attrition and partisan warfare, though tactically of course they focused on training, arming, and supplying their forces as well as they could. Things worked out surprisingly well just how poorly-supplied Japanese forces were because of their complete disdain for maintenance and repair,engineering, and logistics - even given just how poorly-supplied the Guomindang's own troops were. Japan's own attrition-strategy in the wider war against the USA and Commonwealth didn't work out, since while they had the manpower to replace their losses (well, except for pilots and sailors, who require much longer and more selective training, but whom the Japanese command wasted with the same reckless abandon as their ground forces) they didn't have the industry to give the replacement-forces adequate equipment and weaponry to match.
World War II : One of the Imperial forces' two main wars. Not a sweeping victory for Japan.
Worthy Opponent: Raizo Tanaka, the commander of the "Tokyo Express" (which smuggeled much-needed food and ammunition to Japanese forces on Guadalcanal). He may be more admired by Americans than by the Japanese!
In Debt of Honor Tom Clancy referred to him as the greatest destroyer commander who ever lived.
Jisaburo Ozawa again. Raymond Spruance, probably the best of the American carrier commanders, considered him the only Japanese carrier commander who was any good in the entire war. The U.S. Navy official history of World War 2 refers to him as the best admiral America had to fight in the war.
In a gesture of magnanimity, Admiral Chester Nimitz visited Japanese military hospitals after the war.
Both Yamamoto and General Kuribayashi (he of Iwo Jima fame) seem to be regarded at least neutrally, if not positively, in the wider world. Both men had had travelled and studied abroad and knew that the U.S. would not behave as the Navy's leadership hoped it would, lending Kuribayashi a certain doomed poignancy in his final battle while Yamamoto is recognized to have at least counselled against attacking the USA before having to yield to his duty and fight that nation.
After the Battle of Khalkhin Gol, Zhukov singled out Eichii Ioki, the defender of Fui Heights, for praise among his Japanese opponents, noting that he almost derailed the entire Soviet offensive single-handedly (other Japanese commanders, on the other hand, Zhukov considered to be quite incompetent). Ioki's Japanese superiors did not agree with this view, unfortunately.
Wrong Genre Savvy: The Imperial Navy spent twenty years preparing for the kind of battle they thought they could win. The war they actually had to fight turned out to be something entirely different and they proved to be very slow in adjusting their thinking to that reality.