Review: Japan's Imperial Army, Its Rise and Fall
- Published: 28 April 2010 28 April 2010
- Last Updated: 12 July 2013 12 July 2013
Edward Drea is the preeminient American scholar on the Imperial Japanese Army and this current work complements his prior excellent studies in Japanese military history.Called “the most complete English-language history of the Japanese Army” it is easy to see that his access to and use of Japanese sources makes this excellent history stand out.Maintaining that “military history scholarship in Japan has become impressively sophisticated and diverse over the past twenty years..one goal [with this book] ,then,is to introduce English-language readers to this new Japanese military history”.
Drea’s work tracks the evolution of and then the rise and fall of the IJA, while at the same time demolishing some stereotypes all too common in the west.Addressing the notion of the Japanese soldier’s “propensity for self-immolation,..on intangible or spiritual factors in battle..a fanatical determination to fight to the death..”,he further states that(page viii):
Overemphasis of these characteristics skewed an understanding of strategy,high-level policy,and the army’s evolution..I suggest that historical circumstances shaped Japan’ s first modern army and that international pressures determined the army’s options,if not its fate.
What made the Japanese soldier fight so well is also addressed (page 258);
Ordinary soldiers did not fight ruthlessly to the bitter end because of a common samurai gene pool or military heritage…in macro terms,soldiers fought because the educational system inculcated a sense of national identity and responsibility to the state,patriotism,and reverance for imperial values…..based on recent,preliminary research,it appears that the vertical solidarity between junior leaders(lieutenants and senior sergeants ) and the conscripts they lead played a more significant role in combat motivation than in western armies.
The concept of “fighting to the last man” is also looked at:
Battles or campaigns that ended in the almost total destruction of army units usually occurred when they were surrounded,as happened at Nomonhan,or defending isolated atolls such as Peleliu and smaller islands like Attu,Saipan,and Iwo Jima,where retreat was impossible.Conversely,on Guadalcanal,New Guinea,Luzon and China,large Japanese army forces conducted tactical and operational retreats to preserve unit integrity.True,those armies suffered heavy losses,but most occurred after their logistics systems collapsed….[in 1945]for all the bluster about one’s responsibility to emulate samurai values,only about 600 officers committed suicide to atone for their roles in bringing Japan to defeat and disaster.That number included just 22 of the army’s 1,501 army generals..
Addressing war crimes,Drea has this to say(page 260):
Not all Japanese soldiers participated in war crimes,and those that did cannot be absolved because they were following orders or doing what everyone else in their unit was….What continues to define the army,however,is its fall,a descent into ruthlessness and barbarity during the 1930s whose repercussions are still felt today through much of Asia.That legacy will forever haunt the old army.
The structure of the book should also be mentioned.Only 31 pages out of 332 are devoted to the Asia-Pacific War.This is the end play,the end of the “fall” that Drea sees as commencing in 1931 with an army running amok,with fanatics in its ranks promoting expansion and coups,assassinations,then atrocities and suicidal banzai charges following.Military campaigns are mentioned briefly but the core of this book is its focus “on institutional issues arising from these conflicts that shaped the army’s strategy,doctrine,and values”.
Only one minor criticism.The proof reading falls short on a Table of Regular Army and Reserve Troop Numbers 1937-1945 on page 235.The total numbers don’t add up for the years 1942 and 1943.
Overall an excellent,impressive and well researched history that should be in the library of anyone interested in Japan’s role in World War Two.Not a WW2 history then as such,but an overall commentary on the army shaped in the 92 years following the shattering of Japan’s self-imposed isolation from 1853 onwards.
(Reviewed by Peter H)
Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.
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