Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, November 9, 2023

The Japanese Military's Response to the Great War's "Total War"

Japanese Artillerymen at Tsing Tao, 1914

By Kiyoshi Aizawa

In order to study the military implications of the First World War, the Japanese Army established the “Temporary Military Study Committee” (Rinji Gunji Chosa Iinkai) as early as 1915, the year after the start of the war, and began studying various aspects of the conflict. By mid-1917, about halfway through the war, the army was using the term “Total National Mobilization” (Kokka Sodoin) to refer to the total war nature of the war.  The results of such studies were organized after the war into reports such as the “Views concerning Total National Mobilization” (Kokka Sodoin ni kansuru Iken) of 1920, and the army began to study various measures which should be taken to respond to the arrival of the age of total war. 

The Japanese Army had fully understood the total war characteristic of the First World War while it was still in progress, and its implications for future wars, and had begun to take steps to prepare Japan for this new age of warfare, but was unable to carry out a coherent, sustained policy for creating a system for preparing for total war in the interwar period because of the factional infighting. Furthermore, the need for the securing of natural resources, which could only be satisfied by an overseas source, and the restructuring of domestic systems, meant that the army’s energy and resources would be dispersed—overseas, by the deployment of troops in China, and domestically, by its more active involvement in domestic politics. In addition, the army was ultimately unable to carry out various reforms which were necessitated by scientific and technological developments, as well as the modernization of its weapons and weapon systems, even though the lessons of World War One had made clear the need for both. This was perhaps the biggest difference from the Japanese Navy’s response to the experience of the First World War.

Like the army, the navy also set up a “Emergency Navy Committee to Study Naval Affairs” (Rinji Kaigun Gunji Chosa Iinkai) in the autumn of 1915, and began to study the possible effects and lessons of the war. As a result of its studies, the navy also came to understand that future wars would be long wars of attrition, i.e. total wars. In contrast with the army, however, the navy’s studies tended to center on issues related to weapons development and naval tactics, partly as a result of the navy’s traditional emphasis on scientific technology. The lessons which were derived as a result, such as “It will be difficult for a naval force, which has less than sixty percent of the enemy’s navy, to attain a decisive victory,” or “Dreadnoughts still have not lost their value as the nucleus of naval strength,” greatly affected the navy’s response to the war.

Imperial Japanese Navy Destroy Flotilla
Visiting Marseilles, 1917

It should be noted that opinions regarding how the navy should prepare for total wars split in connection with the naval arms reduction issue, which arose during the Washington Conference of 1921-22. It is interesting to note that the same sort of opposing viewpoints arose within the navy as had in the army concerning the question of how Japan should deal with her relative economic backwardness. . . Ironically, resentment towards the naval arms reduction treaties also served to unify the navy, since it resulted in a commonly felt resentment towards the United States, its Hypothetical Enemy Number One. It was under such circumstances that Japan opened hostilities against the United States and Great Britain in December 1941, at which time the Japanese Navy’s strength was greater than seventy percent that of the U.S. Navy. Furthermore, the Japanese Navy had succeeded in the modernization and development of its new weapons system, the air arm. If the “next” war had been of a short, decisive nature, these weapons should have been quite effective.

From the preceding explanation, in which the Japanese Army and Navy’s post-World War One response to the dawn of the age of total war was described, it should be clear that both were unprepared to fight a total war, which would necessarily be a long war of attrition, when they opened hostilities against the United States and Great Britain in December 1941 and entered World War Two. In the interwar period, the army had sporadically felt the need to prepare for a total war, but internal conflicts of opinion had prevented it from carrying out any effective measures to that end. On the other hand, the navy, from relatively early in the interwar period, had decided to concentrate its efforts on developing its front line fighting capabilities in anticipation of a short, decisive war, in which emphasis would be placed on decisive tactical victories in the initial stages of the war, even though it fully understood that the age of total war had arrived. 

Source: "The Shock of the First World War: Japan and Total War," National Institute for Defense Studies

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