The Strategic Culture of the Imperial Japanese Navy - Part 2 of 2
by Gary A. Gustafson
Nature of the War
“I think there was a mistake at the top from the very beginning as to the nature of modern warfare.”
Admiral Toyoda Soemu, IJN
Navy Chief of Staff
The Imperial Japanese Navy’s experience in modern war came through their victories in the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars. Both wars were against fading dynastic powers that pragmatically ceded the territory lost. Both wars were limited and regional. The war in the Pacific was the navy’s war. The navy brought its limited war doctrine to the largest theater of operations in history, against the most powerful industrial force in the world. Both Nagano and Yamamoto believed that the war with the US could be forced to a quick conclusion through the offensive. At the heart of this belief was the conviction that seishan was stronger than individualism. The IJN simply did not believe that Americans had the will to fight. The attack on Pearl Harbor was as much an attack on America’s will as it was on the Pacific Fleet. Admiral Toyoda summarized the IJN belief. “…this was the war for our very national existence, whereas in your case it was merely a case of national honor or perhaps protection of your economic interests in the Far East; and, because to you the war under such conditions would be of relatively slight significance as compared with ours….[we believed] you would lose your will to fight.” Yamamoto, despite his personal knowledge of America, completely misjudged American’s outrage after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Japanese were so confident in their own ability to plan and dictate the conduct of the war that they did not feel the need for a coordinated strategic intelligence network. The Navy, Army, Foreign Ministry, and Communications Ministry all had their own intelligence gathering efforts. There was no central organization for the processing or sharing of the data collected. Most notable was their lack of analysis or evaluation. Before the war, the Japanese embassy in Washington and the consulate in New York had a total of 21 Army, Navy, and embassy staff personnel working on gathering strategic intelligence. Yet, Japan based its estimates of America’s potential wartime industrial output on production during the Depression, which had fallen, and not overall US capacity. The War Ministry’s intelligence division was not consulted in the decision to go to war. Chihaya concludes that the lack of intelligence forced the NGS and Navy Ministry to base their decision not on scientific data but “just a vague general feeling.”
The intelligence network was only involved after a decision was made. Intelligence then became the responsibility of the operational commander. Even then, information was only passed up, not disseminated down. With only one officer at the fleet level assigned to gather intelligence, there was no sharing or analysis of data at the operational level. It was up to each commander to use the data as he saw fit. Unlike the army that created the Nakano Intelligence School, the navy had no formal training for intelligence. The navy assigned officers to intelligence based on foreign language skills and experience, personal preference, or exemption from fleet duty. The Japanese consistently overestimated their own abilities and underestimated the abilities of their enemies. Their overwhelming success in the early months of the war helped to fix this belief.
The IJN did develop a specialized signal intelligence network. The Naval Communications Intelligence – Fourth Branch, opened in 1929. Their assignment was to monitor and break British and American naval and diplomatic codes. By 1932, they were routinely reading the US Gray Diplomatic code. In 1937, the US changed to the Brown Code that the IJN was never able to break. In 1939, the US Navy introduced the M-138 strip cipher and stopped IJN interception altogether. The Japanese were never able to break US codes during the war; however, they did excel at signal traffic analysis. In 1936, they opened the signal intelligence site at Owada. By 1939, they had high quality, advanced direction-finding antenna at sites on Owada, Truk, the Carolinas, Jalut, the Marshalls, and Kwajalein. These facilities enabled them to triangulate the movement of ships during the US Navy’s maneuvers off the coast of Hawaii in 1939, thus confirming their understanding of the US strategic plan in the Pacific. This radio traffic analysis, combined with scout planes from their perimeter islands, provided them with a sense of confidence that they would know when the US fleet began to cross the Pacific.
The extent of the IJN knowledge of the US strategic plans for war against Japan is unknown. What the IJN did know of the US “Plan Orange” was enough to convince them that their doctrine was correct: the US fleet did plan to cross the Pacific to retake the Philippines if captured. Therein lays the difficulty that confronted the IJN. In 1941, Japan faced the prospects of a five front war against Russia, China, Holland, Britain, and the US. If they did not take the Philippines, the US could place their fleet across Japan’s line of communications with the southern resource area. The army was not convinced that they needed to take the Philippines. For the navy, however, the Philippines were the key to the entire doctrine of yogei sakusen.
Just how the IJN would control the US Navy’s actions was a delicate balancing act. The IJN needed time to prepare their defenses; however, they also needed to keep the war short so they did not run out of oil. Pearl Harbor would stretch the navy’s available resources for the southern offensive and risked the survival of the Combined Fleet deep in enemy waters. Early destruction of the US fleet might also delay US action and prolong the war. In the fall of 1941, War Minister Tojo summed up the attitude of the IGHQ when he told PM Konoye; “Sometimes a man has to jump from the veranda of Kiyomizu Temple, with his eyes closed into the ravine below.”
It was a very big ravine. The IJN simply did not account for the immensity of the area that their ships had to traverse. The southern width of Japan’s new empire was 6,400 miles. North to south it was 5,300 miles. The defensive perimeter stretched 14,200 miles, more than half the distance around the globe. The primary targets of the southern strategy, oil rich Borneo and the rubber plantations of Indonesia were 4,100 miles from Japan. This vast expanse of ocean and islands offered no resources to justify its defense. Before the war, Japan needed ten million tons of merchant shipping to meet its needs. Of this, four million tons were foreign-flagged vessels. After Pearl Harbor, Japan immediately lost 40 percent of its merchant fleet. Captured vessels brought this shortfall to 27.5 percent of their peacetime needs. This did not account for war demand. The army immediately commandeered 1.7 million tons to supply their forces in the captured territory. The navy commandeered nearly all of the oil tankers. Only 30,000 tons of tankers remained to ship the essential oil supply from Borneo to the refineries in Japan. This lack of attention to the very aim of the war – oil – helps to explain why the oil supplies at Pearl Harbor were never targeted. The refusal to deal with logistics and mobilization issues affected the conduct of the war from the very beginning.
Attention to the defense of the vital merchant fleet was nil during the early period of the war. The navy simply did not consider it an important element in the short, limited war they planned. Toyoda tried unsuccessfully to convince the Navy Ministry that “ships were consumption goods in modern war.” The small, inefficient shipyards simply could not keep up with new construction and repairs at the same time. One in eight merchantmen stayed out of service for repairs. By 1943, it was one in six. Maneuvers conducted in October 1940 simulated the sinking of 113 merchantmen in just five days. The only concern expressed by the NGS was how detectable were the submarines themselves. In the summer of 1941, a cabinet minister asked NCS Nagano about protection of the sea-lanes. Nagano refused to discuss military matters with a civilian. Within the NGS Operations Division, Second Section – Defense Planning, only one officer was responsible for commerce protection. He handled coastal defense as well. The IJN had few escort ships. Only twenty were equipped with sonar. The rest had WWI hydrophones that could only detect a submarine at 1,000 yards, well short of torpedo range. That the IJN did not know that the US would use the Mahanian principles of attacking the sea lines of communications is incomprehensible. At the start of the war, the Japanese did not believe that Americans could handle the rough life in a submarine. In addition, the defensive nature of convoy duty made it less desirable to the offensive minded officers of the IJN. By the end of the war, the US sank nearly nine million tons of Japanese merchant shipping.
Supply shortages and inadequate production capabilities plagued the Japanese war effort. Prior to the war, the US supplied 80 percent of Japan’s fuel and 90 percent of its aviation gas. The navy had secretly stockpiled two years of fuel based on peacetime usage. Studies estimated that the nation had enough fuel for the first year of war. The second year would become critical. The third year would be a disaster. By the end of the war, the navy had consumed 60 percent of the Japan’s total oil supply and what ships remained were effectively beached. Oil was not the only commodity that was crucial to Japan’s war effort. The US also supplied half of Japan’s copper, two thirds of their machine tools, and three quarters of their scrap metal. During the war, the lack of steel often left shipyards under capacity. The shortage of alloys affected production of aircraft, turbines, and munitions. The Navy suffered constant shortages of aerial torpedoes and anti-aircraft ammunition.
Japanese industry was already at full capacity prior to the war. Unlike Germany, which significantly increased its production capacity by taking the industrial areas of France and the Low Countries, Japan did not gain a single production facility of note. All raw materials had to ship to Japan through the ever-narrowing gauntlet of US submarines. For the navy, whose ships were spread over this huge expanse of ocean, the captured territories did not include a single dry-dock capable of handling anything bigger than a destroyer. In Japan, the local infrastructure for transporting materials was antiquated. The Zero, one of the most modern planes in the war, needed an ox cart to transport it from the assembly line to the runway. Within the “Great East-Asian Co-prosperity sphere,” Japan’s barbarous attitude toward other races, combined with the nationalist feelings aroused by the ending of Western colonial rule, caused the people to turn against them. Japan found itself fighting a guerilla war in Southeast Asia, and the southern resource area never reached its potential, becoming instead a liability.
Within three months of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had captured all of the territories of the southern resource area, and the oilfields of Borneo were coming back on line. The military campaign had surpassed all expectations. The IJN had estimated twenty-five percent losses; they had suffered one tenth of that. Phase 2 called for the consolidation of the defensive perimeter. However, the IJN was convinced that it would take the US one year to recover from Pearl Harbor. In addition, President Roosevelt announced a “Europe First” strategy that could delay the American offensive for years. Racially, the Japanese simply did not believe that Americans were capable of fighting in the tropics.
The IJN did not know how to continue. All of the commanders agreed that they must stay on the offensive. For them, the moral and psychological factors in war were everything. Ugaki summed up the attitude of the IJN when he passed on to his staff the adage that victory, “depends largely upon momentum and chance.” The Navy drew up a new series of offensive campaigns. By the end of 1942, they planned to take Eastern New Guinea, Nauru, Oceana, the Aleutians, Midway, New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa. Success in these campaigns would determine the possibilities of Hawaii and Australia, although the army was against this. Within two years, Japan’s national strategy went from China to Indochina, to Southeast Asia, to war with the US, to defense of its new perimeter, to Hawaii and Australia. Clearly, there was no unified national strategy or a force capable of guiding one in a rational, pragmatic fashion. The offensive mindset of the IJN prevented them from understanding that they were stretching the ability of their forces, logistics, and industrial capacity well beyond their means.
Conclusion: The ocean and pre-industrial technology long protected the islands of Japan from her enemies. The concept of losing a war was inconceivable to the Japanese. In their isolation, Japan never experienced the mobilization of the Nation at Arms during the nineteenth century. They never experienced the attritional devastation of WWI. They came to underestimate the power of foreigners. The IJN developed a war game mentality that ignored the strategic capabilities of the enemy. Their need to stay on the offensive demonstrated a lack of discipline to focus on the aim of the war – oil. Even Yamamoto did not recognize until after the fact that simply destroying the fuel storage at Pearl Harbor would have pushed the American fleet back to the west coast of North America. Thomas Burger writes that strategic culture is a “negotiated reality among the elites.” The elites of the IJN negotiated their own reality that allowed them to believe that they could dictate the outcome of a global war fought on a limited scale. They did not understand the nature of the total war they inaugurated. The reasons for this lay not just with the isolation of Japan or the political involvement and mindset of the IJN, but also with the divisive character of the Navy’s command structure.
After the Imperial Liaison Conference, Admiral Yamamoto told the Navy Chief of Staff and the Navy Minister not to interfere too much with the Combine Fleet “and set a bad precedent for the navy.”
Vice Admiral Ugaki Matome, IJN
Chief of Staff, Combined Fleet
5 December 1941.
The command structure of the Imperial Japanese Navy mirrored that of the government: a decentralized organization that functioned on the concepts of Confucian compromise. In practice, it retained the parochialism and feudalistic political intrigues of medieval Japan. The authority of each section would increase or decrease with the strength of personality, political skill, and connections of its commanding officer. The escalation of the war transformed policy by compromise into policy by exhaustion, accident, and reaction. Yitzhak Klein argues, “…the effect of strategic culture is likely to be felt most prominently at the level of operational thinking.” Sectionalism disrupted the flow of information, prevented the optimum distribution of resources, promoted indecision, and inhibited cooperation among units. The divisive character of the IJN command structure impaired its ability to conduct the war and hastened Japan’s defeat.
At the dawning of World War II, the IJN high command had become a triumvirate. Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku used his personal prestige to force approval of the raid on Pearl Harbor and in so doing, elevated himself to the status of the Navy Minister and the NCS. As Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet, Yamamoto was technically subordinate to the NCS, Admiral Nagano Osami. (See Appendix II) At the turn of the century, the navy established the tradition of the NCS being subordinate to the Navy Minister. This ended with the purges of the 1930s. The Emperor appointed all three positions based on the recommendations of their colleagues. The Navy Minister, in consultation with other officers, recommended the NCS. The NCS and the outgoing Navy Minister recommended the new Navy Minister.
During the military’s growing control over the civilian authorities in the 1920s, they demanded that the service ministers come from the ranks of active duty generals and admirals. The original intent of having a civilian position on the cabinet that represented each service became convoluted. Since the NCS was the highest-ranking officer in the navy, technically, the Navy Minister, as a serving officer, was subordinate to the NCS. The desired unity and harmony, however, was not conducive to effective command authority. After the war, German Naval Attaché, Vice Admiral Paul Weneker, spoke of the political infighting that made cooperation among sections difficult: “Anything would be done to get power during the war. Sometimes very good men were kept at their work only a very few weeks or months because someone else would get the job through corruption. You cannot be efficient with key positions constantly changing.” One major issue of controversy and division arose from Yamamoto’s ascension; the Combined Fleet Staff came to see themselves as the policy makers of the IJN, instead of the Plans Division of the Navy General Staff.
The admirals carried the mantle of authority, but like the samurai of medieval Japan, the mid-echelon had the means. The mid-echelon contained the functioning communications link between organizations that was missing at the top. After the purges in 1933, hawks took over the ad hoc intra-service committees that increasingly took over strategy and war planning. The “First Committee” formed in November 1940, was made up of mid-echelon officers from each service’s general staff and ministries. This group ultimately wrote the “Outline Plan for the Execution of the Empire’s National Policy” that was adopted as Japan’s three-phase policy for war. In the Japanese military, ideas were to flow up, in a tradition called ringisei, or “pilling up.” This caused indecision and delays. After the defeat at Midway, Ugaki became frustrated with the failure of the Combined Fleet Staff to come up with a “plan for directing future operations.” In his diary, he excused the fact that; “the staff officers seemingly failed to produce any good ideas, probably due to the heat.” Ugaki refused to take charge after weeks of frustration, lamenting his staff’s failures despite the fact that he “had many things to suggest or request.”  The mid-echelon did all of the work and came up with all the ideas as their commanders emulated the conduct of the Emperor and only judged what was presented from below.
Mid-echelon staff did all of the planning and negotiating to secure permission for the Midway operation. There was significant opposition from the NGS, Plans Division. The opposition was legitimate. Midway offered no strategic value, and the NGS was uncertain if it could secure the backing of the army or had the land-based aircraft needed to defend the island after it surrendered. Yamamoto insisted that this would lure out the remaining US carriers missed at Pearl Harbor, provide the yogei sakusen the navy desired, and bring the Americans to the negotiating table. After four days of deadlock, Yamamoto needed to condescend and phoned the negotiations from his headquarters on the Yamato . The implication was clear. Either he received permission or he would threaten to resign as he had over the Pearl Harbor raid. Nagano acquiesced, on two conditions. The army and the NGS had been working on the southeastern plan to take Eastern New Guinea, Nauru, and Oceana. Yamamoto could have his campaign for Midway as long as the Combined Fleet provided support for the southeastern plan and captured two islands in the Aleutians that the NGS believed would forestall a US attack from the north.
This compromise was the most fateful decision of the war. Within a month, three carriers supporting the invasion of New Guinea collided with two US carriers at the Battle of Coral Sea. The Japanese lost one light carrier with one large carrier badly damaged. Over half of their aircraft were lost. Although the invasion was postponed, the Japanese hailed the battle as a victory. The reported sinking of the two US fleet carriers confirmed the seishan of the IJN rookie pilots. Yamamoto would not be deterred. Without reassessing the situation or waiting for the lightly damaged third carrier Zuikaku to refit, he launched the Midway campaign one month later. It was a complex plan that spread the remaining eight carriers among seven task forces that were not mutually supportive. The sinking of four large fleet carriers at the Battle of Midway gave the US parity in the Pacific.
Yamamoto had ignored Mahan’s dictum never to divide the fleet. The depletion of the first five months of war reduced the number of aircraft on the four carriers comprising the vanguard of the attack, to just sixty-nine percent of full complement. Moving ahead without the Zuikaku and dispersal of the remaining light carriers reduced this to 51 percent of available air power. Johnston writes, “If policy is somehow a compromise between organizations, then choice will reflect a hybrid of strategic cultures.” Midway was a compromise on so many levels that mistakes cascaded through the chain of command. The entire purpose of the Midway Campaign had been to lure out the American carriers, yet, during the planning, no attention was paid to either how the US would react or to defensive carrier doctrine. Scout planes were a last minute addition to the invasion day operation. Asked during preplanning what he planned in case the US attacked in the midst of the offensive against the island, the First Air Fleet Chief of Staff replied that he would “operate so as not to let such an event take place.” The tradition of ringisei and the commanders’ sense of propriety kept Yamamoto and his staff from exercising control over the disparate elements. In the words of David E. Evans and Mark R. Peattie, the IJN was operating as “a group of semi-independent satrapies.” This sectionalism reached deep into the chain of command. Chihaya writes that the result was “a spirit of enmity between all departments.”
Upon hearing of the defeat at Midway, the now Army Minister and PM Tojo, issued a sardonic statement to the press, “The navy anticipated that hegemony in the Pacific would be decided in one great battle, and indeed it has been.” The cooperation between the army and navy during Phase 1 was unprecedented. The army provided eleven divisions, twenty percent of its total strength. The navy provided the air support and shipping logistics. However, as the war intensified, the rivalry and hostility between the army and the navy reached new levels. The Army kept their best troops and air units in Manchuria to guard against the Soviets and blocked any plan that required their removal. The navy had to fight to get the army to agree to defend islands that offered a chain of airfields for defense in the Pacific. With Tojo as War Minister and PM, the army usually got its way, but differences of opinion most often resulted in nothing happening at all. The army never committed a significant portion of its troops to fight the Americans. By wars end, only two million men, less than 40 percent of the army, and only half of their aircraft, were in Japan to meet the coming invasion. After the war, Vice Admiral Weneker stated, “There was no real Imperial Headquarters. The Chiefs of Staff of the Navy and of the Army would get together to discuss some matters where both were interested….but when they adjourned the Headquarters was no more.”
IGHQ existed only during times of war. It had no joint function, issuing agreements and not orders. There was rarely a joint commander of an operation. Instead, each service was responsible for their own command and supply, causing the inevitable duplication, shortages, and blame. Communication was by liaison and rarely took place at the tactical level. This separation between the services included technical development and production, including duplication of entire factories producing the same products. The army even built and deployed its own submarines to use as supply boats. The army controlled conscription, and they kept the best recruits for themselves, stooping so low as to conscript the navy’s civilian employees. It was not until 1944 that joint cooperation of perimeter air defense in the Pacific was considered. By then it was too late, as the navy had already lost its air arm.
Conclusion: Imperial Japan split its national strategy and its resources into a multi-front war fought independently by the two principal political forces in the nation. Darryl Howlett observes that typically, “at least two strategic cultures within a state historically compete with each other for dominance.” The cooperation between the three leading branches of the navy was often as competitive as with the army. The Combined fleet controlled the ships; NGS commanded the bases and land based air forces; the Navy Ministry managed supply, shipping, and personnel; and the army controlled the troops on the ground. Consensus and acquiescence are not leadership. Without leaders providing coordination and continuity, all of the staff planning and effort of the forces in the field was wasted. Guadalcanal took the war into a new and unplanned phase that gave the navy’s high command its first real test against an aggressive enemy. With no one in overall operational command, indecision took over. Weeks passed before there was a response to the taking of the island and its newly completed airfield. The divisive command structure helped prevent the navy from understanding and adapting to the changing reality of the war.
Adapting to Changing Reality
“The heavy loss [at Midway] did not cause any direct change in the basic policy of the Imperial General Staff which had left to the fleet the decision as to the manner and method in which its duties were to be performed.”
Vice Admiral Fukudome Shigeru, IJN
Chief of First Section (War Planning)
Naval General Staff
One can almost hear the bitter sarcasm dripping from Admiral Fukudome’s lips as he spoke these words to his interrogators after the war. Fukudome’s First Section should have been responsible for planning the conduct of the war. His statement reveals the intransigence of the IJN high command and their inability to comprehend the changing reality of the war. Johnston notes that, “in so far as culture affects behavior, it does so by limiting options, and by affecting how members of these cultures learn from interaction with the environment.” The IJN high command was unable to learn from either their failures or their successes. The secret of their early success was not planning, quality, or doctrine; it was concentration of mass and the ability to project airpower across one third of the globe. The battleship dogma was so deeply ingrained that even Ugaki, who witnessed the remarkable success of the Combined Fleet’s air power, still could not adapt to the new reality. With all of Ugaki’s experience in sinking no less than nine battleships, numerous cruisers, and one carrier from Pearl Harbor to Ceylon, he was still not convinced of the supremacy of naval air power. Two Months before Midway, he wrote, “…air power over a huge expanse of water is difficult. Are carriers enough to advance air power? All general opinion is like this. If we had a sure way to neutralize enemy battleships, there would be no need to spend billions in yen and materials to build our own.” The IJN reaction to the awesome demonstration of airpower at Midway was a return to the established doctrine of zengen sakusen, raiding war, all the while maintaining a short war mindset. For five months around Guadalcanal, they stripped their reserves of ships, merchantmen, planes, and pilots to provide a continuous supply of grist for the mill that became “Iron Bottom Sound.”
The lessons of Coral Sea and Midway should have reinforced the old concept of mass and proven the new lesson of air power projection. Instead, failure brought about no change in strategy, and the perception that the vulnerability of carriers reinforced the IJN belief in the superiority of battleships and established doctrine. Vice Admiral Fukudome stated that after Midway they came to the realization that carrier “task forces were relatively vulnerable against land-based air forces, and that engagement with such land-based air forces could not be successfully carried out unless with greater strength.” This was precisely the wrong conclusion. The IJN failed to grasp that Coral Sea and Midway confirmed the naval war in the Pacific as a carrier war. Chihaya writes that it was not until 1944 “that the Japanese navy realized for the second time the value of the carrier air forces.” Instead, the navy focused on “utilizing the myriads of unsinkable air bases (islands) scattered all over the sea area in that direction.” This ignored the fact that these island air bases were not mutually supportive. Like the US fifteen months later, the flexibility of carriers, and the ability to concentrate air power on a given point at an opportune time could have provided the IJN with a potent weapon against a fixed target.
Guadalcanal offered just such a fixed target that the US carriers were bound to defend or concede defeat. It was a strategically decisive point upon which the IJN could have concentrated its mass with the probability of acquiring the enemy’s center of gravity – its carriers – bringing about a decisive victory in that theater of operations. The Combined Fleet carriers did participate at the Battle of Eastern Solomons, 24 August 1942, and at the Battle of Santa Cruz, 27 October 1942. Both of these actions were tactical victories over the US fleet. However, these victories were not followed up with any substantial joint carrier action against the decisive point, Guadalcanal.
The American decision to invade Guadalcanal was motivated as much by the need for a political victory to boost civilian morale three months prior to mid-term elections, as it was to eliminated the threat to their sea lines of communication to Australia poised by the new IJN airfield on the island. The effect on American morale to have their offensive in the Solomons defeated and remaining carriers sunk, could perhaps have been much closer to Japan’s objective at the start of the war than what was accomplished at Pearl Harbor. At the very least, it would have substantially delayed the American advance. This was exactly the Japanese plan for this phase of the war, aggressive defense of the perimeter. However, a concentration of mass on Guadalcanal did not meet the navy’s establish doctrine. The enemy was not coming to them. This meant that they would need to plan more than just a raid against a prepared enemy, an alien concept in their doctrine. The lack of cooperation between sections of the navy as well as the army made a prompt, coordinated counterattack on a sufficient scale nearly impossible.
The Combined Fleet’s indecision effectively took them out of the action against Guadalcanal and left the individual surface fleets and the land-based air fleet to fight an attritional campaign at the end of their logistical rope. The lack of a new offensive plan from the Combined Fleet left the NGS alone with few options that fit within their established doctrine. The NGS fell back on raiding. Rabaul, 650 miles north of Guadalcanal, was the only established base within range off the navy’s land-based bombers. The result was a regularity of air attacks that became known to the Marines around Henderson Field as “Washing Machine Charlie.” The regular surface actions at night to resupply the Japanese army garrison were labeled “The Tokyo Express.” The NGS continued supporting this effort through the base at Rabaul, as one-by-one they pulled air units out of Malaya, Sumatra, and cancelled the New Guinea operation so that those planes could be used against Guadalcanal. They even transferred precious carrier air wings to Rabaul. Ugaki recorded in his diary that morale among the Rabaul commanders was high and blithely added, “Though plane consumption was great they said that they could continue the current operation without any hitch as long as the replenishment of air craft was maintained.”
What the NGS effectively accomplished was zengen sakusen in reverse. It was they who were pushing their forces beyond the support of their bases to be destroyed in the very type of attritional war that Nagano acknowledged in 1941 they could not win. The reason that they were unable to understand this changing reality of the war was that aircraft were being decimated, not ships. Complementing these attritional tactics, NGS personnel policies virtually disarmed the navy. They believed that keeping fighting units together was important to maintaining morale. When an air unit arrived at the front, it stayed until all of the pilots were dead.
In their shortsighted emphasis on a quick offensive victory, the IJN had little regard for the logistical needs of their own forces. This included pilots. The flight schools were stripped of experienced instructors to fill out the ever-increasing demand from the front. Guadalcanal destroyed the air fleet, leaving the IJN with no nucleus on which to build new squadrons. It required seven hundred hours of flight time to become a combat pilot at the start of the war. This was reduced to ninety hours by the end of the war. The next time the Combined Fleet sallied forth to take on the American carriers in June 1944, they lost 460 of 520 aircraft and three carriers in what became known as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.” By the end of 1944, the shortage of trained pilots had become so critical that the Special Attack Corps could not find squadron leaders capable enough to navigate the fledgling kamikaze pilots to their targets.
Pilots were not the only commodities sacrificed by the IJN high command. By the fall of 1942, the US was sinking 132,000 tons of Japanese merchant shipping per month. At Guadalcanal, American pilots targeted supply ships to weaken Japanese forces on the island. The need for merchant shipping around the empire became critical. In October, the army and navy were each to return 220,000 tons of merchantmen to civil service. Instead, they requested an additional 620,000 tons. The service ministers were told that this would reduce steel production for 1943 by 42 percent from 3.5 million tons to 2 million tons. At a November cabinet meeting, Tojo surrendered 290,000 tons of shipping. In December, the army drove Tojo to surrender the rest. The military’s belief in a short war strategy took priority over the nation’s ability to wage war in 1943.
Meanwhile, the US submarine campaign against the Japanese merchant fleet reached its stride by the end of 1943. Japanese attempts at convoys only assisted the American effort. With the breaking of the Japanese merchant cipher, US wolf packs knew the exact location of the concentrated targets. Japanese losses reached over 300,000 tons per month. Merchant ships began hugging the coast of China to stay within air cover, using the ports to hide at night. The new tactic increased transit time from the southern resource area to Japan five-fold. In November 1943, the NGS finally formed the Marine Traffic Protection HQ. It was composed of just three older ships converted to carriers, one squadron of planes, and thirty convoy craft that had been converted from old trawlers and fishing boats.
Conclusion: Guadalcanal should have provided a “eureka moment” for the IJN high command. There was a great disconnect between the doctrine of yogei sakusen , fought in home waters, and the aggressive defense of 14,200 miles of perimeter called for in Phase 3 of the war plan. This strategy was the naval equivalent of the Siegfried Line. It required a defensive chain of mutually supporting islands that never developed, along with a mobile counterstrike force and the ability to use it quickly. Yet, the doctrine of zengen sakusen called for the IJN to yield ocean to allow the enemy to proceed to the decisive battle. Guadalcanal should have been a black or white issue, either yield the ground or take it. It became, in effect, neutral ground. Guadalcanal stretched the logistics and power projection ability of the IJN to the breaking point.
On 8 December 1942, the IJN high command informed the army that they could no longer supply the garrison on Guadalcanal, as they needed to save ships for yogei sakusen. On 31 December 1942, IGHQ made the decision to withdraw from the island. The navy’s last chance to prevail ended four months earlier with their decision to carry out the attritional campaign against Guadalcanal. This should have been apparent to the IJN high command. Thomas Burger writes of “the psychological phenomenon of consistency seeking. Information that reinforces existing images and beliefs is readily assimilated, while inconsistent data tend to be ignored, rejected, or distorted in order to make compatible with prevailing cognitive structures.” The concept of losing the war was inconceivable to most IJN officers. Capt Ohmae Toshikazu, stated that after Guadalcanal, “I felt we could not win, only we would not lose. After the Marianas, we had little chance.” A member of Ugaki’s staff, Captain Watanabe Yasuji, reported, “The tide was turning with the loss of Saipan. It was pretty definite that the war was lost following the loss of Leyte and Okinawa, but we were not sure.” Chihaya equated the shortsightedness of the IJN to “a horse in harness.” The offensive nature of IJN doctrine, faith in the unconquerable strength of kokutai, and the divisive nature of the IJN command structure, all combined to prevent them from seeing the changing reality of the war.
“[Because of Japan’s] rapid succession of great victories in the early months….there developed an arrogant attitude on the part of the Japanese toward the enemy…. [that] has been aptly called ‘Victory Disease’…”
Captain Fuchida Mitsuo, IJN
Commander of the Air Attack on Pearl Harbor
One influence on the Imperial Japanese Navy’s strategic culture that needs further examination is Confucianism. Confucianism evolved in China over hundreds of years to become a strong code of social order as much as a religion. Confucius gave reverence to the universal truths of the ancients, known as the dao, or the way. The dao taught that unity between heaven and earth would bring peace and prosperity to man. This gave heavenly authority to Confucius’ teachings, through which each person could learn and accept their place in a harmonious society. As these teachings became ingrained into society, the Legalists within the bureaucracy sought to enforce conformity to the resulting codes. Unity and harmony through conformity came to symbolize the basic tenants of this belief.
Confucianism came to Japan in the mid-sixth century and was accepted by Japan’s ruling elite because of its pacifist nature that emphasizes social order and the unquestioned authority of the ruler. The emphasis on knowing your place in the social order instilled in Japanese culture a follower’s mentality. This compartmentalized the role of the individual and fostered both a devotion to conduct and a lack of individual responsibility to the success of the whole. It placed emphasis on doctrine over achievement, and discouraged innovation and change. Since earthly harmony is a manifestation of heavenly approval, dissent was seen as a loss of “the mandate of heaven.” It is important to note that the assassinations of the 1920’s and 30’s by the mid-echelon, were in support of the traditional institutions, not in opposition to them. Opposing opinion was not viewed as an opportunity for improvement, but rather a condemnation of the whole. This cultural force supporting the status quo, despite looming defeat, contributed greatly to the cognitive dissonance of the IJN.
The Imperial Japanese Navy was a warrior culture. Within a warrior culture, the honor and glory of the individual and the group, take precedent over the success and even survival of the whole. This is not the culture of a disciplined military. It seems absurd to suggest that the Japanese sailor and aviator lacked discipline when they followed orders without question and died bravely for their Emperor. Discipline for a modern military, however, is more than following orders and the courage revealed in the midst of battle. Discipline reaches from the highest levels of command to the most mundane functionary and recognizes the importance of everything in between to the success of the whole. Discipline is the willingness to rationally analyze your own organization and logically make the changes necessary for success. The absence of discipline has consequences. In writing about the aftermath of Midway, Commander Chihaya points out that no one was held responsible. This “killed the spirit of emulation and progress just stopped.” The samurai traditions of the IJN strategic culture lacked the discipline to see the true nature of the war, to prevent it from happening, and to recognize the changing tide of battle.
The strategic culture of the Imperial Japanese Navy kept it together long after other organizations would have ceased to exist. It was a culture in which esprit far exceeded patriotism and reached the point of faith. Military service was a religious duty, a divine mission. The courage and sacrifice shown by the seamen and aviators of the IJN during the War in the Pacific was equal to any in history. To a Westerner, death is the last option in his arsenal of weapons, to be used when no other alternative exists. To the Japanese, death became the substitute to surrender, the alternative to defeat, the preference to dishonor. The bushido call for death was no less true for the navy than it was for the army. However, for the navy, the suicide charge was not the last gasp of a failed mission but rather the mission itself. The banzai charge that formed the last desperate resistance of the army was, for the navy, the carefully planned and ceremoniously begun kamikaze attack that dominated their tactics at the end of the war and reached its nadir north of Okinawa with the ignominious demise of the Yamato. The strategic culture of the IJN was grounded in mythical tradition and sought order and answers in doctrine and planning, rather than rational thought and logic.
Captain Fuchida’s belief in Victory Disease was wrong in one respect. Victory Disease did not develop in the “great victories of the first months of the war.” It was a genetic disorder that developed in the early formation of the strategic culture of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Appendix I: Japanese Constitutional System 
Appendix II: Organization of IJN high command, 1941 
. USSBS, 318.
. Willmott, Barrier, 33.
. USSBS, 326.
. H. P. Willmott, Empires in the Balance: Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies To April 1942 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982), 141.
. Edward J. Drea, “Reading Each Other’s Mail: Japanese Communication Intelligence, 1920-1941,” The Journal of Military History, Vol. 55, No. 2 (April, 1991), 204.
. Louis Allen, “Japanese Intelligence Systems,” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Oct., 1987), 549.
. Willmott, Empires, 452.
. Douglas Ford, “Strategic Culture and Japanese Military Intelligence during the Pacific War,” Netherlands Intelligence Studies Association, http://www.nisa-intelligence.nl/PDF-bestanden/NISAcongresFord.pdf, 6.
. Chihaya, 367.
. Evans, 416.
. Oi, Atsushi, “The Japanese Navy in 1941,” in The Pacific War Papers: Japanese Documents of World War II, edited by Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon (Washington, D.C: Potomac Books, 2004), 18.
. Ford, 7.
. Drea, 190, 193, 202.
. Ronald Lewin, “A Signal-Intelligence War,” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 16, (Nov. 2003), 507, 511.
. Drea, 189.
. Evans, 419.
. Paul S. Dull, A Battle History of The Imperial Japanese Navy (1941-1945) (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1978), 7.
. Evans, 452, 453, 472.
. Hosoya, 354.
. James, 717.
. H. P. Willmott, The War with Japan: The Period of Balance May 1942-October 1943 (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2002), 128.
. Willmott, Empires, 88.
. Evans, 409, 411.
. USSBS, 325,
. Willmott, Empires, 88.
. Evans, 430-40.
. Chihaya, 323, Oi, 14.
. Evans, 441.
. Wood, 53.
. Evans, 406-10.
. Van der Vat, 65, 73.
. Willmott, Empires, 89.
. Evans, 400.
. Jonathan Parshall, and Anthony Tully, Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Washington: Potomac Books, 2005), 427.
. Evans, 506.
. James, 714.
. Van der Vat, 170.
. USSBS, 285.
. Willmott, Empires, 440.
. Ugaki, 173.
. Willmott, Barrier, 82.
. Jeffery S. Lantis, “Strategic Culture and National Security Policy” International Studies Review, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Autumn, 2002), 107.
. Ugaki, 36.
. Lantis, 108.
. Falk, 503.
. Oi, 28.
. Falk, 506-7.
. USSBS, 285.
. Willmott, Barrier, 38.
. Evans, 457.
. Hosoya, 358, 363.
. Ugaki, 172, 188.
. Willmott, Barrier, 38.
. Ibid, 67-72.
. Parshall, 37.
. Willmott, Barrier, 100, 117.
. Ibid, 103.
. Johnston, 54.
. Ugaki, 141.
. Evans, 460.
. Chihaya, 358, 364.
. Roehrs, 240.
. Parshall, 25.
. Willmott, Barrier, 43.
. James, 715.
. USSBS, 285.
. Evans, 405, 458, 498.
. USSBS, 325,
. Howlett, 10.
. USSBS, 526
. Johnston, 45.
. Ugaki, 99-100.
. USSBS, 526.
. Chihaya, 361.
. Dull, 215, 241.
. Willmott, War, 90, 91.
. Ugaki, 200.
. USSBS, 282.
. Willmott, Barrier, 101.
. Woods, 90-92.
. Roehrs, 136.
. Chihaya, 323.
. Willmott, War, 127.
. Roehrs, 111.
. Willmott, War, 152.
. Wood, 46.
. Chihaya, 353-4.
. Evans, 495.
. Lantis, 100.
. USSBS, 117.
. Chihaya, 317.
. Fuchida, 283.
. Chihaya, 359.
. Evans, 27.
Copyright © 2012 Gary A. Gustafson
Written by Gary Gustafson. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Gary Gustafson at:
About the author:
Gary A Gustafson has a Master of Arts In Military History, Cum Laude, from Norwich University, Northfield, VT, and a Master of Business Administration from Plymouth State University, Plymouth, NH. He has 32 years of business management experience in a variety of fields along with a life time passion for military history with an emphasis on the American Civil War and the War in the Pacific.
Published online: 12/24/2012.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.