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US Army in Czechoslovakia '45: An Operational Overview
Strategic Culture of the IJN
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Gary Gustafson Articles
Strategic Culture of the IJN

Recommended Reading

Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941

Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1941- 1945
The Strategic Culture of the Imperial Japanese Navy - Part 1 of 2
The Strategic Culture of the Imperial Japanese Navy - Part 1 of 2
by Gary A. Gustafson
Read Part 2 >
“For the first six months of a conflict I will run like a wild boar, and for the first two years we will prevail; but after that, I am not at all sure of events.”[1]
Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku,[2] IJN
Commander in Chief, Combined Fleet
August 1939

With the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, Japan entered into a war against the two most powerful navies in the world, the United States and Britain. An Imperial Liaison Conference on 6 September 1941 approved the “Outline Plan for the Execution of the Empire’s National Policy.” The plan called for three phases. The first phase required the destruction of the US battle line at Pearl Harbor and the capture of resource-rich Southeast Asia. Phase 2 required the consolidation of a defensive perimeter from Burma to Sumatra to the Gilbert Islands to the North Pacific. Phase 3 looked to exploit the natural resources of the captured territory while the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) exhausted American attempts to retake the newly formed Empire of Japan.[3] At a Cabinet Liaison Conference on 1 November 1941, Admiral Nagano Osami, Naval Chief of Staff (NCS), echoed Yamamoto’s earlier thoughts, “We can fight effectively for about two years, but no prediction can be made for after that.” [4] Despite unprecedented success in the first phase of the plan, within ten months the IJN had lost two thirds of its fleet carriers, was quickly losing an attritional campaign in the Solomon Islands, and had completely relinquished the initiative to the enemy.

Why was the Imperial Japanese Navy unable to prevail in the first two years of the war? This essay examines the strategic culture of the IJN to prove that it was incapable of conducting the war that it inaugurated. Specifically, the culture of the IJN developed into a sophisticated political organization that based its national strategies on expanding and preserving the navy’s role in the imperial government. The doctrine of the IJN was outdated and unsuited to the strategic requirements of the war. The IJN failed to understand the true nature of the war that it had inaugurated. The divisive nature of the navy’s command structure impaired decision-making and coordination of command. Lastly, the IJN was unable to react to the changing realities of the war.

The concept of strategic culture helps to examine the influence a society’s traditions and values have on that nation’s strategic choices. Alistair Iain Johnston provides a definition that encompasses the current concepts of strategic culture as “predominate strategic preferences that are rooted in the early or formative experiences of the state, and are influenced to some degree by the philosophical, political, cultural and cognitive characteristics of the state and its elites.”[5] Knowing how your enemy thinks is a crucial component of strategic policy during all phases of war. The American administration saw the oil embargo and seizure of Japanese assets in July 1941 as an exercise of realpolitik. The Japanese saw it as an assault on their national and racial honor that threatened the future of the Empire. American’s own economic ambitions, combined with its jingoism, led to a lack of understanding about Japanese strategic culture that reached to the highest levels of American policymaking. The US expected the Japanese to respond in a pragmatic manner. When a junior embassy officer in Tokyo warned that Japan might begin a war out of shear desperation, his comments were dismissed by the chief State Department advisor on Far East affairs, Stanley Hornbeck, who replied, “Tell me of one case in history when a nation went to war out of desperation.”[6]

The Imperial Japanese Navy was Japan’s principal instrument of the War in the Pacific. The navy’s strategic culture not only influenced Japan’s decision to go to war, but it became the guiding authority in Japan’s conduct and eventual defeat in the Pacific. Understanding the strategic culture of the IJN is critical to understanding Japan’s conduct of the war.

Development of Strategic Culture

“Japan is a nation of hard warriors, still inculcated with the samurai do-or-die spirit which has, by tradition and inheritance become ingrained in the race.”[7]
Ambassador Joseph Grew
US Ambassador to Japan

History is one of the most fundamental elements in the development of strategic culture. Johnston notes that, “The weight of historical experiences and historically rooted strategic preferences tends to constrain responses to changes in the objective strategic environment, thus affecting strategic choices in unique ways.”[8] Japan emerged from a closed feudal society dominated by a martial culture less than ninety years prior to the start of the war. It rejected Western principles in favor of mythical ancient values based on racial unity. It selected a structure of government that replicated the clan power struggles of the past, without a Western system of checks and balances needed to prevent the dominance of the military. By the 1930s, Japan was on a course of conquest that confronted the interests of the West. Through it all, the Imperial Japanese Navy became a strong political force that worked to advance its own political power and chart its nation’s course to war.

It is difficult to over emphasize the influence of samurai values on the history and culture of Japan. The samurai class formed in the tenth century from the officers of the militia armies that helped to unite the country under the Yamato Emperor. These soldiers formed a loose caste of professional warriors who served their local clans, later called han. They were initially led by the bushi who equipped and trained them. Starting in the fourteenth century, the samurai were subject to the authority of the daimyo, or vassal lords. However, as Karl Friday points out, the daimyo may have possessed the authority, but the samurai possessed the “means.” Only the samurai could arm themselves with the three swords that came to symbolize their status. Their independent and cavalier nature propelled them into a semi-autonomous, extra-legal class of mercenaries whose power over the peasant class was unquestioned and sometimes brutal. The samurai came to possess significant political influence in medieval Japan, both as the private armies of the daimyo in their civil wars, and in local wars among themselves to promote their political agendas.[9] With the opening of Japan and the subsequent restoration of a new Emperor in 1868, the samurai and daimyo were disbanded. However, the samurai-peasant caste continued to define the class structure of Imperial Japan. Within the military, the enlisted contained the peasant class, while the officer corps identified itself as samurai, complete with the symbolic sword of authority.

The samurai developed their own code of conduct called bushido, or “the way of the warrior.” Bushido codified the samurai’s ideals of discipline, valor, self-sacrifice, and chivalric honor, which could only be ordained through combat. Death was preferable to the humiliation of defeat. The samurai sense of honor did not exclude the use of deception or ambush. “Indeed,” Friday observes, “this is one of the dominant themes of Japan’s martial legacy.”[10] Bushido inculcated into the whole society a martial culture in which the martial codes of conduct replaced civil laws and maintained a hold on Japan’s cultural values well into the twentieth century. This warrior culture shaped Imperial Japan’s religion, economy, social order, sense of social obligation, etiquette, and its sense of national pride. In 1908, the military codes took from bushido the spirit of the warrior, or seishan . It became a capital offense to surrender.[11] The willingness to die became the obligation to inevitably die. The result was a fatalism that instilled a disregard for life that is evident in the atrocities of the Second World War. Bushido did more than influence Japan’s brutal conduct of the war; it shaped how the emerging power viewed its relationship with other countries and dictated its national strategy. Diplomacy became a zero-sum game, while becoming an imperial power became a matter of national honor.

Following the opening of Japan by Commodore Perry, the Satsuma and Choshu han allied with others to overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate. In 1867, they enthroned a new Emperor. The loyal daimyo, were handsomely rewarded when they turned over their vassal estates to the new nation. The politics of early Imperial Japan remained han based with the military taking an increasingly active role. Satsuma samurai dominated the early navy as that han, located beside the inland sea, possessed most of the ships. Satsuma continued to dominate the navy’s officer corps well into the twentieth century, just as Choshu samurai dominated the army. Satsuma gave the navy a well-connected political base, as most of the admirals were bureaucrats from that han. The navy provided Satsuma with a power base within the government. In the words of an early British observer, the navy became “an instrument of patronage in the hands of the Satsuma clan.” The navy came to view itself as a distinctly separate political entity within the Japanese military, government, and society, and this helped to instill a unique culture with its own national strategy. The eventual separation of the army and navy into two separate branches of government, along with their han centered history, and involvement as active political forces, created a much greater inter-service rivalry than was seen in other countries.[13]

After the Meiji Restoration, Japan embarked on a great exploration of the modern world. Thousands of intellectuals traveled across the globe to discover the secrets of Western civilization. In the words of Bob Wakabayashi, “Their real goal was to master the inner ‘spirit’ of the civilization – the principles that Westerners used to invent those products.”[14] One of these explorers was a samurai intellectual named Ito Hirobumi. Ito became the architect of Japan’s Meiji Constitution and its first Prime Minister. He struggled to reconcile Western style liberal-democracy with Japan’s Confucian beliefs in civil order and conformity. He came to believe that Western modernity was simply industrialization. With all of Japan’s domestic institutions changing and Shintoism an established instrument of the state, Ito concluded, “The one institution which can become the cornerstone of our constitution is the Imperial House.” The Meiji Constitution defined the kokutai , or “national essence and polity.” The emperor was sovereign, “sacred, and inviolable.” He came to be seen as the divine fountainhead of the Japanese race. Kenneth Pyle writes, “Kokutai was a moral, religious, almost mythical entity. Japanese society was founded not on a social contract but, rather, on racial unity.”[15]

By rejecting Western political and cultural values, Japan put in motion the industrialization of a militaristic culture with a medieval-inspired polity based on racial values. Samuel Huntington identifies among the distinguishing characteristics of Western society: representative government, the “separation of spiritual and temporal authority,” rationalism, the rule of law, and individualism.[16] Without representative government, the military became the dominant political force, which decided national strategy by political might and the threat of the sword. The kokutai -centered political system permitted no dissention and forced everyone to stay morally committed to a course of war tied to antiquated doctrine. Without rationalism, the military leadership’s thought and logic failed to acknowledge the true nature of the war. Medieval tradition and the sense of chivalric honor took precedent over the rule of law, creating a politically divisive command structure at the most critical moment of the war. Without a sense of individual responsibility, Confucian conformity and consensus did not allow the IJN to react to the changing realities of the war.

The Meiji Constitution created two governments, military and civilian, separate but equal. The Emperor was the head of state, with all branches of the government responsible to serve him. (See appendix I.) The legislature’s (Diet) sole power lay in its fiscal controls. The Prime Minister created the Cabinet after his appointment by the Emperor. The Navy and Army Ministers represented their respective services on the Cabinet but were appointed by the Emperor and were responsible only to him, as were the respective Chiefs of Staff. The result was to divide each of the services into two separate branches of government creating six distinct constitutional entities, all with direct access to the throne. In addition, extra-legal bodies formed to assist the Emperor including the Privy Council, the Chamberlains, the genro , or “founding fathers,” and the jushin , comprised of former Prime Ministers. The result was a labyrinth of over lapping political influences that promoted intrigue and made cogent and cohesive policy making difficult.

The extra-legal Liaison Conference became the principle conduit of communication between the Cabinet and the military. It met informally twice a week, and consisted of the Prime Minister (PM), the service ministers, the Chiefs of Staff, the Cabinet Secretary, Foreign Minister, and Military Affairs Bureau Chiefs. This became the primary policy board for the government. Dominated by the military, it became more decisive and powerful than the cabinet. In the presence of the Emperor and President of the Privy Council, this board became the Imperial Liaison Conference, the formal means of communication with the Emperor. Rehearsed speeches were presented with no discussion as the Emperor provided his expected approval.[17]

Japan’s traditional Confucianism required a tremendous effort toward compromise, consensus, and acquiescence among the ruling elite. The Emperor’s role became that of a constitutional monarch, little more than a figurehead. In practice, this loose structure of government permitted the continuance of han politics. During the Meiji-Taisho period, political parties worked with the military to achieve greater power. The aging genro were able to keep the parties working together; however, as they passed away, the military began to take control of the government.[18]

Under Admiral Yamamoto Gonnohyoe, the IJN became a sophisticated, pragmatic political organization that sought the support of the Diet, the powerful Seiyukai political party, the influential industrial conglomerates called zaibatsu , the press, the Emperor, and the people. Yamamoto, who was no relation to the future Commander in Chief of the Combine Fleet, served in the Navy Ministry until becoming Prime Minister from 1913 to 1914. In 1893, he administered the reform of the navy’s patronage system that resulted in the retiring of 97 older officers, including 13 admirals, many of whom were Satsuma bureaucrats that had never been to sea. This helped to create a professional officer corps and develop the navy’s esprit. The IJN success in the Sino-Japanese War solidified its political position, increased its rivalry with the army, and helped to secure a seventy percent increase in the size of the fleet. By 1901, it was the fourth largest navy in the world. [19] Yamamoto was successful in getting an independent Naval General Staff, although it remained subordinate to the army chair of the Imperial General Headquarters (IGHQ) during times of war.[20]

To prosper, the IJN needed to expand and that took money. Early budget success was based on han politics, but by 1870, the navy began to promote expansionist policies in the South Seas to justify the appropriations needed to modernize the navy. Substantial increases in the navy’s budget were justified as a means of increasing international prestige.[21] The IJN’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War created huge national pride and became the turning point in Japan’s path toward imperialism.[22] In 1908, Foreign Minister Komura Jutaro presented to the Cabinet a proposal to expand Japan’s position in China and Manchuria and to “devise a hundred-year plan which would prepare her for any eventuality.” In 1909, he addressed the Diet with a policy of imperialism, which included emigration to these colonies.[23]

The army supported expansion in China and attempted to dictate national strategy by declaring Russia as the nation’s primary potential enemy. The IJN demanded the right to choose its own primary potential enemy and declared the United States as the largest threat to Japan because it had the largest navy in the Pacific. WWI provided an economic boon to Japan, as there was no competition from the West in Asian markets. The IJN used this opportunity to expand its budget, its fleet, and its agenda by taking the lead in Japan’s seizure of Germany’s South Seas Island possessions.[24] By the 1920s, Japan had two distinctly separate national strategies, championed by the two most powerful political forces in the government, the army, and the navy.

For The Japanese, one justification for their imperialist ambitions was the racist policies of the West. The terms of the 1858 Trade Treaty dictated by the US engendered calls to “expel the barbarians.” The Triple Intervention by Russia, Germany, and France after the war with China forced Japan to give up the Liaodong Peninsula in Manchuria and created tremendous public anger. American policies against Japanese immigration, along with Supreme Court rulings that prevented Japanese citizenship and property rights, further antagonized the Japanese and helped to support the navy’s theoretical preparations against the US. The League of Nations’ refusal to include the Japanese proposal on racial equality in its charter was a huge blow to Japanese prestige. All of these reinforced Japan’s sense of racial separatism and isolation and helped the military to secure the budget appropriations for their expansion and imperialist plans.[25]

Just as naval expansion helped to create and bond the IJN officer corps, the naval limitation treaties of the 1920s and 30s divided the command structure of the IJN. In 1921, the Navy Minister, Kato Tomosaburo, saw that Japan’s naval building plans could not compare with those of the US. During the Washington Naval Conference, Kato was able to keep his delegation together despite the belief of the hard-line “fleet faction” that American’s industrial strength was an indication that Japan needed to begin a war with the largest fleet possible.[26] Japan’s naval theory held that an attacker needed 1.5 to 1 superiority in order to achieve victory. For this reason, the fleet faction insisted on a 7:10 ratio of capital ships with the US. The treaty specified a 6:10 ratio but provided Japan with assurances that the US and Britain would not add to their bases in the Pacific.[27] Additional treaties created an “open door” policy in China, helping Japanese industry, and facilitating trade with Southeast Asia. The peace and prosperity that followed should have made war with the US seem unlikely, but the fleet faction played on fears of the US to continue the navy’s expansion.

The motivation of the fleet faction was more than just national security. Limiting the size of the fleet eliminated promotional opportunities and jeopardized the long-standing tradition of all officers retiring with a captaincy. In addition, it further pitted the navy against the civilian government that saw naval spending as an easy target. Those who favored limitations were seen as siding with the civilians who were supported by the army as they competed to fund their expansion policies in China.[28]

The London Treaty in 1930 held the ratio of capital ships at 6:10 and placed further restrictions on cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and carriers. For the hardliners, this had a significant impact on the IJN doctrine of attritional warfare, established after the naval victories in the Russo-Japanese War. In 1933, both the Navy Minister and the Navy Chief of Staff were forced to retire along with many fellow officers. The navy made Prince Fushimi Hiroyasu Chief of Staff. The purges eliminated the moderate element and allowed the most militant members to take control of the IJN. In January 1936, the IJN delegation, headed by Nagano Osami, withdrew from the London Naval Conference when their demands for parity were not met.[29]

The militarism of the 1930s was the culmination of the military’s political activism during the Meiji-Taisho periods. It first took the form of political boycotting against the civil authorities that controlled the budgetary process. In 1900, Navy Minister Yamamoto was the first service minister to threaten the dissolution of the government by refusing to sit on the cabinet.[30] In 1912, the army carried out just such a threat, and by the 1930s, this form of coercion had become an accepted political tactic.[31] In 1922, the intimidation became violent when PM Hara Takashi was assassinated in protest of Japan’s involvement in the Washington Naval Conference. PMs were assassinated again in 1930 and 1932.[32] It worked; by 1938, the military accounted for seventy percent of Japan’s national budget with the zaibatsu receiving a lion’s share of the proceeds.[33] These assassinations not only succeeded in cowing the civil government, but the Emperor as well. The Privy Council feared a coup attempt to place one of the militarily active members of the royal family on the throne. By the 1930s, what little authority the Emperor possessed was gone, and he was powerless to stop the intrigues of his own military.[34]

For the most part, mid-level officers from both the army and navy carried out the violence against the civilian authorities. A navy officer assassinated PM Inukai Tsuyoshi in 1932. In an aborted plot in 1933, a navy pilot was to bomb the PM’s house from the air in the midst of a cabinet meeting. The violence had become so pervasive that in 1939, Yamamoto Isoroku was promoted to sea duty, as Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet; partly to remove him from the reach of extremists who opposed his moderate views on the limitation treaties.[35] These young officers were following the samurai tradition of independence and loyalty to their han, in this case the army or navy. During the feudal period, samurai would often protest the actions of their superiors under pain of death. These officers saw themselves as patriots, leading the nation in kokutai . This provided a moral dilemma for a government whose existence emanated from this same spiritual authority.[36] After the assassination of PM Inukai in 1932, the Navy Minister wrote, “When we consider what caused these pure-hearted youths to make this mistake, reverent reflection is required.”[37] In Japanese society, such sentiments reflected amae or, “anticipating indulgence.” The expectation was that a good leader would delegate responsibilities to those below him, showing trust and tolerance, while accepting responsibility for his subordinate’s actions.[38] The fact that these “pure-hearted youths” were advancing their superiors’ agenda did not hurt their case. One assassin was pardoned after only three months in prison.[39]

Part of the of the military’s justification for their actions came from their belief that the constitution gave them supreme control over national defense, answerable only to the Emperor.[40] The military saw civilian meddling in fleet limitations and budget requirements as an unconstitutional breach of their authority and kokutai . As a result, the military refused to discuss military matters with civilians. During the China Incident, the Foreign Minister had the task of responding to foreign powers without knowing the position of his own government. By 1941, the relations between the civil and military authorities had completely broken down. The appointment of General Tojo Hideki as Prime Minister on the eve of the war with the US was seen as more of a means of creating harmony than as a takeover by the military. This did not completely alter the relationship. Indeed, the Supreme War Council cut off Tojo’s access, and he was not informed of the navy’s defeat at Midway for an entire month.[41]

By creating an international incident, the military was justified in demanding control of the government. Field-grade officers of the Kwantung Army started just such an incident in September 1931 by staging a minor explosion under a train in Manchuria. Mid-echelon officers of the Army General Staff in Tokyo assisted them in the effort. In the spirit of amae, the General Staff backed the officers, and the army used the incident to justify the takeover of Manchuria. The government was forced to support the army. The incident began a series of cascading events that marched Japan toward conflict with the West. In 1933, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations amidst the resulting international furor.[42] By 1938, the war with the Nationalist Chinese had become attritional, and the anticipated resources were not enough to cover the costs of the war. The IJN was just as hawkish over these expansionist opportunities. Not to be outdone by the army, the IJN moved aggressively to take Shanghai in 1932 and the Hainan Islands off the coast of China in 1936.

The army’s disastrous Nomonhan Campaign against the Soviets in 1940 had a profound effect on Japan’s war with the US. Despite the neutrality pact signed with Stalin in 1941, the army’s fear of a Soviet invasion of Manchuria kept most of the army out of the War in the Pacific. Nomonhan also ended the army’s ambitions in China. This provided the opportunity the IJN had been waiting for to bring their southern strategy to fruition. In November of 1937, PM Konoe Fumimaro had announced the end of Western colonialism in Asia and the establishment of the “Great East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere.” The rapid fall of France under German forces in June of 1940 provided the opportunity for the first step. In September, Japanese forces took over French Indochina from the Vichy government, and Japan signed the Tripartite Agreement with Germany and Italy.[43]

In July 1941, no single individual or political force in the country, including the Emperor, could change the fact that Japan saw only one honorable avenue of response to the US oil embargo and seizure of its assets. Contrary to the assertion of naval officers after the war, the navy had in fact been a large contributor to the ultimate decision for war. The Navy had created the southern strategy and successfully promoted it as the answer to the nation’s problems. It prophesied US aggression in its search for a budgetary enemy and ended the limitation treaties. Mid-level naval officers participated in the assassinations that brought the military to power. The oil embargo affected the navy most of all and was a catastrophic threat to everything they had achieved. This was unacceptable to the aggressive mid-echelon that gained prominence after the purges of 1933. The IJN was a major political force in the country, and to abandon decades of political power would have been unthinkable. The IJN controlled the opening of the war; if they had said “no,” nothing could have happened.[44]

Conclusion: The Meiji Restoration was a dynamic event in the history of modern Japan that served to nationalize, industrialize, and institutionalize the martial culture of their society. The IJN quickly developed into an effective political organization with its own vision of the nation’s future. It was able to fight for its position among the ruling parties. Japan’s political culture coalesced with the army, navy, and zaibatsu, creating a power block that effectively shut out all opposition to their militant imperialistic policies. The racism and colonialism of Western powers reinforced Japan’s sense of isolation and uniqueness and spurred what Johnston calls, “intense in-group identification [that] is positively related to aggressive behavior towards out-groups.”[45] At the basis of their cultural identity was the kokutai, a mythical faith in the superiority of their civilization and their race. John Calvert observes that the impact of myths on strategic cultural does not depend on whether they are true or false, “most often they meld truth and fiction in ways that are difficult to distinguish. What is important, however, is that the myth’s narrative elements are perceived and embraced as true. To be effective, political myth must engage not reason, but belief and faith.”[46] For the IJN, kokutai became more than just a form of patriotism. It became a fundamental element in their strategic and tactical doctrine.


“Our navy has lost the war by ‘battling’ instead of ‘warring.’”
Commander Chihaya Masataka, IJN[47]
Staff Officer

The Imperial Japanese Navy’s strategy and tactics throughout the war reflected established doctrine that developed over the previous forty years. This doctrine centered on the concepts of yogei sakusen , decisive battle, preceded by zengen sakusen, attritional battle that wore down the enemy.[48] These concepts developed at the Naval Staff College and were reinforced during the early wars with China and Russia. In the decades prior to the Pacific War, they became so engrained into the strategic culture of the IJN that they fit with Johnston’s observation that, “strategic culture is compatible with notions of limited rationality (where strategic culture simplifies reality), [and] process rationality (where strategic culture defines ranked preferences or narrow options).”[49] By the time of Pearl Harbor, the IJN’s strategic and tactical doctrine became an orthodoxy that was outdated by the technical and tactical advancements in the rest of the world.

In the first two decades of its existence, the Naval Staff College provided the incubator for innovative new strategies and doctrine. The British Navy helped to establish the Staff College in 1888 and provided instructors for many years. By the turn of the century, the college had established both technical and strategic programs that were required for any officer to achieve flag rank. The structure of these programs remained unchanged until WWII. Akiyama Saneyuki served at the college several times during the first decade of the 1900s. Prior to that, Akiyama had traveled in America, observed the US fleet at Santiago, met with Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, and conferred with the preeminent naval strategist, Alfred Thayer Mahan. He returned to Japan armed with the US Naval War College abstracts and the latest readings in naval strategy. As with Japan’s adoption of Western cultural values, Akiyama blended Mahanian theory and the Asian teachings of Sun-tzu, with the samurai traditions of bushido, omitting what did not fit his ideals of a Japanese way of war. He incorporated Mahan’s concepts of concentration, central position, and interior lines with Sun-tzu’s concepts of unorthodox attack and psychological deception. The result was a doctrine that emphasized short decisive battle, close-in night attacks, ambush, and seishan, the samurai’s warrior spirit.[50] Commander Chihaya summarized this doctrine as “characteristically Japanese.”[51]

Akiyama served as a principle planner in the great Japanese naval victory over the Russians at Tsushima in 1905. He devised a complex plan that called for a two-day battle in which small boats would wear down the Russian fleet with torpedo attacks at night while the main line of big-gun battleships waited to “cross the T” and destroy the remaining fleet the following day. The Russians lost 34 of 38 ships to just three torpedo boats lost by the Japanese. The victory came against great odds. It also came as a result of Russian compliance. The Russian Baltic Fleet sailed nearly nonstop around the globe straight into a Japanese ambush. The Japanese performance was mixed. Torpedoes had little effect. The Japanese were never able to cross the T and their gunnery was only ten percent effective. However, Akiyama’s plan did provide a basis on which all IJN ships operated in concert, and superior Japanese seamanship and morale stood out. The Japanese credited their doctrine and their commander, Admiral Togo Heihachiro. Both became legendary.[52]

In 1908, Sato Tetsutaro took the lessons of Tsushima and codified them into a new naval doctrine and national defense strategy in a 900-page tome entitled, On the History of Imperial Defense. Sato advocated the IJN southern strategy and laid out the theoretical justification of the new tactical doctrine in a series of hypothetical formulas. One was the fleet strength formula of 1.5 to 1 that dominated the fleet faction’s position during the limitation conferences. In the decades that followed limited fuel and munitions made it difficult to refute these formulas, and their validity grew to accepted truths. Sato and Akiyama were both teaching at the Naval Staff College when Yamamoto Isoroku and Nagano Osami were students.[53]

By 1911, IJN doctrine based on the southern strategy and the US as the hypothetical enemy was accepted as national policy. Plans called for an invasion of the Philippines as bait to lure and destroy the advancing American fleet. The validity of the doctrine and strategy became feasible during WWI by the seizure of the South Seas Islands and the development of the submarine.[54] The doctrine was completely offensive in nature, marked by raids on the enemy fleet in zengen sakusen and ambush in yogei sakusen . Chihaya summed up the doctrine as, “Offense is the best defense.”[55] As at Tsushima, everything was based on the idea of luring the enemy into battle at a chosen spot close to Japan. IJN doctrine did not call for large fleet action in distant waters. At the Imperial Liaison Conference on 15 November 1941, NCS Nagano stated, “at the appropriate time, we will endeavor by various means to lure the main fleet of the US [near Japan] and destroy it…. emphasis will be placed on enticing the American fleet to come to the Far East.”[56] For the IJN, the Mahanian concept of command of the sea was regional and limited.

Japan’s limited resources caused the IJN to become obsessed with the idea that quality could overcome quantity. One of Sato’s theoretical formulas included an algebraic expression that equated a fleet’s strength to the size and number of its guns, not the size and number of its ships. The result was an emphasis on large, long-range guns. The Yamato class battleships with their eighteen-inch guns were larger, more powerful and with greater range than any ship on earth. Yogei sakusen was completely battleship-centric, to the exclusion of all other thought. The Naval Limitation Treaties compelled the IJN to purse superior armament on all Japanese ships.[57] Bigger, faster, farther came to drive all of the IJN technical and tactical developments, to the exclusion of all others. The decision to put so much of their resources into “super dreadnaughts,” that proved insignificant during the war, was disastrous for the IJN. It took the loss of four of the navy’s six large fleet carriers at Midway before additional carriers were planned. By then it was too late.[58]

The obsession with quality drove zengen sakusen technology as well. Here the IJN was more successful. The “Zero” fighter dominated anything the allies had at the start of the war, claiming 471 of the 565 enemy planes shot down in the first three months.[59] Japanese I-class submarines had a range over 12,000 miles, and were armed with the superior “long lance” torpedoes that ran true for 22,000 yards.[60] They developed superior night optics and perfected night attack operations. Destroyers were armed with up to forty torpedoes. Unlike the US fleet, cruisers kept their torpedo armament.[61] The results gave the Japanese a decided advantage in surface engagements, especially during the night actions around Guadalcanal.

New technology and tactical capabilities were restricted to improving the existing doctrine. The use of submarines against enemy lines of communication was ignored, despite the success of Germany during the First World War. Likewise, there was no study of the need for anti-submarine tactics or technology, as all focus was on the offensive. The impact of America’s industrial might, the likelihood of attritional warfare, and defensive naval tactics were never studied, as they did not fit within the navy’s limited war doctrine.[62] The IJN was a pioneer in naval aviation, yet planes were simply another tool in zengen sakusen . Doctrine called for carriers to be outside of the fleet, helping to scout the enemy and participate in attritional raids and attacks.[63] Yamamoto was the only admiral who believed in the offensive power of naval aviation.[64] However, his view was just an amendment of zengen sakusen . The attack on Pearl Harbor was more a raid than a substantive offensive, consistent with the attritional phase of a new campaign.[65] The island of Midway held little strategic value to the Japanese. Yamamoto saw it as simply a way of luring out the American carriers that he intended to finish off with the battleship task force lead by the Yamato , several hundred miles behind his carriers.[66]

The emphasis on offensive capabilities forced the Japanese to omit anything they considered nonessential to offensive capability. Inadequate fire suppression designs on ships had a devastating effect on the carriers destroyed at Midway and elsewhere. The limitation treaties and the need for speed placed a premium on weight. One solution was less fuel capacity. As a result, the cruising radius of most ships was only one thousands miles.[67] Vice Admiral Ugaki Matome, Yamamoto’s Chief of Staff for the Combined Fleet, complained in his diary, “The babies that get hungry every four days are a nuisance.”[68] Ships became so top heavy from the amount of armament and size of the superstructure that they became unstable. In 1934, the destroyer Tomotsuru capsized in a storm. Another lost its bow. Naval architects blamed the treaty limitations for forcing them to over build.[69] To increase range and speed, planes were not equipped with armor or self-sealing gas tanks. Aircrews nicknamed the G4M twin-engine bomber ichishiki or “the lighter” because it easily burst into flames when hit.[70] The distain of air power contributed to their neglect of radar. As late as February 1944, the critical central base at Truk lacked any radar. By June, the radar in the Philippines was inadequate to pick up enemy aircraft in an attack on the fleet that lost three carriers during the Battle of the Philippine Sea.[71]

One of Sato’s theoretical formulas even quantified the effect of the warrior spirit on a fleet’s fighting strength. It was expressed as F = M x A x S, where F = Fighting strength, M = mechanical strength, A= quality and training, and S = seishan. The implication was that quality and a superior fighting spirit could overcome superior force.[72] Such a rationalization fit well with the kokutai belief in racial superiority, the bushido belief in warrior spirit, and the overwhelming victory at Tsushima. As Japan grew closer to war, the veracity of decisive battle and limited war was questioned by the highest levels of command but not the myth at the source of their theoretical solutions. In a January 1941 letter to the Naval Minister, Yamamoto shared his lack of confidence in yogei sakusen, pointing out that during the prewar period the IJN had never won in any of its map games or maneuvers, stopping the games before the Combined Fleet suffered defeat. He went on to argue strongly that destruction of the enemy’s morale was the only means of victory.[73] Perhaps it was Yamamoto’s belief in the superior seishan of the Japanese that led him to believe that he could destroy America’s morale (S) by attacking its mechanical strength (M). This reliance on fighting spirit dominates the post war interrogations of IJN officers, with some contributing their loss in the war to a weak military spirit on the part of the people.[74]

Another legacy of Akiyama’s success at Tsushima was the belief in detailed planning before battle. Plans became very complex and inflexible. The lack of practice due to limited fuel and ammunition made executing these plans difficult. For example, the prewar plans of how the war with the US would transpire were very specific. The decisive battle would take place north of the Marianas Islands within easy sailing distance for the Combine Fleet. The main battle line was to be preceded by torpedoes, 150 per attack. The attritional battle would take out thirty percent of the American forces, fifteen percent by submarines, and fifteen percent by planes. Air superiority was to be maintained, keeping the enemy blind as they continued sailing blithely toward the awaiting ambush. The entire operation was to take three million barrels of oil. The plan anticipated fifty percent success, putting the American fleet back ten years.[75]

This complexity carried over into the war. At Midway, there were seven separate task forces spread out over 1,500 miles. At the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, Yamamoto again devised a plan of four task forces including the troop convoy to relieve Guadalcanal. These plans made coordinated attack and a change in tactics difficult, Moreover, they ignored what the enemy could do, instead prophesying a hypothetical best-case scenario.[76] Captain Fuchida Mitsuo, commander of the air attack on Pearl Harbor, writes, “Midway planners seemed to work entirely on the basis of what the enemy would probably do, rather than of what it might possibly do, or what he was capable of doing…. We were blind to the possibility that the enemy might act differently than we expected.”[77] Chihaya called the IJN the “enemyless navy of Nippon.”[78] This worked well for the IJN in the first three months of the war, when most attacks were a surprise against an unprepared peacetime enemy force.

By the 1930s, the Navy Staff College had ceased to be the vibrant source of new ideas that it had been at the turn of the century. It became instead the promulgator of static dogma. There emerged a tradition of believing in theoretical solutions to theoretical situations and ignoring anything that did not fit the success of the past. In June 1936, Captain Ohishi Takijiro, Chief of the Education Bureau of the Naval Ministry, was ordered not to study air power strategy. As a lecturer in 1938, Genda Minoru, the planner of the air attack on Pearl Harbor, was ordered to suspend his lectures on air strategy and tactics at the College as they, “would spoil the strategical thinking of student officers of various schools.”[79] As a student at the Naval Staff College in 1943, Commander Chihaya Masataka had command of the American fleet in a war game exercise. The instructor judged that a Japanese air fleet of just fifty Ginga-Tai planes, which were not yet invented, annihilated his force. The instructors deemed them ten times more powerful than America’s new Hellcat fighter that was dominating the skies over the Pacific.[80] This righteous orthodoxy permeated the fleet.

Conclusion: The Japanese way of war envisioned by Akiyama, validated at Tsushima, codified by Sato, and instilled in the IJN by the Naval Staff College, was an amalgamation of Western and Eastern thought combined with the samurai traditions of Japan. By ignoring the complete lessons of the outsiders, the IJN created a doctrine that was limited to a single mode of war. Absent was the basis of Mahan’s strategy that “Control of Maritime commerce through command of the sea is the primary function of navies.”[81] Absent was Sun-tzu’s teaching that, “One who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be endangered in a hundred engagements.”[82] IJN doctrine created an offensive mindset; but, not to invade, conquer and annihilate. Rather, it was to lure in and ambush. Offensive action for the IJN meant raids that helped to dictate the course of battle and manipulate their enemy into a complex, inflexible trap at the time and place of their choosing. It was a tactical doctrine of battle, not a strategic doctrine of war.

After Tsushima, the Japanese allowed the Anglo-Japanese agreement to expire. Unlike the US, the IJN had no new experiences to draw on and no allies with whom to share new strategy and doctrine. David J. Elkins and Richard E.B. Simeon point out that strategic culture is, “a ‘mindset’ which has the effect of limiting attention to less than the full range of alternative behaviors, problems and solutions which are logically possible.”[83] The mindset of the IJN had become anachronistic in the isolation of Japan and helped prevent their understanding the true nature of the war.

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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.
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