Military rulers ruled Japan from the late 1930s through World War II. Civilian governments, prime ministers and cabinets repeatedly supported aggression as did large Japanese companies that were hungry for new resources and were largely supported by the Army. Ordinary Japanese were also supportive as victories rolled in and new territory was claimed.

In the early 20th century Japan grew into a major industrial-military power. Between 1921 and 1937 Japans put it factories into high gear and produced six large aircraft carries and the world's largest and best equipped air force. Japan's "zaibatsu" capitalist were blamed for stirring militarism and nationalism and suppressing democracy to make money.

In the 1930s the command economy was oriented toward meeting the needs of the military and military spending was the largest single budget item. In 1937 a general was prime minister and war was looming large in the horizon. In 1938, 1,500 men died as the Soviet halted a Japanese assault on Vladivostok.

Wilingness to Serve, Kill and Die

Kamikaze pilot

Japanese youths were recruited at age 14 to fight. One Japanese soldiers recalled, "At the time, it was quite natural for us to volunteer for military service, to fight for the Emperor...This system of 'volunteering' was a virtual form of conscription. We were brainwashed into blind belief.”

Japanese were taught that dying for their country was a great honor. "Bear in mind that duty is weightier than a mountain, while death is lighter than a feather," read a piece of propaganda attributed to the Japanese Emperor. Japanese soldiers who believed they were going to die washed themselves and splashed on perfume like their samurai ancestors.

In many cases Japanese soldiers preferred dying in hopeless circumstances to surrendering because of the power of shame. The military code issued to soldiers in 1941 forbade retreat or surrender. In 1945, as the United States was preparing to invade Japan, copies of the code were given to civilians. One Japanese scholar told the New York Times, “It had always been a virtue in Japan to sacrifice oneself for someone of higher status, and the government at the time exploited that sentiment.”

The Japanese were determined to die to the last man. At the assault of Tarawa (1943) only eight members of 5000 man Japanese garrison were found alive. There were no search and rescue missions for downed Japanese pilots. As a result hundreds of aviators were lost. The Japanese code of never surrender made them problematic prisoners of war. After captured Japanese soldiers tried to sabotage American submarines, U.S., ships refused to picked them except as for an occasional “intelligence sample.”

During the war, some Japanese have said, generals and admirals believed their own propaganda about Japan being a sacred country that could defeat its foes with spiritual purity alone, and thus allowed themselves to fall behind the United States in developing technology and building up their forces. “We were brainwashed during the war,” one man told the New York Times.

Fighting to the Death and Japan’s Samurai Code and World War II


David Powers of the BBC wrote: “Although some Japanese were taken prisoner, most fought until they were killed or committed suicide. In the last, desperate months of the war, this image was also applied to Japanese civilians. To the horror of American troops advancing on Saipan, they saw mothers clutching their babies hurling themselves over the cliffs rather than be taken prisoner. Not only were there virtually no survivors of the 30,000 strong Japanese garrison on Saipan, two out of every three civilians - some 22,000 in all - also died. [Source: David Powers, BBC, February 17, 2011 ***]

“The other enduring image of total sacrifice is that of the kamikaze pilot, ploughing his plane packed with high explosives into an enemy warship. Even today, the word 'kamikaze' evokes among Japan’s former enemies visions of crazed, mindless destruction. What in some cases inspired - and in others, coerced - Japanese men in the prime of their youth to act in such a way was a complex mixture of the times they lived in, Japan’s ancient warrior tradition, societal pressure, economic necessity, and sheer desperation.” ***

“Japan’s samurai heritage and the samurai code of ethics known as 'bushido' have a seductive appeal when searching for explanations for the wartime image of no surrender. The great classic of Bushido - 'Hagakure' written in the early 18th century - begins with the words, 'Bushido is a way of dying'. Its basic thesis is that only a samurai prepared and willing to die at any moment can devote himself fully to his lord. ***

“Although this idea certainly appealed to the ideologues, what probably motivated Japanese soldiers at the more basic level were more mundane pressures. Returning prisoners from Japan’s previous major war with Russia in 1904-5 had been treated as social outcasts. The Field Service Code issued by General Tojo in 1941 put it more explicitly: ‘Do not live in shame as a prisoner. Die, and leave no ignominious crime behind you.’ ***

“Apart from the dangers of battle, life in the Japanese army was brutal. Letters and diaries written by student conscripts before they were killed in action speak of harsh beatings, and of soldiers being kicked senseless for the most trivial of matters - such as serving their superior’s rice too slowly, or using a vest as a towel.” ***

See Samurai concept of honor (Japan, History), Okinawa, POWs, Atrocities at the Battle of Manila, Atrocities in China

Nakano Spy School: a Ninja Legacy?

Hokusai sketch of a ninja

The Nakano School was the primary training center for military intelligence operations by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. In July 1938, after a number of attempts to penetrate the military of the Soviet Union had failed, and efforts to recruit White Russian had failed, Army leadership felt that a more "systematic" approach to the training of intelligence operatives was required. The Nakano School was initially focused on Russia, teaching primarily Russian as a foreign language. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the start of World War II, the Nakano School changed its focus to southern targets. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Imperial Japanese Army had always placed a high priority on the use of unconventional military tactics. From before the time of the First Sino-Japanese War, Japanese operatives, posing as businessmen, Buddhist missionaries in China, Manchuria and Russia established detailed intelligence networks for production of maps, recruiting local support, and gathering information on opposing forces. Japanese spies would often seek to be recruited as personal servants to foreign officers or as ordinary laborers for construction projects on foreign military works. +

A small school, over its history, the Nakano School had over 2500 graduates, who were trained in a variety of subject matters related to counterintelligence, military intelligence, covert operations, sabotage, foreign languages, and aikido, along with unconventional military techniques in general such as guerrilla warfare. Extended courses were provided on a wide variety of topics including philosophy, history, current events, martial arts, propaganda, and various facets of covert action. +

While small, its graduates occasionally had dramatic successes, such as the intact capture of oil facilities in Palembang, Netherlands East Indies, by Nakano School-trained paratroopers. Nakano graduates were also very active in Burma, India, and Okinawa campaigns. F Kikan, I Kikan and Minami Kikan(ja) were heavily staffed with Nakano graduates. F- Kikan and I Kikan were directed against British India, and was instrumental in forming the Indian National Army and supporting the Azad Hind movement in Japanese-occupied Malaya and Singapore. It also worked with Indonesian nationalists seeking the independence of the Netherlands East Indies. Its efforts to promote anti-British and anti-Dutch movements lasted past the end of the war, and played a role in the independence of India and Indonesia. +

Minami Kikan supplied and led the Burmese National Army to engage in anti-British subversion, intelligence-gathering and later direct combat against British forces in Burma. In China, one Nakano School operation was the unsuccessful attempt to weaken China's Nationalist government by introducing large quantities of forged Chinese currency using stolen printing plates from Hong Kong. Towards the end of the war, graduates of the Nakano School expanded their activities within Japan itself, where their training in guerilla warfare were needed to help organize civilian resistance against the prospective American invasion of the Japanese home islands. +

Japanese Racism and Racism Towards Japanese

While Japan claimed solidarity with other Asian nations and expressed a desire to throw out racist European governments as the basis for their actions, their own policies were shaped by racism, chauvinism and a belief they were superior. The Japanese justified their conquests in Asia with the belief that they were culturally and racially superior to other Asians. Summing up a prevailing view, one industrialist said, the Japanese were "sole superior race in the world."

The Japanese people were brainwashed by the imperial government into thinking that they were a superior race. The Bureau of the Ministry of Education promoted the belief that the Japanese were "intrinsically quite different from the so-called citizens of Occidental countries." Japanese biologists backed up these claims by producing studies that "showed" that Japanese were superior because they had higher flat-foreheads-to-nose ratios, less body odor and less body hair than the hairy, smelly, large-nosed Europeans. According to Japanese propaganda, Americans were "racist, sex-obsessed, abortion-loving "yaju" (wild beasts)."

But the Americans weren't much better. The passed a number of racist immigration laws directed at the Japanese. In 1907, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt barred Japanese laborers in Hawaii, Mexico and Canada from immigrating to the United States. In 1924, the U.S. Congress passed an anti-Japanese immigration act.

From the 1890s through the 1940s, newspapers regularly featured articles about the "yellow peril." One Hearst tabloid proclaimed "The War in the Pacific is the Word War, the War of the Oriental Races against Occidental Races for the Domination of the World." Many Americans believed that most Japanese suffered from myopia. That is why Japanese in political cartoons were often wearing spectacles. After the war began British general called the Japanese soldier “the most formidable fighting insect in history.”

War-time Japan

Kathryn Tolbert wrote in the Washington Post: “The girls at Mizukaido High School were making parts for Zero fighter planes. The gymnasium of their all-girls school about 30 miles north of Tokyo had been converted into a small factory as Japan became increasingly desperate for war materiel. My mother,Hiroko Furukawa, was 14 years old then. She was a budding writer and athlete whose life was put on hold. “I learned how to make holes with an electric drill so the rivet will fit in the hole. This is part of the wing of Zero fighter plane,” Hiroko said. Despite food shortages and nightly air raids, the students believed what they were told, that Japan was winning the war with every advance through the Pacific and victory was inevitable.[Source: Kathryn Tolbert, Washington Post, May 27, 2016]

Japan’s Secret Imperial Navy Headquarters

Japan’s Secret Imperial Navy Headquarters in Yokohama

On a hillside overlooking an athletic field at Keio Senior High School in Yokohama high, an inconspicuous entrance leads to Japan’s secret Imperial Navy headquarters in the final months of World War II. Mari Yamaguchi of Associated Press wrote: “Here, leaders of Japan’s combined fleet command made plans for the fiercest battles, including those of Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima and Okinawa from late 1944 to the war’s end in August 1945. They knew when kamikaze pilots crashed to their deaths when signals from their planes stopped. They cried when they monitored cables from officers aboard the famed battleship Yamato as it came under heavy U.S. fire and sank off southern Japan.” [Source: Mari Yamaguchi, Associated Press, June 24, 2015 ~~]

Keio Senior High School is affiliated with Keio University. “One of the top Japanese universities, Keio, leased the site to the navy in 1944 under an Education Ministry order, after thousands of teachers, staff and students were drafted and sent to the battlefield, leaving the campus virtually empty. Above ground, the navy commanded from a dormitory, rushing to the underground command center whenever U.S. B-29 bombers flew over. Keio’s Hiyoshi campus, south of Tokyo in Yokohama, was chosen apparently because of its relative proximity to both Yokosuka naval base and command headquarters in Tokyo. The hilltop campus also was suitable for an underground facility. ~~

“Construction of the underground tunnels began in July 1944, mobilizing troops and Korean forced laborers. A room for the chief commander, Adm. Soemu Toyota, and key departments were up and running in a few months. Only in the chief commander’s room, cement on the walls was smoothed out, the floor was covered with tatami mats and there was a door. He climbed up and down 126 stairs between the two command centers — above and below ground. His room was slightly elevated so that the floor remained dry, and there was even a flush toilet. The tunnel command center also had ventilation ducts, a battery room, food storage with ample stock of sake, in addition to deciphering and cable and communications departments. Marks on the ceiling remain from where overhead lights hung. The tunnels housing the command center and its facilities under the campus are 30 meters (100 feet) underground and stretch about 2.6 kilometers (1.6 miles) in length. ~~

“The conditions for those leading the war contrasted with those of ordinary people, who hid in small mud shelters as firebombs rained down from the sky. Hisanao Oshima, who was there from February to May 1945 as a communications crew monitoring Morse code, still cannot forget the moments when he lost signals from kamikaze fighters. “The sound stops, and that means he crashed. I just cannot get that out of my head,” he said in an interview with public broadcaster NHK. ~~

“Japan also built the Matsushiro Imperial Underground Headquarters in central Japan for then-Emperor Hirohito and Imperial Army and key government officials, as they prepared for a possible ground war with the Americans, though that one was never used. Hundreds of hangers, tunnels and other wartime remains still exist in Japan, but many have been abandoned as interest has waned. A growing sentiment among some conservatives favors the removal of such remains if they are seen portraying the negative history.” ~~

Image Sources: National Archives of the United States; Wikimedia Commons; Gensuikan; political cartoons, Visualizing Culture, MIT Education; binker: Japan Times

Text Sources: National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun, The New Yorker, Lonely Planet Guides, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, "Eyewitness to History", edited by John Carey ( Avon Books, 1987), Compton’s Encyclopedia, "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books, Eyewitness to History.com, "The Good War An Oral History of World War II" by Studs Terkel, Hamish Hamilton, 1985, BBC’s People’s War website and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2016

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