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"Some Basic Tactics of the Japanese" from Tactical and Technical Trends

The following U.S. military report on Japanese tactics in WWII was published in Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 33, September 9, 1943.

[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from the U.S. War Department publication Tactical and Technical Trends. As with all wartime intelligence information, data may be incomplete or inaccurate. No attempt has been made to update or correct the text. Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the website.]


A review of the operations of the Japanese so far in this war shows that they have stressed the indoctrination of an almost fanatical spirit of self-sacrifice; the wide use of deception; and emphasized speed, surprise, mobility, and offensive action. From almost every fighting front in the Pacific there have come reports that it has been necessary to completely wipe out all Japanese opposition before the objective could be attained. The following examples taken from a British source are illustrative of some basic Japanese tactics.

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"When I received my mobilization orders, I had already sacrificed my life for my country...... you must not expect me to return alive." This sentence is quoted from a letter found on the body of a dead conscript. It is by no means exceptional and indicates a fanatical conception of service which finds expression in a disregard for personal safety and a readiness to fight to the last man and the last round. The morale from which such feelings of self-sacrifice spring, is based on an attitude of mind assiduously cultivated from a very early age.

Japanese moral training instills a strong religious belief; "Comrades who have fallen," reads what is almost the last entry in a soldier's diary, "soon we shall be fighting our last fight to avenge you, and all of us together, singing a battle song, will march to Kudan." (Kudan is a shrine in Tokyo dedicated to the war dead). The second pillar of Japanese morale is deep personal devotion to the Emperor. The last blood-smeared page of a diary captured in Burma has "Three cheers for the Emperor" scrawled across it. The army belongs to the Emperor and its mission is his divine will. Finally, the Japanese believe they are a chosen people, and a superior race. Such is the basis of a morale to which is closely allied a high state of individual and collective battle discipline.

All this does not mean that the Japanese are immune from fear and defeat. Even now when the main United Nations effort is still confined to Europe and the situation is more favorable to the Japanese than it may ever be again, we find that the desire for self preservation can, at times, be stronger than the desire to stay and fight it out. A statement by a Japanese captured in the Arakan is worthy of note. He volunteered the information that our shelling and bombing had caused, besides shell shock, several cases of nervous prostration.

Japanese tactics in general are based on deception and rapid maneuver. They will go to extremes to create false impressions. Sheer weight of numbers and steam-roller tactics are apparently distasteful to them, as such tactics lack finesse, though they would probably be used if required. One gets the impression that the perfect solution to a tactical problem is a neatly performed stratagem, followed by an encirclement or a flanking attack driven home with the bayonet. This allows the commanders to demonstrate their ability, and the men to show their courage and ferocity in hand-to-hand fighting. Their plans are a mixture of military artistry and vain-glorious audacity.

Deception, stratagems and ruses must be expected at all times. Bulldog tenacity in carrying out a mission, even to annihilation, will very frequently give a most erroneous impression of the Japanese strength and will often result in small forces overcoming larger ones, as their units are not rendered ineffective until they are nearly all casualties.

This capacity for driving on despite losses is not displayed by officers only. Training for the Japanese has been so thorough that every man will keep plugging until his own part of the main mission is completed. Long experience has taught even the privates what must be done before a mission is completed, and discipline, lack of imagination, and fatalism, drives them on despite losses.

To the Japanese leader, tactics is an art, with decisions gained by skill, not by sheer power. Training and the delegation to subordinates of the initiative for independent action are most probably the factors that make such tactics simple.

The Japanese attempt to achieve surprise both in strategy and tactics and ruses are extensively employed.

Approaches through country regarded as impassable and the conduct of operations during foul weather are means by which troops more sensitive to ground and climate have been placed at a disadvantage. The fifth column has been freely employed, and with its aid it has been possible greatly to increase the methods by which the enemy can be taken by surprise.

Ruses include the use of disguises, calling out in the language of opposing troops, feigning panic, disorganized withdrawal, and the use of captured uniforms and native clothing. Disorganized withdrawal may be accompanied by strewing the line of withdrawal with supplies and equipment--all carefully covered by concealed machine guns.

Mobility, which is achieved in a number of ways, has been one of the most important factors in obtaining surprise. The ability to exploit to the full the exceptional marching powers of the troops--they are capable of covering thirty or more miles per day--is closely allied with the question of rations. They may, by choosing a circuitous path through difficult country, attempt to overtake and cut the line of retreat of a force withdrawing along a road, but mobility does not end there; if the chances of living off the country are small, troops may carry as much as seven days' rations with them, thus freeing themselves during this period from the encumbrance of an administrative tail. Impressed local inhabitants, with carts or boats, if the country is suitable, supplement their carrying powers, while opportunities to seize local supplies are never neglected.

The Japanese soldier has been trained to carry up to 58 pounds which is what Napoleon's troops carried when they marched to Moscow--but the total load of the French included 15 days' rations. Lest either of these loads should be thought exceptional, we should not forget that the British troops in the Peninsular War carried about 60 pounds and those at Mons in 1914 carried only a few pounds less.

It should on no account be construed from this paragraph that the Japanese habitually carries a heavy load of rations and equipment, for like us he prefers to fight as lightly equipped as possible, but the point worthy of note is that if several days' mobility can be achieved only at the price of carrying a load of rations on his back, he is prepared to carry it.

Offensive action has been described as a principle which gives moral superiority, tends to confer the initiative, and, with it, liberty of action. The Japanese interpretation applies the principle of offensive action not only to his attacks but also to situations in which his defeat is a foregone conclusion. Whatever the situation, his object is to kill the enemy. "If only I can die killing six or seven of the enemy instead of by his first onslaught" writes a soldier just before the last attack is made by a small party.

In August 1942 American marines raided an island held by about 90 Japanese. The raid was a complete success and most of the garrison were annihilated. The remnant, however, estimated at about a dozen, attacked the raiding party as it was leaving the island and thus suffered further casualties. It is an interesting example of offensive action in desperate circumstances.

An outstanding example of strategic mobility on the part of the Japanese was their advance through the Shan States from Karenni in the south to Myitkyina in the north, a distance of some 450 miles, covered in three weeks. This feat is even more remarkable when it is realized that during their advance the Japanese fought three heavy engagements and were hindered by numerous delaying actions. The maintenance of a daily average advance of some 21 miles despite delaying actions and having to fight, speaks for itself as an example of strategic mobility. In considering how this advance was achieved the following points are outstanding: First, the skill of the Japanese in the choice, direction and execution of their encircling movements which, probably more than any other single factor, accounted for the speed and great distance of withdrawals the Chinese were compelled to undertake. Second, the refusal on the part of the Japanese to be deterred from the primary objective by threats to flank or rear.

Finally, there is the ability of the Japanese to move without a cumbersome administrative overhead.


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