Strategy, Language, and the Culture of Defeat: Changing Interpretations of Japan’s Pacific War Naval Demise

By Hal M. Friedman
Henry Ford Community College

Military historians say that military history is written from the perspective of the victor. Japan’s naval defeat in the Pacific War, however, provides a highly arguable case. Much of the translated postwar literature on the Pacific War has been written from an Allied perspective which overemphasizes Japanese weaknesses, deemphasizes the strengths of the Japanese military, and places defeat in a cultural and even racial context. This viewpoint raises the question of whether or not the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) lost the Pacific War because of national characteristics supposedly “unsuited” to twentieth century naval warfare, if Japan was defeated by the Allies because of strategic, operational, and logistical factors over which it had little or no control, or if Japan lost because of the poor strategic decisions it made, especially the gap between planning and operations? 1  Race and culture versus strategy, operations, and logistics are the two opposing views expressed by Japanese naval officers who wrote about their nation’s defeat after the Pacific War. The following paper is a limited review of translated post-1945 Japanese naval accounts written by two groups of authors. The first group consisted of officers who served during the Pacific War, as well as one journalist, all of whom wrote about the war during the 1950s from a cultural perspective. The second group consisted of officers writing since 1960 who had either served during the war or in the postwar Self-Defense Forces, as well as one historian, all of whom viewed Japan’s defeat from a more conventional strategic and operational perspective.

Culture, Language, and Defeat

Though most of the literature which concentrated on cultural factors analyzed Japan’s defeat in a negative context, there was at least one exception. Rear Admiral Tanaka Raizo, Commander of Japan’s crack Destroyer Squadron 2 in the Solomon Islands battles, offered a balanced military analysis of Japan’s defeat, blaming it on the failure to develop radar, a disunited naval command structure, and interservice rivalry with the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA). Yet even Tanaka explained Japan’s proficiency in night torpedo surface warfare partially in terms of cultural characteristics. 2  Tanaka claimed, for example, that Japan excelled in night torpedo warfare until late 1942 because night surface engagements “. . . agreed with the character of Japanese sailors.”  This statement implies, of course, that other nations in the Pacific War failed at early night engagements because of a deficiency in “character” traits “suited” to nighttime naval warfare.  Tanaka’s statement similarly denotes that proficiency in warfare does not ultimately depend on doctrine, training, equipment, and tactics, but on “character” and “spirit”. The question to be asked, therefore, is whether or not Japanese naval officers thought that the IJN lost the war after 1942 because it ultimately lacked character and spirit? Tanaka does not address this issue, but the importance of cultural and national traits as an element of naval warfare is a theme which was highly prevalent in the literature from the 1950s.

The following Japanese literature overwhelmingly employed a cultural context to describe the IJN’s defeat in the Pacific War. It also largely perceived Japan’s national characteristics in negative cultural terms. Interestingly, this tendency to explain defeat in denigrating terminology was in complete contrast to most of Japan’s wartime propaganda, which emphasized Japanese strength, purity, and uniqueness in comparison to Western weaknesses. 3

An example of this postwar literature can be seen in Oi Atsushi’s analysis of Japan’s antisubmarine warfare campaign against the United States. A former Captain in the IJN whose primary duties had been planning Japanese antisubmarine defenses against the United States submarine blockade, Oi forcefully asserted that Japan’s defeat in the submarine war in the Pacific was due to the cultural characteristics of the Japanese people. Oi claimed that Japan lost the submarine war because the Japanese were “racially intemperate” and “less tenacious” in a very “tedious” kind of warfare. Moreover, he argued that antisubmarine warfare was shunned by the “more impetuous” Japanese, who desired to focus on “colorful and offensive” fighting rather than “defensive” antisubmarine tactics. 4

The vocabulary of Oi’s criticism is fascinating for at least two reasons. First, his use of words and phrases such as “racially intemperate,” “impetuous”, and “untenacious” immediately conjures up images of a nation of children who were ill-prepared for modern technological warfare. Second, this portrayal of non-whites as children coincides with a very strong element of nineteenth and twentieth century racist ideology which had been employed by the nations of Western Europe and by the United States to justify their claims to global hegemony. Oi’s vocabulary, in other words, implies a tacit acceptance of prewar Social Darwinist thought that non-white nations like Japan were inferior states. While Japan had certainly subscribed to its own strain of Social Darwinist thought during its grand days of empire, Oi seems to have completely turned the tables and accepted the Western idea that even Japan was inherently inferior because of its societal and cultural background. 5

In a different vein, retired Vice Admiral Yokoi Toshiyuki, Chief of Staff of the Japanese Fifth Fleet when the war ended, more specifically blamed Japan’s defeat on the lack of a “well considered” strategy. He claimed that Japan’s defeat after 1943 was “inevitable” because of a “flawed” strategy which emphasized battleships over airpower. Completely ignoring the vast logistical disparities between Japan and the United States, especially after 1943, Yokoi argued that Japan was not only plagued by its own “flawed” strategy but also asserted that it was “outmatched” by an opponent ” . . . more skilled and powerful in strategy.” 6  Since strategy is largely an intellectual exercise, at least in its initial formulation, Yokoi’s charge of a “flawed” or “weak” strategy subtly implies that Japan sported a flawed or weak intellectual foundation in its naval officer corps. On the one hand, Japan’s naval officer corps did demonstrate a weak strategic foundation with its fixation on battleships and the Decisive Battle Doctrine (see below). 7

What Yokoi failed to point out is that the United States Navy experienced similar kinds of intraservice rivalry and lack of high-level strategic foresight during the 1920s and 1930s, a situation which resulted in a number of serious tactical reverses in 1941 and 1942. , According to Yokoi, many of Japan’s naval leaders failed to grasp the potentialities and implications of their growing naval aviation capability because its early logistical and material superiority afforded it a comfort zone of mistakes. Yet at the same time, he fails to acknowledge the leaps and bounds Japan made in areas such as carrier aviation doctrine which were well ahead of other nations at the time. 8

Strategic, operational, and logistical factors, however, seemed to matter very little in Yokoi’s argument. In fact, his article inferred that if Japanese naval strategy had been “strong”, the war might not have been lost or at least lost so badly. He concluded, however, that the strategy could not have been a “powerful” one because Japanese naval strategists were deficient. 9 Similar to Oi’s subscription to Social Darwinist thought, Yokoi’s subtle allusions to Japanese intellectual inferiority seems to be another significant acceptance by Japanese naval officers of a central theme of Western racist ideology.

There is additional evidence of Japanese naval officers perceiving their officer corps and  nation in negative cultural terms. Former Commander Chihaya Masataka describes a very successful and stealthy Japanese withdrawal from Kiska in the Aleutians in 1943 and attributes the success of the operation to the talents of Rear Admiral Kimura Masatomi, the commander of the evacuation force. Chihaya’s analysis of the operation, however, denotes that Kimura’s talents were rare in the IJN officer corps in particular and in Japan as a whole. Chihaya described Admiral Kimura as very “calm” in a tense situation, “careful” in his planning and decision making, and “unimpetuous”. From Chihaya’s description, one receives the impression that almost the entire IJN officer corps was composed of hotheads and childlike personalities who reacted badly to complicated plans or combat situations. Chihaya’s generalizations again leave the reader with the impression that Japan was a nation of children which was defeated because of its own immaturity in military planning and decision making. 10

Chihaya’s account, however, is not the strongest in its use of stereotyped Japanese character traits to explain defeat. In 1955, former Captain Fuchida Mitsuo, strike leader for the Japanese First Air Fleet and commander of the Pearl Harbor raid in 1941, and former Commander Okumiya Masatake, a carrier operations officer in the Pacific War, published Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan. Not necessarily a scholarly account, Midway was nevertheless an early Japanese primary source about one of the war’s most decisive battles. 11  Fuchida and Okumiya briefly detailed the IJN’s exploits in the Pacific from December 1941 until the Battle of Midway in June 1942 and then devoted most of the book to analyzing the events and outcome of the battle. The most interesting aspect of this work, however, is the concluding analysis and the language used to describe Japan’s defeat. The authors employed a variety of cultural stereotypes to explain Japan’s defeat at Midway and in the Pacific War. Their perspective might have to do with a generational change in the Japanese military officer corps after 1905. Older officers who had matured during the Meiji Restoration had had to be much more familiar with and adept at diplomatic exchange with foreign officers, especially as the Japanese military was modernizing. After 1905, it has been argued that the military officer corps became more insular and parochial in its professional education and training as well as more extreme in its attitudes toward both domestic and international political compromise as Japanese officers had to interact internationally less and less. Perhaps in this vein, both Fuchida and Okumiya, for example, attributed the defeat to the “technological backwardness” of the Japanese people themselves. Largely disregarding Japanese advances in weaponry such as the Long Lance Torpedo, the Fubuki-class destroyer, and the Zero fighter, the authors stated that “. . . Japan started out the Pacific War in an inferior [technological and material] position and remained there.” 12  To Fuchida and Okumiya, this technological and material “inferiority” was not simply a product of a resource poor nation fighting a total war. Both officers believed that Japan’s defeat in the war “. . . lies deep in the Japanese national character . . .” and asserted that the Japanese people as a society were “naturally” unsuited to mass production work and were doomed to defeat in a total, industrialized war.  Other terms used to describe the Japanese were equally revealing. Fuchida and Okumiya claimed the Japanese were “impulsive”, “irrational”, “haphazard”, and “contradictory”. In addition, Japanese were portrayed as “narrow-minded,” “indecisive”, and “vacillating”. Worse, the Japanese were allegedly prone to confuse reality and fantasy. 13 Even though the body of their analysis followed a conventional military critique of strategy, operations, tactics, training, and doctrine, the tone of the conclusion denoted that racial, cultural, and national characteristics were, in the authors’ views, the root cause of the defeat in the battle and in the Pacific War in general. The defeat, in other words, had little to do with material differences, strategy, or even luck, and everything to do with intellectual and cultural deficiencies arising out of racial inferiority. 14

There are, of course, significant problems with Fuchida’s and Okumiya’s work, especially their claims about Japanese weaknesses, which are counterfactual to the available evidence. For example, the Japanese allegedly lacked imagination and daring, yet they were able to carry out an operation like the Pearl Harbor raid. Moreover, Japanese were supposedly unable to sacrifice short-term desires for long-term goals, yet they had industrialized their nation in just one generation during the Meiji Era. 15  Contradictory and racist statements such as these detract from what was considered at the time to be a very credible military analysis of the Midway battle. Their work, however, is hardly unusual among the postwar analyses written by former naval officers in the 1950s. What sets Fuchida and Okumiya apart is the particularly strong language they used to describe Japanese culture and society.

A kind of helpless victimization occurred in other works as well. Among some authors, there was a tendency to blame defeat on spiritual occurrences or suppositions. Bad luck, good fortune, and even religion are common in any military organization which trains its people for combat and death. Still, it is interesting to note that spiritual and supernatural forces were given credit for victories and defeats on numerous occasions in this literature. Journalist Ito Masanori, for instance, essentially blamed Japan’s defeat on the “genius” of American radar, which was, of course, a British invention. More importantly, Ito downgraded and demeaned Japan’s victories in 1942 by implying that the victories had less to do with skill and more to do with luck. Ito even called the victory streak a matter of “good fortune.” 16 Similarly, defeat at Midway was a matter of an “avenging God” turning against Japan, while defeat in the Solomons was the result of the “superior zeal and fighting spirit” of the enemy. 17  Defeat in the Pacific War in general was also attributed at various times to “bad omens” and “abandonment by the Gods of War.” 18

Agawa Hiroyuki, a junior information officer in the IJN during the Pacific War and author of a major postwar biography on Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, placed the Midway defeat primarily in terms of “bad” or “fool’s luck.”  As elements in the defeat, Agawa cited and emphasized such things as the “bad luck” of Commander Fuchida’s last minute sickness and the “misfortune” of malfunctioning scout planes. Agawa essentially ignored the strategic, operational, and tactical mistakes of dividing the strike forces over a large geographic area, the failure to establish operational priorities, or Vice Admiral Nagumo Chuichi’s indecisiveness as the senior officer on the spot. 19

How are historians to explain these protestations on the part of Japan’s Pacific War veterans?  There are several possible explanations, though no very definitive answers. First, these works may have merely been the product of a clever marketing tactic, aimed at selling books to a 1950s American audience through the reinforcement of dearly held Western cultural stereotypes about “inferior” Asian peoples and their alleged inability to fight protracted, modern wars. This theory, however, seems too simplistic and crass for officers who had dedicated their previous lives to serving the Emperor and were now writing as social outcasts in postwar Japan.

Second, the books and articles may have simply been a way for the naval officers to vent their frustrations about mistakes made during the war or to project blame for the defeat away from the Imperial Navy and its officer corps. By singling out cultural or national characteristics as the cause of defeat, the authors suggest that any human action taken was meaningless because Japan was destined to be defeated. Thus, no matter what they or other officers had done during the war, defeat was inevitable and the officer corps should not be blamed for the consequences. Defeat, in other words, was not an outgrowth of flawed strategy, tactics, or doctrine but was inevitable because of the loss of a heavenly mandate, though this last reason is not a Japanese monopoly. 20 The third possibility was provided by retired Maritime Self-Defense Force Rear Admiral Hirama Yoichi during a conversation with the author. Admiral Hirama asserted that the naval officers were not just writing in a context of defeat and were not just seeking to explain the reasons for Japan’s defeat. Instead, he argued that military officers in 1950s Japan were seen as criminals who had been entirely blamed for the defeat and occupation. If correct, Admiral Hirama’s conclusion would mean that these officers may have been attempting to bring an end to their outlaw status in postwar Japan by demonstrating to the nation that defeat was caused by deeply ingrained flaws in the national polity rather than by a criminal military officer corps which had run amuk. 21

Fourth, fortune, luck, and heavenly favor are particularly interesting when placed in their historical and political contexts. Ito’s account provides a particularly useful vehicle for analyzing these motives. Published in 1956, the language about “abandonment” by the “Gods of War” could very well have been an admission of guilt to a largely American audience about Japan’s conduct in the war, especially the Pearl Harbor operation. The context of the time period may have been the key to this admission, since the United States and Japan signed the Mutual Security Treaty just a few years later, in 1960. At a time when Japan’s economic, political, and military health was increasingly dependent on its relationship with the United States, unofficial admission of war guilt may have been a step by the authors to mend the fences and begin relations anew with the US.

Finally, the naval officers writing in the 1950s may have simply been too close to the actual events to provide any kind of detached analysis of their own defeat. As the late Craig Cameron asserted in his study of the 1st Marine Division during the 1940s, veterans’ viewpoints about their role in the war became fixed and selective over time. This phenomenon among former Japanese naval officers may explain why one group from the 1950s blamed culture for their defeat and why a different group of officers writing after 1960 found culture to be a largely insignificant factor. 22

Strategy, Logistics, and Defeat

A dramatic change in explaining Japan’s naval defeat occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. In these decades, some officers who had fought in the war, as well as a younger generation of officers serving in the Self-Defense Forces, began to explain Japan’s loss of the Pacific War in more conventional military terms. The authors reviewed in this section sought to explain Japan’s naval defeat in terms of military, rather than cultural, strengths and weaknesses. Essentially, they contended that the Imperial Navy was as proficient at various aspects of twentieth century naval warfare as foreign navies, but that Japan was defeated because of strategic, logistical, and technical deficiencies over which it had very little control, because of the negative results of fallible human decision making, and because of the bureaucratic inertia found in many modern military organizations.

Writing in 1961, Captain Hara Tameichi, one of Japan’s ablest destroyer leaders, saw very specific strategic and tactical reasons for Japan’s naval defeat in the Pacific War. Hara made clear his belief that the IJN, especially the surface forces, excelled in quality over the Allied navies because of its difficult and realistic peacetime training program. To Hara, defeat came about because of weaknesses in industrial, material, and logistical capability and the failure to fully exploit technologies like radar and airpower. 23 Hara also saw major problems with the IJN’s training doctrine. He believed that most IJN officers were indecisive when it came to battle, not because of any inherent cultural or racial characteristic, but because of a rigid and even brutal training regimen at Eta Jima Naval Academy which produced “sheepish”, unaggressive, and bureaucratic officers who were unimaginative in their strategic and tactical thinking. Hara attributed senior officers’ continuing fixation with battleships during the interwar period to this bureaucratic inertia. He also attributed the battleship officers’ dominance of the Decisive Battle Doctrine–the Mahanian line-of-battle engagement in the Central and Western Pacific which IJN officers believed would decide victory or defeat in any war with the United States–to this bureaucratic inertia. 24 As evidence for his assertion, Hara cited numerous instances when successful battle tactics were repeatedly used until they lacked an element of surprise for the United States Navy. These tactics then resulted in heavy casualties for the IJN, yet they continued to be used until long after their effectiveness had clearly dissipated. Hara argued that a more realistic and flexible training program at Eta Jima and Japan’s Naval War College could have produced a less bureaucratic and more proficient naval officer corps. 25 To Hara, this stagnant leadership, combined with the Navy’s failure to avoid attrition battles after Guadalcanal, were the main reasons for Japan’s defeat. 26   Cultural factors had little, if anything, to do with his analysis.

The idea that training was at the root of the problem was taken up by Asada Sadao in his very thorough and scholarly account of the IJN in the 1930s. The sole naval historian studied in this paper, Asada also saw a very stale, unimaginative, and bureaucratic officer corps coming out of Eta Jima and the Naval War College. Being taught to unquestioningly obey and subscribe to the validity of battleship superiority and the Decisive Battle Doctrine, the officer corps was highly resistant to innovation in terms of a reorientation toward naval airpower. 27 Yet this fact alone does not fully explain Japan’s defeat. The same kind of bureaucratic inertia and resistance to innovation was evident at times in the United States Navy in the 1920s and 1930s, and it is still debated to what degree the American Navy had reoriented itself from surface to naval airpower by 1941. Only the defeat at Pearl Harbor forced the United States Navy to rely fully on its aircraft carriers in the following months. In fact, the IJN had a greater number of aircraft carriers in operation in 1941 and seemed to have a more serious commitment to naval aviation at the beginning of the war. 28 Thus, numbers, as Hara stressed, seem to have become the determining factor by 1942-1943, as opposed to training policy, which Asada asserted more strongly. Still, Asada, like Hara, deemphasized culture as a debilitating factor and demonstrated with primary sources that the IJN suffered from bureaucratic problems similar to other military organizations in the early twentieth century. 29

Numbers and numerical inferiority, especially in naval airpower and radar-equipped ships, were the main reasons which retired Air Self-Defense Forces General Genda Minoru cited for Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War. Genda was one of the IJN’s first fighter pilots and helped plan the Pearl Harbor and Midway operations as the Air Operations Officer for the First Air Fleet. Genda asserted that the IJN was superior to the United States Navy in terms of flying, navigation, night fighting, torpedo warfare, and bombing skills. 30 According to Genda, the reason the war was lost was a tendency in the IJN to try to compensate for material shortages with “spirit”. This tendency was not, however, attributed to any national or cultural characteristic, but was simply a tactic used by a resource poor nation to redress inherent logistical deficiencies. Genda argued that Japan’s primary mistake was getting involved in a long war with the United States. The fact that Genda never recanted Japan’s role in the war itself suggests that he found nothing wrong with the war or its goals, in complete contrast to the officers writing in the 1950s. To Genda, the war was merely badly planned and poorly executed in terms of its objective timetables. Japan, in other words, flawed when it failed to quickly destroy the American carrier forces, secure a comprehensive Pacific Basin defense perimeter, and negotiate a peace. It did not flaw in launching the Pearl Harbor operation itself. 31

The most scholarly and well-researched work which was reviewed was Admiral Hirama’s article. Hirama, writing in 1991, was one of the few authors, in addition to Asada, to extensively use IJN planning documents as his sources. Hirama admits that the interwar worship of the battleship may have been too strong for the IJN’s own good, but he does not believe that the Navy’s concentration on surface power was as strong as previous scholars have alleged. Nor does he believe that the Decisive Battle Doctrine was as inflexible as previously asserted. 32  In fact, Hirama demonstrates that the Decisive Battle Doctrine changed over time by illustrating that the doctrine was defensive and based on surface power only in the 1920s, before submarines and naval airpower became viable agents to implement a more offensive strategy. 33  Hirama cites force strengths and planning documents to show that as submarines and naval airpower grew in numbers and capability,they also grew in importance for IJN operations. 34

In addition, he claims that the IJN’s strategy evolved from an “interception” strategy, whereby the Navy would intercept the American Fleet as it moved close to Japan, to one of “interception-attrition”, whereby the Navy would use its bases in Micronesia, its longer-ranged submarines, and its carrier fleet built in the 1930s to intercept the American Fleet much closer to Hawaii than previously planned. Only more powerful submarines, more capable carrier airpower, and the integration of these forces into line-of-battle tactics allowed the Navy to revise the strategy in this way. 35  To Hirama, the only reason the IJN continued to emphasize night torpedo warfare after the 1920s was that nighttime surface training was a useful support in battle vis-a-vis the air and subsurface arms, and because it was valued as a way to keep the IJN’s battle skills honed in peacetime. He also argued that Japan’s fatal mistake in the Pacific War was not an overemphasis on surface power, but an overemphasis on land-based naval airpower and an inability to counter highly mobile American carrier groups which outnumbered IJN forces after 1943. 36

Another fascinating paper was that presented in the fall of 1991 at the United States Naval Academy’s Tenth Naval History Symposium in Annapolis, Maryland, by retired Maritime Self-Defense Force Captain Akihiko Yoshida. Akihiko presented research on the Pearl Harbor strike and contended that the air assault on Battleship Row could have been conducted in a more “organized” and “effective” manner! 37 Akihiko’s interpretation was that the air assault was generally successful, but that it could have been much more effective if veteran flyers had been used in the initial assault, neophyte flyers had flown the second wave, and radio communications had been used to coordinate strikes after the attack force arrived over Pearl Harbor. 31  Apparently, there was confusion about Commander Fuchida’s flare signals for the attack and the manner in which the aerial units were to coordinate their strikes. 39  As reasons for the “confused” air assault, Akihiko found fault in the policy of mixing veteran and neophyte air groups which had not trained together for very long. He also found fault with the Navy air arm’s lack of training in high and very high frequency (HF/VHF) radio communications, and with its obsession with radio silence even after the strike force arrived over Pearl Harbor. 40  Akihiko’s interpretation must have proved particularly interesting to his audience, considering that it was predominantly composed of American naval officers marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Pearl Harbor raid!

The works by Hara, Asada, Hirama, and Akihiko illustrate another side to the debate over Japan’s naval defeat. These authors consistently saw Japan’s defeat as the result of military-technical factors over which Japan had little control, or as a consequence of bureaucratic inertia that was fairly common in military organizations, or as the result of poor decisions made by fallible human beings under tremendous pressures. National or cultural characteristics as factors in military defeat had little, if any, place in their analyses.

Conclusion

A number of conclusions can be drawn from these most recent examples of post-1945 accounts. One, the historical analysis of Japan’s naval defeat became more sophisticated over time as naval historians and naval officers trained in historical research techniques took over strategic, operational, and tactical analysis from officers who actually fought in the war. A second conclusion is that as the war  receded into the past and professional historians with fewer political axes to grind  came to dominate the debates, explanations for Japan’s defeat  became more precise, more intellectually sound and debatable, and certainly less grounded in over-generalized, stereotyped,  racist, and even self-flagellating terminology. Third, and most obvious, the explanations about Japan’s naval defeat have entailed more complex comparisons with other naval powers and the problems these powers encountered in projecting and employing their naval forces during wartime. This greater complexity can especially be seen with the thoughts of Vice Admiral Yoji Koda, retired Commander of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Fleet, who argued that while the Japanese Government and military began to exhibit “emotional” characteristics in its strategic formulations in the 1930s this phenomenon could happen to any nation because of human nature, bureaucratic inertia, and a gap between planning and operations.

(Return to the October 2013 Issue Table of Contents)

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  1. See Vice Admiral Koda Yoji, Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) (RET),”Doctrine And Strategy in IJN” (lecture, U.S. Naval War College, 20 January 2011).
  2. Ibid.  According to John Dower, the idea that a nation could be classified by “character traits” was also the basis for much of the Allied wartime study of Japan.  In fact, these wartime studies were called “national character studies”; see John W. Dower, War Without Mercy:  Race & Power in the Pacific War (New York:  Pantheon Books, 1986), 9 and 120-123.
  3. Dower believes that Japanese wartime propaganda had more to do with self-promotion and the negation of Western stereotypes rather than the denigration of Westerners themselves.  For an analysis of this wartime propaganda, see ibid, 203-233 and 262-290.
  4. Captain Oi Atsushi, “Why Japan’s Antisubmarine Warfare Campaign Failed,” in David C. Evans, ed., Japanese Navy in World War II: In the Words of Former Japanese Naval Officers (Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 1986), 387 and 414.
  5. Again, the allusions to immaturity are analyzed by Dower.  The pre-1941 language and terminology used in the West to describe the Japanese significantly parallels the language used by Japanese naval officers during the 1950s to explain their own defeat; see Dower, War Without Mercy, 9, 122, 133, and 145.
  6. According to Admiral Koda, the entire Japanese strategic planning apparatus demonstrated major and basic flaws, but not because of any racial or cultural mindset.  Admiral Koda demonstrated that it was Japan’s inexperience with modern total war, stemming from its lack of participation in the European phase of World War One that created the vast gulf between planning and operations that became so prevalent in the 1920s and especially the 1930s; see Koda, “Doctrine and Strategy of IJN,” 20 January 2011.
  7. Vice Admiral Yokoi Toshiyuki, “Thoughts on Japan’s Naval Defeat,” in Evans, Japanese Navy in World War II, 515.
  8. For the Decisive Battle doctrine, see footnote 24.  For aspects of American wartime strategy, see D. Clayton James, “American and Japanese Strategies in the Pacific War,” in Peter Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy:  From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1986), 726-727.  For evidence that some senior American naval officers may not have appreciated or even understood the potentiality of carrier forces, see Clark G. Reynolds’ account of Admiral William Halsey’s conduct as Commander of the US Third Fleet during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in The Fast Carriers:  The Forging of an Air Navy  (Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 1992), 253-300.  See also Vice Admiral John Towers’ frustration over American carrier forces being commanded by surface officers in 1942.  Towers, the United States Navy’s third naval aviator, one of its first “air admirals,” and Nimitz’ Commander of Pacific Fleet Air Forces (COMAIRPAC), specifically blamed heavy carrier losses in 1942 on the ships being commanded by surface officers who allegedly did not know how to employ these vessels; see Reynolds, Admiral John H. Towers:  The Struggle for Naval Air Supremacy (Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 1991), 406-454.  For a highly cogent demonstration that some senior surface officers in the United States Navy did, in fact, know how to fight the carrier forces effectively, see John Lundstrom, Black Shoe Carrier Admiral:  Frank Jack Fletcher at Coral Sea, Midway and Guadalcanal (Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 2006).  In addition, it needs to be understood that numerous naval historians have significantly recast the interwar United States Navy and the senior officer corps.  Based on reexaminations of primary sources, post-Cold war historians have demonstrated that the interwar American naval officer corps experimented with naval aviation, submarine warfare, and amphibious assault doctrine to a much greater degree than the Japanese Navy did or than Cold War-era historians such as Reynolds were willing to admit.  For detailed accounts of interwar American naval doctrine, see Joel Davidson, The Unsinkable Fleet:  The Politics of U.S. Navy Expansion in World War II  (Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 1996), 11, 12, 14, 15-16, 19-21, 23, 24, 32, 34, 60, 96, and 97; Thomas Wildenberg, Destined for Glory:  Dive Bombing, Midway, and the Evolution of Carrier Airpower (Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 1998), 48-64, 83-98, 126-128, 141, 155, 157-160, 163-164, and 170-171; William McBride, Technological Change and the United States Navy, 1865-1945 (Baltimore, Maryland:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 111-212; Thomas Hone and Trent Hone, Battleline:  The United States Navy, 1919-1939 (Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 2006), 110-125; Craig Felker, Testing American Sea Power:  U.S. Navy Strategic Exercises, 1923-1940 (College Station, Texas:  Texas A&M University Press, 2007), 61-75; John Kuehn, Agents of Innovation: The General Board and the Design of the Fleet that Defeated the Japanese Navy (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2008), 87-92, 173-175, and 205; Joel Holwitt, “Execute Against Japan”:  The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (College Station, Texas:  Texas A&M University Press, 2009), 22, 62, and 63-83; and Albert Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War:  The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940 (Newport, Rhode Island:  Naval War College Press, 2010), 25, 51-56, 60, 62, 64, 65, 66, 74, 76-77, 80, 85-86, 93-94, 100-102, 104, 105, 110-117, 121-125, 129-136, 139-146, 151, 155, 156-159, 169,197-203, 207-216, 219-227, 229-237, 253-263, and 287-288.  For interwar Japanese carrier doctrine development, see Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully, Shattered Sword:  The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Washington, D.C.:  Potomac Books, 2005), 82-86, 158, 163, 167, 168, 171, 397, 414, and 442
  9. See Dower, War Without Mercy, 103, for pre-1941 Western perceptions about “inflexible” Japanese strategies and tactics and ibid., 97-98, 122, 123, 145, and 153-154, for Western views on alleged Japanese intellectual inferiority which were highly similar to views expressed by Japanese naval officers such as Captain Oi.
  10. Captain Fuchida Mitsuo and Commander Okumiya Masatake, Midway:  The Battle That Doomed Japan (Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 1955).
  11. Ibid., 243.  Similarly, former Lieutenant Commander Hashimoto Mochitsura, writing about the destruction of the IJN’s submarine force in the Pacific War, claimed that the IJN’s major fault was in failing to develop sophisticated radar before 1943.  Hashimoto asserted that the lack of this sophisticated technology was like going to war with a “bamboo lance.”  The phrase conjures up images of “primitive” weapons and “native” warriors fighting “civilized” Western Techno-soldiers.  In effect, the phrase implies that the Japanese military was somehow culturally inferior to the American military in World War Two and was thus defeated; see Hashimoto, Sunk: The Story of the Japanese Submarine Fleet, 1941-1945 (New York:  Henry Holt And Company, 1954), vi; see also Dower, War Without Mercy, 94-117 and 121-122.  Dowers offers a great deal of evidence from pre-1941 Western sources that the Japanese were perceived as “subhuman creatures” who were incapable of producing “modern” weaponry or conducting “modern” warfare.  After the Japanese victories of 1941-1942, however, much of this propaganda gave way to stereotypes painting the Japanese as quasi-supermen.  For the changes in Japanese military leaders attitudes after the Russo-Japanese War, see Yuki Tanaka, Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes in World War II (Boulder, Colorado:  Westview Press, 1996), 206-211.
  12. See Fuchida and Okumiya, Midway, 243-244 and 247-248; see also Dower, War Without Mercy, 121-122.
  13. Fuchida and Okumiya, Midway, 247-248.
  14. Ibid., 232-248.
  15. For this transformation from “sub-humans” to “supermen”, see Dower, War Without Mercy, 97-98 and 112-116.
  16. Ito Masanori, The End of The Imperial Japanese Navy (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1956), 44-53.  Ito was the only author from the 1950s studied for this paper who was not a professional naval officer.  He was, in fact, a journalist, but his viewpoints about Japan’s defeat closely coincided with the naval officers writing in the 1950s.
  17. Ibid., 69 and 83.
  18. Ibid., 93 and 107.  The reader should note, however, that blaming military defeat on luck or metaphysics was not limited to the Japanese or even to the military personnel of a defeated power.  Craig Cameron has demonstrated that Richard Tregaskis, author of Guadalcanal Diary, described the men of the 1st Marine Division as “pawns in a battle of the gods” when the situation looked “in doubt” after the United States Navy withdrew its carrier forces from the Solomons area in August 1942; see Tregaskis, Guadalcanal Diary (New York:  Random House,1943), 62, as quoted by Cameron, American Samurai:  Myth, Imagination, And The Conduct Of Battle In The First Marine Division, 1941-1951 (Cambridge, England:  Cambridge University Press, 1994), 98.
  19. Agawa Hiroyuki, The Reluctant Admiral:  Yamamoto and the Imperial Navy  (New York: Kodansha International, Ltd., 1979), 312 and 314-315.  For a balanced critique of battles such as Midway and the Japanese defeat because of a gap between planning and operations rather than race and culture, see Koda, “Doctrine and Strategy of IJN,” U.S. Naval War College lecture, 20 January 2011.
  20. In May 1993, Dr. Raymond O’Connor, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Miami, told this author that Japanese naval officers using cultural arguments to explain their defeat was “endemic”.  O’Connor’s observations were based on numerous conversations he had had with his California neighbor, retired Rear Admiral Edwin Layton, who had been the Combat Intelligence Officer on the staff of the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT) immediately before and during most of the Pacific War.  Layton had been involved in interrogating Japanese naval officers after the September 1945 surrender, and he told O’Connor that this phenomenon had been a widespread occurrence; conversation between Dr. O’Connor and the author, 60th Annual Conference of the Society for Military History, Royal Military College of Canada, Kingston, Ontario, May 21, 1993.  While General Robert E. Lee did employ similar types of fatalism to denote Confederate victories and defeats in the American Civil War, this author would suggest that perhaps Lee’s nineteenth century context should be taken into account in any analytical comparison to twentieth century military officers; see Thomas Buell, The Warrior Generals:  Combat Leadership in the Civil War (New York:  Three Rivers Press, 1997), 49, 80, 98, 131, 210, and 233.
  21. Conversation between the author and Rear Admiral Hirama Yoichi, World War II in the Pacific Conference, U.S. Navy Museum, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, D.C., August 10, 1994.
  22. See Cameron, American Samurai, 10, 34, and 249.
  23. See Captain Hara Tameichi, Japanese Destroyer Captain (New York:  Ballantine Books, 1961), 1-25, 58, and 61.
  24. The Decisive Battle Doctrine was a strategy which was based on the battleship strength of the IJN.  The role of battleships in the victories over China and Russia in 1894-1895 and 1904-1905, respectively, produced a nearly unshakeable confidence among many Japanese naval officers in the ability of battleships to destroy the American Pacific Fleet if it ever attempted to interfere in Japan’s sphere of influence on the East Asian mainland.  The strategy evolved, however, through a number of revisions, and Admiral Hirama argues that the centrality of the battleship gave way to an emphasis on carrier and submarine forces by the 1930s.  Nevertheless, battleship operations continued to remain a major focus until the Pacific War and the Doctrine continued to envision the US Pacific Fleet advancing from Hawaii, being reduced by air and submarine forces along the route to Japan, and then being decisively engaged near Micronesia by the main battleship fleet.  For the development of the Decisive Battle Doctrine, see Mark R. Peattie, “Akiyama Saneyuki and the Emergence of Modern Japanese Naval Doctrine,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 103 (January 1977):  60-69; Peattie and David C. Evans, “Sato Tetsutaro and Japanese Strategy,” Naval History 4 (Fall 1990):  34-39; and Carlos R. Rivera, “Akiyama Saneyuki and Sato Tetsutaro:  Preparing for Imperial Navy for the Hypothetical Enemy, 1906-1916,” paper presented at the 29th Annual Northern Great Plains History Conference, St. Paul, Minnesota, September 28-October 1, 1994.  For changes in the Decisive Battle Doctrine as new technology was introduced in the 1920s and 1930s, see Rear Admiral Hirama Yoichi, Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (Retired), “Japanese Naval Preparations for World War Two,” Naval War College Review 44 (Spring 1991):  63-81. For more recent work in this area, see David Evans and Mark Peattie, Kaigun:  Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941 (Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 1997); Mark Peattie, Sunburst:  The Rise of Japanese Naval Air Power, 1909-1941 (Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 2001); and Asada Sadao, From Mahan to Pearl Harbor:  The Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States (Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 2006).
  25. See Hara, Japanese Destroyer Captain, 11-17, 117, 118, 120-121, 134-157, and 157-176.  Western observers in the 1930s and 1940s believed that Japanese tactics were inflexible because of “national characteristics,” especially a predilection to “short tempers” in stressful combat situations.  Hara, however, sees a bureaucratic, rather than a cultural, reason for this phenomenon and believed this bureaucratic inertia could infect and negate the efficiency of any naval organization.  So does Admiral Koda; see Koda, “Doctrine and Strategy of IJN,” U.S. Naval War College, 20 January 2011.  For the Western literature, see Dower, War Without Mercy, passim.
  26. See Hara, Japanese Destroyer Captain, 3.
  27. Asada Sadao, “The Japanese Navy and the United States,” in Dorothy Borg and Okamoto Shumpei, eds., Pearl Harbor as History:  Japanese-American Relations, 1931-1941  (New York: Columbia University Press, 1973), 225-259; see also Asada, From Mahan to Pearl Harbor, 287-296, especially for the perspective that much of IJN strategic thought was a response to bureaucratic rivalry with the IJA, not really an orientation to fight the United States Navy.
  28. See Hirama, “Japanese Naval Preparations,” 69-71; see also Parshall and Tully, Shattered Sword, 3-18 and 60-114.
  29. See Asada, “The Japanese Navy and the United States,” passim.
  30. General Genda Minoru, Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (Retired), “Tactical Planning In The Imperial Japanese Navy,” Naval War College Review 22 (October 1969):  45-50.
  31. Ibid.
  32. See Hirama, “Japanese Naval Preparations,” 63-81.
  33. Ibid., 64-67.
  34. These consisted of a series of “Replenishment Plans,” or programs designed to build up the submarine and air strength of the IJN in the late 1930s.  For example, larger submarines for ocean cruising were developed, as were submarine command and control vessels to ensure tactical control over large submarine flotillas operating at long distances in the central and eastern Pacific.  In addition, the famous Zero fighter and the Betty land-based torpedo bomber were developed at this time and the strength of the naval air force grew from 7.5 air groups and 120 aircraft in 1931 to over 3300 aircraft and ten aircraft carriers in 1941; see Hirama, “Japanese Naval Preparations,” 70.
  35. Ibid., 67-71 and 73-74.
  36. Ibid., 78-79.
  37. Captain Akihiko Yoshida, Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (Retired), “The Disorderly Air Assault on Battleship Row,” paper delivered at the Tenth Annual Symposium on Naval History, United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, September 13, 1991, 1-4.  For a more recent and even more critical, though probably overdone, critique of the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor, see Alan Zimm, Attack on Pearl Harbor:  Strategy, Combat, Myths, Deceptions (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:  Casemate Publishers, 2011).
  38. Ibid.
  39. Ibid., 3.
  40. Ibid., 3-4.
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2 Responses to Strategy, Language, and the Culture of Defeat: Changing Interpretations of Japan’s Pacific War Naval Demise

  1. Pertti Dahlstrom says:

    Highly interesting. All those mentioned factors may have been efficient enough to imply war´s outcomes, not one or two. But, no one can or shall blame Japanese for racial weaknesses nor for being infantile. When Japanese infantry tactics is analyzed (ex.g. during island wars), the bushido philosophy is dominant: blind suicide attacts were scaring but the losses vs. achievement were negative. Think, if they were better trained to assault in a proper way.. NB: radar is not solely a British invention, other countries, Germany included had developed radar technology and used it with success.

  2. David Luck says:

    in one word: Yamamoto. The Japanese naval C-in-C was a defeatist and an incompetent. Good Grief, look at his battle plans for Coral Sea and Midway – these at a time when the Japanese still enjoyed substantial qualitative and quantiitative superiority over the Americans: conflicting objectives, way too many moving parts and, above all, massive dispersion of force. Had Yamamoto simply concentrated all available strength – esp. in carrier-based aviation – on finding and destroying the remaining American Pacific carriers, the Japanese would have won both encounters with plenty to spare…and a different War results. Different in structure, different in duration…and perhaps (given strategic cooperation with the Germans, also lacking) different in outcome.

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