Japanese imperial army

This article is about the land force of Imperial Japan. For the current land force of Japan since 1954, see Japan Ground Self-Defense Force. For other uses, see Ministry of the Military.
Imperial Japanese Army (IJA)
Dai-Nippon Teikoku Rikugun
The ensign of the Imperial Japanese Army
Active 1867–1945
Country  Empire of Japan
Allegiance The Emperor
Branch Army
Type Army
Role Military force
Size 6,095,000 men at its height
Engagements First Sino-Japanese War
Russo-Japanese War
World War I
Second Sino-Japanese War
World War II
Yamagata Aritomo, Ōyama Iwao, Kotohito Kan'in, Hajime Sugiyama, Hideki Tojo, Yasuji Okamura, Shunroku Hata, Tadamichi Kuribayashi, Tomoyuki Yamashita, Masaharu Homma

The Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) (Kyūjitai: 大日本帝國陸軍, Shinjitai: 大日本帝国陸軍, Romaji: Dai-Nippon Teikoku Rikugun) literally "Army of the Greater Japanese Empire", was the official ground-based armed force of the Empire of Japan, from 1871 to 1945. It was controlled by the Imperial Army General Staff Office and the Ministry of War, both of which were nominally subordinate to the Emperor of Japan as supreme commander of the army and the navy. Later an Inspectorate General of Military (Army) Aviation, became the third agency with oversight over the army. During wartime or national emergencies, the nominal command functions of the emperor would be centralized in an Imperial General Headquarters (IGHQ), an ad-hoc body consisting of the chief and vice chief of the Army General Staff, the minister of war, the chief and vice chief of the Naval General Staff, the inspector general of military aviation, and the inspector general of military training.



During the Meiji Restoration, the military forces loyal to the Emperor were samurai drawn primarily from the loyalist feudal domains of Satsuma and Chōshū. After the successful overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate (bakufu) and establishment of the new Meiji government modeled on European lines, a more formal military, loyal to the central government rather than individual domains, became recognized by the general populace as a necessity to preserve Japan's independence from western imperialism.

This central army, the "Imperial Japanese Army" (IJA), became even more essential after the abolition of the feudal domains in 1871. To reform the military, the government instituted nationwide conscription in 1873, mandating that every male between the age of 17 and 40 undertake three years active service, followed by a further two years in the first reserve (active) and another two in the second reserve (standby).[1] One of the primary differences between the samurai and peasant class was the right to bear arms; this ancient privilege was suddenly extended to every male in the nation.[2]

Foreign assistance

Main article: Boshin War

The early Imperial Japanese Army was essentially developed with the assistance of French advisors,[3] through the second French military mission to Japan (1872–1880), and the third French military mission to Japan (1884–1889). However, due to the German victory in the Franco-Prussian War, the Japanese government also relied on Prussia as a model for their army, and hired two German military advisors (Major Jakob Meckel, replaced in 1888 by von Wildenbrück and Captain von Blankenbourg) for the training of the Japanese General Staff from 1886 to April 1890: the Imperial Army General Staff Office, based on the Prussian Generalstab, was established directly under the Emperor in 1878 and was given broad powers for military planning and strategy.

Other known foreign military consultants were the Italian Major Pompeo Grillo, who worked at the Osaka foundry from 1884 to 1888, followed by Major Quaratezi from 1889 to 1890, and the Dutch Captain Schermbeck, who worked on improving coastal defenses from 1883 to 1886. Japan did not use foreign military advisors between 1890 and 1918, until again a French military mission to Japan (1918–1919), headed by Commandant Jacques-Paul Faure, was requested to assist in the development of the Japanese air services.[4]

Taiwan Expedition

Main article: Taiwan Expedition of 1874

The Taiwan Expedition of 1874 was a punitive expedition by Japanese military forces in response to the murder of 54 crewmembers of a wrecked Ryukyuan merchant vessel by Paiwan aborigines on the southwestern tip of Taiwan in December 1871. It marked the first overseas deployment of the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy.[5]

Satsuma rebellion

Not surprisingly, the new order led to a series of riots from disgruntled samurai. One of the major riots was led by Saigō Takamori, the Satsuma rebellion, which eventually turned into a civil war. This rebellion was put down swiftly by conscripts in the newly formed Imperial Army, using Western tactics and weapons, even though the core of the new army was actually the Tokyo Police force, consisting mostly of former samurai.[6]

An Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors of 1882 called for unquestioning loyalty to the Emperor by the new armed forces and asserted that commands from superior officers were equivalent to commands from the Emperor himself. Thenceforth, the military existed in an intimate and privileged relationship with the imperial institution.

Top-ranking military leaders were given direct access to the Emperor and the authority to transmit his pronouncements directly to the troops. The sympathetic relationship between conscripts and officers, particularly junior officers who were drawn mostly from the peasantry, tended to draw the military closer to the people. In time, most people came to look more for guidance in national matters to military than to political leaders.

By the 1890s, the Imperial Japanese Army had grown to become the most modern army in Asia, well-trained, well-equipped with good morale. However, it was basically an infantry force deficient in cavalry and artillery when compared with its European contemporaries. Artillery pieces, which were purchased from America and a variety of European nations, presented two problems: they were scarce, and the relatively small number that were available were in several different calibers, causing problems with their ammunition supply.

First Sino-Japanese War

The First Sino-Japanese War was a war fought between Qing Dynasty of China and Japanese Meiji government over the control of Korea. The Sino-Japanese War would come to symbolize the weakness of the Qing military, with Japanese securing victory after victory over the Chinese forces. This was the result by Japan's new western-style conscript army which was well equipped and well trained when compared with their Chinese counterparts. The principal results were a shift in regional dominance in Asia from China to Japan and a fatal blow to the Qing Dynasty. Japan fielded a force of 120,000 in two armies and five divisions.

Boxer Rebellion

Main article: Boxer Rebellion

In 1899–1900, Boxer attacks against foreigners in China intensified and later accumulated in the siege of the diplomatic legations in Beijing. An international force consisting of British, French, Russian, German, Italian, Austro-Hungarian, American and Japanese troops was assembled to relieve the legations. The Japanese provided the largest contingent of troops; 20,840, as well as 18 warships. Of the total number, 20,300 were Imperial Japanese Army troops of the 5th Infantry Division under Lt. General Yamaguchi Motoomi, the remainder were 540 naval rikusentai from the Imperial Japanese Navy. The rebels used traditional Chinese martial arts, as opposed to modern military weapons and tactics. This led to them being called "Boxers" by Westerners, as that is how they perceived martial arts at the time. While officially condemning the movement, the Boxers had the unofficial support of the Empress Dowager Cixi. In the end the Boxer leaders were captured and executed. The Empress Dowager, was forced to flee the palace as the foreign armies entered the Forbidden City.

Russo-Japanese War

Main article: Russo-Japanese War

The Russo–Japanese War was the result of tensions between Russia and Japan, largely out of the rival imperialist ambitions over Manchuria and Korea. The Japanese inflicted severe losses on the Russians; however, they were not able to inflict a decisive blow to the Russian armies. Over-reliance on infantry led to large casualties among Japanese forces especially during the siege of Port Arthur.

World War I

The Empire of Japan entered the war on the Entente side. Although tentative plans were made to send an expeditionary force of between 100,000–500,000 men to France,[7] ultimately the only action in which the Imperial Japanese Army was involved in was the careful and well executed attack on the German concession of Tsingtao in 1914.[8]

Inter-war years

During 1917–18, Japan continued to extend its influence and privileges in China via the Nishihara Loans. Following the collapse of the Russian Empire in the Bolshevik Revolution, during the Siberian Intervention, the Imperial Japanese Army initially planned to send more than 70,000 troops to occupy Siberia as far west as Lake Baykal. The army general staff came to view the Tsarist collapse as an opportunity to free Japan from any future threat from Russia by detaching Siberia and forming an independent buffer state.[9] The plan was scaled back considerably due to opposition from the United States.

In July 1918, President Wilson asked the Japanese government to supply 7,000 troops as part of an international coalition of 24,000 troops planned to support the American Expeditionary Force Siberia.[10] After heated debate in the Diet, the government of Prime Minister Terauchi Masatake agreed to send 12,000 troops, but under the command of Japan, rather than as part of an international coalition. Japan and the United States sent forces to Siberia to bolster the armies of the White Movement leader Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak against the Bolshevik Red Army.

Once the political decision had been reached, the Imperial Japanese Army took over full control under Chief of Staff General Yui Mitsue, and by November 1918, more than 70,000[10] Japanese troops had occupied all ports and major towns in the Russian Maritime Provinces and eastern Siberia.

In June 1920, America and its allied coalition partners withdrew from Vladivostok after the capture and execution of White Army leader Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak by the Red Army. However, the Japanese decided to stay, primarily due to fears of the spread of communism so close to Japan, and Japanese controlled Korea and Manchuria. The Japanese army provided military support to the Japanese-backed Provisional Priamur Government based in Vladivostok against the Moscow-backed Far Eastern Republic.

The continued Japanese presence concerned the United States, which suspected that Japan had territorial designs on Siberia and the Russian Far East. Subjected to intense diplomatic pressure by the United States and Great Britain, and facing increasing domestic opposition due to the economic and human cost, the administration of Prime Minister Kato Tomosaburo withdrew the Japanese forces in October 1922.[11]

Rise of militarism in Shōwa era

In the 1920s the Imperial Japanese Army expanded rapidly and by 1937 had a force of 300,000 men. Unlike western countries it enjoyed a great deal of independence from government. Under the provisions of the Meiji Constitution, the War Minister was held accountable only to the Emperor Hirohito himself, and not to the elected civilian government. In fact, Japanese civilian administrations needed the support of the Army in order to survive. The Army controlled the appointment of the War Minister and in 1936 a law was passed that stipulated that only an active duty general or lieutenant-general could hold the post.[12] As a result, the military spending as a proportion of the national budget rose disproportionately in the 1920s and 1930s, and various factions within the military exerted disproportionate influence on Japanese foreign policy.

The Imperial Japanese Army was originally known simply as the Army (rikugun) but after 1928, as part of the Army's turn toward romantic nationalism and also in the service of its political ambitions, it retitled itself the Imperial Army (kōgun).

Conflict with China

In 1931, the Imperial Japanese Army had an overall strength of 198,880 officers and men, organized into 17 divisions.[13] The Manchurian Incident, as it became known in Japan, was the alleged attack on the Japanese-owned railway by Chinese bandits. Action by the military, largely independent of the civilian leadership, led to the invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and later the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. As war approached, the Imperial Army's influence with the Emperor waned and the influence of the Imperial Japanese Navy increased.[14] Nevertheless, by 1938 the Army had been expanded to 34 divisions.[15]

Conflict with Soviet Union

From 1932–1945 the Empire of Japan and Soviet Union had a series of conflicts. It was the result of Japan establishing a puppet state in Manchuria which brought them into conflicts as Japan set its military interests on Soviet territory. The war lasted on and off with the last two battles of the 1930s ending in a decisive victory for the Soviets. The conflicts stopped in 1941 with a non-aggression pact between the two powers.[16] However, at the Yalta Conference, Stalin agreed to declare war on Japan. On August 5, 1945 the Soviet Union voided their neutrality agreement with Japan.[17]

World War II

Main article: Pacific War

In 1941, the Imperial Japanese Army had 51 divisions[15] and various special-purpose artillery, cavalry, anti-aircraft and armored units with a total of 1,700,000 men. At the beginning of the Second World War, most of the Japanese Army (27 divisions) was stationed in China. A further 13 divisions defended the Mongolian border, due to concerns about a possible attack by the Soviet Union.[15] However, from 1942, soldiers were sent to Hong Kong (23rd Army), the Philippines (14th Army), Thailand (15th Army), Burma (15th Army), Dutch East Indies (16th Army) and Malaya (25th Army).[18] By 1945, there were 5.5 million men in the Imperial Japanese Army.

From 1943, Japanese troops suffered from a shortage of supplies, especially food, medicine, munitions and armaments largely due to submarine interdiction of supplies and losses to Japanese shipping, which was worsened by a longstanding and severe rivalry with the Imperial Japanese Navy. The lack of supplies caused large numbers of fighter aircraft to become unserviceable for lack of spare parts[19] and "as many as two-thirds of Japan's total military deaths resulted from illness or starvation."[20]

Fanaticism and war crimes

Throughout the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army had gained a reputation both for its fanaticism and for its brutality against prisoners of war and civilians alike - with the Nanking Massacre being one such example.[21] After Japan surrendered in the summer of 1945, many Imperial Japanese Army officers and enlisted men were tried and punished for committing numerous atrocities and war crimes. In 1949, the trials were ceased, with a total of 5,700 cases having been heard.[22]

Major General Tomitarō Horii did issue a "Guide to Soldiers in the South Seas" in late 1941, which ordered troops not to loot or kill civilians. This was intended to prevent a repeat of atrocities that the Army committed in China, however this only applied to men under his command.[23]

Several reasons are theorized for the especially brutal and merciless behavior exhibited by many members of the IJA towards their adversaries or non-Japanese civilians. One is probably the brutal behavior that they themselves experienced. The IJA was known for the extremely harsh treatment of its enlisted soldiers from the start of training,[24] including beatings, unnecessarily strenuous duty tasks, lack of adequate food, and other violent or harsh disciplinary tactics. This was contrary to the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors of 1882, which instructed officers to treat subordinates respectfully.[25] Not until 1943 did the senior command realize this brutality had effects on morale and ordered an end to it, an order which was routinely circumvented or ignored.[26] The spirit of gyokusai ("glorious death") saw them order suicidal attacks with bayonets, when supplies of hand grenades and ammunition were still available.[27]

The reputation of Imperial Army troops during the Pacific War of refusing to surrender was established by the low number of Japanese survivors in numerous battles throughout the Pacific Campaign; 921 captured out of a garrison strength of 31,000 in the Battle of Saipan, 17 out of 3000 in the Battle of Tarawa, 7,400–10,755 out of 117,000 in the Battle of Okinawa, with a high number of battlefield suicides sanctioned by the Imperial Army. In the South West Pacific Area (SWPA) just over 1,000 surrendered in each of 1942 and 1943, around 5,100 in 1944, and over 12,000 in 1945,[28] and might have been greater except for disease.[29] Propaganda through leaflet drops by the Americans accounted for about 20% of surrenders;[30] equating to about one POW for every 6,000 leaflets dropped;[31] while the Japanese objected to the "unscrupulous" leaflets,[32] which contained some truth with regard to the willingness of American to accept surrenders from the Japanese.[33] This was in contrast to Imperial Japanese Army practice of depicting American troops as cruel and merciless, referring to them as 鬼畜米英 (Kichiku Beihei, lit. Demonic Beast American and English) and informing their own troops that Americans would rape all captured women and torture the men, leading directly to brutal treatment of POWs in incidents such as the Bataan Death March and mass suicide of Japanese soldiers and civilians during the Battle of Saipan and Battle of Okinawa.

Imperial General Headquarters and the power of the Emperor in the Shōwa era

During the first part of the Showa era, according to the Meiji Constitution, the Emperor had the "supreme command of the Army and the Navy" (Article 11). Hirohito was thus legally supreme commander of the Imperial General Headquarters, founded in 1937 and by which the military decisions were made.

The primary sources such as the "Sugiyama memo", and the diaries of Fumimaro Konoe and Koichi Kido, describe in detail the many informal meetings the Emperor had with his chiefs of staff and ministers. These documents show he was kept informed of all military operations and frequently questioned his senior staff and asked for changes.

According to historians Yoshiaki Yoshimi and Seiya Matsuno, Hirohito authorized by specific orders, transmitted by the Chief of staff of the Army such as Prince Kan'in or Hajime Sugiyama, the use of chemical weapons against Chinese civilians and soldiers. For example, he authorized the use of toxic gas on 375 separate occasions during the invasion of Wuhan in 1938.[34] Such weapons were also authorized during the invasion of Changde.

According to historians Akira Fujiwara and Akira Yamada, Hirohito even made major interventions in some military operations. For example, he pressed Field Marshal Hajime Sugiyama four times during January and February 1942 to increase troop strength and launch attack on Bataan.[35] In August 1943, he scolded Sugiyama for being unable to stop the American advance on the Solomon Islands and asked the general to consider other places to attack.[36]

Only in rare moments of special importance, decisions were made in Imperial council. The Imperial government used this special institution to sanction the invasion of China, the Greater East Asia War and to end the war. In 1945, executing the decision approved in Imperial conference, Emperor Shōwa for the only time directly ordered via recorded radio broadcast to all of Japan, as his last role as commander-in-chief, the surrender to United States forces.

Post World War II

Ground Self Defense Force

Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution renounced the right to use force as a means of resolving disputes.[37] This was enacted by the Japanese in order to prevent militarism, which had led to conflict. However, in 1947 the Public Security Force formed; later in 1954, with the early stages of the Cold War, the Public Security Force formed the basis of the newly created Ground Self Defense Force.[38] Although significantly smaller than the former Imperial Japanese Army and nominally for defensive purposes only, this force constitutes the modern army of Japan.

Continued resistance

Main article: Japanese holdout

Separately, some soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army continued to fight on isolated Pacific islands until at least the 1970s, with the last known Japanese soldier surrendering in 1974.[39][40][41][42] Intelligence officer Hiroo Onoda, who surrendered on Lubang Island in the Philippines in March 1974, and Teruo Nakamura, who surrendered on the Indonesian island of Morotai in December 1974, appear to have been the last confirmed holdouts.[41][42]


Japanese nationalism meant that the military was built around a concept of the time period: a Rich Country has a Strong Military. Nationalists asserted that Japan as a land was sacred, and its people were special due to a combination of elements of Zen-( known in Chinese as Chan) and various other forms of Japanese Buddhism with State Shinto. A belief system which emphasised the sacred role of the emperor and which had been created as the Japanese official religion during the Meiji Restoration, replacing older syncretic and folk Shinto practices. This was also combined with a strongly Confucian sense of loyalty and devotion to the state. Thus service in the Japanese military was seen as service to the Emperor. Each soldier in theory believed it was a great honor to die for the Emperor as the samurai concept "to serve" was deeply ingrained in all the soldiers' culture.

The concept of Yamato-damashii equipped each soldier with a strict code: never be captured, never break down, and never surrender. To be a coward or to be captured was a disgrace to one's family, community, and country. Each soldier was trained to fight to the death and was expected to die before suffering dishonor. Often, imperial soldiers would shout "Banzai" before charging into battle, believing that the exuberant cheer would indicate their willingness to die with honor.

Every soldier accepted that they were expected to serve stoically as part of their bushido, represented in the idea of "death before dishonor". Sadao Araki, an Army theorist, devised the contemporary adaptation to bushido code as a Seishin Kyoiku (spiritual training) doctrine for the army. As such, each soldier would leave everything behind when going into the service, needing nothing but honor. Indeed, honor as represented by name and face meant everything to the soldiers. Yamato-damashii is an old Japanese spirit of self-pride and persistence in the face of grave danger, a sort of courage.

Tied in with this concept of Bushido was immense, religious respect for the Emperor. Although during Meiji and Taishō eras, the Emperor was practically a figurehead, with the real power being held by the bureaucrats underneath him, he was still considered a divine figure. In theory the commander in chief, the Emperor usually went along with whatever the government "asked" him to do. The Emperor wore the commander-in-chief's uniform, and was saluted by the Imperial Forces, at all ceremonial functions involving the IJA forces.

At the time, the Imperial government could only mobilize the military if the cabinet ministers came to a unanimous consensus on the order. The role of the Emperor lay in giving his blessing to execute and bind such orders. Since the Emperor was required to be present at all Imperial government meetings for their decision to be binding, The Emperor silently observed all the official arguments made by the ministers. Presuming his blessing was given, after an agreement of the ministers, these requests became the orders of the Emperor, enforceable upon the people of Japan.

Growth of the IJA

  • 1870: consisted of 12,000 men.
  • 1885: consisted of seven divisions including the Imperial Guard Division.
  • In the early 1900s, the IJA consisted of 12 divisions, the Imperial Guard Division, and numerous other units. These contained the following:
    • 380,000 active duty and 1st Reserve personnel: former Class A and B(1) conscripts after two-year active tour with 17 and 1/2 year commitment
    • 50,000 Second line Reserve: Same as above but former Class B(2) conscripts
    • 220,000 National Army
      • 1st National Army: 37 to 40 year old men from end of 1st Reserve to 40 years old.
      • 2nd National Army: untrained 20 year olds and over 40 year old trained reserves.
    • 4,250,000 men available for service and mobilization.
  • 1934: army increased to 17 divisions
  • 1940: 376,000 active with 2 million reserves in 31 divisions
    • 2 divisions in Japan (Imperial Guard plus one other)
    • 2 divisions in Korea
    • 27 divisions in China and Manchuria
  • In late 1941: 460,000 active in 41 divisions
    • 2 divisions in Japan and Korea
    • 12 divisions in Manchuria
    • 27 divisions in China
    • plus 59 brigade equivalents.
      • Independent brigades, Independent Mixed Brigades, Cavalry Brigades, Amphibious Brigades, Independent Mixed regiments, Independent Regiments.
  • 1945: 5 million active in 145 divisions (includes three Imperial Guard), plus numerous individual units, with a large Volunteer Fighting Corps.
  • Japan Defense Army in 1945 had 55 divisions with 2 million men.

Total military in August 1945 was 6,095,000 including 676,863 Army Air Service.


The Imperial Japanese Army managed various Arsenals:

  • Japanese Army Sagami Arsenal: with Mitsubishi, developed and manufactured tanks
  • Japanese Army Osaka Arsenal: with Mitsubishi and Hitachi manufactured tanks and artillery
  • Japanese Army Sasebo Arsenal: with Mitsubishi, manufactured tanks
  • Japanese Army Heijo Arsenal: with Nambu, manufactured hand and long infantry weapons
  • Japanese Army Mukden Arsenal: with Nambu, manufactured infantry weapons
  • Japanese Army Kokura Arsenal: with Nambu, manufactured small arms and Machine Guns
  • Japanese Army Tokyo Arsenal: the Army administrative and testing center related with light and heavy weapons production
  • Japanese Army Tachikawa Arsenal: dedicated to develop and manufacture aircraft for the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service
  • Japanese Army Koishikawa Arsenal (Tokyo)

Organization of the Imperial Japanese Army

Imperial Japanese Military
Empire of Japan
Imperial General Headquarters
 Imperial Japanese Army
(Dai Nippon Teikoku Rikugun)
        Imperial Japanese Army Air Service
        Railways and Shipping Section
 Imperial Japanese Navy
(Dai Nippon Teikoku Kaigun)
        Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service
        Imperial Japanese Navy Land Forces
    Major battles
    List of ships
    List of aircraft
    Main admirals
Rank insignia
Army rank insignia
Naval rank insignia
History of the Japanese Military
Military History of Japan during World War II


Over the course of the Imperial Japanese Army's existence, millions of its soldiers were either killed, wounded or went missing in action.

  • Taiwan Expedition of 1874: 543 (12 killed in battle and 531 by disease)
  • First Sino-Japanese War: The IJA suffered 13,823 dead and 3,973 wounded
  • Russo-Japanese War: The number of total Japanese dead in combat is put at around 47,000, with around 80,000 if disease is included
  • World War I: 1,455 Japanese were killed, mostly at the Battle of Tsingtao
  • World War II:

See also



External links

  • Axis History Factbook—Imperial Japanese Army (IJA)
  • Overview of Imperial Japanese Army weapons and armaments in World War II
  • Japanese war posters
  • The PBS program "Victory in the Pacific."
  • Imperial Japanese Army 3rd Platoon reenactor's resource
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