Dec 4

Innovation In Difficult Times

Tuesday, December 4, 2018 12:01 AM


The American expedition, under Commodore Perry, landing in Japan, 14 July 1853 (Library of Congress)

The U.S. expedition under Commodore Matthew Perry landing in Japan on 14 July 1853. (Library of Congress)

In 1868, the Meiji Restoration in Japan began a fundamental shift in the country’s conception of its place in the world.[i] This shift was catalyzed by the “gunboat diplomacy” of Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who demonstrated the power of the U.S. Navy to secure expanded trading rights between the United States and Japan.[ii] The Meiji Restoration was characterized by an effort to modernize and globalize Japan economically and militarily in order to ensure the country would not be subjugated by a foreign power.[iii] Shimazu Nariakira, a powerful feudal lord during the period, stated that “if we take the initiative, we can dominate; if we do not, we will be dominated.”[iv]

Military historian Allan R. Millet notes, “The Japanese political and military elites believed that their nation’s destiny, the very survival of the Japanese people, would require a major war for the domination of Asia.”[v] The overarching aims for the war would be to achieve hegemony over the region by eliminating the influence of China, Russia, the United States, and European countries. This would require the projection of military force from the Japanese Home Islands into China and Southeast Asia. Hence, during the period between the world wars, the Japanese military overcame the limitations of the Washington Naval Treaty, economic resource constraints, and inter-service rivalry to develop an innovative approach to amphibious warfare.

The Japanese military’s development of amphibious warfare to achieve geopolitical ambitions was a fundamental change to how war was fought. Previously, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) and Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) fought separately; during the interwar period, they overcame inter-service rivalries to develop joint doctrine and operational procedures for amphibious warfare. These doctrines and procedures were extensively exercised, revised, and tested in the crucible of war, as the Japanese military conducted 16 amphibious landings on hostile shores between August 1937 and March 1941.[vi] These operations allowed Japanese forces to adapt and revise their operational procedures before their Pacific campaign began with the 7 December 1941 Pearl Harbor attack.

Washington Naval Treaty 1922

Delegates assemble at the Washington Naval Conference, which produced a naval treaty in 1922. (Library of Congress)

The Japanese military was able to innovate despite, or perhaps because of, the resource limitations and political constraints it faced during the interwar period. To achieve naval superiority, the Imperial Japanese National Defense Policy of 1907 originally called for an “eight-eight” naval building program: eight of the most powerful battleships and eight of the most modern battle cruisers at sea no later than 1927.[vii] However, the Japanese economy could not support the resources required to build the ships.[viii] Furthermore, the numbers and sizes of the ships the IJN could possess were further restricted by the Washington Naval Treaty, which imposed a 10-year agreement fixing the ratio of battleship tonnage for Japan to a maximum of 315,000 tons, versus 525,000 tons for the United States and Britain.[ix]

As such, the IJN was severely limited in its ability to achieve naval superiority in East Asia by relying on battleships. This led the navy to study and invest in the use of other naval platforms for power projection. Other than the aircraft carrier, the Japanese Navy also built the Shinsu-maru and Akitsu-maru—the world’s first landing-craft carrier ships and the pioneer of modern amphibious assault ships. The vessels were expressly built to project the IJA and incorporated numerous innovative features such as a floodable well deck and the ability to carry up to 54 troops, equipment, landing craft, and four armored gunboats.[x] They also had the ability to launch aircraft if required.

Shinsu Maru-Japanese Army Assault Transport ca. 1937(NNHC)

The Shinsu Maru Japanese Army assault transport ca. 1937 (Naval History and Heritage Command)

The IJA played a significant role in amphibious warfare development through its cognizance of the need to rapidly debark forces ashore in a “ready-to-fight” condition. The IJA surpassed the IJN and their military “mentors”—the German Army and the British Royal Navy, respectively. The Japanese Army learned from the failure of the Allied Gallipoli campaign in World War I and conducted various studies in the 1920s on the feasibility of opposed landings in Luzon.[xi] The studies led to the conclusion that the Japanese Navy’s development of small, lightly armed, and highly mobile naval infantry would only suffice for capturing weakly defended islands such as Guam and Wake, and would not be sufficient for major operations.[xii]

Through the conduct of major amphibious exercises from 1920 to 1925, the IJA increased its understanding of how to coordinate operations with the IJN to conduct large-scale joint amphibious operations involving the simultaneous landing of up to three army divisions.[xiii] Specialized engineer regiments and debarkation units and new landing craft were created by the Army Transportation Department to support these landings.[xiv] The landing craft included a 9-ton armored steel boat with a landing gate that could accommodate trucks and armored personnel carriers that were crucial to overcoming a defending force in an opposed landing.[xv]

The effective development of a joint doctrine for amphibious warfare was another innovation that enabled the Japanese military to increase the synergy between its services and exploit the expertise of each service in its respective domain. While there was intense rivalry between the IJA’s amphibious divisions and the IJN’s specialized light infantry units, Lisle A. Rose, author of the seminal Power at Sea volumes of naval history, notes that “The soldiers and sailors of the emperor never let the many and often bitter tensions that frequently divided them get in the way of efficient and often imaginative joint planning for combined [i.e. joint] operations.”[xvi]

In 1924, the IJA published its first amphibious warfare doctrine, the “Summary of Amphibious Operations and Operations Defending against Amphibious Attacks.” By 1932, the IJA and IJN service staffs jointly developed the authoritative doctrinal manual “Outline of Amphibious Operations,” which defined the roles and responsibilities of both services.[xvii] After World War II, U.S. Admiral Richmond K. Turner noted, “no one service invented amphibious warfare” and that the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps derived much of its initial information and insights on amphibious warfare from the Japanese.[xviii]

Japanese Bombard Wanping ca. 1937

Japanese forces shell Wanping, near the Marco Polo Bridge, in 1937. (Republic of China)

Having developed and tested new doctrine and equipment, the Japanese military was able to hone its new amphibious capabilities during the July 1937 Marco Polo Bridge Incident in China.[xix] The amphibious landings during the campaign were characterized by amphibious assaults, often at night, at multiple spots simultaneously or in rapid succession, to debark a significant force before the enemy could react.[xx] There were deliberate plans to ensure air and naval superiority at the point of attack.

The experience of the Japanese military in China convinced them that the IJA’s reliance on land-based aircraft was not sufficient to achieve air superiority and sparked an effort to learn from the mistakes of 1937. A result was an increased impetus to build up the IJN’s naval aviation capabilities, including the expansion of the carrier fleet as well as investments in better carrier-borne fighters, attack bombers, and torpedo bombers. Japanese carriers such as the Akagi were also modernized, while second generation light carriers such as the Ryujo were built.[xxi] The IJN also developed new Type 97 attack bombers, Type 99 dive bombers, and the Zero fighter. New tactics such as the employment of the carrier task force in a box formation also allowed the massing of naval aviation for greater operational effects.

Japanese Aircraft Carrier Akagi at sea during the summer of 1941 (NHHC)

The Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi at sea during the summer of 1941 (Naval History and Heritage Command)


Japanese Aircraft Carrier, Ryujo, 1933 (NHHC)

The Japanese carrier Ryujo, 1933 (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Through a process of learning from the amphibious experiences of other armed forces during World War I, the conduct of realistic exercises throughout the 1920s, and the creation of new equipment and doctrines, the Japanese military was able to develop an innovative new approach to amphibious warfare that emphasized inter-service cooperation, concentration of forces, and airpower. This new approach was further tested and refined in combat operations toward the end of the 1930s. The impact of Japanese innovation in amphibious warfare was demonstrated by the campaigns in Philippines and Malaya in 1941 and 1942, during which the Japanese military was able to defeat U.S. and British military forces despite a numerical disadvantage and ongoing operations in China.


[i] William E. Griffis, The Mikado’s Empire: A History of Japan from the Age of Gods to the Meiji Era (660BC–AD1872) (Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2006), 342.

[ii] Henry Kissinger, World Order (New York: Penguin Press, 2014), 184.

[iii] Akira Iriye, Power and Culture: The Japanese-American War, 1941–1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), 5.

[iv] Robert K. Sakai, “Shimazu Nariakira and the Emergence of National Leadership in Satsuma,” in Personality in Japanese History, ed. Albert M. Craig and Donald H. Shively (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1970), 209.

[v] Allan R. Millet, “Assault from the Sea: The Development of Amphibious Warfare Between the Wars,” in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, ed. Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millet (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 55.

[vi] Edward J. Drea, In the Service of the Emperor: Essays on the IJA (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), 21.

[vii] Lisle A. Rose, Power At Sea: The Breaking Storm, 1919–1945 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007), 17.

[viii] Rose, Power At Sea, 17.

[ix] Robert Dingman, Power in the Pacific: The Origins of Naval Arms Limitation, 1914–1922 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 217.

[x] Millet, “Assault from the Sea,” 81.

[xi] Millet, 65.

[xii] Millet, 65.

[xiii] Drea, In the Service of the Emperor, 14.

[xiv] Hans Von Lehmann, “Japanese Landing Operations in World War Two,” trans. Professor Michael C. Halbig, in Assault from the Sea: Essays on the History of Amphibious Warfare, ed. Lieutenant Colonel Merril L. Bartlett, USMC (Retired) (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1983), 197.

[xv] Lehmann, “Japanese Landing Operations,” 198.

[xvi] Rose, Power At Sea, 140.

[xvii] Millet, “Assault from the Sea,” 67.

[xviii] Rose, Power At Sea, 141.

[xix] Drea, In the Service of the Emperor, 22.

[xx] Drea, 23.

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