Elite officers in politics: Rise of reckless officers and a bureaucratized military
The course followed by Japan during the Showa War was decided mainly by elite officers in the Imperial Japanese Army and the Imperial Japanese Navy. How did they acquire such power? After graduating from the Army Military Academy and the Army’s General Staff College, elite Army officers were appointed as staff officers at organizations such as the Army General Staff. They were characterized by their sense of elitism and closed mindedness. On the strength of the power of the supreme command, they gained a grip on military personnel decisions, budget allocations and policymaking.
The Constitution of the Empire of Japan, also known as the Meiji Constitution, stipulated that the Emperor had supreme command of the Army and the Navy. This became grounds for military officers to refuse to allow the Cabinet and the Diet to control national policy. Elite officers seized the reins of state policies, basking in a sense of superiority inside the military while staying independent of government organs. Personnel decisions about officers responsible for military operations were mainly in the hands of the Chief of the Army General Staff. Even Prime Minister Hideki Tojo did not have the final say in such decisions.
When Emperor Showa expressed his wishes regarding operational planning and policy matters, military officers ignored or refused them. After the August 1942 decision to capture Port Moresby was made, following the setback in the Battle of Guadalcanal, the Emperor favored a dispatch of the Army’s air force units. But the Army refused such a deployment. Arifumi Kumon, head of air warfare at the Operations Bureau of the Army General Staff, said, “I’ll never sign [the plan] as long as I’m in office.” The air units were finally dispatched only after Kumon went missing in an airplane crash in October 1942 near the island of Etorofu in what is now part of Japan’s Northern Territories.
Heading the Army’s operations planning during the Battle of Guadalcanal were Colonel Takushiro Hattori and Lieutenant Colonel Masanobu Tsuji, the duo tarred with the defeat by Soviet forces in the Nomonhan region on the Manchurian-Mongolian border in 1939. Such military officers holding unit-leader or section-chief level posts wielded considerable sway regarding matters over which they had jurisdiction. However, they were never called to account for distorting the nation’s policies in a system dominated by general staff officers who hated being examined by third parties. Lawmaker Takao Saito reportedly warned in the early years of the Taisho Era (1912–26)—ahead of a political wrangle over interference in the power of the supreme command—that abuse of the Meiji Constitution could lead to an autocratic government. But this issue was never examined under the Constitution, which was seen as untouchable.
After the Manchurian Incident, fighting broke out sporadically. During this period, the military organs and personnel swelled and became increasingly bureaucratic. The Army regarded the Soviet Union as a potential adversary, whereas the Navy was more concerned about the United States. They vied over budgets. Unfortunately for the nation, both forces had extremely outdated military capabilities. Education at the Army’s General Staff College and Naval General Staff College was dominated by memories of victory in the Russo-Japanese War. Rather than strategy, importance was attached solely to military tactics, such as hand-to-hand combat by infantry, surrounding enemy targets by small units of soldiers and decisive surface battles by fleets of big ships with powerful guns—all factors in the 1904–1905 victory. The military believed its authority would be preserved by following a precedent as a golden rule.
They were unwilling to acknowledge that reality on the battlefield did not match their expectations. They were confused by the Chinese military’s tactics of retreat, and they suffered crushing defeats by mechanized Soviet forces and aircraft carrier naval task forces of the United States in battles in the Pacific.
Navy Minister Gonbei Yamamoto in the Meiji Era (1868–1912) had ousted senior ministry officials who were unable to adapt themselves to modern warfare and replaced the Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet before the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War. After Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. military dismissed the Commander of the Pacific Fleet and picked Admiral Chester W. Nimitz to replace him. The U.S. forces also implemented a shift in strategy to use aircraft and aircraft carriers.
What about the Japanese military in the Showa Era? The Navy, which was unable to let go of the traditional doctrine of having decisive battles fought by surface fleets, failed to work out a long-term strategy and had its aircraft carriers destroyed as it expanded its battle fronts too quickly. Neither Chief of Navy General Staff Osami Nagano nor Navy Minister Shigetaro Shimada exercised leadership. Even after the devastating defeat in the Battle of Midway, no top official, including Combined Fleet Commander-in-Chief Isoroku Yamamoto, Chief of Navy General Staff Matome Ugaki or Commander of the First Naval Air Fleet Chuichi Nagumo, was summoned to take responsibility. Even as the hopes for victory faded, elite officers such as Shigeru Fukutome, Ryunosuke Kusaka and Sadatoshi Tomioka maintained the confidence of their superiors and were promoted to higher ranks.
Sidestepping responsibility for actions and decisions, uncoordinated strategies, rhetorical state policy guidelines and sectionalist disputes over scarce resources between the Army and the Navy were typical bureaucratic characteristics. These gaping deficiencies were uncovered during the war, the very time of emergency. Before his execution after being sentenced to death by the Tokyo Tribunal, Hideki Tojo said: “The system of supreme command up to that time was flawed. Under that system, Army and Navy forces could never integrate their actions.”
Kenryo Sato, a close ally of Tojo since his time at the Army’s General Staff College, who later rose to chief of the War Ministry’s Military Affairs Section as well as the Military Affairs Bureau when Tojo was Prime Minister, described the period in which he saw a series of wars—which we now call the Showa War—as a time of “revolution.” He concluded that military-led politics, under which policymaking and decision-making processes were dominated by elite military officers, was the root cause of the nation’s failure in the war.