IMPERIAL JAPAN'S MILITARY HIGH COMMAND - STRUCTURE AND FUNCTIONING
Understanding Japan's military high command and its functioning
Historians do not often use language with the precision of lawyers. This can cause communication and interpretation problems, and this is especially so when historians are writing about subjects that include technical terminology, such as military history. The problem can be compounded for Western readers when the historian is writing about the military history of a foreign country such as Japan. The need for me to include this brief introduction to the structure and functioning of Japan's military high command in 1941-42 was impressed upon me after reading two papers published by Dr Peter Stanley of the Australian War Memorial. After reading those papers titled "He's (not) coming South" (2002) and "Threat made manifest" (2005), I formed a very firm view that Dr Stanley had been unjustifiably dismissive of the grave Japanese threat to Australia in 1942 because he lacked the basic understanding of the structure and functioning of Japan's military high command in 1941-42 that would enable him to correctly evaluate its hostile plans for Australia. Dr Stanley purported to rely for his revisionist views on a book published in 1991 by the late Professor Henry Frei and called "Japan's Southward Advance and Australia". Having read Professor Frei's book, and consulted it frequently over several years, I can affirm that I found no support in it for Dr Stanley's dismissal of the grave Japanese threat to Australia in 1942. I felt that this introduction was necessary to ensure that young Australians are not misled about the grave danger faced by their country in 1942. I will return to Dr Stanley's views in a later chapter.
Hirohito - Japan's true war commander
In October 1937, Hirohito established Japan's military high command, called Imperial Headquarters, in the grounds of his palace in Tokyo. The emperor's purpose in
taking this step was to enable him to supervise more closely Japan's military aggression and improve cooperation between the Japanese Army and Navy.
The place of Emperor Hirohito in Japan's military high command
In this treatment of the debates concerning the fate of Australia that were taking place at the highest levels of Japan's military high command during the early months of 1942, it is essential to keep in mind that Japan's military commanders were responsible directly to Emperor Hirohito who was their commander-in-chief and a strong supporter of his country's military aggression. Unlike Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom, who is only a titular and ceremonial commander-in-chief of Britain's armed forces, Hirohito headed the chain of command of Imperial Japan's military forces. He gave orders to his generals and admirals that they had to obey. He had the power to approve or reject military strategies. The position and power of the emperor and his military in Japan in 1942 stand in stark contrast to a democracy such as Australia and Britain where the military are responsible to the elected members of a civilian government.
Following their surrender in 1945, the Japanese falsely portrayed Emperor Hirohito as a figurehead commander-in-chief of Japan's armed forces to protect their emperor from being tried as a war criminal. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Emperor Hirohito, Professor Herbert P. Bix has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that Hirohito played a very active role in the direction of the Pacific War from 1937 to 1945. See: "Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan", (2000) HarperCollins, New York. This book by Professor Bix is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the structure and functioning of Japan's military high command between 1937 and 1945. The Supreme Commander of the Allied Occupation Forces in Japan, General Douglas MacArthur, was fully aware of the deception in regard to Hirohito's functions and responsibilities as commander-in-chief of Japan's military forces, but saw fit to go along with the deception because it enabled him to rule occupied Japan with the full cooperation of the emperor.
Hirohito establishes Imperial Headquarters in 1937 in his Tokyo palace
In October 1937, Hirohito established Japan's military high command, called Imperial Headquarters, in the grounds of his palace in Tokyo. The emperor's purpose in taking this step was to enable him to supervise more closely Japan's military aggression and improve cooperation between the Japanese Army and Navy. Professor Bix states, "Thereafter, for a few hours in the morning a few days a week, the two chiefs of staff, the army and navy ministers, the chiefs of the operations sections*, and Hirohito's chief aide-de-camp conducted business in the palace." See Bix at page 327.
* Bix is referring to the Operations Sections of Army General Staff and Navy General Staff.
For the benefit of those who may not fully appreciate the level of membership of Imperial Headquarters from the brief description of its establishment given by Professor Bix, I have provided the following guidance. Imperial Headquarters comprised Army and Navy Sections. The Army Section comprised the Chief of Army General Staff (invariably a very senior general), his chief of Army Operations (invariably a general), and the Army Minister (invariably a senior general). The Navy Section comprised Chief of Navy General Staff (invariably a very senior admiral), his chief of Navy Operations (invariably an admiral), and the Navy Minister (invariably a senior admiral). Chief of Army General Staff in 1941-42 was General Hajime Sugiyama. Chief of Navy General Staff in 1941-42 was Admiral Osami Nagano. Although bound by the decisions of Imperial Headquarters which represented the emperor, the Chiefs of Army and Navy General Staffs (Sugiyama and Nagano) had no superior apart from their commander-in-chief, Emperor Hirohito, whose orders they had to obey. During the Pacific War, Emperor Hirohito received frequent personal briefings on the conduct of the war from General Sugiyama and Admiral Nagano.
Japan's Army and Navy General Staffs were not run like democracies in 1941-42. They were authoritarian and monolithic in structure. Those descriptions applied equally to the Army and Navy Ministries. Unless the context indicates otherwise, references to "Army General Staff" or "Navy General Staff" having a view on a particular subject will necessarily imply that the view was held by the Chief of Army General Staff, General Sugiyama, or the Chief of Navy General Staff, Admiral Nagano respectively. If a view is attributed to "Army General Staff" or "Navy General Staff" in the context of a meeting at Imperial Headquarters, it can safely be assumed beyond doubt that it was a view held by General Sugiyama or Admiral Nagano respectively. Officers below the rank of general or admiral did not express the views of Army General Staff or Navy General Staff at meetings of Imperial Headquarters. There is an important exception to the general rule of interpretation when the Chief of Navy General Staff put forward for consideration at Imperial Headquarters an operational proposal originated by Admiral Yamamoto's Combined Fleet . The Chief of Navy General Staff would not necessarily agree with the Combined Fleet proposal, but Yamamoto's prestige almost invariably ensured that Admiral Nagano would put it forward for consideration. I have explained below how Combined Fleet established this influence at the highest level of Japan's military high command.
Middle-ranking officers of Army and Navy General Staff, and Army and Navy Ministry, met from time to time at middle-level liaison or study conferences to discuss Japan's strategic war plans, and especially, plans requiring cooperation between the two armed services. Professor Frei mentions such conferences in his book.* The fact that views were expressed by middle-ranking officers at middle-level liaison or study conferences would not suggest that those views did not conform to the views of the Chiefs of Army and Navy General Staffs or the heads of Army and Navy Ministries.
* See Frei, from last paragraph on page 165 to second last paragraph on page 166.
An exception to the above distinctions also occurs when a term such as "Navy General Staff" is applied to the building in which it was housed in Tokyo. For example, Commander Watanabe from Combined Fleet visited Navy General Staff on 2 April 1942 to discuss Admiral Yamamoto's proposed Midway Operation. Used in this sense, Watanabe was not visiting Admiral Nagano. He was visiting the building in which Navy General Staff was housed to discuss Midway with his opposite number Commander Miyo.
Relations between the Japanese Army and Navy General Staffs were never cordial, and often marked by deep hostility. The Army saw the Soviet Union as Japan's greatest threat. The Navy looked across the Pacific and saw the United States as the greatest threat. Reaching agreement between the Army and Navy on strategic planning was often difficult. When agreement was finally reached between the Army and Navy on an important strategic issue, the agreement was reduced to writing in a document called a Central Agreement and signed by the Chiefs of Army and Navy General Staffs.
In November 1937, to bring the chiefs of Army and Navy General Staff into closer consultation with his government, Hirohito established within the palace a body known as the Imperial Headquarters-Government Liaison Conference. For the sake of brevity, this body is usually referred to simply as a "Liaison Conference". The Liaison Conferences were intended to assist in integrating the decisions and needs of the two military sections of Imperial Headquarters with the resources and policies of the rest of Hirohito's government. See Bix at page 327.
The final decisions of Liaison Conferences were formally disclosed and approved at Imperial Conferences over which Hirohito presided in person. See Bix at page 328.
Formulation of Japan's strategic naval policy was shared between Navy General Staff and Combined Fleet after 1939
In theory, the formulation of Army and Navy strategic policies was the function, respectively, of the Army and Navy General Staffs operating as Sections of Imperial Headquarters. The Chief of Navy General Staff in 1941-42, Admiral Osami Nagano, was automatically Chief of the Navy Section of Imperial Headquarters and, in the latter capacity, issued orders and directives embodying top-level strategic and operational decisions to the Commander in Chief Combined Fleet whose role was to execute them. In reality, Combined Fleet played a significant role with Navy General Staff from 1939 in formulating and shaping Japanese naval strategy.
As Japan's empire expanded dramatically after 1918 into the northern and central Pacific Ocean, so did its naval operational theatres and the number of its dispersed naval fleets. When Japan's Imperial Navy finally comprised five mobile fleets that included the major warships and three area fleets responsible for specific geographical locations, it became necessary for overall command of Japan's fleets to be assigned to a Commander-in-Chief Combined Fleet whose headquarters became primarily shore-based. As a result of this development, Combined Fleet began to involve itself with Navy General Staff in formulating and shaping Japan's naval strategy.
This participation with Navy General Staff in formulating and shaping Japan's naval strategy increased significantly with the appointment of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto as Commander-in-Chief Combined Fleet in September 1939. The increasing influence of Combined Fleet over naval strategy was facilitated by the fact that Admiral Nagano was an administrator by nature rather than a fighting admiral. The Japanese surprise attack on the US Pacific Fleet lying at anchor at its Pearl Harbor base in Hawaii on 7 December 1941 was the catalyst for Combined Fleet increasing significantly its influence over Japan's naval strategy. When Yamamoto, an aggressive admiral and born gambler, initially proposed the daring sneak attack on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Navy General Staff opposed it as being too risky. When Yamamoto threatened to resign over the issue, Navy General Staff gave in and agreed to the attack.
The devastating surprise attack by Admiral Yamamoto's Combined Fleet carriers on the US Navy's battle fleet at Pearl Harbor, and the series of Japanese naval victories that followed, caused Yamamoto to be regarded as a national hero in Japan and enabled Combined Fleet to usurp a large measure of responsibility for strategic planning from Navy General Staff. Under these circumstances, it should come as no surprise that the major initiative in formulating naval strategy for the Second Operational Stage following Pearl Harbor came from Combined Fleet rather than Navy General Staff.
This fatal division of responsibility for Japan's strategic naval planning produced acrimonious debates between the two navy arms and contributed significantly to Japanese naval defeats at Coral Sea and Midway that turned the tide of the Pacific War against Japan in 1942. See Fuchida and Okumiya.
To understand the structure and functioning of Japan's military high command in 1941 and 1942, and relate it Japan's strategic aims and war planning at that time, it is essential to understand the matters raised above.