WWII Artifact(s) in the Spotlight

Japanese Military Equipment, the Japanese Fighter and His Way of War


During World War II, Japanese Army Recruits trained with other men from their home island geographic districts. Training was arduous. Japanese troops were expected to be remarkably fit, and mentally prepared for constant challenges and frequent isolation. Here, officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) quickly began to instill the Japanese fighting“spirit” into their conscripts. Importantly, the new soldier was imbued with a combination of unquestioned obedience to the Emperor and the moral necessity to strictly adhere to a superior’s orders and the warrior code, Bushido (the way of the warrior). Consistent with this code, he would refuse to disgrace himself and his family by surrendering to the enemy. Bushido significantly contributed to the soldier’s willingness to make the supreme sacrifice for his country. Death in battle fully demonstrated the culturally valued qualities of honor, courage, and responsibility. Unfortunately, Bushido was also a contributing factor to many of the atrocities committed by and brutality of Japanese forces throughout the war. Additionally, as historian Eric Bergerud so aptly states, “By breaking down the fragile restraint afforded by honorable surrender, the Japanese opened the floodgates of war without mercy.”


The Japanese “Way of War” leveraged its primary resource, the fighting spirit of its soldiers. The Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) knew its artillery and armor/tank components were significantly inferior to those of its enemies. Given this, it rarely conducted combined arms operations. The answer to most tactical problems was decisive victory facilitated by infantry “closing with the enemy.” The IJA thus devised methods of warfare that played to its strengths – speed, mobility and surprise. Infantrymen came in hard and fast. All their unique strengths were in-close: hand to hand fighting, which was the most direct manifestation of spirit; skill with the sword and bayonet, which psychologically frightened enemies out of all proportion to the damage the weapons actually caused. Whenever possible, the Japanese preferred flanking and rear attacks pushing through terrain that was deemed impenetrable or using small, amphibious assaults to outflank or surround opposing units. The night attack was one means of neutralizing superior enemy capabilities, such as artillery. From the beginning, the IJA made night attacks their specialty. Intensive night training was the norm. The Japanese were also particularly adept at the use of camouflage for both personal and equipment concealment. This skill would become increasingly important as the fortunes of war moved Japan into a more defensive posture (“defense in depth”) as the Allies approached the Homeland.


The Japanese soldier normally “humped” between sixty-five and seventy-five pounds of equipment, far less than his Allied counterparts. His “kit” included a rifle, bayonet, ammunition, rations, water bottle, mess tin, water purifier, mosquito net, camouflage nets, pick and shovel, tent sheet, bandages and a compass. Japanese rifles were of Arisaka bolt-action design. The Model 38 was a 50-inch, .25-caliber weapon. The 38-inch, .303-caliber Model 99 rifle was standard issue in the later phases of the war. The associated bayonet, the Type 30, had a 15.5 inch blade. The Nambu Type 14 and Type 94 8-mm semi-automatic pistols were the standard handguns. The Japanese were highly competent mortarmen. Their best model was the famous Model 89 50mm “knee mortar,” a squad grenade launcher that was extensively utilized. The appearance of its curved base plate yielded the “knee mortar” moniker. It could not; however, be fired from the thigh/knee and was not carried in a thigh bag. The two most common light machine guns (LMGs) were the Nambu 6.5mm Type 96 and 7.7mm Type 99. They were bipod mounted and fed by 30 round, top feeding magazines.The standard heavy machine gun was the Nambu 7.7mm Type 92. Officers and NCOs carried swords (Shino Gunto). NCOs might carry the Type 95; officers the Type 94. They were of traditional design with single edge, shallow curved blades with a small oval guard and long grip. Overall length averaged 39 inches and the blade 26.5 inches.


The Japanese fighting man was brave and dedicated. He proved to be a formidable adversary. However, the Japanese”Way of War” frequently resulted in unnecessary, self-induced bloodletting and tactical and operational inflexibility. Importantly, considerable weaknesses in leadership, supply/transport, inter-service cooperation, weaponry, intelligence, training, medical support and communications were insurmountable in what quickly became a costly, resource-draining (human and natural) war of attrition.

Recommended Reading and Videos:

Bergerud, Eric, Touched with Fire: The Land War in the South Pacific, Penguin Books, 1996

Harries, Meirion and Susie, Soldiers of the Sun, Random House, 1991

Heinrichs, Waldo and Gallicchio, Marc, Implacable Foes: War in the Pacific 1944-1945, Oxford University Press, 2017

Morison, Samuel Eliot, The Rising Sun in the Pacific, 1931-April 1942 (History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, vol.3), Little, Brown & Co., 1948

Rottman, Gordon, Japanese Infantryman 1937-1945 Sword of the Empire, Osprey Publishing, 2005