At the dawn of World War II, Americans had extremely solid feelings of racial and national superiority. Indeed, throughout the war national propaganda featured propaganda themes that careful analysis would have shown were mutually contradictory: the Japanese were cunning, stealthy, and powerful; yet they were dimwitted, nearsighted, bucktoothed buffoons. These feelings were put to a test when are forces encountered the Imperial Japanese Navy. No one who had faced the Navy’s night gunnery or its world-class carrier pilots in those dark days of the war’s first five or six months came away thinking he’d faced a dimwitted, nearsighted, bucktoothed buffoon — if he came away with body and soul still integrated at all.
US intelligence bulletins that described Japanese ships and aircraft as inferior copies of Western types, and Japanese training methods as antiquated, cruel and stupid, producing automata who had no skills apart from blindly following orders, were exposed as a combination of wishful thinking and racial prejudice (ironically, two factors that colored Japanese intelligence as well).
“Jap Infantry Weapons.” Period poster. Click to embiggen.
By 1945 we had beaten the hated Japs, but we still didn’t really understand them. One of the great miracles of human achievement is the story of how Japan could go in the matter of barely more than a century from a primitive feudal, agrarian society to a modern industrial nation that was able to equip a modern Army and Navy with effective weapons of almost entirely domestic design, and produce the men to operate these weapons. It requires considerable study; while the weapons of the IJN like its super-battleships, super-submarines and aircraft have been studied at length, less study has been given to its personnel practices. They are a synthesis of Japanese culture and worldwide best-practices of the late 19th Century, and they produced both one of the world’s greatest naval air arms, and the flexible, imaginative infantry that bedeviled the British in Malaya, the Americans in the Philippines, and all the Allies that would fight them in New Guinea and on the island-hopping campaign.
There is a resource that will give you insight to Japanese personnel practices, if you use it, and that is a series of living history interviews by Dan King, a former diplomat who, rare among Americans, speaks and understands spoken Japanese well. King has published several books we can highly recommend, including:
- A Tomb Called Iwo Jima: Firsthand Accounts from Japanese Survivors. Paperback. Kindle.
- The Last Zero Fighter: Firsthand Accounts from Japanese Naval Pilots. Paperback. Kindle.
Japanese combat leadership was experienced, NCO/PO leadership. Unlike officer-heavy armies of the US, Russia, or the Third World, the Japanese had very few, and very elite, officers. By “elite,” we mean that they were selected for being in the top tail of the ability distribution (cognitively and physically), and they were trained in an extremely demanding academy. But the percentage of officers was always low, and first- and second-line leaders were invariably NCOs, promoted into leadership positions (and trained for those positions) based on ability and proven performance. Mutual respect between the academy officers and the up-from-the-ranks NCOs was the vital glue that produced the remarkable combat cohesion of Japanese units.
Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero at Pearl Harbor. Illustration by Darryl Joyce. (Actually, we think he has the color wrong).
An Aviator in the IJN, usually of enlisted rank and even younger than his Allied counterpart, was one of three technical specialties: pilot, navigator/observer (who in multi-crew aircraft, much like in the Luftwaffe, was more likely to be the aircraft commander than the senior pilot was), and radio operator/gunner. This technical division was much like other air arms. But Japan was unique in the degree to which it made its pilots from a raw material of unformed, almost uneducated but able youth — children, by today’s measures.
King reduces it to an aphorism:
While Western powers trained officers to be pilots, Japan primarily turned teenage boys into pilots.
From the same source (The Last Zero Fighter), here’s an overview of the many paths to flight in Imperial Japanese (Naval) service.
As there are several trails leading to the summit of Mt. Fuji, there were several paths a young man could take to the cockpit.
- Graduate from the naval academy, serve aboard a ship for a year, and then apply for flight school.
- Graduate from a university (or be enrolled in school) and join the reserves as an officer and attend pilot training. Afterwards he would return to his job, or continue with his studies.
- Obtain his civilian pilot license and join the reserves as an officer.
- Join the navy as an enlisted sailor, serve aboard a ship for a year, and then sit for an exam for admittance into Sōren preparatory flight course.
- As a teenager, take the entrance exam for the Navy’s Yokaren preparatory flight course. If the applicant was accepted, he was in the navy.
Each of these paths had associated hazing, harassment, and outright abuse that make their Western counterparts’ “plebe years” or “square corners” seem like kid stuff. Surviving Japanese combat pilots recount running a gantlet that transcended the metaphorical to include real physical beatings, including with swagger sticks or small versions of a baseball bat, labeled on them with the Japanese characters saying, “Bat to Instill Military Spirit.”
Each path also accelerated during the war. For instance the Yokaren course was a wartime improvisation, and Academy graduates who wanted to fly came to be spared the preliminary year aboard ship. The Soren and Yokaren courses were combined as the war ground on. (Remember, in Japan, the war started in the 1930s with the Mukden Incident; 8 December 41 (the date of the Pearl Harbor and Philippines attacks in Japan) didn’t mean a new war to Japan, just a new theater.
Each training pathway had associated cognitive and physical exams associated with it, and scores were set quite high. Despite this stringent administrative selection, each training pathway also had more (Yokaren/Soren) or less (Hiko Gakusei, the course for regular officer pilots) attrition. Those attrited were assigned according to the needs of the Navy, sometimes as non-pilot flight crew, sometimes to shipboard or land-based aviation maintenance functions, and sometimes to non-aviation sea duty ratings and assignments.
Naval officers got these cool daggers — and the burden of command. The pilots and crewmen they commanded, including most of Japan’s top aces, were kids and youths. They got the job done (this particular dagger sold at Cowan’s auction house some years ago. Beware the many fakes).
The Yokaren course was the most “foreign” to us today, although it has some parallels to the Army’s initial entry option for Warrant Officer Flight School. The intake were secondary school students — already a small minority of Japanese youth of the 30s and 40s — who had passed the grueling exams, and they were from 15 to 20 years of age. (The Soren students were a little older, thanks to their prior Navy service). King again:
Yokaren started in June 1930 to satisfy the increasing need for pilots and observers. The Navy recruited boys of high caliber from among eighth grade graduates or above. The first Yokaren course was set up at the Oppama Airfield attached to the Yokosuka Naval Air Group. The Navy promised to give the boys their remaining middle school and higher formal education before starting their actual flight training. In addition, once they completed the course, they would be naval aviators eligible for faster promotions and higher pay than in the surface fleet. Applicants were required to be top-notch students of excellent physical condition. The Navy would not accept an applicant if he was the sole male heir. The original training period was two years and eleven months which included a 30 day experience aboard a warship.
That was all before the student started flight training! The Soren school also included a wide variety of initial academic and physical training. Soren grad Saburo Sakai remembered being taught to catch flies with his open hand, as a means of training student reflexes; others remember tumbling exercises in a sort of man-carrying gyroscopic wheel, designed to raise alertness under exotic combat flight profiles and g-loads.
The classes of the Yokaren were numbered from the first to the last… the nineteenth.
As the Japanese like to say, “It takes three years to grow a pilot.” The Navy expended a great deal of time and resources on the education and training of her teenage pilots. The aviator was akin to a bonsai tree, requiring much time and a great deal of patience to shape.
Along with the classroom education in traditional, military, and aviation subjects, future pilots were also inculcated with Japanese nationalism, fighting spirit, and socialized to the Empire’s warrior culture.
At the end of the Yokaren / Soren course, the students were classified and sent to pilot or navigator training. Still more modifications to training were required by the pressures of the war, but the Soren and Yokaren programs allowed Japan to fight its naval air battles with young pilots recruited directly from middle school, or from the ranks of loyal and proven seamen, and fight effectively with a ratio of about nine such enlisted or PO pilots for every commissioned officer — including reserve and wartime officers.
There are many more gems of knowledge about the times, administration, and the culture of the IJN in Dan King’s books. We recommend them unreservedly.