UW Bleg: Imperial Japanese Special Operations Forces?

Every once in a while, we expect to find something in the historical record that just doesn’t seem to turn up. A perfect example of that is the special operations forces of the Empire of Japan in World War II.

What Imperial Japanese special operations forces? We could find scarcely an indicator of such a thing. Now it’s true that there were amphibious 46, which in Japanese doctrine were primarily Army forces. And it’s true that the Naval special landing force was a sort of a maritime ranger or commando force. And it’s true that they had airborne forces, parachute forces. But while every other WWII combatant except pre-1940 France (including Free France) had competent SOF, the Japanese seem not to have done.

It’s not that the officers of the army or navy of Japan were incompetent; their incredible run of victories in the first months of World War II, and the fact that much of the Japanese Army was still in the field undefeated when Japan surrendered, suggest otherwise.

It’s not that they didn’t have the technology. Their technology was limited by Japan’s industrialization but they worked around it. Lacking a robust aluminum forging capability like the US or Germany, they made parts that we’d have forged out of riveted assemblies of shaped sheet aluminum, and developed a stronger sheet alloy — one we’d reinvent as 7075, and use mostly for forging — to permit that. Lacking some of the welding technology the West had, they made ships of riveted assemblies of smaller weldments. Kaiser would have been shocked, but it worked.

When they defined a need, they met it. Japanese landing craft, whether used by the Army or Navy (command of an amphib op, except for Special Landing Force raids, chopped to the Army once the fleet anchored to launch landing craft)  were faster and more seaworthy than their American counterparts, meant to travel 150 miles overnight and surprise an enemy from outside the combat radius of his fighters and dive bombers.

So… we reluctantly conclude that either (1) we’re missing well-known sources; (2) the Japanese never defined a need for an SOE/OSS/Brandenburg/Commando capability’; or, (3) they did really, really well at sanitizing their records at war’s end and keeping us long-noses in the dark..

We’re guessing, based on their crude COIN techniques in China and the Philippines, that the answer was (2). But what do you guys know?

12 thoughts on “UW Bleg: Imperial Japanese Special Operations Forces?

  1. Justin

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nakano_School
    The Japanese did have a UW force, they were trained out of this school. Pre-war, they helped the anti-British resistance in Burma and India. Apparently the Nakano graduates were appalled at the Imperial Army’s treachery towards the Burmese once they’d gained control of the country.

  2. Kirk

    I heard rumors of such things in Korea, talking to the old-timers. The Korean War special operations outfits that worked for the ROK certainly didn’t come out of nowhere. I’d suggest looking not at the Japanese Army or Navy for where these units/organizations were kept, but at the Kempeitei and the various Manchurian governmental organizations. Don’t forget to also look at the informal things like the various secret societies that were engaged in running Japanese foreign policy in China, either. If you look at the history of things in China, you’ll find the fingerprints of all sorts of non-government actors, particularly secret society-type things in the officer’s corps. The run-up to the Mukden/Manchurian Incident is a good example of what I’m talking about here–The Japanese had this thing called “Gekokujo”, which was essentially “leadership from below”. Most of what we’d term “special operations” were done by regular units with coordination being performed by like-minded officers who were operating free-lance to the general benefit of what they perceived as Japanese interest. So, where the Germans needed the Brandenberg guys to put together the raid on that radio station up on the border with Poland before the shooting started, the Japanese just relied on that sort of thing being done by some crazy bastard out on the Manchurian frontier.

  3. PBAR

    Would you consider ninja/shinobi forces in the Japanese medieval period SOF? If so the Japanese had a long tradition that they apparently abandoned with the Westernization of their military starting in the 1870s. I’ve some Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force SOF guys this question before and they said they had never thought of it in that way but it did make sense, perhaps, to consider ninjas as SOF.

  4. abu fitna

    You may wish to look at Nakano school graduates. While military Intel, many had direct action roles and other sabotage missions in the field.

    The records are indeed sparse. But who knows how much just may remains untranslated in archives at Yasukuni jinja.

  5. David Lindberg

    I know that this is a bit off topic, but were the Groupe Franc not competent? You mentioned France as lacking SOF, so my curiosity was piqued. I have not studied them deeply, so I don’t really know.

    1. Hognose Post author

      They appear to have been hastily and locally organized, selected but not especially trained, equivalents of the US’s 1970s Ranger companies that were assigned as patrol and reconnaissance units to Brigade/Regimental/Divisional echelons, for reconnaissance or combat patrols right within the ground unit commander’s area of influence. So by some definitions they were SOF. They do not appear to have had any influence at all on the war, which French defense planning started losing in the 1920s.

      Here’s a thread that has a post with some detailed and authoritive-sounding, source unknown, information on the Equipes/Groupes/Groupements Francs and their armament and missions. It’s David Lehmann’s post entited “The SMG in the French Army,” but it covers more than just the guns (mind you the gun facts, especially the little-known French SMGs and their very small numbers, are interesting as it gets).
      http://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?t=66044&start=15&sid=00dc608445843bbbac8a5f34f3c23042

      Hope this helps, DL.

      1. David Lindberg

        Thanks for the quick and informative reply. That post is packed with good info. It *almost* makes one wonder if they were somewhat ineffective due to a lack of magazines for their Erma SMGs. 1000 guns issues, with 1500 magazines makes me hope the acquired more magazines somewhere…
        What I have read implies that the Groupes Francs may have been a good idea, but were not in a position to affect great changes in the war largely due to the gross strategic failures you hinted at. Not being an expert on SOF, I found it interesting that the individual Groupes would be attached to conventional forces, giving the conventional commanders some SOF capability. If I am recalling what I read correctly. If that is the case, though, it seems likely that those same conventional commanders had no idea whatsoever of how to use that capability.

        1. Hognose Post author

          Well, it does seem like a very direct reaction to the Stosstrüppen of 1918. The French were on the receiving end of a lot of those actions, and were impressed by them.

  6. jjak

    Here are a couple I came up with, but they don’t seem to fit the Western mold of SF perfectly – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teishin_Shudan
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giretsu_Kuteitai
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Takasago_Volunteers

    Then there are the “Special Attack Units” for suicide attacks using planes, boats, submarines, and divers. Even units like the midget submarines or the aircraft carrier subs don’t appear to be part of larger specialized units. The midget subs seem to be attached to their parent subs with no higher organization, while the submarine aircraft carriers and their planes were built specifically for raids against the US.

    This Internet Archive copy of TM E 30-480 Handbook On Japanese Military Forces (War Dept. OCT 44) lists the Special Naval Landing Force as the only dedicated special forces unit. But, it also states that raiding forces are drawn from other units as required for a specific mission, then returned to their parent formation when the mission is completed–that seems to jive with the wiki entry on the Giretsu Kuteitai being formed from the Teishin Shudan to go after the B-29 bases in the Marianas. These raiding forces are called betsudotai or teishintai, though the term teishintai seems to cross over with the suicide forces as well. https://archive.org/details/TME30-480

    Hope this helps. If I’m tracking, you’re mulling a novel/short story on this.

  7. Dyspeptic Gunsmith

    The SOF role as you understand and have lived it would have been a “nail to be hammered down” in the Imperial Japanese Army/Navy.

    There’s a cultural difference here that I think you’re overlooking.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Hell, for most of my time it was a “nail to be hammered down” in the freakin’ US Army. But yeah, conformity was a fairly big thing in the IJA/ IJN, with some notable exceptions. They seem to have been out ahead of us in adopting Mission Orders, or what the Germans called Auftragstaktik, and used with great effect. In other words trusting JOs to use their judgment and initiative within the commander’s intent.

  8. obsidian

    I believe the Japanese considered every man a special operator.
    All it took was a set of orders and an Officer to direct the operation.
    The HQ simply demanded everyman to be capable upon pain of death.
    Usually self inflicted at failure.

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