Selection, Assessment & Training: the IJN Way

500px-Naval_Ensign_of_Japan.svgAt 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.

“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. PaperbackKindle.

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).

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.

  1. Graduate from the naval academy, serve aboard a ship for a year, and then apply for flight school.
  2. 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.
  3. Obtain his civilian pilot license and join the reserves as an officer.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 dagger sold at Cowan's auction house some years ago. Beware the many fakes).

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.

21 thoughts on “Selection, Assessment & Training: the IJN Way

  1. Harold

    Two manpower problems I’ve noticed in my recent readings of WWII history:

    The supply of (new) pilots didn’t keep up with the demand, and the war was in that respect effectively over after the last of the existing, (super-)competent IJN pilots were used up in the South Pacific. Note the nickname of the subsequent Battle of the Philippine Sea, the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”.

    There was no respect for non-combatant specialties, from intelligence to simple civil engineering. One of the many things that crippled their South Pacific campaign was inadequate taxiways that cost them planes, pilots and maintenance in a theater where all were in short supply.

  2. JasonC

    Hog, are you able to offer an opinion on the work of H. John Poole? (I’ve wanted to ask this before, but today I’m finally reminded because the IJA is one of his sources of inspiration.) For me he’s one of those cases of an author who is very intriguing but whom I can’t evaluate from my own expertise except in one pretty minor way, but it so happens that he in that way he gets it badly wrong (to wit, he swallowed whole some discredited books about ninjas). In his case it’s a small thing, but I’d like to know if he passes the test with experts on the big things, like UW.

    1. Hognose Post author

      I’ll have to check him out. Sounds new to me and I don’t have the UWORL catalog up right now.

  3. Tim, '80s Mech Guy

    While I’m not extensively read on this I remember more than a hint of friction between the senior and junior officer corps, in the IJN at least, to the point of insubordination that probably would not have been tolerated in a western professional military with more tradition. Skill and experience without professionalism aint gonna get er done.

    December 8 was more than the opening of a new theater, they kicked off on ‘Murica and all the peasant raping in china did not prepare them for that. The chinese had shit for an airforce so the Japanese army pilots wracked up a score that they could not hope to match against the allied forces who rapidly overcame initial handicaps in terms of training, experience and technology. In china the air was at least theoretically used to advance the ground campaign. In the south/southwest Pacific after the initial onslaught they quickly transitioned to defence. Thier leaders were aware that victory had to be quick and decisive otherwise the above mentioned shortcomings in logistics and infrastructure were going to bite them in the ass. The nationalistic zeal drained out of the troops pretty quick when the food stopped showing up at some bypassed shithole on the north coast of New Guinea or worse an atoll that to the allied advance was strategically unimportant.

    1. Hognose Post author

      And yet, they still fought. King’s book of interviews with Iwo survivors is just amazing. Partly, of course, they believed that they would be mistreated if captured. But they resigned themselves to their fate, and they went willingly to death.

      In the Last Zero, one of his guys made an emergency landing on a Kawanishi H1K1 Mavis flying-boar base. And he was invited to the farewell party — seems each time a recon plane flew a particular route, it never came back. At dawn, the crew suited up and left on that route, never to be seen by friendly eyes again.

      There are some examples of bad leadership and bad decision making. The most amazing of which is the way they set the whole country on the path to inevitable war, with results predictable by any economist of the day.

      1. Tom Kratman

        I have a theory on that, one that possibly has some value for the present war.

        The Japanese were always a pretty hard and harsh crew, but even so, in the Russo-Japanese War you not only couldn’t fault them for guts – you could _never_ fault them for guts – but their gallantry and treatment of prisoners and the dead was as much as one could hope for, within their constrained logistics. Inazo Nitobe (possibly the only pacifist I don’t despise) observed, in Bushido, the Soul of Japan, that Bushido was doomed, that it just couldn’t survive modernization.

        My theory, and it’s only that, is that Nitobe knew what he was talking about, but that a very large number of influential or determined Japanese, or both, were determined that Bushido should not go into that long night without a fight. Thus, they aimed higher than their mark and perverted Bushido so that something could remain or so that it would hit about where they thought it should be rather than disappear.

        The parallel to the present is, of course, Islam, under continuous assault from the modern world, even where we don’t intend the assault. Add in a whole bunch of folks, some of them quite gutsy, too, determined that it should not disappear. Note the degree to which they’ve twisted it out of any shape Mohammad (PBUH) would recognize. An effort to build a buffer? To preserve what can be preserved? To aim high to strike on the mark?

        Dunno, just a theory.

        1. Hognose Post author

          It’s interesting that both the Deobandi (from India, big influence on the Taliban) and Wahhabi (Saudi, of course) strains of Islam are just that — a relatively recent (18th and 17th C. AD respectively) “back-to-basics-as-we-imagine-them” movement.

          Imagine the good, and the evil, that could come from an American nationalism that went back to Manifest Destiny era basics.

          As a rule of thumb it seems that prisoners of the Navy were treated with some degree of correctness, but prisoners of the Army were generally mistreated. As we’ve seen (especially if you took the NYT during 2003-04) no army puts its best and brightest in charge of watching the caged enemy, and indisciplined rear area commandos and marginal troops (i.e. the Nazis’ “Ost” auxiliaries that wound up as cage-kickers in the KZs) can’t be trusted with power over noncombatants.

          The King books (which I think you would really enjoy), at least The Last Zero, include several stories of the fate of US prisoners. One guy remembers a civilian prisoner at Wake operating a bulldozer (a machine unknown to the Japanese, which gives you an idea of one of the hazards of an overmilitarized society) and was shocked when he asked King about the fate of the Wake Island prisoners (they were all murdered). There’s another story of meeting a shot-down B-24 crew: all would later be murdered.

          There are also stories of misconduct by Americans, including firing at survivors in the air and in the water. (Yes, it’s technically legal, if they may be recovered and returned to combat, but it’s traditional not to do).

          I’d love to see more but Dan is running out of nonagenarians to interview.

          1. Kirk

            One of the interesting details about the Japanese and POW abuse is tied in with the “comfort women” issue–Many, if not a majority of the responsible parties for the actual commission of the criminal activities and abuses were ethnic Koreans, not Japanese. It is true that the Japanese were in charge, but the actual people committing a lot of the acts that were actually criminal were Koreans–And, irony of ironies, the majority of the Korean girls brought into the “comfort woman” program were brought in by Korean procurers, who were noted for the widespread use of the usual bait-and-switch “We’re hiring you for housework; oh, now you’re a whore…” ploy so familiar to human traffickers in these days. Quite modern–Just switch the ethnicities of the victims.

            I have to laugh whenever I hear the Koreans bitching about this issue–If there were justice, many of the people going up against the wall for these crimes would be ethnic Koreans. There are actual documents out there where the Japanese Imperial Army clearly laid out what they were doing, and what they wanted, and more documents showing where the Koreans they hired committed fraud with the Korean farmgirls they hired. Of course, once the poor victims were in the system, the Japanese did little to help them, and assisted the Korean procurers in keeping the girls under control.

            The whole thing is a massive mess, when you go looking into it, but any Korean professing utter innocence in these matters is full of shit. The Koreans have a long, long history of this crap, going back centuries. I’ve got a little book on the issue, self-published by a Korean-American woman who went back and interviewed lots of these women, and wrote up what she found. Her own mother was a victim, having been conned off the family farm near Uijongbu by a well-known and respected older Korean couple who’d supposedly been finding work for local girls in Japan. Turns out, they were basically recruiters for the Japanese whorehouses, and when the IJA started their program, they were in on the ground floor. What’s even worse? That couple was in business satisfying the American GI for decades, after the war–They owned a bunch of the bars outside Camp Casey.

            There’s a reason I never went out on the ‘ville, when I was in Korea, and human trafficking was it. I met a couple of victims of it here in the US, who’d managed to parley being sold for family debts into marrying a GI, and listening to them talk about life as a bargirl over there was enlightening as hell. Not to mention, sick-making.

          2. Tom Kratman

            “Imagine the good, and the evil, that could come from an American nationalism that went back to Manifest Destiny era basics.”

            There’s a great passage in one of Adrian Goldworthy’s books on Rome, wherein he mentions smug Eurofilth comparing the US to Rome, and then adding, “But of course they don’t see that.” Adrian finds it quite humorous because he is not only a student of Rome but of _us_, too, and he seems to enjoy deflating those smug Euros with, “Oh, but the Americans _do_ see that.” It’s fairly true, too, I think. Moreover, it always has been. I think, too, you knew I went to Boston Latin, so you might think it comes from that, but no, we started out in Plymouth intending to be the successor of Rome and have fairly well succeeded.

            Course, we need to dispose of about 4 million common law felons, a million wingnuts, and _five_ million moonbats to continue properly on that road. (I admit that my numbers may be on the low side.)

          3. Tom Kratman

            Addendum, King’s books. I just looked. on amazon. The Last Zero Fighter isn’t in hardback, and paper’s gotten to be too hard for me to read.

          4. Hognose Post author

            I read them in Kindle format. Very fast and it keeps track of the page I’m on whether I’m on the kindle or another device. I think I read about 20% faster this way too.

  4. Tim, '80s Mech Guy

    I think normally an Island nation would give a freer hand to the navy but all that chinese real estate that had to be administered made the army lobby pretty strong. So yeah they went head to head over money/prestige etc. They were both relatively new services as homogeneous Japanese nationalism was new. I would disagree about Yamamoto being incompetent but his plans had a lot of moving parts and things had to go just right. Whacking him was more of a Fuck You than a strategic move by the time they did it. It certainly took some of the wind out if thier sails though.
    I think having the senior leaders damn near sit out the combat via non line of sight air warfare insulated the bosses from lessons they might have learned otherwise. And the bosses were battleship sailors, the most senior to include Yamamoto were lieutenants in 1905 and saw that battle line shit work just the way the book said it would.
    The mid and junior guys were being expended before they could pass anything on up or down.
    They fought on for sure for multiple reasons, ingrained moral superiority being one. Not a Grossman fan but I can agree that de humanizing the enemy can be a motivation to go kill him and it can keep you going out of fear even after it’s obvious that he and not you will prevail.

    1. Hognose Post author

      If you ask Americans from then or now, they’d tell you Army-Navy cooperation sucked, but it really didn’t and doesn’t. To see interservice rivalry raised to the level of nation-threatening pathology, you have to look at Japan or Germany in WWII.

      Nowadays, we’re so joint, combined and coalition that we practically piss purple. Especially on the SOF side.

  5. robroysimmons

    Sucks to have been them. While on the Rock in 85 I was at the Naha port and small littoral ship was there and I admit it was cool to see the Rising Sun flying from its stern, good on em. Thinking of it inspires me to go start my Confederate Navy. I have from my FIL a small Japanese flag from Iwo (5th Mar div) complete with small blood stain so let’s presume the owner was not interviewed.

    1. Hognose Post author

      If your FIL still lives (not likely, I suppose) he may find the Japanese memoirs of Iwo interesting. I recall talking to many vets who were just puzzled by the Japanese — their bravery in battle, and their fatalism when cornered in tunnels. After the Marines handed over to the Army, the Japanese who were still alive met miserable deaths of fire, suffocation or drowning (a favorite thing to do was just pump water in to the tunnel until it came out all the entrances. That was usually the end of the defenders, or, by that point, mere survivors). I can’t praise Dan King enough for these books.

      King points out that the last few aviators and Iwo survivors, well into their nineties, are national treasures.

  6. Arturo

    From all the posts I have read over time about the training policies of the Axis powers. Did we do anything right? It seems like we worked really hard on artillery and fire support then won.

    1. Hognose Post author

      By 1945, the Yokaren students were being given very rudimentary training and then sent to fly Kamikaze missions in obsolete airplanes. They were completely ineffective. Some were put in kamikaze boats, which were even less effective than the old planes. And some? Were waiting for the US landing with “lunge mines” (exactly what it sounds like) or spears.

      The Commonwealth Training Scheme and the US air training system were absolutely brilliant by comparison, and they increased both quantity and quality of aircrewmen as the war went along.

  7. ToastietheCoastie

    I’d recommend “Japanese Destroyer Captain” by Temeichi Hara. A very enlightening book told from the Japanese POV. He says that aviation was the least prestigious assignment prewar, but of course he was speaking as one of the elite officers.

    1. Hognose Post author

      In fact, it’s on my nightstand in the midst of a rereading. Great book, one of the early English translations of a Japanese memoir. (Another being Saburo Sakai’s). Big difference in mindset and status between Hara and Sakai, a lowly enlisted man.

      Japan had a psychological committment to the idea of The Decisive Battle. There would be one big naval battle, and then it would be all over. That is, obviously, Tsushima and the ghost of Admiral Togo talking. All the valiant fighting and misery endured by the IJA ashore was relatively inconsequential compared to the Japanese devastation of the Russian naval relief force, something nobody (except maybe Togo) saw coming. There was also such a belief in Japanese exceptionalism that they’d sortie to certain death against 2-1, 5-1, 10-1 odds, counting on Yamato Damashii to pull them through. It wouldn’t, of course.

      But the memoirs make them far more understandable. They’re not a mystery, and they’re not some strange and different humans. They were normal young guys who were willing to fight and die for their country and their people and way of life, and in the millions, they did.

      One of the surprises to me is that there were more survivors than expected. For example, there were a handful of Japanese destroyers and cruisers left even at the end of it all (they were used, disarmed, to go and pick up Japanese survivors on bypassed islands and formerly occupied territory in Korea and China, and bring them home). Yokaren pilot selection and education (pre-flight-training) classes might have 10% to 30% lucky (?) survivors after V-J day. Some officers who resolved to commit seppuku on defeat reconsidered and lived (one of those was the famous Minoru Genda).

      King recounts the excitement he had, interviewing one of the few surviving (at that time) Pearl Harbor participants. Another of his interviewees was along on the raid but was stuck flying CAP over the carriers.

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