Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887–1941
At the beginning of the Meiji period in 1868, the era commonly associated with the starting point of Japan’s modern epoch, the Japanese navy was nothing more than a ragtag collection of mismatched and outdated vessels. Within thirty-five years, however, Japan would engage and decimate the fleets of two larger naval powers, China in 1894–95 and Russia in 1904–1905. Thirty-five years later still, on the eve of the Pacific War, Japan possessed a formidable naval force, one that, as the opening months of the war demonstrated, could inflict considerable damage on Allied military units and territorial possessions throughout the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
In Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887–1941, a superbly researched and lucidly written monograph, David Evans and Mark Peattie examine the factors that contributed to the military emergence of the Japanese navy. Focusing as they do on “strategy, tactics, and technology, or, more precisely, the evolving interrelationship of the three,” as well as the navy’s early attempts to forge a “synthesis of foreign and indigenous influences in the shaping of its tactics, and how the navy acquired its technology and assets,” the authors provide the most comprehensive account to date on the development of Japanese naval power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In doing so, Evans and Peattie have written a book that will be of interest not only to military historians and scholars of Japan and East Asia for years to come, but also to world historians interested in the important role played by the transformation and global dissemination of naval technology, the scope of [End Page 491] which the world had not seen in over five hundred years, in shaping history between the 1880s and 1941.
In the early chapters of the book, the authors do a thorough job of covering the growth of the early Meiji navy, illustrating that Japan initially followed a two-phase policy in acquiring technology from abroad: first, by relying almost entirely on Western tutelage; and second, by beginning licensed production while at the same time continuing the study of foreign technology and purchase of capital ships. This middle path, Evans and Peattie argue, was situated between the extreme options of relying entirely on Western support and the potential pitfalls it entailed or solely emphasizing indigenous design, which would have significantly delayed the maturation of Japan’s navy. In their view, the middle path was a sagacious choice: it allowed the Japanese navy to secure some of the West’s best naval technology, while affording the country time to develop a sizeable naval infrastructure of shipyards and arsenals capable of producing impressive vessels later in Japan’s modern period.
At the same time as the navy benefited from technological transfers, it also gained valuable training and educational experiences from the West during the late nineteenth century. Sending naval cadets overseas, as well as inviting foreign experts to teach at newly established naval training schools, went far toward building a well-educated officer corps. However, as the authors demonstrate, one of the most impressive facets of Japanese naval development during this early period of intensive technological borrowing was the complex and revolutionary battle tactics that the navy’s brightest minds were developing. For example, while tacticians in Britain were developing the classic “T” capping maneuver, believed to be the most efficient means by which to destroy an enemy battle fleet, so too were their counterparts at the Japanese Naval Staff College.
Both the purchase of foreign vessels and the independent evolution of Japanese naval tactics paid handsome dividends for Japan. Not only was the navy instrumental in securing victory for Japan in wars with China and Russia, but also it afforded Japan the opportunity to secure a more favorable postwar settlement. The naval aspects of both wars are comprehensively covered by the authors, and the chapter on the Russo-Japanese War provides the best description and analysis of the Battles of the Yellow Sea and Tsushima that I have read. Both naval battles are well represented with maps and diagrams, and overall the authors have successfully integrated visual materials of this nature throughout the monograph. [End Page 492]
While naval successes in both wars helped secure overall victory for Japan, such unprecedented success also hindered the further evolution of naval tactics and strategy from roughly 1905 to 1945. In short, the Japanese navy felt that the most important lesson to be drawn from the Russo-Japanese War was that capital ships—namely, battleships engaged in a “decisive battle”—played the critical role in defeating the enemy fleet. Afterward, at about the same time that Japan began to borrow less and less from the West, particularly after World War I, the navy formalized this “big ships-big guns” orthodoxy. Here Evans and Peattie do a fine job of illustrating how this belief colored virtually all tactical and strategic planning up until the end of the Pacific War. By the 1920s this orthodoxy had become dogma and had even begun to influence the research, development, and evolution of naval technology. Indeed, in the 1930s the navy continually sought technological advancement in areas that would strengthen Japan’s ability to fight a decisive fleet encounter with the U.S. navy, as evidenced by the development of torpedo cruisers and the construction of super-battleships Yamato and Musashi. Although the Japanese navy developed technologies apart from those that could be nominally classified as “big ships-big guns”—namely, submarines and a powerful naval air arm, which in 1941, the authors argue, “was the most potent offensive force of any of the three major navies”—it (as well as submarines) was “still not regarded by the Japanese naval leadership as the main element of the Combined Fleet”.
The Japanese navy’s overriding concern with preparing for and fighting a decisive fleet battle with the U.S. navy, mentioned by the authors in their incisive epilogue on the navy in the Pacific War, coupled with the navy’s inability to develop “second generation naval technology,” such as radar, proximity fuses for shipboard anti-aircraft guns, and a comprehensive anti-submarine warfare system, helped contribute to the ultimate demise of one of the world’s most visually impressive fleets. Moreover, Evans and Peattie persuasively argue in their conclusion that while the navy trained and developed tactics to enable Japan to defeat its American counterparts in battle, it had not prepared its forces to fight a long, drawn-out war, particularly one which, for all intents and purposes, lacked a decisive capital ship fleet engagement.