Why Were the Japanese Army so Brutal

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The Imperial Japanese Army had a reputation during and after World War II as being the most hated enemy the allied western forces had encountered. This partly stems from acts of brutality committed by the IJA that are both infamous and synonymous with the wars fought in Asia and the pacific, and partly because of their alien philosophies and attitudes which are deeply embedded in the psyche of the Japanese soldier and which were consequently demonstrated through out their involvement in World War II. This essay aims to explore the foundations of the Japanese army that the allied forces faced and identify examples of, and potential reasons why, the Japanese Army was so brutal during the Second World War.

The Imperial Japanese Army, or IJA as it is sometimes referred to, was created in the 1860’s during the Meiji Era, a time when Japan had begun to open herself to influences from the western world. During this time, the Restoration as it is known, the Samurai, one of Japan’s most symbolic and honoured traditions was eradicated. The abolition of the Samurai was part of a larger scale effort to reform the traditional ways of Japans feudal system and class structure. The hope was that this new way of distinguishing between classes would produce a united and powerful Japan. The Restoration displaced the Samurai and the effects of this displacement were strongly felt amongst those who resisted the change in their societal role. The Great Samurai Uprising of 1877 was fought and led by disaffected Samurai. To over come this displacement, all of the new IJA officers were former Samurai and the Imperial Army incorporated the values and codes of the Samurai into the army’s values and codes. So in effect, the early IJA was an army led by the most calculating, brutal and effective killers the country had on offer.

Another advantage of the Samurai leading the army was that their strict moral code of loyalty, obedience, courage and honour was transferred to a unified national army. This code is called Bushido, which translates as “Way of the Warrior’. This moral code was developed between the Heian and Tokugawa Ages, which are from the 9th to the 12th centuries. Bushido was influenced and partly derived from Zen, Confucianism, Shinto and Buddhism. From Buddhism, the warrior was able to let go of fear of death and danger, because Buddhists believe in reincarnation. From Shinto the warrior took loyalty, patriotism and ancestor worship, and matters to do with family, relationships and the five moral relations between people came from Confucianism in the form of justice, respect, benevolence, honesty and self-control. The Samurai emerged as the ruling class in the 1400’s and remained so until their decline and finally abolition during the Meiji Era. Whilst occupying the position of ruling class, their first and foremost concern was loyalty to the Emperor and their individual overlords, known as Daimyo. The position of Samurai is not unlike that of medieval knights in European courts, however the code of ethics, or Bushido, separated them from anything the western world has seen. The Samurai always fought to the death. If captured or defeat inevitable, the only option was death or ritual suicide known as Seppuku. Seppuku involved self-gutting and beheading by another Samurai and was practiced in the event of capture or other means of dishonour . It is with this basis in ethics and values that the newly created Imperial Japanese Army began life, under the guidance of officers with Samurai backgrounds and Bushido values are evident in the IJA during World War II. For example, suicide pilots were given Kamikaze or ‘Divine Wind’ missions. During their involvement in the Second World War 2,550 kamikaze missions were ordered. 475 of which hit their target or created destructive near misses. Further, since the time of the abolition of the Samurai the Imperial Japanese Army integrated Bushido into an educational philosophy that...
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