Notes from a research visit to Japan

The Japanese perspective on The Battle of Imphal interests me greatly. Few English language histories cover it in much detail. Arthur Swinson (Four Samurai) and Louis Allen stand out as having done so. Other histories are not incomplete but have simply dwelt on other aspects. I spent a productive two weeks touring Japan, visiting the sites of the memorials to the veterans of 33 Infantry Division, meeting academics and giving a lecture to Japanese analysts about the battle and the surrounding decisions.

The mainstream Japanese view is that attempt to invade India in March 1944 was foolish and reckless with Lt Gen Mutaguchi as the main culprit. Indeed, this thesis points out, he became so enthusiastic about the possibilities that he even dreamed of entering Delhi on a white horse.  Whilst this view is fair, it might also be incomplete. In December 1943 there were few good options available to Japan in general and in northern Burma in particular.

There is also some work to be done on how the Japanese soldier was motivated. Some very excellent summaries of how the samurai code was co-opted in the 1920 and 30s, have been written. Arthur Swinson’s is very good. We have tended to see the Japanese soldier as something not ordinary and almost always as fanatical. This is a word I resist because even though true, it does not encourage further enquiry about why.  This is very parallel to whether and how Islamic theology is being used or misused to motivate jihadis. I was once warned against doing academic work on jihad, on the grounds that even scholars of Islam cannot exactly agree on the topic and for an outsider to attempt to do so is hopeless. It is probably the same here, but for example there was widespread draft dodging in Japan. So who did not manage to dodge the draft and what does that tell us about the type of soldier who ended up in 33 Infantry Division attacking Shenam Ridge in 1944.  Who had selected out and how?

There are so many other Japanese aspects to the story. The road to war for example and the causes and origins of WW2 which many Japanese were very against.  Japan in the 30s nearly disintegrated into rival military factions and indeed it is remarkable given the bad blood between so many senior officers in the 30s that there was any functioning command element in 1944 at all.

All to say that I am looking to enhance our Japanese language research capability as we cover these questions.

2 Replies to “Notes from a research visit to Japan”

  1. Mutaguchi was a successful and ambitious Japanese General. His two phase plan to ‘Invade India’ – Ha-Go and U-Go had taken some time to get approved because of the political and personal animosity between him and Kawabe – Commander of the Burma Area Army. Despite the rapid failure of the Ha-Go operation in the Arakan due to fundamental failures in Logistic planning, Mutaguchi made no changes to his logistic plans for his main thrust across the Chindwin to ‘March on Delhi’.

    The plan was Mutaguchi’s, so the failure was his but I believe that U-Go failed by the limitation placed on it by Kawabe. He knew about the ambitions of Mutaguchi. He knew that Mutaguchi intended to thrust into India and had he been more inclined and given Mutaguchi free rein, then the failed Japanese battle of Kohima may well have been the successful Japanese battle of Dimapur. Subhas Chandra Bose had convinced Mutaguchi that the Indians would rise against the British in support of his advance – if he could just get a foothold. We will never know!

    Kawabe placed the Limit of Exploitation as Kohima on Mutaguchi. Despite this limitation, Mutaguchi ordered Sato to send a column forward to Dimapur. However Sato was on the same political side as Kawabe and informed him. Mutaguchi’s order was countermanded and apart from the logistical problems that the Japanese 15th Army was having, Operation U-Go resulted in the biggest defeat suffered by Japanese forces up to that time.

    Slim believed that Generals learned more from their defeats than from their victories. Mutaguchi had assumed that the same old procedures of withdrawal would occur. He failed to consider that the British/ Indian command might have learned lessons from defeat.


    1. Bob. Thanks for engaging and great to have your knowledge in the public domain.

      Certainly, one of the most interesting aspects to me was the Japanese Intelligence failure on a number of levels. First, was not realising that Slim had indeed turned around the 14th Army with training and a new stay put when surrounded doctrine. The Japanese failure in the Arakan in 1944 was part the result of that. But that indicator came very late for Mutaguchi to change his plan and ( from memory) he was not in fact in command of Arakan which was a diversionary attack designed to draw off the reserve from Imphal, which it did not do. In fact the opposite, since the it was the 5th Division that was lifted FROM the Arakan to re place the 23rd etc.

      In our production we will argue that more clear indications of Slims turn around came in the Kabaw Valley Dec 43 onwards, where 20th Div were patrolling aggressively and indeed conducting a few successful Battalion level actions. This was very new and an open minded intelligence analysis culture would have seen this.

      Agreed on the role of Bose who persuaded not only Mutaguchi but others in Tokyo about the uprising and this was another major intelligence failure of the Japanese staff. Lots more to say on this but it rests on the Japanese failure to understand demographics of the Indian Army. Very like Curveball in Iraq, Bose tells the Japanese what they wanted to hear, and this allowed the assumed political benefits of U Go to be used to paper over the obvious military flaws. All this in the context of the Japanese having some excellent intelligence officers most especially Iwaichi Fujiwara who was extensively debriefed after the war whilst a POW. ( historians dream. Bored perhaps resentful intelligence analyst, confined with questions and paper…. he was not that frank though actually. Louis Allen, as ever, is good on all this)

      Again more to say on Dimapur and Sato refusal to push on. Here I would only say that having driven the defile from Kohima to Dimpur, as I am sure many readers here will have done, i think Sato was entirely right to refuse. It would not have taken much to have made that push very hard and it would then have become a Japanese supply route. Mutaguchi, at that time still well to the rear when he gave the order shows himself at his most reckless. ( Reckless is incidentally a word i heard often in Japan to describe U go and Mutaguchi)

      Much more to say but clearly need to leave some for the production!

      Thanks again.


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