In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Imperial Japanese Army in the World War II Era

  • Introduction
  • General Histories
  • Biographies
  • Morale and Combat Motivation
  • War Crimes
  • Intelligence
  • Japanese Army’s Position in State and Society

Military History The Imperial Japanese Army in the World War II Era
Douglas Ford
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0115


The vast majority of the English language sources on the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) concentrate on its activities during the Pacific War of 1941–1945, with a small but nonetheless valuable collection of works written on its earlier campaigns against China and Russia in the late 1930s. The availability of quality academic works has been significantly limited by the language barrier, which has meant that scholars face considerable difficulties in translating Japanese texts and documentary sources. Nevertheless, when one includes the historical works on the Allied experiences in combating the IJA during the Pacific War, one is able to access a rich array of literature. The existing historiography explains many of the key factors relating to the Imperial Army, including its role in the Japanese political system and its wartime strategy, the development of its tactics and weapons technologies, and the state of morale and combat motivation among its troops. Recent works have covered some contentious issues, including the Japanese army’s policies regarding the treatment of POWs and the motivations which lay behind the war crimes that its officers carried out during the course of the conflict. The army’s role in maintaining domestic law and order in wartime Japan is also a subject of sustained academic interest.

General Histories

As with any topic related to World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) has been covered in a number of general works, written by academic as well as nonacademic authors. The literature has broadly explained the IJA’s policies and military campaigns, and puts forward an overview of the motives which lay behind the army’s policies of seeking expansion on the Asiatic mainland during the 1930s. The aim was to acquire a secure supply of raw materials and resources, while at the same time neutralizing the threat posed by the Soviet Union, which the army command viewed as Japan’s foremost ideological enemy. Popular histories also help the reader develop a basic understanding of how the difficulties which the IJA faced in defeating the Chinese after 1937 led it to seek expansion in the southern regions. The action eventually brought Japan into a confrontation against the Western powers, including Great Britain and the United States. Finally, the literature offers what is oftentimes a detailed account of the IJA’s activities during the war, from its rapid conquest of Southeast Asia and the western Pacific regions between December 1941 and spring 1942, followed by the waning of its fortunes after its defeats at Guadalcanal and New Guinea in early 1943. The mounting setbacks which the Japanese army suffered against the ever-growing might of the US armed forces in the Pacific theater is also described. Popular histories on the IJA are useful for gaining an introductory knowledge of the subject. For an overview of the general conduct of the Pacific War, Collier 1969, Costello 2002, Spector 1985, and Willmott 1982 are the best starting points. For narratives which focus on the activities of the Japanese, Dorn 1974, Harries and Harries 1992, Hoyt 1986, and Toland 2011 are the most reliable.

  • Collier, Basil. The War in the Far East, 1941–1945: A Military History. London: Heinemann, 1969.

    A general history of the war against Japan.

  • Costello, John. The Pacific War, 1941–1945. New York: Perennial, 2002.

    One of the most prominent works on the Pacific War, Costello puts forward a balanced account of the campaigns between the Allied and Japanese forces, including many of the ground battles. Although based largely on English language sources, the book nevertheless is a good source of background information on the Imperial Army’s wartime operations. Originally published in 1981 (New York: Rawson-Wade)

  • Dorn, Frank. The Sino-Japanese War, 1937–41: From Marco Polo Bridge to Pearl Harbor. New York: Macmillan, 1974.

    A journalistic account of the Japanese army’s activities in China, including the attacks on the International Settlement in Shanghai, and its treatment of Chinese civilians.

  • Harries, Meirion, and Susan Harries. Soldiers of the Sun: The Rise and Fall of the Imperial Japanese Army. New York: Random House, 1992.

    A narrative account of the Japanese army’s operations during World War II, but marred by factual errors and a lack of citations.

  • Hoyt, Edwin. Japan’s War: The Great Pacific Conflict, 1853–1952. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986.

    A general history of the key developments and decisions which led Japan to declare war on the Western powers in 1941, with a focus on the growing tide of militarism and nationalism. Hoyt also explains the many atrocities which the Japanese committed, including the massacre of civilians at Nanking, and the use of POWs for slave labor.

  • Spector, Ronald. The Eagle against the Sun: The American War with Japan. New York: Vintage, 1985.

    Along with Costello 2002, Spector’s general history on the Pacific War is among the most reliable sources of background information on the ground campaigns which the Imperial Japanese Army waged against its Allied opponents.

  • Toland, John. Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936–1945. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword Military, 2011.

    A nonacademic history of wartime Japan, with some sections on the IJA’s activities in China and in the Pacific theater. First published in 1970 (New York: Random House).

  • Willmott, Hedley Paul. Empires in the Balance: Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies to April 1942. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute, 1982.

    Willmott analyzes the strategic situation facing the Allied and Japanese armed forces during the opening stages of the Pacific War. Although lacking in documentary citations, the book argues convincingly that by spring 1942, the Imperial Army had faced an impasse as its divisions were scattered over an area stretching thousands of miles from Burma to the Southwest Pacific.

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