Military Transformation: The Japanese Army during the 1920s and 1930s

Dr. Edward Drea, Historian, Joint History Office.

Following World War I, the Imperial Japanese Army sought to modernize its weapons and equipment and transform its force structure. For almost two decades, the best and the brightest staff officers assigned to the War Ministry and General Staff grappled with transformation issues as they sought to create a modern force capable of protecting Japanese interests in Northeast Asia. The fundamental question revolved around how to prepare Japan for a future conflict that would require national, industrial, and military mobilization to fight and win a protracted war. Shifting political trends and Japan's weak industrial infrastructure limited the parameters for transformation. This resulted in fierce debates about Japan's future military strategy and diverse theories about total war in the offices of the Army General Staff and the War Ministry that set officer classmates against one another.

The Imperial Army's story of military transformation involves more than weapons procurement and acquisition policies. It was a twenty-year struggle for the soul of the Army. The officer education and promotion systems played central roles in the drama because these determined the choice assignments for future advancement and high command. Between the early 1920s and the mid-1930s, multiple transformative initiatives faltered until one brilliant but eccentric Army colonel seemed on the cusp of achieving the Army's goal of a national mobilization state.
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