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How the Japanese Turned Success into Failure in Burma

Info: 2816 words (11 pages) Essay
Published: 8th Feb 2020 in History

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This article looks to assess how the Japanese turned success into failure during the Burma campaign of 1944. Specifically looking into the battle for Imphal and Kohima, as this is the major turning point in the Burma campaign for the Allies.  Firstly, it is important to examine the Japanese main objectives in the East and their view on the West; the Japanese occupation of Burma and the training of the Burma National Army (BNA); the leadership of Renya Mutaguchi compared with William Slim. Finally, considering how the terrain played an important factor against the Japanese withdrawal, all with the aim of assessing how the Japanese turned success into failure.

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Looking into the build up to the campaign of Burma, Hastings (2006) stipulates it is important to consider the people of Japan and their beliefs during times of war. During 1944-45 Japanese leadership fought and lived with the ‘Yamato spirit’, which is the delusion that great human sacrifice could compensate for the huge shortfall in military capability. This was especially seen during the battle for Saipan in 1944, as American Allies stormed the island, their intent was to capture and use it for future offensive air operations. It was only during this part of the campaign did the American Allies see the true power of life long indoctrination from Japanese leadership. American Allies had to deal with constant threat from both Japanese forces as well as Japanese civilians, who regularly fought with bamboo spears than give into the enemies of the Japanese Empire.  However, American Allies cleared the island and Emperor Hirohito found out that civilians were surrendering to the American Allies. He feared that the spirit of Japan was being ruined and the American forces would use this as a propaganda piece. On the 8 July 1944, Emperor Hirohito encouraged civilians of Saipan to commit suicide over radio broadcast. Over 1,000 civilians took their lives, highlighting the power of life-long indoctrination and constant fear of failure from its leadership.

In December 1941, the Japanese committed themselves to asymmetric warfare against enemies vastly superior in resources and potential. The Japanese leadership had two assumptions: firstly, that the US would lack the energy for a long contest in the east; secondly, that Germany will be triumphant in Europe. December 1941, saw Japans mission to expand its territory into Asia, with the purpose of gathering more resources for Japan and to create more space for the Japanese people. This view hasn’t changed since the beginning of the century and has enjoyed popular support from its people. Although, after the intervention of The French Indochina in 1941, the Japanese people were left bewildered and belittled by America’s stance on Japanese imperialism.

Thorne (1985) says the stance on Japanese Imperialism by the Americans led to cultural contempt for the West that ‘Money-making is the one aim in life (of Americans)’. This, matched with Japanese Army propaganda, which depicts a Japanese Soldier (see appendix 1) charging over British and American flags, which reads ‘Fire and Never Quit!’. Navarro (2017) goes on to evaluate that it is not just the Japanese looking to instil fear and hatred of the enemy, but also of the Allies; (see appendix 2) depicting the Japanese as subhuman and animalistic. These views can be backed up by the way in which the Japanese dealt with Allied prisoners of war (POW), the Japanese put allied prisoners into POW camps, or worse executed them. The POW camps shown by the Tokyo tribunal, had a 27.1% death rate of Western POW, which was seven times higher than that of POW camps in Germany or Italy. This mixed with the atrocities such as the Laha Massacre, Bangka Island Massacre and the Bataan Death March over the Pacific campaign led to the view from the West that the Japanese were all war criminals (Forces War Records, 2017). This set the conditions for a war of revenge after Pearl Harbour, thus allowing Americans to view the enemy as substandard and emotionless, observed by Admiral William Halsey, Commander of the South Pacific Forces, early on during WWII made the famous slogan “Kill Japs, kill Japs, kill more Japs”.

Dower (1993) observed that with racism in the West criticising the acts of the others, the Japanese focused on elevating and persuading themselves that their country was liberating subject people from the white imperial dominance. With the aim of creating an Asian brotherhood, therefore, allowing Japan to rid the Asian world of Western interference. However, this plan had a subsurface intention, Dower (1993) discussed that Japan had ambitious plans to replace the Western people with a new superior race, the Japanese. This shows that while the Allies were stereotyping Asians, the Japanese were setting the conditions to appear as liberators, despite having hidden intentions to create an ‘Asian Brotherhood’ and exploit resources. Although, the way the Japanese dealt and viewed the POW’s spread across Asia and lost them the support of their ‘Liberated’ countries, such as Thailand and Burma, it allowed the West to gain support from other militaries such as the BDF.

On December 14th 1941, with Japan under the leadership of Mutaguchi, the Japanese began to push forward into Burma, with the intention of heading West to expand its territory and disrupt allied advances to supply China; this would delay China’s war efforts against Japan. Hickey (2011) observed, Japan capturing the Burma road would prevent military resources reaching China. Therefore, allowing Japan to conquer China. Also, by capturing Burma, this would place Japan in a good location to push into India, where they believed an insurrection against the British Raj would ignite the people to switch sides. Hastings (2006) states that the people of Burma, were against British colonial rule, which laid the perfect foundations for Japanese ‘liberation’. At first, they were happy with their new Asian liberators, until Japan began to exploit Burma’s natural resources and recruit their Army into its own. Japan helped create the Burma National Army (BNA), recruiting from areas where people had distaste to the British colonial rule, but problems quickly arose. The BNA had very little recognition for its campaigns and was always treated as inferior to that of the Japanese Army, having their senior BNA officers salute the lowest ranking privates of the Japanese Army. These factors led to the BNA to renounce at the earliest opportunity of the campaign. This provided a distinct advantage to Field Marshal William Slim when coming up against the BNA on advances to Rangoon as the BNA provided little to no resistance. Again, reinforcing that the Japanese had started the campaign by winning over the Burmese people, with promises of independence, but instead, with intentions to exploit its resources, therefore, causing Japan to be viewed as dictators in Burma.

Looking into Mutaguchi’s successes in the campaign for Burma, was his tenacity for speed and aggression through harsh terrain. As a leader, he possessed an unrealistic drive for success that was over-characterised and was ingrained in over-optimistic objectives. An example was catching the British off guard in May 1942, pushing them back across the Chindwin river and out of Burma. Although, failings were seen in the higher Japanese command, as they were fixed and inflexible, regardless of their successes or failures. This is seen in the U-Go offensive, General Sato had no operational requirement to attack Kohima, but rather should have by-passed to the railhead at Dimapur to cut off supplies (Borton 2002). After Sato realised that when his men were being pushed off of Kohima, he signalled his intention to withdraw, Mutaguchi said, “Retreat and I will Court- Martial you.” Sato replied, “Do what you please. I will bring you down with me”. Burton (2002) states that as the campaign went on the lack of cohesiveness and ambitions between higher command led to the operational failings in the campaign. Hastings (2006) states that Mutaguchi was ignorant to his Intelligence officers as well as senior officers, ignoring the opinions of logistic problems faced by the coming monsoon season and lack of air support. Regardless, Mutaguchi justified his actions by aiming to push through to capture British supplies and leaving the British undersupplied to mount any offensive assaults on Burma. The decision to do this, caught the Allies off guard as the Japanese pushed through to the vicinity of Imphal and Kohima. Although, as the monsoon came, Mutaguchi was left with a struggling logistics chain due to conceding air superiority to the British, which in turn prevented them being able to resupply by air. Traditionally, the Japanese soldiers travelled light, carrying 15 days’ worth of rations and often lived off of the land. However, faced with a determined opposition, the thin logistic plan failed to sustain Mutaguchi’s army, which aided to their overall destruction.

Comparing the leadership of Mutaguchi and Slim (2009), it is easy to see how Slim had compassion for his subordinates and greater operational experience, he knew that after the previous defeat at Arakan, that improving the conditions for his troops would then improve their will and ability to fight. Looking into Slims accounts of the Burma campaign, he looked heavily upon his commanders to maintain the health and morale of their soldiers. One account saw Slim investigating one of his companies and finding that 95% had not been taken their malaria pills, after firing the company commander and putting more emphasis on the need of taking this medication, the companies started taking less casualties to malaria and started investing in training, providing education with the problems of jungle warfare. Mutaguchi in comparison as well as the wider Japanese Army treated its injured poorly, they left them behind to die with grenades and told them to make the great sacrifice; the ‘Yamato spirit’ again can be seen here. This shows that Mutaguchi doesn’t have a consideration plan to deal with failure, which leads to exploitation by the Allies.

On the advance of 15th, 31st and 32nd division through Burma, it became apparent Mutaguchi’s conquest to Imphal was time dependant, he gave himself three months to take Imphal and Kohima, this due to the constraints of the monsoon season. The monsoon season will slow advances on both sides and make resupply and evacuation difficult. This was one of the reasons Mutaguchi decided to push through the harsh terrain and take Imphal by speed, to enable his men to gain vital supplies and be in a good position to push on into India after the monsoon season. The obvious problem highlighted by command, was the risk of not making it in three months and ending up cut off from reinforcements and vital supplies. This was not considered and exploited by the allies, as movement through the jungle was often slow, the Allies used their air superiority, preventing the Japanese from resupplying through the air (Borton 2002).

Whilst in command and analysing the way that Mutaguchi fought, Slim (2006) understood that the Japanese favoured the approach of cutting off units and destroying positions through flanking and by-passing. Allen (1984) observes that Slim understood through previous conflicts with the Japanese in May 1942, where his Army was pushed 900 miles out of Burma. Slim decided to not push forward to the Chindwin river, but rather to exploit Japanese logistical weakness’ and have in Imphal plains a defensive battle. Slim also countered the Japanese cut off between Imphal and Kohima by using air superiority for resupply, which would enable resupplies of rations, mail, troops and vital medical supplies. Whilst in a defensive battle Slim made use of artillery and tanks to support ground troops in the defensive positions; after time it became a battle of attrition. Mutaguchi’s men did not have the equipment or food to continue the fighting and suffered massive casualties because of it. This shows an oversight in Mutaguchi’s leadership and planning ability, although he got to the Allied positions fast, he lacked the judgment to think about a logistic plan to resupply his men if they couldn’t take the positions fast enough.

Slim (2006) on the other hand did under estimate the number of troops Mutaguchi was going to commit to Kohima, Slim anticipated that Mutaguchi was going to send a regiment to Kohima, but instead sent 31st Division. Although, Burton (2002) examines Slims training to the 14th Army over the campaign, Slim was a big advocate of “Mission Command” and advocated flexibility at all levels tactically and operationally. This prevented the lack of flexibility seen by the Japanese when their counter attacks and assaults were not having the effect desired. The Japanese main aim was to create road blocks between Imphal and Kohima, thus preventing Slims forces from mutually supporting one another. This led to 50th Parachute regiment being segregated on the Kohima ridge, in desperate need of reinforcements and encircled by the Japanese. The allies’ air superiority led 161st Indian Infantry Brigade to break the encirclement, but they were still outnumbered. Only until the fresh 2nd British Infantry division made it to Kohima, did the Japanese get pushed off the ridge. This led to 31st Division starting a withdraw, which enabled enough resources to be put back into Imphal and Kohima to mount a counter attack. Mutaguchi’s men were disheartened, malnourished and undersupplied. The terrain and weather added another dimension that led them back through the unrelenting terrain, across flooded rivers and with the remorseless monsoon at full flow nothing could be done to help them. Pushing back to the Chindwin river is where Mutaguchi’s men took most of their casualties, and Slims men only had to follow the bodies and injured to find the Japanese main forces. The terrain and weather played a huge part to why the Japanese lost so many men in the withdraw.

The battle for Imphal and Kohima was Japans first great loss and subsequently allowed Slims Army to develop its own Jungle Doctrine. The operation in Burma proved two things, the concept of air resupply, and dispelled the myth of the Japanese being superhuman. The Japanese had turned success into their own destruction. Through command problems, inflexibility and lack of imagination, logistic incompetence and lack of air cover all contributed to their downfall. These factors mixed with time constraint placed by the weather added to the Japanese defeat and the first major victory for the allies in the East. 


1. Max Hastings (2006). Nemesis. London: William Collins. 35-40.

2. Christopher Thorne (1985) The Issue of War, Oxford. 124.

3. Anthony V Navarro. (2017). A Critical Comparison Between Japanese and American Propaganda during World War II. Available: https://msu.edu/~navarro6/srop.html. Last accessed 20/11/2017.

4. Forces War Records. (2017). Prisoners of War of the Japanese 1939-1945. Available: https://www.forces-war-records.co.uk/prisoners-of-war-of-the-japanese-1939-1945. Last accessed 30/11/2017.

5. Michael Hickey. (2011). The Burma Campaign 1941-1945. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/burma_campaign_01.shtml. Last accessed 30/11/2017.

6. John Dower (1993). Japan in War and Peace. Fontana Press. 204.
7. Peter Duss (2008). Cambridge History of Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 361.

8. Field Marshal Viscount Slim (2009). Defeat into Victory. London: Pac Macmillan. 206-207.

9. Louis Allen (1984). Burma: The Longest War. J. M. Dent & Sons.

10. Major N. R. M. Borton British Army (2002) The 14th army in Burma: A case study in delivering fighting power, Defence Studies, 2:3, 27-52, DOI: 10.1080/14702430208405039.



Appendix 1. (see Reference 3.)


Appendix 2. (see Reference 3)



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