Japan's COIN Experience
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Japan's COIN Experience


The Japanese Imperialist Army had a poor reputation for counterinsurgency (COIN) in both theory and practice. In China, it is best known for perpetrating the Rape of Nanking, one of the worst atrocities committed against a civilian population in the 20th century (although it clearly faces stiff competition). When Chinese civilians provided some material aid to American air men who landed in China after executing the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, the Japanese army retaliated by killing as many as 250,000 Chinese civilians. The notorious Unit 731 tested chemical and biological weapons on Chinese civilians during the war.

Japanese policies helped alienate potentially cooperative anti-colonialists in Malaya, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, and elsewhere.In Malaya, Japanese soldiers with a limited understanding of Islam attempted to force Muslims to pray towards Tokyo instead of Mecca. While the Japanese Army had some success in the DEI and along the Indian border, the overall impression is of an organization with little capacity for and far less interest in counter-insurgency policy.

However, in a chapter in the recent volume Hybrid Warfare, retired Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) Lieutenant General Noboru Yamaguchi argues that the Japanese Army took COIN theory far more seriously than is commonly believed. Yamaguchi argues that the Japanese Army identified Communist Chinese guerillas as the central threat in North China, largely because of its feared that these formations could threaten Kwantung Army logistics during a war with the Soviet Union.

Yamaguchi quotes a Japanese staff officer as arguing:

"Promotion of local security and improvement of people’s lives have a [reciprocal] cause-and-effect relationship. As an area becomes after step by step, the life of the local population can be improved. Only under a situation where local security is achieved can inhabitants have jobs that will build their economy.  If their life is improved and stable, nobody would want to become the vermin of the community except for determined insurgents who are a deviant minority among the people."

The reference to “vermin” aside, this would not be out of place in modern U.S. COIN literature.  Yamaguchi suggests that elements of the Japanese Army and a variety of hybrid civil-military organizations took the problem of COIN quite seriously from a strategic point of view, appreciating that the only way to victory in China was the establishment of a self-sustaining, pro-Japanese Chinese government.

However, the Japanese Army suffered from problems of focus and resources.  Rather than concentrating on counter-insurgency operations, the Army needed to prepare for conventional operations against Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist Army, defensive operations in jungle and island theatres against British and American forces, and finally the long-anticipated Soviet invasion of Manchuria.  These threats all posed radically different challenges, making training haphazard and incoherent. The Japanese also faced unity of effort challenges, with civilian and military agencies organized around pacification and institution building losing out in intra-agency battles against conventionally oriented officers.

In the end, regardless of the intentions some Japanese may have had towards winning a COIN victory in China, the odds against Tokyo were just too steep to overcome. Japan directed its strategic and military attention toward other, more pressing matters, leaving the various units and agencies tasked with COIN rudderless and under-resourced. The policy responses were often horrific; with no useful tools for managing the insurgency, Japanese units resorted to increasingly brutal tactics in a desperate attempt to enforce order, tactics which did little more than inspire greater support for insurgents.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has found the practice of COIN bewilderingly difficult. The Japanese experience suggests that while many of the basic theoretical precepts of insurgency management are easy to grasp, execution is devilishly hard. U.S. success has been limited in the best of circumstances. In less ideal circumstances, Japanese practice quickly devolved into atrocity.

John Kong
January 19, 2013 at 20:08

Good God! Where are the Chinese haters and Japanese lovers?

January 16, 2013 at 20:11

Agree with your point, the conclusion is that RED CHINA and Imperial Japanese Army are both sh*t of human world, Killing of innocent, no matter for which reason, is sin and is not allowed in a civilized world. Both should be condemned.

Be Way
January 15, 2013 at 17:53

Maybe you don't understand what were the heinous crimes committed earlier by the Japanese, or maybe you didn't read sufficient enough on why both China and Korea are not very comfortable with the belligerent words and actions of denial by the Japanese politicians on its WW2 crimes, or maybe you are just another narrow minded egoistic Japanese nationalist, or finally you are just too blind to analyze the whole picture.    Japan today is not much different from Japan of 1896 as it still harbor all its cockeyed and brutal behavior of either retaining stolen war loot as in the case of Diaoyu Islands or aggresively demanded the return of Dokdo islands from Korea when the islands don't belong to Japan in the first place.

January 14, 2013 at 18:18

War is an ugly event that happens in Japan’s case the leaders of the Army and civilians were rounded up and hanged for what they did.  Japan surrendered as a country on August 14, 1945 apologized and tried to make amends since then.  So why do the Japanese haters always come out and bash the country as a whole for those that were tried and hanged for their war crimes.  Those of you that are Japanese bashers are trying to find fault where there is none today.  Japan today is not the Japan of 1940 so get over it and study your history before posting.

January 14, 2013 at 08:36

Excellent point M. Alaya, but I doubt JC will ever understand.

John Chan
January 14, 2013 at 03:11

@M. Alaya,
Defending the unapologetic war criminal? Blaming the victims and glossing over the war crimes of the Fascist Japanese, is it the prelude paving the way to white wash and gloss over the war crimes committed by the West in the bombing and killing since WWII?
Are you saying that Korean Civil War, Vietnamese Civil War or American Civil War will render Japanese not an unapologetic war criminal? Please tell us which nation you came from, so that the Fascist Japanese can commit atrocity like they did in the WWII against your nation without worrying to be called war criminal.
BTW Japanese not just killed 250,000, they killed by the tens of millions, your distorting truth definitely can classify you a war criminal apologist.

Be Way
January 14, 2013 at 01:46

Invasion of another nation without any provocation and then subjected the people to unforgiving barbarism such as mass killing, gang-rapes, bayonet of babies, biologically dissection of human bodies without anesthesia, chemical experiment, inhumane torturing, cannibalism, comfort women and many others are the most cruelest and hellish crimes that violates all morality, conscienceness and virtue of human race.
What Mao did could be extreme but then for you to compare against what the Japanese had done, is not only offensive and revolting but vomitous to say the least.

M. Alaya
January 13, 2013 at 22:15

"Japan is an unapologetic war criminal." Ridiculuous. Japan has acknolwedged on numerous occasions its warcrimes and apologised. Not all victims are of course satisfied.

If Japan, which killed 250,000 in China is an unapologetic war criminal, What should we call China? Under the Communits Party China killed between 3 to 20 million Chinese during the Cultural Revolution from torture, violence, starvation.  And there wasn't even a war. Doesn't that make Red China more than twenty times the criminal and an unapologetic one and unremorseful at that?

January 12, 2013 at 04:59

To put the Rape of Nanking into the bucket of 'poor COIN practice' is an understatement verging on crass apologism.  It's like saying the Holocaust was a bit of 'poor social engineering'.  An article like this makes The Diplomat look like Stormfront.org.

January 12, 2013 at 01:41

In my country, tales of babies killed, the japanese armies that time are the most inhumane species. 

John Chan
January 12, 2013 at 01:02

Japan is an unapologetic war criminal; Yamaguchi’s quote is the tip of iceberg of how Japanese systematically white wash their war crimes and gloss over their atrocities.
Thru history Japanese are pirates; barbarism, deceitfulness, and brutality are their way of life.  Using atrocity to overcome any resistance is their default choice of action; the conformity nature of the Japanese makes them particular wicked, they will compete in cruelty as an honour, it makes Yamaguchi’s quote about Japanese COIN theory an outright shameless lie and evidence of Japanese has no remorse about its war crimes.

January 12, 2013 at 00:15

Lets remember that the modern Western way of counter insurgency is ideologically grounded in human rights and far from the only one. Many have done counter insurgency with much more brutal methods. These were not always strategic failures, though their moral basis is far from ours.
If you hear of 250,000 dead for material aid to a few air crews, or of chemical experiments on political prisoners, you just might get a change of heart towards the practice of insurgency.

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