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Kaigun 海軍 — book review

17 January 2011

Kaigun 海軍: strategy, tactics and technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887–1941, David C. Evans and Mark R. Peattie, 1997, ISBN 0-87021-192-7, 661 pp.

Kaigun 海軍: strategy, tactics and technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887–1941 by David C. Evans and Mark R. Peattie, jacket Sue L. Leonard

Kaigun 海軍: strategy, tactics and technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887–1941 by David C. Evans and Mark R. Peattie, jacket Sue L. Leonard

I had known of the Battle of Tsushima Strait, or at least the broad ramifications, of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s (IJN) surprising victory over the Russian Fleet in 1905. Remarkable to the west as it was the first time in modern history that an Asian naval force had defeated a European one. This victory brought Japan as a  player to the world’s stage. Soon, Japan would aspire to a greater part on that stage.

This battle, its outcome, as well as the subsequent Battle of Jutland in WW I convinced Japan that it could more than defend its shores and intended future possessions (first Korean in 1910 then Manchuria in 1928 — eventually Malaysia, portions of the Near East as well as the western Pacific Ocean in WW II). Later, as Japan evolved this strategy into the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in 1940, Japan would need an even greater naval force.

After WW I, Japan desired growth and peer level with the world’s leading nations. Poor in many strategic resources, Japan elected to choose a path of expansionism and colonialism which ultimately lead to their tag line of  “Asia for Asians” in order to gain access to these strategic resources. One major item was in the way and it was a treaty.

The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 limited the US Navy and the IJN to lesser warships and tonnage than Great Britain. This had the effect of preventing a naval arms race in desperate economic times after WW I — but Japan headed for the exit.

How the IJN prepared for becoming a greater naval force to elevate Japan’s stature is what this book is about. Although dangerous to say, this book may just cover all aspects of Japan’s thinking and actions. This book is complete, clear and thought provoking with tactics discussed and doctrine explained.

Why Japan developed the famed and superior “Long Lance” oxygen fueled torpedo and how its development began upon a misunderstanding is a story in itself  that is covered well by the authors. Also, Japan’s development if the super battleships Yamato and Musashi is discussed — their incredible strengths as well as design flaws (no ship is perfect). Dozens of personalities which are pertinent to IJN’s path into WW II are addressed with enough detail to make the reader aware of the context of the time and so get a more complete understanding.

Incredible lapses in the IJN’s planning and strategy are clearly told as are the probable reasons they came to be. Japan was unaware of the importance of RADAR until too late, for example. I was also amazed to learn that the IJN was in an intense competition with the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA). It seems that the IJN was perpetually serving the IJA and this made for a political climate of intrigue, maneuver and occasional violence with regard to Tokyo decision making.

Overall, I learned two tenets from this study of the IJN:

  • The IJN fixed on a battleship showdown in the western Pacific to force an advantageous peace with the United States. They became target fixated and may have forgotten a fundamental aspect of war, that no plan survives contact with the enemy.
  • The IJN planned for battle but not for war with the United States.

These two tenets may seem too few in a complicated, costly and deadly war but the book ruthlessly goes through the evolution of the IJN, its aims, naval designs, lack of sufficient logistics and eventual collapse. Along the way the reader will learn that strategies as well as weapons systems evolve not in a cold and unambiguous lab but among constant arguing and traditions that are hard to change.

This book should be in any library that specializes in WW II naval strategy, naval aviation strategy or the historical beginnings of WW II.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Marty Davis permalink
    18 January 2011 18:24

    My dad served at a radar installation on Tsushima Island after WWII. It was an isolated and lonely place, he says.

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      18 January 2011 18:36

      Small world then 🙂

      I looked it up in Wikipedia and there it mentions the island is a destination for S Koreans.

      But we know the USAF does not specialize in making a spot worthy or being called a destination 😉

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