10 Worst Japanese Blunders of World War II

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On April 7, 1945, the Japanese Navy sent the most powerful (along with her sister ship, the Musashi) battleship ever built on a one way suicide mission.  The incredible amount of man-hours, money, and physical resources that went into that ship are staggering, yet the mighty Yamato never made a difference during its short life.  This incident was not the only mistake Japan made during the war, so here are 10 of them.

Digging Deeper

10. Underestimating the Soviets.

Although the war was already lost, the few days of fighting between Soviet and Japanese forces were a vivid example of just how badly the Japanese army would have been trounced by the Red Army.  Japanese land forces were not trained and equipped for mobile warfare or tank battles and it was made painfully obvious.  As seen here and here, some scholars contend that Japan actually surrendered due to Soviet entry into the war rather than the use of atomic bombs.

9. Merely adequate small arms.

The Japanese army rifles were ludicrously long for the stature of the troops carrying them, and their machine guns were obsolete by the standards of the day.  The philosophy that the warrior is more important than the weapons can only go so far when superior firepower is mowing your people down.  Not a major factor, but Japanese pistols were easily the worst fielded by any army during the war.

8. Bushido.

The myth of the warrior’s code that was thrust upon the Japanese people made it extremely hard for wise heads to prevail in the face of fanatical and unrealistic optimism. Commanders were afraid to appear less enthusiastic than subordinates so the common denominator in every decision was tainted with fanatical optimism in divine intervention in favor of Japan.  That divine intervention did not come, and Japan suffered for it.

7. Ignoring diplomacy.

Thinking they had no choice with the announcement that the allies demanded unconditional surrender and afraid to appear weak in front of other fanatical and unrealistic Japanese, the folks in charge of Japan and the armed forces failed to reach out and settle things before Japan was devastated by firebombs and the first atom bombs.

6. Failure to continue weapon development.

When the Japanese fielded their Oscar and Zero fighters at the start of the war, they were better than what the Americans had at first; however, the US quickly developed increasingly better airplanes and ships that soon surpassed the quality of the Japanese models and shortly after that completely left the Japanese behind with what were now obsolete weapons.  Every other major combatant greatly and continuously improved their equipment (especially aircraft) with improved versions and new versions while the Japanese models remained basically the same.

5. Treating conquered people like slaves.

Many people in places like the Philippines and Indonesia at first thought of the Japanese as liberators from the hated white people. Japan took that advantage and turned it into an immediate disadvantage by treating the population of each country they took over as sub-humans.  These spurned people rose up and either engaged in guerrilla warfare or kept the allies well informed on Japanese activities.  (Hitler made that mistake in the Ukraine as well.)  The thought of Japan with millions more enthusiastic workers and fighters is sobering.

4. Failure to grasp the importance of submarines.

The Japanese Navy had good submarines with excellent torpedoes and well disciplined crews, but they suffered from 2 major problems: not enough submarines and focusing on the wrong targets.  Instead of wasting resources building battleships, Japan could have built more submarines and had those submarines attack allied transport and supply ships instead of warships.  As spectacular as it is to sink a warship, it is actually much more effective to sink tankers, supply vessels and transports.  The Germans got this part of the war right, the Japanese did not.

3. Failure to fully realize the importance of aircraft carriers.

Some readers may be surprised by this one, because the Japanese started the war with a greater appreciation for the flattops than any other navy; however, they could not build them fast enough during the war, or for that matter equip them with airplanes and pilots, causing the Japanese Navy in the last part of the war to be totally ineffective.  Carriers turned out to be even more important than Japanese strategists ever dreamed.

2. Pearl Harbor.

Not only did the surprise attack unite the American people in an Anti-Japan frenzy that justified nothing less than the unconditional surrender of Japan, but the military aspects were faulty as well. The attack should not have taken place unless the American aircraft carriers were at berth in Pearl Harbor, for the failure to destroy them led to defeats later. Failure to attack the drydocks allowed damaged ships to be rapidly repaired, and failure to knock out the fuel dumps allowed operation as usual for the Americans when the destruction of those fuel dumps would have crippled US activity for months.

1. Failing to change codes.

American code breakers figured out the Japanese codes early on and thus American forces were able to anticipate almost all the major Japanese moves resulting in such spectacular successes as The Battle of Midway and the assassination of Admiral Isoruku Yammamoto, considered Japan’s greatest admiral.  By routinely and often changing their codes the Japanese perhaps could have fought to a stalemate, instead of a catastrophic defeat.

Question for students (and subscribers): How could Japan have won World War II?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Frank, Richard B.  Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire.  Penguin Books, 2001.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.