The Chrysanthemum and the Helmet
The Chrysanthemum and the Sword
Coming from someone who had never even visited Japan, the 1946 book, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”, a study about the Japanese mind by the female anthropologist, Ruth Benedict is lauded as a masterpiece of insight, even by the subject of her studies, the Japanese. It was written in order to understand and predict the behavior of the Japanese in WW2, and had a decisive influence on how the US Occupation Forces steered post war Japan. It is now time for us to take a leaf from her book.
I already discussed the need for some minimal Japanese language knowledge to defend yourself from fakes and gave you a crash course. We are now ready to tackle the next pitfall for western collectors, which is failure to understand difference in soldiering culture. You need to learn something also of the mindset of the Japanese soldier to know what flies and what doesn’t.
Westerners who collect Japanese items tend to project expectations of western behavior upon the Japanese subject and assume that the Japanese soldier would have related to his gear in similar manner to how a GI or German soldier would have related to theirs. Personalization and improvisation did seem to happen quite often with German items, and non-standard finishes like camouflaged helmets in white or Normandy pattern have actually become sought after collectibles these days. I suppose that such examples in other armies make one assume that the Japanese soldier also had similar latitudes and did the same.
Collectors outside Japan think IJA helmets painted in black, white or with stripes are cool. They are described as “night raid helmets”, “snow camouflage helmets” or “platoon leader helmets”, etc. However, collectors in Japan, including me, who are more familiar with the cultural mindset of the Japanese soldier won’t touch such helmets even with a 1 foot pole. The truth is that almost all such examples are simply post war tinkering and mutilations, not really worth collecting.
Although there is a lot about human nature which is universal, it is also common knowledge that the Japanese soldier was exposed to a different kind of militaristic indoctrination than the American soldier and that already started with his relation to his gear. Generally speaking, the western soldier’s kit exists to serve the soldier, but in Japan, soldiers served their kits as caretakers instead. The respect they were taught to show their gear almost approaches the attitude of the modern collector, who likes to say “we are only temporary caretakers of the items for future generations”. One might even say from this that the typical Japanese soldier had a not so different attitude about repainting his helmet from yours as a collector. The Japanese soldiers had extreme inhibitions ingrained in him about “customizing his gear” beyond putting his name on the item, and non-textbook items would have seldom existed nor would have been well tolerated.
Mr. Type 38, Sir!
It was drilled into you that all your gear was entrusted to you by the emperor himself and, because it was preached that the emperor was a god in man-form, you had to treat your gear as though they were holy relics in the Western sense. This dogmatic attitude toward equipment was naturally most pronounced in how soldiers treated their type 38 rifles. In the Japanese army, new recruits “had the honor” of also cleaning the guns of his seniors, and as the rifle had a bolt design that made it easy to strip, in a moment of carelessness, the firing pin could easily drop out and the tip could break when it hit the floor. All hell broke out when this happened. Besides being beaten up, you were required to address the gun and ask for forgiveness for your stupidity by saying out loud “ Mr. Type 38, Sir! I, Tanaka humbly beg you to forgive…” and then you were further made to assume the “present arms” position longer than you could bear. In other words, any possible infraction the seniors saw in how you treated his Majesty’s gear gave them an excuse to lord it over the Rookies. In this manner the care the soldier showed for his kit was conditioned by the notorious bullying tradition of the army and having to talk to the weapon as if you were his humble servant symbolizes how far things were pushed.
It was not only a far-fetched dogma that the emperor was breathing down your neck. Indeed most items were in fact issued in the name of the emperor, as his signet and signature were required on ordinance that established most of the soldier’s gear.
Let’s take another trivial example of a leather sling or horse harness strap with buckle holes to make them adjustable. What happens if the leather stretches after use and even the shortest adjusted position is already too long? A German or US soldier would simply bore an extra hole in the leather, but a Japanese soldier was not allowed to do such a thing. The IJA had strict and detailed regulations on how to deal with this problem in their weapons code, and it was not even a matter for the individual soldier to deal with.
Army Criminal Code
This dogma was further enforced by Army Criminal Code Chapter 9, article 83 which made abuse, destruction and defacement of army weapons, ammo, rations, uniforms and livestock punishable by up to 10 years in prison or confinement. For example, A navy sentry, who through drowsiness lost his hold on his type 38 rifle and let it slip off a ramp into the sea, was court-martialed and sent to naval prison.
Of course, that was for destruction of a single item. If you did this on a grander scale, like burn down a depot full of uniforms, article 80 could get you the death penalty.
Price of Poverty: Soldiers serve their gear, not the other way around
The Japanese military might appear to give exaggerated attention to the preservation of its equipment, but this should start to make sense, if you consider that Japan was a third world country, suffering the kind of poverty that made it extremely common for farmers to kill baby girls or sell their daughters to Geisha houses (the lucky ones) and to bordellos (for the unlucky). Read the book “Memoirs of a Geisha” or see “Sayuri”, the Spielberg movie version. Sons were luckier, but if you were not the first son, you were kicked out of home anyway, and these boys went to toil like slaves in Brazil or Hawaii on plantations or they volunteered for the navy for the free meal they desperately needed. You can read James A. Michener’s Hawaii, as Kamejiro’s life is extremely well portrayed. This was called Kuchiberashi (Mouth Reduction from mouths to feed). It was only the extreme national ambition to catch up to the western world that made Japan issue its soldiers gear that living standards there could hardly justify. Imagine how a third world army somewhere in Africa might feel the need to be jealously strict about its equipment. The poor farm boy suddenly received all kinds of gear and clothing he could have never afforded himself and would have been awed by the power of the emperor, who could entrust so much wealth in a poor man.
If you had read my thread on the evolution of the army canteen, you know that for as long as 15 years after the introduction of the aluminum canteen and mess kit, the soldiers were “ordered” to make them last for “20 years” and for this reason, it was forbidden to put the mess kit over fire to cook rice in it, unless you had the permission from the Divisional Commander. Once again, the gear did not exist to serve the soldiers, but the soldiers existed to serve the gear.
Blending into the mass, a Cherished Democratic Luxury
In addition, the Japanese hate to stand out from his peers by looking different, so they also lacked a motive to customize. “To be the same as everyone else” was in itself a comforting thought. To the farm boys, military uniforms and equipment must have felt like a great social equalizer, as not long ago, they were second class people under the Samurai class, and merchants were barely a notch above the social untouchables. The Meiji pay books would still show whether you were of Samurai stock or a commoner, but the Taisho Democracy pretty much wiped the slate clean on such a caste system of feudal days and a Samurai’s descendant would have worn the same uniform and ate the same food as a farmer’s boy. This uniformity would have been a source of great comfort, as it was a newly won form of equality. This comfort of being part of a mass still lives on strongly in Japan today. Every November is the job seeking season for university seniors and they all have more than a dozen job interviews lined up in the first week of that month, when they appear on the subways in droves. One definitely would avoid making any fashion statement during job interviews, as the students know that companies want people who conform or adapt instead of imposingly stand out. So men and women will all be wearing a conservative navy blue suit, which in Japan is called the “Recruit Look” and their efforts to blend in make them ironically very conspicuous among the real commuters.
A Nail that Sticks Out Gets Hammered Down
It is said in Japan that” a nail that sticks out gets hammered down” and hammered down is what you would have gotten by showing initiative of camouflaging your helmet in a different color, as if you already knew better than His Majesty, the emperor what was good for you. You got beaten up and harassed so badly that soldiers would sometimes commit suicide for just having lost his slippers for barracks wear.
Practicing What You Preach
Even generals felt obligated to give their own lives in atonement for the disgrace of having lost something bestowed upon them by the emperor. General Nogi, a national hero in the Russo-Japan War, committed Harakiri on the night of Emperor Meiji’s funeral. Earlier in his carrier, he had lost his regimental banner to the enemy during a civil war. Regimental banners were personally bestowed by the emperor with the regimental designation on the flag written in his own hand. Being a sacred item, it was only presented once and never replaced even when totally worn out. Thus what most regiments honored as their regimental color was only the purple outer fringes, which remained after the silk body of the flag had disintegrated. Nogi was hell bent on paying for the disgrace with his own life, but the emperor was moved by his exceptional bravery and had pardoned him by bestowing them another flag. Nonetheless, the disgrace of having lost the banner had personally haunted him the rest of his life and thus when Nogi and his wife (she died with him) decided to follow the emperor to his death, in his will, he felt he was finally making up for his debts to the nation.
The Final Straw: Treason Charge for Neglecting Gear
You should have gotten the idea by now. The Japanese soldier actively wanted to look like everyone else so he avoided anything that made him stand out from the crowd. In addition, he had an inhibition ingrained into him that he would be betraying the emperor, if he neglected or abused his gear. And if inhibition was not enough of a deterrent, you could go to army jail for 10 years. But if that still wasn’t enough of an incentive for soldiers to keep their gear spit spot, how about being charged with treason for something like discarding your gas mask?
On 19th August, 1945, when 10 young officers and two women were engaging in the very last Tokko mission against Russian tanks, there were others still fighting on, because they were not aware that Japan had already surrendered 4 days ago. One such unit was composed of officer-candidates, who were all pressed into antitank service. On that day they, too, learned of Japan’s surrender from a messenger, and were urged to give themselves up to the Russians at Dunhua. They did not believe it at first, but the sight of discarded Japanese army gas masks and anti-tank glass gas grenades finally convinced them that it was all true. The young officers had been taught that these two items were classified as military secrets, so discarding them during war time would have meant the death penalty under Chapter 1(Treason) article 27 of the army criminal code.
In this manner, the Japanese soldier was finally freed from the inhibitions of cultural and legal taboos associated with tinkering with military gear only when the war was lost. So when the yoke of tyranny was finally lifted a lot of post war improvisations did occur, adapting them to civilian use.
Collectors in Japan know all this, so they will be extremely skeptical of nonstandard items. I am not saying that it never happened, but that it never happened as a matter of personal choice as in western armies. If such anomalies did happen, it had to have sufficiently high authority backing, assuring immunity from persecution later, and that usually meant that this anomaly applied to the whole unit, not only to isolated individuals. Such practices therefore would normally appear as a record, either in memoirs or as orders.
As a matter of fact, many of the young officer candidates in the earlier example, who surrendered to the Russians, actually wore helmets with a white stripe painted around their helmets, which is recorded in a wartime film as well as in memoirs. It was done for a good reason under orders in a desperate situation. The officer candidates who had not been trained as infantrymen such as flyers or artillerymen had to wear the white banded helmets during their last ditch tank destruction drills, because the instructor had to keep eyes on the greenhorns. Naturally they would have removed the stripes from their helmets at the completion of training, but the tanks came suddenly and caught the officers in surprise. The stripes were never meant to be used in combat, as it only made you a good target, but for example in cities in the homeland where military policemen needed to work in crowds in air raid shelters, etc their MP arm bands could not be seen, so as an identifier they had a white ring around their helmets. Also helmets painted in red are known to have existed for wear by artillery observers during exercises.
The army’s manual on camouflage specifically says that the helmet color was not to be altered, but that a sensible exception to this rule would be the case when one was operating all the time in snow, in which case the helmet could be painted white. If this was the case, it would only be done by order of the commander and would apply to everyone, not sporadically.
The army of course also had manuals on conducting night raids, but there is no talk of black helmets there. However, helmet covers were regarded as helpful items in a night raid as they muffled any noise that steel helmets would make.