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The Evolution of IJA Canteens (1889-1945) Expanded Version

Article about: The Evolution of IJA Canteens (1889-1945) Expanded Version This is a updated and expanded version of an article I originally released a month ago. Foreword The army’s standard infantryman’s

  1. #11


    The other invention was the army’s own, credited to an army engineer attached to Imperial Guards HQ, named Masahiro Horitani. His invention was a canteen design with an integral water filter. Murky water could be fed into the canteen from the top opening and filtered water would come out from the other opening. The army experts did study it, but by July of the following year, 1901 they reached the verdict that the complicated filter design was totally impractical for military use and the idea was rejected. However, no one could deny that a canteen with filtering function would indeed be a handy thing to have and the army will revisit this challenge still a couple of times more in the future.

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  2. #12


    1901 Back to Square One?

    Back then, the army soldiers tended to greet new technology with a certain amount of mistrust. For instance, when the IJA introduced Japan’s first helmet, the 1918 model, the troops promptly took them out to the range and shot them up full of holes, because they wanted to test whether those steel hats really made them impervious to bullets. This time, the army arsenal was starting to hear about aluminum dishes dissolving, crumbling like a sunbathing vampire!

    Soon after the launch of the new aluminum canteens, the 4th Division decided to try out aluminum as material for dishes and bowls in its mess hall. However, these new aluminum plates started to develop dark blotches on the surface after only a few days of use and longer use aggravated the corrosion to the extent that they eventually became totally useless to hold food. Thus a worrying investigation had to be launched. Tests by the Imperial Guard Infantry and Cavalry even showed that daily use resulted in steady loss of net weight of the aluminum material, whose rate of weight decline extrapolated into 8 months of continuous use would have meant total disintegration of the container! After exhaustive scientific lab tests, the final verdict came out on 19th July 1901, which said aluminum by nature did show a certain amount of corrosion, but the overwhelming benefits of its convenience as a material far outweighed its drawbacks and as such aluminum was not found to be an unsuitable metal for production of canteens and mess kits. An army manual on care and maintenance of uniforms and equipment eventually would warn not to keep things like pickled plums in mess kits for long, as the acid would corrode the metal. It further said that simply burying the sour plum in the rice would prevent such accidents. So soldiers were conditioned to adapt themselves a bit and meet new technology half way. This problem was eventually solved through the discovery of the world’s first aluminum anodizing finish, “Almite” invented by Riken, a Japanese company, which finally made aluminum quite corrosion resistant, but that was still far into the future (after 1923).

    In the meanwhile, production of aluminum models continued without interruption, but shortage of these new models would persist almost until 1913, 15 years after the introduction of the design. The army also wanted to use up its inventory of the old glass canteens during this time, so they continued to issue reserve and replacement units with glass canteens with the intention of following up with aluminum ones when these reserves got called to the front. Nonetheless the frontline troops were equipped with the new model canteens by the Russo- Japanese war of 1904/05 and thus Japanese collectors often refer to the model as the Russo-Japanese War model canteen.
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  3. #13


    1905 Change of Canteen Color

    Midway into the Russo-Japanese War the army decided to change the paint finish on its canteens from black to a brownish earth color, which by then was accepted as having a better concealment effect from the enemy. This announcement came out on 31st January 1905 as Army Ordinance Number 5. Memos say that black canteens returning from the field were stripped and repainted in the new color for reissue.

    Canteens that needed to be stripped of its paint finish in the field were recommended to be thrown into a fire until the paint turned to carbon, to be quenched in water, then scraped off and sanded. A Sodium Hydroxide solution was recommended for a larger scale repainting operation, which also had the benefit of cleansing the inside at the same time, but one needed to beware of damage to one’s skin and melting the aluminum when soaked too long in the solution.

    Naturally camouflaging the canteen by changing the color has no meaning, if the soldier himself was wearing a uniform in a conspicuous color. The canteen color change was associated with an overall switch to the earth color in uniforms. This uniform color change was initially intended only as a wartime measure, but as of April 1906 it became the standard uniform color even in peace time. And finally the type 45 uniforms adopted in 1912 put every army soldier in a uniform of this brown color. However, this color change had some unexpected victims in the beginning. A fashion conscious officer was quick in ordering the new colored uniform during the Russo-Japanese War , when the soldiers were still not familiar with the new color. As a result, he was promptly shot dead by his own soldiers, who mistook him for a Russian soldier.
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  4. #14


    1910/1919 Canteen strap Material Change to Webbing

    On 23rd June 1910, the commander of the 18th Division wrote to the Minister of the Army in some surprise that when his units took inventory of stocked hardware, they found out that as many as 1900 canteens in the inventory of the 46th Infantry Regiment received after the Russo-Japanese War had the incorrect specs of carry harnesses made of cotton webbing instead of leather. This same problem existed in stocks at the Heavy Artillery Battalion, where 438 pieces were found with the incorrect harness. The Division wanted to receive the correct leather harnesses to replace the wrong ones.

    During the Russo-Japanese War, Japan was at the brink of bankruptcy and didn’t even have enough money left to produce the badly needed artillery shells, so this tight situation had naturally caused this emergency switch in materials without a change in specs. However, this situation suddenly became the norm 9 years after the complaint from the 18th Division. Army Ordinance Number 7, which was announced on 14th March, 1919 said that the carry straps for the canteen was now to be in cotton webbing in a brownish earth color, the only exception being the strap for the cork stopper, which was to be in leather. Metal hardware was to have a baked on earth color paint finish. The background for this change was that leather supply was always tight and leather had the drawback of losing suppleness during storage to become brittle and moldy. Furthermore the leather harness had to be supplied in different versions for cavalry and infantry models, making production inefficient. Leather also did not stand up well to the heat when the canteen needed to be filled with hot water. The design of the harness stayed unchanged from the leather version, but the cotton webbing was now supposed to serve both cavalry and infantry needs.

    At this point, like me, you will be saying “huh, where did I miss the explanation on how the leather cavalry harness used to differ from those for the infantry?” Well, the specs never mentioned this, and I also only heard it the first time as background explanation for this change to webbing in 1919. But it had been there before our eyes ever since the spec descriptions of 1898, hidden within the comment that said “the cavalryman needed to keep his right hip free of canteens (presumably to wield a saber or a lance), but infantrymen were to wear it at the right hip”. Have you figured it out?

    If not, the answer is in the position of the adjustment buckle of the shoulder strap. This has to come to the front when infantrymen hang it from left to right, and cavalry men from right to left. The canteen itself has a flat back, so the harness was also made in a way that did not allow wearing the front and rear reversed. This meant that the leather infantry canteen harness had the buckled strap section on the right side of the canteen when you see the canteen from the front. The cavalry version had the buckle on the left side. A 1917 manual explained that the correct wearing height of the canteen was to have the top of the cork stopper just about touching the lower edge of the waist belt, so adjustment to this height meant you needed access to the strap buckle. This distinction between the infantry and cavalry models would have existed since 1898, as the cavalry had always been involved in the field tests prior to the introduction of the new canteen. This difference was abolished in 1919 by allowing the webbed harness to accommodate the canteen front and back reversed, which changed the strap buckle position to suit infantry and cavalry.

    Taking over the design from the leather version also meant that the harness was put together using webbing of various widths. The shoulder strap was 1.8 meters long and was 2.7 cm wide. The top band around the canteen had a width of 3 cm and the strap to which the stopper was attached had a width of 2.3 cm.
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  5. #15


    1920 Another Color Change

    In May of 1920, IJA uniforms went through another color change, this time from the earth color of the Russo-Japanese War to an olive color favored by the British in India and Africa. Naturally, the canteen color also had to be coordinated with that of the uniform. One tends to see this canteen in leather straps despite the introduction of the web harness the year before. As you are about to read, by 1915 they had too many canteens in stock with leather harnesses, so these would have been repainted not to make them obsolete dead stock.
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  6. #16


    1922 Webbed Strap Width Change

    In 1922, 3 years after the official change to webbing, the army realized that it had perpetuated a totally unnecessary complication by unthinkingly carrying over the leather harness dimensions to its webbed harness design. Varying the widths of the webbed straps that composed the carry harness was not a smart idea. They decided to simplify and make it all from the 2.3 cm webbing. This came out as Army Ordinance Number 44 dated 7th July 1922. The ordinance also allowed using up of the old specs without giving it any deadlines for the phasing out.
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  7. #17


    1913 Enough aluminum canteens to go around

    I thought readers would find it easier to follow the development when I stayed on the same track for a while, but before the harness got changed to webbing, production of the aluminum canteens finally caught up with the demand and started to create even a surplus. On 13th March, 1913 the miserly 1898 restrictions on the peacetime use of the canteens and mess kits over fire, etc were lifted. This was, because now they had enough canteens and mess kits in aluminum, and also aluminum was now much cheaper than it was back then (about one third of what it used to cost). In addition to that, even in peacetime, soldiers needed to be taught how to cook rice in the mess kits and you couldn’t teach this without putting mess tins over fire!

    1915 The aluminum glut

    If 1913 was the equilibrium between demand and supply, by 1915 they had gone to the other extreme of overproduction. It is almost comical to read an army memo dated 19th February 1915, which stated they had 500 tons of aluminum base metal, and 300 thousand pieces each of surplus canteens and mess kits in aluminum to sell to any one or any country who wanted to buy them. Japan fought on the side of England and the US in WW1 that was still raging on in Europe, but the Japanese Army had already beaten the Germans in the Fortress in Qingdao, China in November of 1914.

    So the letter said Japan should take the opportunity of the continuing war in Europe to sell these items off, as keeping them in stock only meant exposure to oxidization.

    Phasing out of the Model 98 Canteen

    The canteen would continue to serve the army well past the launch of the new canteen model in 1930 and was retired after 40 years in service just before WW2. A memo dated 27th March 1939 talks about 73000 of these old canteens in inventory at the Kwantung Army to be returned and exchanged with the new model canteens.

    1923 Corrosion-proofing of Aluminum (Oxalic Acid Anodizing, Almite)

    As briefly mentioned earlier in connection with the corrosion panic of 1901, in 1923 a Japanese company called Riken developed the world's first aluminum anodizing finish, using oxalic acid and patented it. This was called "Almite" in Japan since Riken trademarked that name in 1931. This was used on various household items like kettles, lunch boxes and plates, so when aluminum was specified, it was basically taken for granted that it would be Almite. The army naturally switched to Almite and that was how the corrosion problem could eventually be solved without having to specify any more the location of pickled plums within the rice carried in the mess kit as did the early army manual.

    The Chromic acid anodizing process developed in 1923 in England was also available in Japan, but was hardly applied to goods and was limited to duralumin aircraft components. The sulfuric acid anodizing from the USA, which was discovered in the same year as well, also saw some application since around 1936, but was no match for the overwhelming popularity of Almite in Japan. However it did become more widespread as the war brought shortages of oxalic acid. They often had to tint it a brownish color to make it look like Almite for better acceptance by the population.

    The army had Riken to thank for making aluminum the robust material it had become for field use, but when Riken tried to renew its patent in 1939 (patents were valid only for 15 years), citing that it's investment in two new large factories had not yet been fully amortized, the army prevailed upon its Minister to block this renewal. Riken's patent in those days restricted Almite processing to designated production facilities only and the army saw that as a very unwelcome bottleneck for expansion of its military production capacity, not to mention the extra cost of patent royalties to Riken.

    The Last Shogun and His Aluminium Mess Kit

    At this point let me digress to tell you a funny, but true story. It had more to do with the mess kit, but it does illustrate how the Japanese approached aluminium, a new material not yet familiar to them. In May of 1903 the former Shogun, Yoshinobu Tokugawa (The last Shogun, who had to step down and return the authority to rule Japan to the Emperor, thus ending the reign of the Samurai) made a factory tour of the Osaka Arsenal, which was busy producing the aluminium canteens and mess kits. The new mess kit in aluminium caught his eye and he asked whether he could have one as a souvenir of his visit. He was also shown how to cook rice with the mess kit, and when he tried it at home he thought the rice tasted even better than what his kitchen provided. However, later he would ask the chief of the arsenal as an afterthought whether cooking rice in this aluminium mess kit had any negative impact on health. The arsenal had to admit it was still early days for this new innovation, so they did not have enough data to guarantee complete safety in comparison to metals like silver. So what did Yoshinobu do? He provided silver to the Osaka arsenal and they made him a silver mess kit, which the former Shogun would use to personally cook his rice.
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  8. #18


    1930 A New Canteen Design Arrives

    On 21st April, 1930 the whole look of the IJA was revamped from head to toe and from tropical gear to extreme cold gear. Moreover the variety of attire addressed every possible occasion from a new army strait jacket for the mentally deranged, sports outfits, to the most advanced assortment of flight gear and tanker gear. The line-up of the new model launch was so extensive that one can only call it the “The Showa 5 Tokyo Spring Collection”. They are indeed referred to as 昭5式(Sho 5 Type)by the Army. Nomenclature can be deceptive, so one fails to see that Showa 5th Model is merely another way of saying Type 90. So yes, the launch of the new Type 90 helmet was part and parcel of the Showa 5 Spring Collection. This confusing difference in how to name things came from the fact that helmets were still regarded as weapons and the Sho 5 series were uniform items coming under separate development and issuing authority. Helmets would later switch categories to a uniform item, and if it had been so from 1930 already, it would have become the Sho 5 Type Helmet.

    Making of a Myth

    All books that I have checked in Japanese as well as English refer to the WW2 canteen as a Type 94, which is pure collector-coined nonsense. There was no such thing. As I just explained, the canteen was not introduced in 1934 (Imperial year 2594), but already in 1930, and in official army documents, the harness was referred to as “Type Sho-5” (for Type 1930) and the canteen body was actually referred to as “Type 99” (meaning the 1930 introduced design got modified in 1939). There simply is no pre-45 document anywhere referring to a “Type 94” canteen.

    If one gets pedantic, and insists on documented designations, the WW2 canteen can only be called a “Type 99 canteen in a Type Showa 5 carrier”, which is actual wording used in pre-45 spec sheets. But even that designation is not truly official, as no type approval procedures were taken for the canteen body in 1939, and “Type 99” was only used by production insiders seemingly to refer to products employing a production process modified in 1939. Just as the Germans continued to call their canteen the M31 even after the material change to steel, etc one can call the IJA canteen by the year of original introduction as a Model 30 canteen, which is still much more correct than calling it a Type 94.

    How did they manage to get such a basic thing wrong? Items like canteens and bread bags did not get individual type designations in the manner of the Type 90 helmet or the Type 38 Rifle, so collectors have somehow had to come up with their own designations. In doing so, having lacked the means or diligence to properly research and determine official introduction dates, they must have named these things according to the earliest production year markings they could find in their collections. But early specimens are always scarce, and it is easy to miss some years and end up dating them too late. 1934 instead of 1930 must be a result of that kind of guesswork. But 4 years off is very off. Imagine the chaos it would create, if I declared the German M43 cap (Einheitsfeldmütze) should now be called the M39!

    The Germans say “lies have short legs (they cannot travel far)”, but in Japanese militaria collecting circles they tend to travel like wild fire. That is because too many books in English, posing as definitive work, are published by people, who have no knowledge of the Japanese language and therefore incapable of doing any serious research beyond checking what other picture books have said about the subject. Shamefully, for some reason, things are not that much better in Japan either, and only the photos get bigger and more colorful, while what you read is merely regurgitated information. In this manner, as if the blind were leading the blind, picture book authors copy each other to perpetuate the myths.

    Rationale behind the Model 30 Design ( How an Army decides a canteen’s carry volume)

    Normally the launch of such a new design is preceded by prototyping and field tests, as you have seen with the model 98 canteens, but for the 1930 canteens such documentation is strangely missing and the earliest reference to a new design is the launch announcement of 21st April 1930, which just featured among many other new items this canteen.

    However, the minimum one could count on from the army was that they took the exploding glass canteens as a lesson and would have now considered the other extreme of the need for huge quantities of water necessary to sustain a soldier in the jungle. The need to increase the water carrying capacity was already a foregone conclusion for the tropics, and a 1921 report on tropical requirement studies conducted in Taiwan during the summer cited that even in mainland Japan, a soldier’s daily water consumption during a summer march would range between a minimum of 3.6 litres to a maximum of 7.2 litres. This translated into the canteen becoming empty in 1 or a maximum of 2 rest halts. At this rate of consumption, daily refilling of the canteens needed to be kept at no more than 3 times during the morning and twice in the afternoon, which meant that, as a minimum, the carry volume needed to be doubled. So the capacity was now 1 litre, almost double of that of the model 98 canteen. It was all about how to get the best mileage out of a human being, and keep the tank stops to a reasonable frequency.

    The 1941 survival guide for the jungle further said that daily water consumption levels of 4 litres per person needed to be anticipated and therefore, if possible, one should even carry 2 canteens in the jungle.
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  9. #19


    I have not located a spec drawing of the initial stopper design, but I assume aluminium dome-topped cork stoppers similar to those of the model 98 would be what later would be called the model A (伊号) stopper.
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  10. #20


    1939 Aluminum Canteen Body Change

    As already mentioned, the spec book issued in 1943 does not refer to the canteen body as the Sho 5 Model, but calls it type 99 (九九式) instead, which means some change was made in 1939 (which was year 2599 on the Imperial calendar). What had changed I do not know, but it did not seem to affect the size or shape. The spec book describes in detail how the canteens were manufactured step-by-step starting from a slab of aluminium, so it is likely a change in some aspect of production. 
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