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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. #1

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

    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.


    The army’s standard infantryman’s canteen is one of the first things that a collector picks up. They are fairly inexpensive, yet offer quite a variety to collect. However, unlike German canteens, very little information has been provided to collectors until now. I know how the German canteens evolved down to almost on a year by year basis, but with Japanese army canteens everything is a fuzzy blur. I wanted to fix that for myself and I’m sure many others here would like that too.
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    Japanese Origins

    The word for canteen in Japanese is 水筒(Suito, literally Water Tube). It was described as a tube structure, because the Japanese traditionally used bamboo sections as water bottles since the Samurai days. Bamboo has hollow chambers and drilling a hole into a section already makes it into a serviceable water bottle. Another plant that served as a liquid container was gourds. These dried out into a wood-like container and were often used to contain sake. Japan has plenty of water, so the need to carry water was not that great, whereas sake didn’t spring from the ground, so sake in gourd bottles hanging at the hip come to mind more easily when one wants to picture a samurai with a canteen.

    The army did not seem to forget this tradition completely, as a survival guide in tropical climates issued in December 1941 recommends use of local bamboo as canteens to carry extra water.
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    1889 Prussian Origins

    When Japan reopened itself to the Western world and embarked on its path of militarization, it initially did so by extending the Samurai tradition of defenses based on castles. Thus the early army bases were at former castles. This would soon change when Japan called on Prussia for help in modernizing its army and they sent Major Klemens Wilhelm Jacob Meckel as instructor in 1885. He reorganized the Japanese Army in the Prussian style, aimed at conquering territory abroad. This meant a 180 degree switch from an army to defend itself from foreign invasion to an army serving the purpose of Imperialism, namely active territorial aggression.
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    In the year after Major Meckel returned to Prussia, there was a memo, dated 7th December 1889, which stated that the canteen development work should make use of the German army canteen and bread bag samples recently brought back by a Major Tamura on visit to Germany. It further suggested that perhaps prototypes of canteens and bread bags in quantities to equip one infantry company, could be prepared based on these German “Jäger Infantry” Models for field tests.

    Turning to Prussian design as an example to follow was a natural thing for the Japanese Army to do, particularly at this point in history. Since Meckel switched everything to Prussian style, what suited Prussia was highly likely to serve its sister army in Japan as well.

    Here is a German 1867 model canteen the type that Major Tamura must have brought back from his visit to Germany. Note how it is a leather-clad, glass canteen. Initially this canteen was worn over the shoulder, equipped with a sling, but in the 1880s it was modified by getting a drinking cup fitted on the bottom and the harness was also changed in 1887 by eliminating the long strap and equipping it instead with a hook to hang from the bread bag. So the model Major Tamura brought back would have been this later version of the Model 1867, now having a tin cup on the bottom and with a hanging hook. At that time, the IJA was using tin canteens, but these were susceptible to corrosion inside, which became a health hazard, so a canteen of glass was seen as a better solution for hygiene.
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    Last edited by nick komiya; 10-10-2015 at 09:38 AM.

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    1892 Birth of Glass Canteen

    Another memo dated 18th February 1890 follows up on the above plans by saying that the prototypes were ready for delivery to the 1st Infantry Division for field tests, with a report due on 30th June 1891. At this time, 120 each of canteens and bread bags were delivered for testing.

    By 14th September 1892, the army had finished developing its new bread bag design, and soon after launched the glass canteen as well. The canteen was a close copy of the Prussian 1867 model and was to be hung from a hook located inside the 1892 style bread bag. So at that time, the canteen was actually part of the bread bag.
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    Baptism of Ice during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894/95

    By the end of 1893, however, the troops that received the new bread bag and glass canteen combo became aware of some serious shortcomings of this combination. The canteen hanging inside the right edge of the bag would flop against the right thigh when walking and wear down the uniform and also got in the way when getting down in the prone position for firing. This probably became a more common irritation after the Sino Japanese War broke out with China in July of 1894. The glass canteen was therefore taken out of the bread bag and got a shoulder strap added in early 1895.

    Interestingly, the IJA’s 1892 canteen went from a hook-hanging arrangement to a shoulder sling, while the German model evolved in the opposite direction.

    However, just when one problem got solved, another problem demanded attention, which Lt. General Motoharu Yamaji, commander of the 1st Division about to be sent to the continent had already correctly anticipated. He wrote a letter to the Army Minister on September 23rd, 1894 in which he requested budget approval for issuing his troops pouches of double layered blanket material for the canteens. This letter quoted the results of tests carried out with water filled canteens in the minus 20 degree centigrade temperatures expected in Korea and China to show that double layered blanket pouches prevented the water from freezing and shattering the canteens through the expansion. This letter was further followed up by another letter dated 26th September 1894 by the Chief of Field Medical Services, recommending the same. This letter further stated that metal canteens also had the drawback of releasing toxins unless enameled to seal the inside, so blanket bags were the only realistic short term solution available. Prince Arisugawa, Commander-in-Chief of this war, issued his approval on 28th September.
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    Too many fingers in the Pie

    In late October of 1894, troops started to land in China, and Commander Kuroki of the 6th Division, half of whose troops were also now in China, made an official request on 27th October for metal canteens to be developed with suitably non-toxic rust-proofing inside for later resupply to the troops in China.

    In addition to this, the First Reserve Division, the home base unit for the 1st division, which kicked off the discussions on the need for adapting canteens to the cold climate, had done further homework by testing some prototype metal canteens. A model tested by the replacement battalion of the third infantry regiment was submitted as promising at the end of 1894. And on 9th January, 1895 the army made the decision to officially launch development of a new canteen design.

    Further Drawbacks of the Glass Canteen Design

    In 1895, the 6th Regiment also sent in a large report on a wider range of equipment shortcomings that required improvement. This report addressed some other problems experienced with the glass canteens. Besides the exploding glass when frozen, they also complained about the outer leather shell, which was split into an upper section and a lower section. The IJA seem to have skimped on cost, as the lower section was also supposed to serve as a leather cup, instead of a proper metal one the Germans were using. The glass bottle rested inside this leather cup structure and the top leather section went around the neck of the bottle like a pullover. The shoulder strap was attached to the bottom leather shell and went through loops on both sides of the top shell. When filling the canteen with water, one needed to submerge the glass bottle into the river, but before this was done, one was expected to remove the leather fittings not to damage them. This was too much fiddling to expect from soldiers in the field, who would just dunk the whole leather-clad canteen in water. And once this water-soaked leather shell got exposed to the heat of the sun, it shrank and hardened around the canteen, no longer possible to remove. In winter, the soaked leather shell only helped to freeze and explode the canteens quicker. Their idea to overcome this problem was to make the bottom shell as a wicker basket. This idea was to allow the dunking of the whole canteen in water, yet provide good drainage that would allow quick drying. This also had the benefit that the wicker basket remained reusable even when the glass bottle broke and needed to be replaced. See the diagram below. Furthermore the idea of using the bottom shell as a drinking cup also was received badly by the troops. It was cumbersome to remove and also gave off a disgusting smell in hot climates, so no one actually used this shell to drink from. One unit allowed soldiers to use a wooden cup, which turned out to be quite a popular solution and the report recommends cups made from sandal wood with a cloth wrapping that got hardened with a lacquered finish.
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    1895 The Frantic Search for a Solution in Metal

    In those days, Rusu Reserve Divisions (留守師団), which were home-based house-sitting troops for the divisions deployed outside Japan, also seem to have taken on the more active role of development work for the parent field division and not only the training of new recruits. In addition to the efforts already made by other divisions, on February 20th of 1895, the 6th Reserve Division responded to the needs of its sister division in China by preparing prototype canteens of steel, 79 pieces of which were with shoulder straps and 267 pieces with hanging rings, for trial by the first engineer reserve company of the Field Signals unit. The bread bag continued to be made with a canteen hook inside and it was a transitional period for the carry arrangement of the canteen, which was just starting to get its own shoulder sling to become independent from the bread bag.

    Now everyone seemed to have their own pet prototype, as the 2nd Reserve Division also scrambled to ship steel canteens to its sister Division in China on March 12th, 1895. As you see from the foregoing, all the divisions got themselves drawn into a panic run after steel canteens.

    Aluminum was still a Rare Metal

    Aluminum was not yet a material familiar to them at that time, as it barely became available in the form of a metal after the deoxidization process was found in France in 1854. Back then it was still prohibitively expensive to produce, costing as much as 1000 French Francs per kilogram. This made it a precious metal suitable only for jewelry like necklaces and brooches. It was even called “light silver” at the time. Only after the development of the electrolysis process in 1886 did the industrial use of aluminum become viable and cost rapidly fell to 10 Fr/kg in 1891 and further to 3 Fr/kg in 1898. So in 1895, when Japan sought a new material for canteens and mess kits, aluminum was at the very forefront of new material development, and still approximately 3 times more expensive than the cost it would eventually have .

    The first sample of aluminum ever to come to Japan arrived in 1887, but not as material, but rather as a sample of a new exotic metal. The first aluminum products to come to Japanese shores were a couple of components used in an elaborate street lamp installed at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, made in 1887 by a German firm in Duisburg close to Dusseldorf.

    By 1893, aluminum was being researched as an ingredient for bronze alloys by the Osaka Arsenal, which reported to the Minister of the Army in April that very promising results were attained in their recent prototyping efforts. At that time, Japan still hadn’t mastered the technology to fabricate cannons in steel, so they were seeking ways to tweak the alloy in bronze cannons. Although this effort was not quite successful in the end, it did give birth to aluminum military hardware such as buckles for belts and bayonet frogs as a byproduct in 1894. So in the year 1895, when the divisions were scrambling to put together steel canteens to replace the glass canteens that kept exploding in the freezing climate of the continent, the arsenal was one step ahead of them, ready to explore aluminium as a new material for canteens and mess kits.

    So it was fortuitous timing when on 19th February of that year, a German military supplier, John Brandes of Berlin, wrote to the Minister of the Japanese Army, introducing his line of aluminum products that just got adopted by the German army and further being offered to the armies of France, Russia and the USA. He supplied not only canteen and mess kit samples, but also drinking cups, shelter quarter hardware, spurs, buckles and buttons as samples.
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    1895 And the Winner is-------Aluminum!

    By 14th November of 1895, both the Tokyo and Osaka Artillery Arsenals had come up with prototypes of aluminum canteens and mess kits and the Ministry of the Army was now totally sold on the merits of this material that a notice was sent out to the troops that further orders for canteen and mess kit production would be suspended until the new aluminum products finished being developed. An order for production machines to produce these items also went out to Germany.

    On 7th May, 1896 the arsenals had finally come up with a prototype with which they sought the army’s approval before launching mass production. However, this was not yet quite the happy end to the development story, as even 2 years later in January 1898, the Tokyo and Osaka arsenals still had not delivered the ordered goods! This was initially due to a delay in delivery of the production machines, because of a worker’s strike in Germany. However, that same month did see some progress in other areas when on 20th of January,1898 a memo went out to the 1st Division explaining that three alternative carry harness designs had been proposed and these samples needed to be field tested by its Cavalry Regiment and response provided by end of February 1898.

    1898 Finally an aluminum canteen is available

    The delayed delivery of the production machines to Japan had set things back, but by July of 1898 they had finalized the specifications for the new aluminum canteen, which finally came out as Army Ordinance 97 on 21st October 1898. This ordinance launched the new mess kit as well. The canteen specs were announced as follows.


    Canteen body-------------Aluminum

    Carry Harness-------------Side Skin Leather

    Capacity--------------------3 go (about 540cc)

    Weight---------------------78 Mon approx 293 grams (Canteen body 180 grams, harness 113 grams)

    Colors----------------------Canteen body to be painted matt black, the carry harness to be in natural leather color (Both the canteens and mess kits in aluminum were thus initially produced in black.)

    Manner of wear-----------Cavalrymen were to wear it with the strap slung from the right shoulder, and the canteen hanging at the left hip. Infantrymen were to wear it the other way around slung from the left shoulder.

    These canteens never had any type designation, so later when they came up with a new model in 1930 they were simply called “the old model”. Most collectors in Japan call them “Tokkuri (sake bottle)” canteens, because of the shape. Or they name it by the war and call them Russo-Japanese War canteens. Yet some call them the model 98 canteens by the year of introduction, which I will adopt for this article for reason of convenience only. I will adopt the practice of using “Type” only for items officially designated as a “Type approved standard” 制式(Seishiki) and use “Model & Year” to refer to items without official designations. 
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    Last edited by nick komiya; 10-10-2015 at 10:04 AM.

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    Fragile, Handle with Care!

    These canteens and mess kits were anticipated to be in short supply for some time, so only a week after the spec announcement, on 27th October, they came up with a special conservation policy in the form of handling instructions for the new aluminum gear.

    1. The anticipated product life of these items is 20 years, so careful handling is necessary to make them last.

    2. Although the canteen and mess kit withstand direct heating, putting them over a fire for boiling is prohibited in peacetime, unless with prior permission from the divisional commander.

    3. Scrapped products are still a recyclable resource for the aluminum, so they are to be held for this purpose.

    1900 Easier said than done

    The conservation policy was indeed not a bad idea, because even almost 2 years later, they still found it a struggle to produce anything close to the required quantities.

    A letter from the Tokyo Arsenal dated 29th June, 1900, explained that due to lack of production know-how, products could not avoid having uneven surfaces in the form of ripples, which needed to be ground off in order to yield a smooth surface. However, this kind of process was far from ideal, as grinding led to excessive waste of the expensive metal, was very labor-intensive and risked over-grinding and weakening that spot, which could not easily be caught in the quality checks. The arsenal could finally solve this problem after endless trials in tweaking the production machinery, so that grinding could be completely eliminated, and instead be finished merely with a polish by machine. However, upgrading all the machines to produce all output in this quality would still take some time, so during the interim these two different production treatments would need to run parallel to meet the necessary demand.

    1900 Not a bad idea, but no Cigar

    The year 1900 also brought a couple of new innovations to the attention of military authorities in Japan. One was the American invention by Lanz Owen & Company of Chicago, who came up with an insulated canteen with a cloth cover that got soaked in water and kept the content cool through the heat loss through its evaporation. However, Japan decided against this product in a memo dated 22nd December 1900 which said the canteen held little water despite the cumbersome large size.
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