The Evolution of the Japanese Army Steel Helmet (1918-1945) Revised and Expanded Version
Article about: The Evolution of the Japanese Army Steel Helmet (1918-1945) Prolog During the Russo-Japanese War, the army received a letter dated 28th April 1905 from a private inventor, who had the idea t
The Evolution of the Japanese Army Steel Helmet (1918-1945) Revised and Expanded Version
The Evolution of the Japanese Army Steel Helmet (1918-1945)
During the Russo-Japanese War, the army received a letter dated 28th April 1905 from a private inventor, who had the idea to produce something called a “Bullet Deflecting Military Hat”, which Masuda, the inventor, explained was inspired as a cross between a Samurai headgear called Jingasa and the German field cap. It was a ship-shaped thing that was supposed to deflect bullets coming from ahead, simply by merit of its wedge shape, as the recommended material was gourd sponge as a core covered with heavy paper with a special coating of slate powder mixed with lacquer. He said “Steel sheeting could also be used, in case of mass-producing this protective gear”. Regarding the paint finish, he strongly recommended application of “protective colors as seen in the animal world”, specifically grass green.
I don’t know why the army had kept such a cracked pot idea in its files all these years, but it does show us that there was already awareness of the need for something to deflect bullets even at this early date, when no army had yet re-invented the steel helmet as head armor. Yet the drawing attached by the inventor looks strangely modern.
The Traditional Kabuto of the Samurai
Just as knights in Europe had their armor, warriors in Japan always had theirs. The helmet of the Samurai armor was called 兜 Kabuto, a word alive even today in a Japanese saying that goes 勝って兜の緒を締めよ, “Katte Kabuto no o wo Shimeyo“, “Tighten the straps of your Kabuto especially after a victory”. It is a warning against complacency, particularly after a great success. When one normally loosens the chinstrap of one’s helmet, one is most vulnerable to surprise attacks, so it reminds that one needs to be on guard.
When head armor was reborn as steel helmets in the 20th century, they first called it 鉄兜 “Tetsu-Kabuto” ( Steel Kabuto) and later simply “Kabuto” in 1922 and once again “Tetsu-Kabuto” from 1930 until finally settling for 鉄帽, “Tetsu-Bou” (Steel hat) in 1932. This evolution of how it was called actually also reflected the change in the army’s perception of this protective gear, so I will use the original wording in this text.
Japan’s First Army Steel Helmet, the 1918 “Siberian Incident Model”
A Helmet that the Army just wanted to forget
The history of the Japanese Steel helmet begins with its production of 40,000 helmets in the spring and summer of 1918 to equip its expeditionary troops to Siberia in what its Western Allies treated as a clandestine operation to foil the Russian Revolution.
Before that, during WW1, Japan was matched against the Germans who had laid claim to territory in China, but the Japanese Army had forced the Germans to surrender their fortress in Quingdao already in early November of 1914. After that, Japan had rejected repeated demands to send her troops to Europe, so WW1 passed Japan by without really exposing its army to the grueling trench warfare that gave birth to steel helmets in Europe, nor had it faced any enemy wearing steel helmets, as the Germans in China surrendered even before they had a chance to bring out their M16 helmets. So the Japanese soldier probably did not have such a keen appreciation for the kind of protection the steel helmet offered.
Yet when Japan was called upon by the Western Allies to join in the expedition to Siberia, the Japanese Army must have felt an extemporaneous need to “keep up with the Joneses” and equip its own troops also with modern head protection. It all seemed done without too much thought and the tactless way it got issued to troops, who had no experience with steel helmets, doomed the first helmet to be a total flop. Though they were made and issued, no one seemed to have worn them and soon they passed into oblivion. Currently, no one even knows what they looked like. This is its story.
July 19, 1918-----“Ship what helmet?”
On July 19th, 1918 a packet marked “Secret” arrived at the Army’s Accounting Office in Tokyo. The delivery was from the Ministry of the Army’s Weapons Bureau, Equipment Section（兵器局器材課）. It contained two sets of documents. The cover sheets had consecutive document numbers “Ou-Uke-Dai 1110(欧受第１１１０)” and “Ou-Uke-Dai 1111, the “Ou-Uke” prefix being the designation for the Army’s World War I files. One document was titled, “Production of Tetsu-Kabuto”, the other, “Delivery of Tetsu-Kabuto”.
They were orders to produce and immediately deliver 20,000 helmets. Despite the unmistakable urgency in the tone of the message, the Accounting Office would have had every reason to ask, “What helmet?”, as the Japanese Army’s success in taking away Germany’s possessions in China during WW1 had already been accomplished, and the 4,700 German soldiers were safely in POW camps in Japan for almost 4 years now.
Besides, Japan had no experience in mass-producing steel helmets; there was no way production and shipment could be managed at such short notice. This official paperwork made it all look surreally and impossibly short notice like in some weapon developer’s nightmare.
Last edited by nick komiya; 10-23-2015 at 11:11 PM.
Early July------President Wilson’s request
The seemingly uncharacteristic haste in which the Japanese Army jumped into its first helmet production was “on the surface” in response to an urgent request from US President Wilson, received earlier that month by the Japanese government. He had requested Japan to join America in sending troops to Siberia, into Russia where a raging Bolshevik Revolution was threatening the world’s balance. By dropping their war against Germany, the Bolsheviks freed the Germans from the eastern front, allowing the Kaiser to shift all his strength against France and England. Communist Russia would also be a threat to Japan, which shared borders with Russia in her holdings in Manchuria and Korea. Furthermore, the separate peace that the Russians arranged with the Germans was going to allow huge stockpiles of war supplies in several Russian ports to fall into German hands. Luckily, however, war supplies in Vladivostok had already been secured earlier that year by the British Navy that sent a ship there from Hong Kong and the Japanese Navy that responded to the call of the British by dispatching a shipload of Naval Landing Forces.
The pretense for the armed intervention into the Russian Revolution was to rescue a 50,000 man Czech Legion trapped in Siberia behind enemy lines, who had been fighting WWI as an ally of America and Japan. This was the beginning of what came to be known as the Siberian Intervention.
After a heated debate in the diet, the Japanese government agreed to send 12,000 troops, which by the end, swelled to 73,000 troops. Japan’s Siberian expedition, which was to last 4 years and 3 months, started with the landing of the 12th Infantry Division in Vladivostok on 11th August, 1918. The 7th and 3rd Divisions also followed soon from Manchuria and Mongolia respectively
Mid July 1918: Rush or just Rash?
With the historical context established, we can now understand the haste and urgency the Army found itself in July 1918.
The first document, “Production of Tetsu-Kabuto”, was issued on July 15th and reads “To the Tokyo Artillery Arsenal（東京砲兵工廠）. Twenty thousand Tetsu-Kabutos are to be produced immediately and handed over to the Army Main Arsenal (陸軍兵器本廠). Expenses to be invoiced to the Main Arsenal under the account of Military Contingency Expenses”. Notes that must have been added later say “In view of critical developments of the times, the need for preparation and immediate production is endorsed as per the aforementioned plan”. “The cost involved would be approximately 100,000 Yen”
The second document, “Delivery of Tetsu-Kabuto” read “To the Main Arsenal. The following dispatch of prototype steel helmets are to be arranged as emergency preparation for the 7th Division and the 40th Infantry Brigade.”, and further directed the delivery of 7,000 helmets for the 7th division to the Army Weapons Department, Kwantung Leased Territory Administration (in Port Arthur), and 3,800 helmets for the 40th Brigade to the Yongsan Arsenal (in Korea).
3 Months Ago--------18th April, 1918
Placing an order for 20,000 steel helmets never before mass produced in Japan, as late as 19th July for delivery to troops that in hindsight landed in Russia already in the next month, on 11th August, just didn’t make sense, until I discovered that a virtual copy of the order for helmet production exists with an April 18th date (the only difference being an additional line saying “Regarding specs, you are requested to discuss them with the Army Technical Assessment Department (技術審査部)” and besides the cost estimate of 100,000 Yen, a second line saying “A prototype sample is in our Equipment Office”.) So the army had been planning production even before the need to send troops to Siberia.
Did they place an order of 20,000 helmets twice, in April and again in July or were the July papers just fabricated documentation to time the introduction of the helmet to take advantage of the request from President Wilson? Normally, it would have been a difficult time for the army to spend money, as Japan was long out of WW1, so the July order may have been just a ruse for the accounting people. However, regardless of whether total production was 40,000, there were sizeable numbers of prototypes issued after April for field testing.
10 prototypes of this helmet had been shipped to each infantry and engineer regiment already in mid May for field trials (the Infantry School received 300 pieces). This was standard procedure in the army for doing field shakedowns of new equipment before mass production and there would have been no problem with this, if what they were trying out were familiar items such as canteens or bread bags.
Mid May 1918: Consequences of not tightening the straps of the Kabuto
However, remember that in this case these helmets were received by men, who had never even seen a steel helmet in person, except perhaps in news photos from the “War in Europe” (as WW1 was known in Japan). So the army normally should have at least held a special orientation briefing and Q & A session for officers about the purpose and limitations of the steel helmet to get the troops on the same page as the developers. Ironically, the army developers must have gotten sloppy as a result of the quick victory in WW1 and failed to “Tighten the straps of their own Kabuto”. This negligence would now cause the helmet to become a total flop that the army would long regret.
Another unique aspect of this introduction is that the helmet was regarded as a “weapon” until the army finally switched them to the “uniform item” category in 1932. Thus at this stage helmets were seen as optional special equipment for charging enemy strongholds much in the same league as flamethrowers. That is why only infantry and combat engineers were called upon to try them out.
July-August 1918: Casting Pearls before Swine?
As a result of the tactless release of the prototypes to the troops, one report from the Commander of the 62nd Infantry Regiment, Isamu Watanabe, addressed to Army Minister, Oshima explained that a helmet provided to the regiment as a “weapon” to be tested was duly received on 19th July 1918, and was taken to the regimental firing range for impact testing on the 24th, in which they fired 25 rounds at the helmet with a Type 38 rifle from a distance of 200 meters. The 8 rounds that hit all penetrated the helmet. The damaged helmet was being returned to the Weapons Bureau.
Besides the lack of pre-information, introduction as a “weapon item” must have made things worse, as the word itself generates certain expectations of its capability as a “defensive weapon”. The developers actually wanted to hear feedback about things like wear comfort, portability, compatibility with gas masks, etc, which they should have specified but failed to do.
Last edited by nick komiya; 10-24-2015 at 04:15 PM.
When one reads between the lines of these reports from 1918, it is clear that the troops expected the first ever helmets to be the “wonder shield” weapon that would make them invincible soldiers. So they all took them out to the firing range and soon their confidence in the new wonder weapon was as badly bullet-ridden as the shot up helmets they sent back to the Weapons Bureau.
This must have caused uproar, as the Weapons Bureau was forced to issue an embarrassing memo to all divisions on 5th August to explain that “the steel helmet was not made to be impervious to rifle rounds nor shrapnel. As such, it was never the intention of this office to have your units conduct experiments on this aspect”.
Clearly the helmet was a huge disappointment to the troops and seemed to have been taken only as a big joke.
August 1918: The Final Tally
In this way the helmet had lost all its credibility even before seeing a single enemy, but they still were sent into Siberia. On August 3rd, a letter went out to the chief of staff of the 12th Division that 7,500 helmets were on their way for them to carry to Siberia. This was followed by a letter dated August 26th ordering the Main Arsenal to deliver 8,000 helmets to the 3rd Division.
So the tally of helmets issued to units in Russia was
12th Division: 7,500 3rd Division: 8,000
7th Division: 7,000 40th Brigade: 3,800
When you see these numbers, also considering that these do not include the numbers issued to troops in Japan for field testing, one might need to conclude that altogether 40,000 of these helmets were produced in 1918.
Despite all the hectic activity to get the helmets onto the battlefield, there is no evidence in the form of photos, etc that the helmets were actually worn by the troops in Siberia.
June 1922: Epilog---Forgotten by history
Though it was Japan’s very first Army Steel helmet, the Siberian Incident Model, was not acknowledged with any official designation (treated like an illegitimate child in a manner of speaking). The fact that the army wanted to disown this unwanted child became clear at the time the next generation helmet came in June 1922. When new equipment was introduced, it was army standard procedure to declare the old ordinance that established the former model void, and usually say something like the old model could continue to be issued to replacement troops, etc to use up inventory, but absolutely no such mention was made of the Siberian Incident Model, as if it hadn’t existed at all or didn’t count in any way.
It is no wonder that this Siberian Incident helmet was simply forgotten by history and was not known to have even existed. Instead the Cherry Blossom helmet was long believed to be Japan’s first helmet. There are also many collectors, who think the cherry blossom helmet or the star-vented version was the M18, but that is also a total mix up. So far not even a photo has surfaced of this helmet, so it remains completely shrouded in mystery. Another Japanese author had suggested that a prototype of this helmet was used in the September 1917 special field maneuvers of engineers, but I have not been able to confirm that.
The final document that I located that refers to this helmet is the development report attached to the type approval request of 1930 for the type 90 helmet, in which they mention that they also included the helmet produced in 1918 at the time of the “Siberian Incident” in their comparative studies. This one line reference, however, was actually the beginning for me, how I first learned of the existence of such a helmet and decided to go back in time in search of it.
Leaving it totally open-ended like this will only create a deluge of questions from people having WW2 civil defense helmets, hoping that they might have the M18 of legend, so I should add that I am fairly certain that all M18 helmets would have had the hallmark stamping of the Tokyo Artillery Arsenal inside the shell as found in the cherry blossom helmets. Unlike the later Type 90 helmet made by the private sector, these helmets were exclusively made at the Tokyo Artillery Arsenal.
Some day we might still find the helmet in a photo album from the Siberian Intervention, but until that day we will only see it in our collector’s daydreams.
The 1922 Star-vent and Cherry Blossom Helmet
June 1922: Finally a Helmet that blossomed
Whatever the official assessment of the Siberian Incident model of 1918, the Army felt the need to develop a new helmet and the next model was officially introduced in 1922, the year Japanese troops finally pulled out of Siberia.
This helmet that later featured a cherry blossom-shaped cover over the ventilation hole on top of the helmet has long been known to collectors and historians, but no one knew its designation nor when it was introduced until I located the Army type approval documents for this helmet back in spring of 2010. Actually the so-called Star-vent helmet was what came out in 1922 and the cherry blossom cover for the top vent was a later update of this 1922 model.
The Army Technical Assessment Department (技術審査部)” that advised the arsenal on specs for the earlier Siberian Incident model had been reorganized since 1919 as the Army Technical Headquarters (陸軍技術本部), and it was in their name that the type approval documentation was raised on April 1st, 1922. The document is titled, “Provisional Type establishment of Kabuto” and it reads as follows.
Request for provisional type establishment of Kabuto
From: Kumashichi Tsukushi, Chief of Army Technical Headquarters March 31, 1922
To : Hanzou Yamanashi, Minister of the Army
Having completed the assessment on the Kabuto based on our department’s weapons research policy, we respectfully request approval to rename it simply as “Kabuto” as shown in the attached drawing and designate it as Provisional Standard (仮制式 ).
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