The Pacific War: Food

Figure 1.-- Food played an important role in the Pacific War. The Pacific islanders practiced mostly subsistance farming. They were self-sufficent in food, but did not produce a significant surplus. As a result, when Japan seized many islands, there was no way to feed the large garisons established there. This was a problem because of the inadequate merchant marine (maru) fleet with which Japan launched the War. It became even more serious as the U.S. Pacific Fleet began seizing control of the sea lanes and systematically destroying the Japanese maru fleet. The photograph came from an unidentified American soldier's photo album, we think in 1943.

While often not touched upon in military histories, a major factor in war is often food, and this was the case of the Pacific War. There were several factors at play concerning food. Most concern the Japanese and the people they occupied. These factors would have a profond impact on both the Pacific War and on the populations caught up ii the War As the War progressed the primary cause of death for Japanese soldiers would not be combat, but the lack of food. More than half of soldiers deaths were dure to starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. And this dspite the fact tht the Japanese seized the richest agricultural lands in Asia. Not only did Japnese soldiers perish, but the Japanese caused dreadful famines causing thecdeaths of millions.

Japanese Food Supply

Japan was not self-sufficent in food production. The moutanous terraine left little land available for food prodduction. Japanese agriculture was not only limited, it was inefficient. The country was depedent on imports to feed its people. And this situation was only exacerbated with the industrialization of the ciountry and thge expansion of the urban industrial work firce. Acquiring resource rich areas, including food producing areas was one reason Japan went to war. Oil wasthe major reason, but food was one of the resources Japan needed to wage war.

Japanese Tactical Doctrine

Japanese military doctrine focused on the offensive, much like the Germans, the tip of the spear. And this paid hansome dividends at the beginning of the War when the Allies were unprepsred. Early Japanese victories were based on seizing the supplies of the Allied armies they faced. The commonly confronted larger Allied armies. This was important in Malaya, Singapore, and Burma. This ended after the early victories against unprepared forces. As they began encountered well equipped and prepared combat forces, logistics became an increasingly important factor. And the result would be the starvation of Japanese forces beginning on New Guinea and Guadalcanal.

Japanese Maru Fleet

The Japanese military was able to seize a vast empire in the early months of the Pacific War. The 6-month Japanese offensive after Pearl Harbor startled the world. Japan had a substabntial merchant marine, the third largest in the world after Britain and America. It had about 8 percent of the world merchant tonnage. It was more than adequate to meet the country's peace time needs. What the Japanese war planners did not calculate, however, was the vastly expanded shipping needs to support an expansive war effort. They should have kniown this because the wars leading to the Pacific War (Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War, and World War I) played a major role in the development of the Japanese merchant (maru) fleet. The more the military expsnded the Empire, the greater the pressure on the marus. Andcas large as the Japanese maru fleet was, it was simply not capable of supplying countless new island garrisons or delivering the resources of the newly seized Southern Resource Zone including food to the Home Islands. Nor did the Jaopanese accurarely assess their caopability of protecting the marus from the United States Pacific Fleet. The Imperial Navy after the firstv year iof the War had to withdraw its fleet from the South and Central Pacific.

Japanese Occupation Policy

Japanese occupation policies wre disaterous for both the local people nd gfor the Japanese themselves. y was that every area should become self-sufficient in food. This created terrible conditions in the areas that were dependent on imports before the War. This included areas both within and outside Japanese controllded areas. Brutal Japanese occupation policies reduced harvests through out the Japanese controlled areas. A major problem was te ares seized were not modern countries. There was little industry and the agriulturl methods were not modern, but often based on ceturies old technology. This meant that on most Pacific islands that agriculture was subsistence agrciculture. This was te case not only on small islands, but also large islands like Borneo and New Guinea. Thus while the islands were genrally self sufficent in food, there was no large surplus and the local population were not able to feed large Japanese garrisons. And Japanese policies and the brutality used to carryit out, just made matters worse. Where able, the locl populations simplu mlted into the intrior beyond the reach of the Jpanese. They could be hunted down, but this would have required a huge effort and the xpenditure of supplies the Japabese did not have. There were surplusproducing areas such asJava, coujrn Indo-China, and Burma. But Japanese occupationpolicies such as seizing food fromthe local people resulted in reduced harvests. In short rather than maximizing production in the occupied areas, the result of the occpation was to minimized production.


Japanese authorities turned a blind eye to the famines they caused.

Island Garisons

Most of the Pacific islands seized by Japan were self sufficent in food. They mostly operated on a primitive agricultural subsistance farming, producing just enough to feed the small island population. it was not adequate to feed a large Japanese garrison.

Self Sufficency Order

The Japanse Army High Command ordered Japanese garrisons throughout the Souuh Pacific to become self sufficent , knowing that this was impossibe. Thus at the end of the War these garrisons were sarving.

Home Islands

The U.S. Pacific fleet ininiate an interdiction effort. While the Japanese had sunk the Pacific Fleet's battleships at Pearl Harbor,the sumarine facilities were left untouched. At first submarine operations were impaired by faulty torpedoes, but by 1943, American subs were wreaking havoc with the Japanese Maru fleet, making it difficult to get resources fromhe Southern Resource one they had seized back to Japan. The Japanese Maru fleet was barely adequate in peace time. It was totally inadequate for the Pavific War. The vast distances of the Pavific required a huge expansion of the Maru fleet. Ships were needed to supply the many Japanese garisons established on hundrds of Pacific Islands. Japan had no way of building more ships. Its yards were hard pressed to repair abd build more naval ships to replace those lost in the War. Japan was ableto fight the Pavific War bcause for two decads ints yards were building naval ships at full capavity while the United states was limiting its naval expebditures. Pearl Harbor changed this dynamic and the Japanese were unable to even replace lost vesselslet alone expand their fleet. After the disterous first year of the War, the U.S. Pacific Fleet with new units ariving from xisting and brand new yards began to estblished control of the sea lanes to Japan. The Pacific Fleet submarine force played a major role in destroying the Japnese Msru fleet making it difficult to supply Pacific garrisons and to transport food, oil, and other resources back to the Home Islands. Food imports were essentially cut off from the South Pacific. At first this meant Japanese authirities had to make sharp cuts in food rations which became increasingly severe. The Japanese population on the Home Islands by the end of the War had begun to sarve.

Country Developments

Food was an important factor affecting the related campaigns in Asia and the Pacific. The Japanese after invasing China were attracted to what they called the Souhern Resource Zine, meaning Southeast Asia ad the South Pacific. The most important attraction was oil, but other resources such as tin, rubber, and ither resources along with food were also important to the Japanese. The area included some major food producing areas such as Java, Burma, Cambodia, and southern Indo China. Much of the area was, howevr, not food exporting ares. And much of the area was food dfecit areas. Southern Indo-china exported to northern Indo-China. Burma exported to Bengal in India. Java supplied good to other areas in the Dutch East Indies. In addition, much of the area, escpecially the Pacific Islands practiced prmitive subsistence agriculture. They produced enough food to feed themselves, but not to export or to feed large foreign military garisons. The Japanese policiy of plundering food in the occupied territoties as well as demanding thar=t each area produce the food needed would spell disaster both for the occupied people and the Japanese garrisons as well. The Americans for the most part would bring in the food they neeed. The Japanese in contrast not only did not bring food into the region, but attempted to expoty in back to the Home Islands. This proved impossible, however, after the first year of the War. The Japanese Maru fleet was inadequate to begin with, but was very rapidly devestated by U.S. Pacific Fleet submarines and other naval forces after the first year of the War. As a result, very little of the food seized actually made it back to the Home Islands.


Navigate the CIH World War II Section:
[Return to Main World War II Pacific campaign page]
[Return to Main Japanese strategic concepts page]
[Return to Main World War II: Food page]
[Biographies] [Campaigns] [Children] [Countries] [Deciding factors] [Diplomacy] [Geo-political crisis] [Economics] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[POWs] [Resistance] [Race] [Refugees] [Technology]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Return to Main war essay page]

Created: 7:11 PM 3/26/2017
Last updated: 5:26 PM 1/13/2018