*** World War II Japan home front war economy

World War II Japanese Home Front: War Economy

World War II Japanese war industry
Figure 1.--Here we see Jamoanese girks, young teenagers, working in a munitions plant at the Kokura Arsenal in Fukucka (April 1943). The image is notabke because it shiws even by earkly 1943 that Japan was so strapped for manpower that they were using chilfren in gtheir war industrues. Any how basic much of Japanese industry was. This was what Japan was pitting against the American arsenal of democracy.

Japan was the only industrialied country in Asia. The country was, however, deprndent on both imported raw materials and food. The country built up a formidable military, but few World War II belgerants were so poorly situated to wage an extended war. It was capable of supporting the war in China, but bot without consequences. Thus rather than achieving benefits from occupying large areas of China, the Japanese people began to feel adverse impacts from the war and massive military spending. The country's industry directed at military production rather than consumer goods. And to make matters worse, the United States, Japan's major trading partner began to take commercial actiins to sanction Japan for its aggression in China. Drafting large numbers of young men also affected the country's agricultural prodyction which in the best of times only provided part of the domestic food demand. While the Japanese economy could support the war in China, it was totally inadequate to support the Japanese military in the Pacific War with the United States, especially as Japan was still mbigged down in Chians. The Japanese milutarissts achieved spectacular vicyories in the first 6 months of the War. Then at Midway (June 1942), Japan's offensive capability was sverely restricted. And gradually the American industrial capacity began to make itself felt in the Pacifiv battlefields. This had severe consequences for the Japanese war economy. Japan went to war to acquire needed resources such as oil, tin, eubber, rice, ect. As a result, of the offensive that followed Pearl Harbor, it acuired those resources, but after Midway, the merican Pacific Fleet gradually cut off the Home Islands fron he resources it acquired in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, This was largely done by American sunmarines which decimated tne Japamese Maru flet but were joined by surfac fleet and carrier operations. Japan's industrial capacity was a fraction of the American industrial production, but was severly impaired when raw materilas deliveries could no longer be delivered. Food supplies wre short even before the Pacific War, but as the American blockade intensified, the Japanese begam to go hungary.



Japan as late as the mid-19th century was an isloate, almost feudal, agricultural countrt. Japan's industrial development began with the Meiji Restoration (1870s). The country benefitted from the technology developed in Western countries. The formation of zaibatsu (literally 'financial cliques') played an imoportant role in the country's rapid inductrial development. The zaibatsu evolved into diversified industrial corporations (1910s). They were operated through holding companies. Many tied together banking and insurance, trading companies, mining concerns, textiles, iron and steel plants, and machinery manufactures. They grew by investing profits from older industries into new enterprises like electrical machinery manufacturing. The aibatsu form of organization generated scale economies in finance, trade and manufacturing, enabling the different concerns to acquire Western technology and begin the rapid transformation of the Japanese economy. They were able to attract relatively scare entrepreneurial and technical while at the same time the Japanese Government was rapidly developing a first class eductional system to expand the talent base. format economized on human resources. Thus Japan rapidly became the most industrialized country in Asia. Even so, the country's industrial capacity and technological base at the time of World War II was a fraction of that of America and Britain. Japan mobilized its industry for war even before the Pearl Harbor attack. As America mobilized the Japanese could not hope to support its military at the same level as the United States even with the strategic decisiom to focus on Europe First. The American Arsenal of Democracy overwhealmed both the Germans in Europe and the Japanese in the Pacific.


Japan is a heavily populated island and because of the mountanous terraine, limited agricultural land. Food was a major attraction drawing Japan into China. Japan was not self sufficent in food and needed to import rice and other food stuffs. Japan's focus was on inuistrialization. Very little attention was given to modernizing agriculture. Japan before the World War II made one limited efforts to raise agricultural production by imprioving methods, but the miltarists who dominated the govrnment refused to consider a land reform that would transfter land tenure from landlors to the peasantry. (The pressure of the War would eventually force land reform on Japan, but it was not until after the War and American occupation that the peasantry began reaping any benefits.) In fact the posibilities of increasing domestic food production were limited. Japan is a series of highly mointaneous islands. There is a large population with limitd areas of land. As a result, the population was depndent on imported rice and other food supplies. Because of reverses in the War, especially the American submariners destroying the Japanese merchant (maru) fleet, imports became increasingly difficult. Aerial mine laying was anothr factor. This substantially reduced imports from the nearby sources (Manchuria, Koreaa, anf China). The war time conscription of men reduced the agicultural labor force. As a result, the Japanese at the time of the surrender were living on rations at just survival levels. Factory workers report being pleased to find a noodle or two in the soup they were given. And the American strategic air campaign was demolishing the country's transportation network. It is not possible to destro farms by air. Unlike industry farms are not clustered into small locations. It is possible to destroy the transport system making it difficult to get food into the cities. And if all of this was not bad enough, farmers encounterd crop failures on an inprecedented level in 1945. The Japanese committed a horrifying list of attrocities during the War, one of the ones narrowly averted was starving their own people. The Emperor, cabinet and military commandrs were fully aware of this. This was exactly what they were planning to do. And there was a precedent for this. Japanese garisons throughout the Pacific and Southeast Asia were ordered to become self-sufficent, meaning in many cases to starve to death. Here we see a Jaanese mother with her two vildren just after the surrender (September 12, 1945). Had the Japanese not surrendered, civilians like this all over the country would have starved in a terribl famine during winter 1945-46. This would have been one of several famines the Japanese caused in the China and other areas they occupied in which millions perished.

Natuaral Resources

Japan was an industrialized nation that was resource poor. Mining was minimal because Japan does not possess significantb mineral resources. And many of the small minerals resources that existed by the time of World War II had already been mined to the level that it has become much less expensive to import needed minerals. The country thus had to import raw material, including vital resources like iron and other metals, rubber, and especially petroleum. The increasingly military-dominated government increasingly took the view that Japan needed to expand its empire to control access to these resources. This was a principle taken for granted. The military did not do any assessment of the cost of military expansion. The cost of military operations was not considered. Victory had been quickin Manchuria (1931), but the attempt to conquer China (1937) proved a very different matter. China offered both access to raw materials as well as a vast market for the country's industrial output. The Japanese achieved considerable military success, but as the war dragged on, costs mounted. But rather than disuade the country's military leadership, with the outbreak of war in Europe, they began planning new military adventures. Japan until America embargoed petroleum, imported most of its petroleum from the United States. Thus the Dutch West Indies with its petroleum resources was a major target of the Japanese war effort. Nor was the country self-production in food production. The need to important raw materials made Japan dependant on its merchant marine. The only way that needed raw materials could reach Japan, even from Korea and Manchuria was through its merchant marine. Thus Japan was taking a great risk launching a naval war.


Technological base


Energy was vital for any industrial nation. From the beginniung of modern Japan,energy was a the center of interaction between the United States and Japan. It was the U.S.Navy' ’s need for a coaling station that led to Commodore William Perry's Black Ships into Tokyo Bay (1853). And the energy cionndctiin would only highten as oil entered the picture. The Meiji Goivernment's primry goal was industrialization (1870s). Meiji officisls recognized that only an industrial nation could escape China's fate and fend off Western incursions. So obtaining coal was the country's first energy challenge. [Yoshida, p. 1] Coal as in the rest of the workd was Japan's primary energy source for its industry. Japan lacked almost all important natural resources needed for an industrial economy. In the West, industrializastion occurred arond areas where raw material existed. This is one reason Industrial Revolution began in Britain. This was not the case with Japan. The country is virtully devoid of raw marerials, especially mineral resources. The one major exception was coal. Japan did have coal resourcs, albeit not located where industry was developed. Curioiusly, Japanese coal was is found in the extreme ends of the country, in the north (Hokkaidō and Sakalin) and the south (Kyūshū). These two areas has some 85 percent of the country's coal deposits, meanng at some distance from Japan's industrial heartland. There was also coal in Formosa (Taiwan), southern Sakalin, and Korea which Japan had seized (1894, 1906, and 1909). Japan steadily increased its coal production: 1912 (20 million tons), 1932 (30 million t), and 1941) 56 million tons). There were also imports from China and Indochina. At the time Jon launched the Pcifiuc War, impotys were increasing bnd becoiming morev imporant. The great bulk of Japan's coal, however came from domestic sources. Kyūshū's coal was ranked as poor quality and difficult to extract, but the Kyūshū mines were located close to ports, faciliting transport. The Hokkaido mines had wider seams are wider, meaning that they could be worked mechanically. And the coal was a higher grade. The Hokkaido mines, however, were located some distance inland, increasing transport costa and requiring infrastructure projecrs. Japanese minining generally used inclined galleries. Some mines were up to 10 km underground. There wsas little open pit strip mining. This meant rekatively costly mining opertion and lower productivity compared to Western Europe and the United States. While Japan had coal, they could import coal at a lower cost than domestic mining. Of course after launching the Pacifiic War, most import sources were cut off. Oil was a different matter. Japan was confronted with its second energy challenge, the expoanding need for oil. [Yoshida, p. 2] Japnese domestic oil deposits were minimal. Almost all of Japan's oil was imported. And this was a serious problem becuse as Japan's industry grew, the need for oil increased. The government tried to discourage pol uage even before the War. Many urban bysses ran on charcoal rather than gasoline fir thus reason. And as the military expanded and launched foireign adventures, the demand for oil only increased. The Imperial Army was not heavily mechnized, but still needed oil. Imperaila Naval and air firces could not operate without oil anbd large quanbtities of it, esoecilly after the War began. At the time, the United States was the primary producer of oil and alternative sources (the Dutch East Indies, Iran, Iraq, Mexico, and Venezuekoa) were heavily influenced by American and British interests. This of course was fined as long as Japan maintined good reltions with Ameruica and Briutain. The Josnbese military, hiwever, bginnining in the 1920s set Japn on collision course with both couuntries. Hydro power was Japan's other major sources of energy. Japan has a number of short rivers, but as they run oiff in mountenous area, they hace considerable hydro potential. At the time of World War II, Japan had developed about a third of its hydro potential, but was not further develoing it at the time of World War II. . There was a shortage of materials and they decided to give priority to projcts in Korea and Manchuria. Japan is a heavily forested couunry. Timber amomg other used coukd be used as a fuel. This included making charcoal which was ysed in Japanese househilds. We notuce busses runniung on charcoal. This of course helped refuce comsimtion ofoil-based fuels like gasoline and diesel. , but we are not sure how common this was.


Transport and communications is a vital part of any country's economy. Here Japan was especially challenged because of the mountaneous interior of the Home Islands. The Japanese were highly dependent on public transport. Only one persin in 400 owned any kind of a motor vehicle, small frction of American vehicle ownership. This not only affected transport, but the country's ability to support and supply modern mechanized warfare. Of course hen we speak of trabsoort, we are not only speaking of peipole., but also goods. Of special importance was the rail system which is the primary transport network which was the case of most other important countries at the time. Japanese industry and agriculture was highly dependent in the rail system. Japan had a modern system of rail travel and transport. The system was mostly state-owned--about two-thirds of total. The privately owned rail companies were mostly local feeder service for the primary trunk lines. The Meiji Government began pronoting rail construction (late-19th century) as part of industrial development. They kept fares low to encourage travel. This both helped expand the systenm as well as to promote visits to shrines and temples and other patriotic sites. Of course with the adventb of the War , travel was restricted to reserve the systemn's capacity primarily to war-related cargoes. The national gage in Japan is 3 feet 6 inches. Thuis is a narrow gage system. The American gage is 4 ft 8.5 in. There is a range of gages used around the world, but the wide gage used in America is the most common. As a result of the country's narrow gage, Japanese trains move lower and have smaller, lighter carriages (rolling stock) than rail systems in America and Europe. This all affects the system's load capacity. The locmotives were not as modern as in America, but thre were two crack express trains. The system has good coverage--some 17,000 miles of track. TThe lines mostly followed the coast because of the mounatenous interior made construction there very expensive. This track milage was twice that of American state of Califorina, about equal in area. The concentration of lines along the coast made the Japanese rail system very vulnerable to attack. The Japanese milirary was not at the time very conmcerned bout this possibility. Another vulnerability was that Tokyo was the center of the rail system, even more so than Chicago in the United States. Trains to the north were called down trains and to the south up trains. The trains were not as heavy as in Anerica, but one American source comments that they were well adapted to the relatively short haul requirenebts of the island nation. [U.S. War Departmennt] Japanese railroads were fueled primarily by coal. We do not know of any oil fueled locomotives. There were a few electrically powered lines, mostin or near Tokyo and Osaka. This included inter-urban lines, suways, and elevated trains. Thee were also trolly cars nbd busses. Almost all modern transport was pubic transpprt because virtually no Japnese people owned cars--they were beyond the purchasing power of Japanese workers. Bicycles were owned and there was a fledgling motocycle indutry--not yet of great importnce. (Honda Motors was a post-War phenomenon. The use of draft animals continued, espcially in the countrysiude. The higheway system was poorkly developed. Roads were inadequte outside the cities and many were not surfaced, but rudimentary local bus service radiauted out from the cities.


Japan had the most sophisticated communicatioins system in Asia at the time whuich if course at the time is not is not saying much. Japan had mnodern newspapers and the people were avid readers, espoecially the men. Japan had the gighest literary rates in Asdia because of their excellent public school dsystem. Especially important was Newspaper Row in Tokyo. Before the War, Japan had some 7,000 newspapers which unlike radio broacastung were privately owened. Quite a few of these papers had substantial circulations. Japan has never had a free press, but until the militarists seized power, there was a lively discussion of many issues. The government provided the papers of events and subjects that could not be mentioned. There were no libel klaws in Japan abd the papers often dealt with a rannge id facbndakls. This was poosible as long as the Imperizl goivernmbnt sas not involved. Publishing was extremly labor intensive. Type had to be set by hand because of the number of charcters in the Japanese languages use of Chinese characters. The papers were sold at corner newsstands. We believe that home delivery and newsboys were relatively rare. One aspect of warreprting that is not clear to us is how the newsoapers could contyinually reprt that Japan was winniung the war, when the ilands battrles kep getting closer and closer to Japan. Surely anone reading the newspaperts must have known. Prpaganda is one thing, but it has toi nahve sime element of truth to be effective. Radio was a brand new industry. Commercial radio because of the technological advances during World War was launched immediately after the War (early-1920s). The history of radio in Amnerica and Europe is fairly well known. We know very little about Japanese radio. One Ameruca assessmebt was that the Japanese made great progress, but was 'not up to American standards'. [War Department] We assume they are takjing about both technology and programing, but do not yet have details. The government has maontained tigh contro on briadcasting friom the bginning. This is not some the country's militarists introduced. Control was even tighter than in NAZI Germany. Every radio (receiver) purchased in Japan had to be licensed. Owners had to pay a small monthly fee. While small it also mean that many Japanese could not afford tom own a radio. It also meant that the Government knew where every radio in the country was located. The advances in radio were made in Europe and America. There was no need in Japan fior the powerful vroadcast stations that bdecamne populasr in America. We know of now major advances made by Japanese scientiusts. They basically copied advances made in the West. This would mean that when they launched that they were at a grerat disadvantage to the Americans, especially in radar and related technologies. The radio listening wax bery popular, although some families only had crystal sets. (A crystal set was the most basic type of radio, using only the power of the received radio signal to produce sound--which is why ear phones were needed.) We are not sure what the initial purpose of government broadcasting as braoacasting began while there was still a degree of parlimentary democracy. As the military seiuzed control, role of Jpananese briadcasting became clear, to deseminate propaganda and promoting an unquestioning nationalitic and expanionistic ethos, basically reinterating what the children were being taught in school and the newspaper were allowed to report. Most urbasn families had aadio if sxome kind. They were mostly inexpensive and very basic. Radios were less common in the poorer rural asees. The very basic radio manufacturing was another factor resulting in Japan laubching the Warwell behind behind America in radio technology and manfacturuing caability. The radio indusdtry/electronics industry in Japan was a small frction the size of the American uindustry. On result was that Japanese equipment was just not as good as American equipment. Japanese pilots, for exasmple, regularly complained that many radios were unreliasble. Anotyher impact was that the Japnbese acrually used nerucan equipment a parts in constructing their coding aparatus, a factor in the Americzn breaking of the Purple Code--the American Magic. The government also operted a telegraphic system. They lacked much modern equipment, but they established a well coordunted system with some 31,000 miles of line.

Government Decision for War

The Japangese today wonder, how could their country have decided to go to war om 1941, striking the American naval base at Pearl Harbor (decembwe 1941). The economis disparity between America and Japan was huge. The American Arsenal of Democracy dwarphed that of Japa and the agriculture and natural resource disparity was even larger. Itbseems absurd to think that the Japanese would even contemplate a naval war, a war that ny definition requires a massive industrial infrastructure. It is not that the Japanese were not awar of Amweica huge industrial supriority. Agriculture does not seem to have been considered. It was industry that mattered because it was industry that producuced the implements of war. World War II historians keep getting asked, could the Japanese have won the Pacific War. And they inevitavbly explain, with pertinent facts and fif=gures, the staggering economic disparity between the United States and Japan. Something I rarely hear is that Japan studied the situation and it was a carefully considered decision to go to war. This was unlike Germany and Italy where it was a single man in each country (Hitler and Mussonlini) that made the monentous decisions without any real study. The Japanese were aware of the economic disparity and still decided on war. Part of the reason was that the Japamese placed great imprtance to spirit. The other reason they made the final decision to strike is what they saw in Europe. At the time they made the final decision. German armies have overwhealmed most of Europe amf were racing toward Moscow. They had inflicted massive damage on the Red Army. Damage that perhaps no other country could have withstood. And of course if the Germans had succeeded, it would have significantly impacted the resources America could have devoted to the Pacific War and significantly increased the resources the Germans could have devoted to the Kriegsgmarine. A noted Pacific War historian writes, "Thanks for writing. Absolutely no question--Japan was banking big on the Germans winning in the East, which could open up all sorts of possibilities for them. Pretty ironic that just two days before they launched Pearl Harbor, the Krauts got stopped cold in front of Moscow. But even with that, nobody could tell if that was a decisive defeat for the Germans, or just a setback before they did what they had done to everybody else thus far: crushed them. It was a really complex geopolitical landscape, that's for sure. And as my buddy Rich Frank recently noted to me, the Axis had been on an almost uninterrupted tear of victories ever since Italy had done in Abyssinia in 1935. Given all that, the Japanese were within their rights to think that they had joined the winning side. Ooops." [Parshall]


Parshall, Jon. E-mail message (February 24, 2020). Dr. Parshall is widely recognized wuth his book Shattered Sword as the premier historian on the Battle Midway.

War Departmnent--United States. "Japanese transportationm and communication system" Film 23705 Misc 1061 (Army Pictorial Seriuce). The restriucted film is indated, but was proiably compiled about 1945-46. It was assembled from Japanese films and used in the Civil Affairs Training Schools conducted by the Provost Marshal General. Its main purpose was to inform the viewers -- presumably U.S. servicemen and officers -- of how Japan’s transportation and communication systems were organized.

Yoshida, Phyllis Genther. "Japan’s energy conundrum," (Sasakawa Peace Foundationm USA: 2017)


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Created: 11:16 PM 2/24/2020
Last updated: 11:03 PM 7/16/2023