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Japanese Warfare: A Summary
Military Intelligence Service, Information Bulletin No. 16, May 20, 1942
[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from a WWII U.S. War Department Information Bulletin. As with all wartime intelligence information, data may be incomplete or inaccurate. No attempt has been made to update or correct the text. Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the website.]



Basically, tactics of the Japanese are no different from those employed by other modern armies. In jungle warfare, however, their tactics have been characterized by speed, deception, and the use of modern automatic weapons. In instances when numbers would gain a quick decision, Japanese commanders have not hesitated to commit sufficient force to overwhelm the opposition even though at great cost in Japanese lives.

Thorough reconnaissance usually precedes all operations. Means of communication, particularly radio, are employed even to the lowest units. Camouflage is stressed to include measures taken by the individual soldier. Ruses and feints are extensively employed. The Japanese have quickly discovered that in many instances bluff is far more economical than force.

Lightly dressed and equipped, the Japanese soldier possesses great mobility; generally he is independent of supply lines, and is taught to live off the land.


The Japanese employ all available means of transportation to move troops speedily along highways and railways, and through jungles and water areas, never failing to utilize civilian, army, and naval conveyances as they are captured. The speed of their movements has been facilitated by light equipment, simple rations, and a minimum amount of clothing, weapons, and ammunition, plus, in many cases, the aid of Fifth Column guides.

a. By Water Craft

The Japanese look on water as a highway, not as an obstacle. In both Malaya and Burma, the Japanese employed small specially-designed river boats and small confiscated civilian boats to infiltrate patrols to the flanks and rear of defending forces. The patrols, sometimes composed of large numbers of troops, generally moved at night. When they moved in daylight, air protection was afforded them. Such movements were possible very often because of the large number of rivers and inlets in Malaya, particularly along the west coast. A succession of infiltrations by boats down the west coast aided greatly in forcing several British withdrawals. The boats usually hid in numerous well-covered inlets by day and traveled close to the coast line at night until reaching their destination. In some cases the Japanese used rafts made of bamboo poles.

b. By Motor

Most of the trucks used by the Japanese to date have been light because of the soggy or rough terrain encountered in nearly all theaters of operation. The trucks have been employed mainly to transport troops and supplies. They usually have been bunched while moving and at a halt, and lights have been used rather freely. Both bunching and lighting afforded excellent targets for the opposition.

c. By Rail

Large quantities of heavy Japanese supplies and some troops were moved by rail from Indo-China and Thailand into northern Malaya. To facilitate repair of railroads and bridges, apparently large stocks of railroad materiel were accumulated in Indo-China before the invasion of Malaya. Japanese engineers appear capable of making quick temporary repairs to damaged railroad and highway bridges.

d. By Air

The Japanese have used air transports for both personnel and supplies, but the extent of such activities is not known. They used 100 transports in a parachute attack on Palembang, Sumatra, and, according to reports, 1,500 troops were transported by air, apparently from Bangkok, possibly from Hanoi, to the vicinity of Chieng-mai in Thailand. It is believed that the enemy uses transport aircraft for aviation supplies, although no detailed intelligence has been received to this effect. It is definitely known that air-borne troops have been trained and that the Japanese began a study of the possibilities of air transport some time before war began.

e. By Bicycles

The Japanese utilized a large number of locally obtained bicycles in Malaya to move troops and light equipment to the front. Usually the riders traveled along the road in single file. Mortars, mortar ammunition, and small arms ammunition were carried on an iron-wheeled vehicle which was attached by a chain to a tandem bicycle propelled by three men.


a. Offensive (1) Approach march.—The Japanese company uses roads as far as possible until contact with the enemy is made. One squad1 of each platoon usually travels along the sides of the road and the other squads travel under any available cover on each flank. The leading element of the company consists of 6 scouts, who range about 350 yards ahead of No. 2 platoon (fig. 1). Back of this platoon by 200 to 350 yards is company headquarters, followed closely by No. 3 platoon and then No. 1 platoon. When the squad uses scouts to locate hostile positions, the scouts return to the squad before the attack.

(2) Infiltration.—Once having made contact with the opposition, the Japanese avoid frontal attacks in force and send patrols around the flanks and to the rear of their opposition. These patrols usually are small, consisting of from two to a few dozen men. They are dressed lightly but are armed with light machine guns. Each man carries enough concentrated food to keep him going for several days. These men apparently have been trained thoroughly, hardened for jungle warfare, and given wide discretion as to tactics. They are expert swimmers and boatmen and are otherwise qualified to overcome the difficulties of jungle warfare. They have been instructed to look upon woods and water as means, not obstacles. In the initial stages of the infiltration attacks, small patrols creep noiselessly around the flanks or between defense points to surround the opposition. Usually they remain quiet until their comrades in front of the defenders feint a heavy frontal attack. Then the infiltration patrols open automatic fire to give opposing forces the impression that they have been surrounded. The patrols keep moving about while firing and even when fired on. The volume of fire produced by an unusually large number of automatic weapons in the hands of the patrols and front-line troops indicates stronger forces than those actually engaged. Sometimes the Japanese have set off firecrackers and have made other noises to imitate fire. Sometimes great batches of firecrackers are dropped from planes, with a lighted fuze to ignite them after they fall.

The Japanese seek by these tactics to confuse the defenders; to force quick withdrawals with the hopes of capturing large quantities of weapons, transport, supplies, and men; and to destroy command posts. To aid in accomplishing these aims, some of the patrols are assigned specifically to block roads to the rear.

[Figure 1. Approach march of Japanese infantry company.]
Figure 1. Approach march of Japanese infantry company.

During the Malayan campaign, such infiltration tactics were a constant menace to British artillery, particularly columns on roads. Japanese parties infiltrated between the elements of the columns and prevented them from advancing or retreating. Artillery communication wire in forward zones was cut by the Japanese or native partisans almost as soon as it was laid. After cutting the wire, the enemy troops often hid nearby and fired on the line guards when they approached.

In their infiltration tactics, the Japanese move rapidly at times, and very slowly and patiently on other occasions. They have stood in ditches in rice fields for hours, up to their necks in water, waiting for targets to appear; they have lain concealed in underbrush for long periods waiting for chances to advance without being observed.

In cases of counterattacks, the Japanese permit the opposing forces to pass through, then turn and fire on the flanks and rear of the counterattacking troops.

In both Malaya and the Philippines, some of the infiltrating Japanese, excellently camouflaged, climbed trees, and acted as snipers. They tied themselves to the trees with ropes. Light machine guns carried by the snipers appeared to be fitted with spikes or similar means of rapidly attaching the weapons to trees. The snipers sought particularly to pick off occupants of Bren gun carriers and officers. Occasionally the snipers threw hand grenades into passing trucks and carriers. Trees were used also as observation posts, and on occasions whole parties thus concealed themselves in clumps of woods and dense jungle growth for several days at a time.

(3) Attack.—The Japanese usually begin large-scale attacks at dawn, with the infantry very closely supported by aircraft and artillery.

Their basic principle of attack is to dispose a small force against organized localities and then envelop the flanks and attack the rear. This method has been particularly effective against troops who have been established in an organized position with supplies of food and ammunition at a distance to the rear. The Japanese attack against the flanks and rear of such a position has forced units to withdraw and, occasionally, to fight their way back to regain connection with their ammunition and food supplies. Great speed has characterized the development of such flanking movements which have at times struck 4 or 5 miles in rear of the front line.

(4) Infantry platoon2 tactics.—Squads 1 and 2 of the platoon make frontal assaults while Squad 3 attacks either the opposition's right or left flank (fig. 2). Because of the danger of hitting friendly troops and also of weakening squad strength, the squad rarely ever is divided to attack both flanks at the same time. Squad 4 usually operates fairly close to the front line, in a reserve fire-power position about midway between Squads 1 and 2. The light machine guns of the first three squads generally are used in the front lines—rarely ever as reserve fire power.

The following modification (fig. 3) of the formation shown in figure 2 is sometimes used.

[Figure 2. Usual formation of Japanese platoon for enveloping action.]
Figure 2. Usual formation of Japanese platoon for enveloping action.

[Figure 3. Another formation of Japanese platoon for enveloping action.]
Figure 3. Another formation of Japanese platoon for enveloping action.

The light machine guns of Squads 1 and 3 support Squad 2 and pin the enemy down with light machine-gun fire. The three grenade dischargers in Squad 4 assist the fixing action with a barrage. The two flank squads (1 and 3) envelop. The envelopment may be of both flanks or of only one flank, in which case the squad not making the envelopment assists Squad 2.

The following quotation from a report indicates a typical Japanese action:

In one instance the Japanese pushed forward in approach formation. On encountering our outposts, they deployed, and at once began to find holes through which they filtered without hesitation, and, after penetrating the outpost line, went around our main body, later firing on it from the rear. The hostile main body apparently lost contact with the connecting files, for they marched directly into a machine gun, which they probably knew of, but thought had been put out of action.

(5) Artillery.—The Japanese have employed relatively little artillery, because of the jungle nature of most of the terrain over which they have fought. They used heavy artillery frequently in the Philippines, principally 240-mm. railway or siege guns, on the United States forts at the entrance of Manila Bay. Upon reaching open country in Johore State, opposite Singapore Island in Malaya, the Japanese began utilizing considerable artillery, a large part of which had been captured. In other than these instances, they have employed small pieces suitable for quick movement through the jungles with infantry. The denseness of jungle growth made use of high trajectory weapons the logical means of obtaining heavy weapon concentration. Under these conditions, they resorted to 81-mm. mortars and occasionally heavy machine guns as substitutes for artillery. Whenever they did use artillery in the jungles, the Japanese made extensive reconnaissance to find the best gun positions available. They put down portable ramps to bridge ditches and soft ground and built gun platforms where it was necessary to fire from soft ground.

(6) Engineers.—Japanese engineers have shown considerable ability and ingenuity in bridging streams and repairing damaged bridges. They have utilized local material whenever possible. It has been reported that in some instances soldiers standing in streams have been used as bridge supports.

b. Armored Forces

(1) General.—So far, the Japanese have used armored forces against the United Nations in small numbers compared with the total number of troops engaged. Jungle growths and restricted terrain have no doubt been the reason, rather than lack of equipment.

Although the exact strength of the Japanese armored units is not known, reports indicate that a year ago there were four tank regiments and a large number of smaller units. Light, medium, and heavy tanks as well as one- and two-man tankettes are in use.

(2) Organization.—Light tanks are an integral part of streamlined divisions. Medium tanks are in nondivisional organizations as are the heavy tanks.3 Tank units are knit together not only by systematic organization but also by providing two-way radios to all tank commanders down to and including platoon leaders.

(a) Divisional.—Most of Japan's "streamlined" divisions have an organic light tank company. The company consists of a headquarters, a rear echelon, and four platoons of three tanks each. Three additional tanks comprise the headquarters and rear echelon. In addition, the rear echelon is believed to have half- track vehicles, motorcycles, and tracked trailers. The trailers are utilized to transport ammunition, rations, and fuel to the battle area. The divisional companies have included only light tanks and tankettes (called armored vehicles by the Japanese).

(b) Nondivisional.—The Japanese tank regiment, which is nondivisional, is made up of 52 light and 95 medium tanks, a total of 147. Each unit down to and including the company has, in the rear echelon, a service detachment which supplies ammunition, fuel, and limited maintenance. The rear echelons also probably include light armored and half-track maintenance and supply vehicles. Each medium tank carries four men, a commander, a machine-gunner, a cannon-gunner, and a driver. Organizational details of the tank regiment are shown in the diagram on page 26.

(3) Tactics.—The Japanese have employed small groups of tanks—from three to five—in direct frontal attacks to assist the forward advance of the infantry. The tanks have been with drawn when the infantry has reached its objective. All these tanks are a light type except the leader, which is a medium. In Malaya, sometimes these groups were composed in whole or in part of armored carrier vehicles with one medium tank used as the leading element. Clearing enemy troops and obstacles off roads and creating confusion among the defending troops were the usual missions these tank groups. The groups sometimes attacked in as many as four waves. The leading wave sought, without stopping, to engage vehicles and personnel on or near the road, while the rear groups halted on the road and opened fire when opposition was encountered. However, none of the groups pursued the attacks a great distance from the road. Their fire usually was inaccurate, and casualties were light. After brief engagements the groups would move by roads deeper into opposition territory and engage other troops in a similar manner, particularly directing their efforts at troops in the rear, at artillery, at command posts, and at supply installations.

[Figure 4. Organization of Japanese tank regiment.]
Figure 4. Organization of Japanese tank regiment.

c. Bicycle Troops

(1) General.—Bicycle troops are organized separately from the infantry. To date Japan has employed only a comparatively small number of cyclist troops. Most of these were used in Malaya. Indications are that all bicycles utilized were confiscated from the natives and used only in movements behind the front lines.

(2) Organization.—The bicycle troops usually were observed in groups of 60 to 70.

(3) Movement.—No definite formation was kept in movement, but two or three were abreast and separated a few yards from the man in front. The cyclists traveled 8 to 10 miles an hour in daytime but appeared to be in more of a hurry at night. They also made more noise at night—as if they were somewhat nervous. About 1 in 10 carried a flashlight; about half of the flashlights were tied on the bicycles. The movement of bicycle troops was not coordinated with motor transport except possibly with motorcycles. The latter were seen going in the same direction as the bicycles in nearly every case but at speeds of about 30 miles an hour. No one stood out among the cyclists as a leader, either by dress, position, or behavior, and it is believed that their officers rode on motorcycle combinations. No scouts were observed and security precautions appeared lax.

(4) Equipment.—Each cyclist carried what appeared to be a rifle. The rifles—some of which were shaped as if they were automatic—usually were transported with the barrels forward below the horizontal bar of the bicycle frame. More than half of them were carried in khaki covers. No rifles were observed slung on the cyclists' backs and in no case was a rifle detached from a bicycle when the soldiers stopped for rest or to enter a house. No pistols, knives, submachine guns, or items resembling ammunition were observed. The average load on the bicycle, apart from the soldier, appeared to be 75 to 100 pounds. The load included packs, which invariably hung on either side of the rear carrier; a box or bag of some type on the carrier; a rolled, hoodless rain cape; and other equipment, including spare clothes.

d. Flying Columns

(1) General.—Fast, hard-hitting combat teams known as flying columns have been employed by the Japanese in China. They included tanks, armored cars, motorized infantry, cavalry, engineers, and signal and medical personnel.

(2) Purpose.—The flying columns were designed primarily to make quick, effective surprise attacks on opposition forces of varying size. They made infiltrations, reconnaissances, and flanking and turning movements; they disrupted communications; harassed large formations; acted as the advance guard for the main body; and assisted the main body in difficult situations.

(3) Composition.—Although the strength of the flying columns varied according to the tasks performed, they generally were composed as follows:

(a) 1 section of armored cars—
1 lieutenant in command.
25 enlisted men (approximately), including 1 sergeant as car commander and 1 corporal.
4 light armored cars, each carrying 2 light machine, guns.
4 trailers.
1 motorcycle, with attached sidecar.

(b) 1 section of tanks (light or medium)4
1 lieutenant in command.
30 enlisted men (approximately).
3 tanks.
1 motorcycle, with attached sidecar.

(c) 1 squadron of cavalry (4 troops)—
Officers (number unknown but believed to be 5).
165 enlisted men, including 2 sergeant majors, 1 noncommissioned gas officer, 1 noncommissioned veterinary officer, 1 noncommissioned supply officer, 2 buglers, and 1 medical orderly.
155 horses (approximately).
4 light machine guns.

(d) 1 company of infantry (3 platoons, with 1 platoon or more of heavy machine guns attached)—
5 officers.
189 enlisted men.
12 light machine guns.
129 rifles.
159 bayonets.
18 short rifles.
Grenade dischargers (number unknown).

(e) 1 car section—
1 lieutenant in command.
15 drivers.
15 assistant drivers.
2 light machine-gunners.
1 mortar-gunner.
1 ammunition carrier.
15 cars.
1 machine gun.
1 mortar.

(f) 1 section of engineers, including 5 NCO's.

e. Pursuit

With aircraft lending effective aid, the Japanese have carried out vigorous pursuits of United Nations' forces. Reconnaissance planes located and photographed oil, food, and ammunition dumps and storage points hi order that pursuit troops could later locate and confiscate the supplies.

The Japanese have been helped greatly in this phase of warfare by utilizing captured guns and supplies. Officers and ordnance personnel, schooled in the mechanics of various opposition equipment, particularly artillery, have been able to repair and operate this equipment immediately. Although the drivers of United Nations' vehicles in most cases removed the distributors from motor vehicles before abandoning them, the Japanese often had usable spare distributors, obtained from similar disabled vehicles.

The Japanese, contrary to the usual tactics in the past, always displace usable captured armament and supplies to the front—not to the rear. For instance, captured field guns are trucked or towed forward with the pursuit until dumps of appropriate ammunition are reached, and then they are put into action. Instances have been related by field artillery officers where the Japanese used pieces from which the breech blocks had been removed. They undoubtedly found the blocks or used similar blocks taken from the same type of gun. Japanese infantrymen often discarded their own rifles in the pursuit, after using all their ammunition, and armed themselves with opposition rifles. The same was true in the case of machine guns.

Pursuit parties moved so fast in Malaya that at times they were able to cut both civilian and military communications and arrive in cities and towns before civil authorities knew of their proximity or had time to remove or destroy vital stores of supplies. Often Japanese tanks and trucks appeared at filling stations for fuel and water. These successes spared the Japanese considerable effort in obtaining supplies from the rear.

f. Antitank Defense

Little information has been received on antitank defense.

(1) Antitank rifles.—So far there has been no mention of the use of antitank rifles. In the few limited operations in which the Japanese have been forced to protect themselves against tanks, defended road blocks have been established.

(2) Antitank guns.—The use of a 80-caliber dual-purpose antitank gun has been reported.

g. Defensive

Although Japanese soldiers have been taught that retreats are "inglorious," their training regulations indicate defensive tactics similar to those used by the United Nations. Positions are occupied in considerable depth. They consist of a number of defensive areas, each capable of all-around defense. Dummy positions are interspersed.

h. Deceptive Measures

Perhaps in no other military campaign in history has so much deception been used as in the current Japanese campaign. Deceptive measures employed by the Japanese to date include the following:

(1) Taking advantage of the difficulty in distinguishing the Japanese from Malayans or resident Chinese by frequently dressing as civilians and hiding their guns until they could spring a surprise attack;

(2) Dressing in British and Dutch uniforms and steel helmets;

(3) Putting captured Indian soldiers as a screen between themselves and attacking Indian troops with orders to urge the Indian troops to hold their fire;

(4) Hiring civilians to drive private cars to bridges prepared for demolition so that the Japanese hidden in the car could shoot the covering party;

(5) Making noises imitating frontal fire to attract the opposition while lightly armed Japanese troops worked around the flanks;

(6) Employing intelligence personnel with advance guards to confuse British native troops by speaking out in Malay, Tamil, Hindustani, Gurkhali, English, or Dutch-depending on the circumstances;

(7) Exploding firecrackers in the rear of defending troops to give them the impression that they were being attacked heavily;

(8) Rapping bamboo sticks on hard objects to imitate machine-gun fire;

(9) Exposing soldiers in a swimming pool and at a nearby bar in Borneo to draw the fire of Dutch machine guns so that their positions could be determined;

(10) Calling out in Dutch for the whereabouts of the Dutch commander during a night attack and shooting the commander when he answered.

i. Fifth Column Activities

Japan laid the groundwork for Asiatic conquests with years of intense propaganda in China, Indochina, Thailand, British Malaya, Burma, India, the Netherlands East Indies, and other southwest Pacific islands in British, American, and Dutch possessions. Rivaling Germany's far-flung propaganda activities, Japan was estimated to have had over 200,000 paid and schooled professional agitators at work in the above-named areas prior to the Japanese attack on the United Nations.

Until September 1941, the propaganda had been aimed mostly along cultural, educational, and political lines. Since then propaganda has been accelerated to arouse the natives against their governments so as to obtain their support for forthcoming military operations.

When Japanese troops first entered Malaya, in order to win over local support, they distributed Singapore money (printed in Japan) among a large number of natives. The same device (guilders, printed in Japan) was used in Borneo and other islands of the Netherlands East Indies. In addition, natives were told that the homes of the British and Dutch were theirs, and they were invited to move in and take them over or else to loot them of furniture and other valuables that the Japanese themselves did not want.

Reports of various Japanese fifth column activities since the war started disclose the following methods:

(1) Use of red-clothed scarecrows and arms pointing to defenses.

(2) Indication of the direction of targets by trampling or cutting arrows in rice fields.

(3) Pointing of banana leaves, washings, or planks to indicate motor transport parks or command posts.

(4) Dressing of civilians in occupied territory as British and Indian soldiers and their calling out to the British not to shoot.

(5) Furnishing of local food supplies.

(6) Use of fishing boats and lights to aid in landing operations.

(7) Indication of airdromes with strips of cloth or paint and by flashing lights.

(8) Acting as expert guides for Japanese troops.

(9) Supplying of information gathered before the war by local Japanese residents.

(10) Rendering of assistance as native officials.

(11) Natives in Burma cloaked themselves as priests or monks for the specific purpose of doing fifth column work—this was accomplished easily because of the loose requirements necessary to join the priesthood order of poongees.5

(12) Procuring of bancas and other small boats for Japanese infiltration parties which slipped down the west coast of Malaya.

(13) Tampering with air-raid warning systems to render them unworkable.

(14) Spreading of rumors among native troops.

(15) Maintaining a radio transmitter in Singapore through out the Malayan campaign.

(16) Drawing up of airdrome plans to turn over to the Japanese—a Malay overseer at Alor Star airdrome, Malaya, was arrested with airdrome plans, signaling apparatus, and Japanese propaganda.

(17) Two coolies walking together, one wearing a red shirt and the other a white, indicated the proximity of opposing troops.

(18) Drink vendors on bicycles signaled to the Japanese with a flag, waving it twice and pointing to British troops after they had served the British free drinks.

(19) A German dressed in civilian clothes preceded Japanese patrols by 50 yards and engaged opposing troops in conversation while the patrols took up firing positions.

(20) Telephone operators acting as chief fifth columnists in the Kedah, Malaya, area.

(21) Use of rice, salt, and white paper on roads to denote proximity of troops.

(22) Aiding in the organization of the "Free Burmese Army."

(23) Members of Thakins antiforeign political party in Burma organized to resist the British by fifth column activities and to join the "Free Burmese Army."

(24) German missionaries in New Guinea turned out to be fifth columnists—they helped the Japanese through the jungles to contact Australian forces.

(25) Obtaining information direct from United Nations' airfields—possibly by transmissions from nearby undetectable short-wave radio sets6 to adjacent field transmitters and then to Japanese air headquarters.

(26) Dropping propaganda pamphlets from the air, and having Fifth Columnists distribute them even more widely during blackouts.

(27) Signalling to Japanese aviators by placing lights in hollow stumps where they could not be seen from the ground.

(28) Placing "puncture traps" on Burma roads to damage or delay United Nations' motor transports. The traps consisted of several sharp steel spikes, cut out of one-fourth-inch flat steel sheeting. The spikes were 6 inches long, with the upper 3 inches protruding from the road bed and camouflaged with mud, straw, or dried leaves.

1 The Japanese infantry squad (called a buntai by the Japanese) consists of 10 to 18 men as compared to 12 in the United States infantry.
2 Squads 1, 2, and 3 are armed with rifles and bayonets and one light machine gun each. Squad 4 has three grenade dischargers. Hand grenades are usually carried by all personnel in these squads. Officers and sergeants are armed with swords and pistols. Japanese manuals stress the demoralizing effect of hand-to-hand fighting.
3 Accurate details are not yet available on the organization of heavy tanks.
4 Flying columns do not necessarily have tanks attached.
5 Also spelled poonghies or poonghees.
6 These sets were believed to be small, portable transmitters of such low power that they were not detectable at the United Nation' airfields but of sufficient strength to be received by nearby field receivers. Messages received from the small sets were then relayed by more powerful field transmitters to Japanese Air Headquarters.

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