Sources such as Basil Collier's "The Second World War: A Military History" list the Japanese forces during the war as being 6 million. My understanding is that the background of these troops is roughly as follows:

Of these 6 million troops, 2 million started the war (1937-41) in China, where they became veterans fighting the Chinese.

After Pearl Harbor, these experienced troops were mostly shipped out to conquer the ASEAN countries (Burma, Philippines, East Indies, etc.), or to defend the Pacific Islands (Saipan, Rabaul, Tarawa, Iwo Jima) against American attack.

Two million formerly "garrison" troops left Japan for China in 1942-43, where they acquired "some" experience in the later stages of the war. These were replaced by a new batch of "garrison" troops with little or no experience.

In 1945, were the Japanese home islands defended by relative "greenhorns" in Japan? Just as Japan's best pilots fought early in the war and "Kamikaze" caliber fliers in the end?

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    Question is somewhat undefined. It is clear that in case of invasion Japan would threw everything they have at invaders, from poorly trained and armed conscripts to veterans. Do you want breakdown of training and equipment levels compared to 1941 ?
    – rs.29
    Feb 18, 2020 at 7:55
  • @rs.29: Yes, or any other metric that you care to define and use.
    – Tom Au
    Feb 18, 2020 at 16:14
  • Can you revise to be less hypothetical?
    – MCW
    Jul 18, 2021 at 15:33
  • @MCW: The question is not meant to be "hypothetical" although a hypothesis is involved. That is, the original batch of veterans from China were sent to the "Pacific" (including Okinawa and Iwo Jima), a second batch from Japan replaced the original China attackers and got some experience in China, and the weakest, least experienced troops were the ones that never left Japan. The question is simply, "Is this hypothesis right or wrong."
    – Tom Au
    Jul 18, 2021 at 22:02
  • @TomAu - the original question was phrased as an explicit hypothetical- asking about history if something that didn't happen had happened. Does this revision still convey your intent, but remain within the history we can study?
    – MCW
    Jul 18, 2021 at 22:11

3 Answers 3


If you look at the Battle of Okinawa, you'll see that these guys were still well able to dish it out, even this late in the war. This is not the Volksturm in Germany late 44 and 45.

A determinant factor was largely whether the local Japanese commander in charge would be dumb - suicide charges - or clever - anything but suicide charges. At Okinawa, one officer (Yahara) was recommending attrition and harassment, another officer (Cho) glorious and fearless attacks. The Japanese did fairly well, i.e. did not collapse, until the first lost the argument and they reverted to banzai mode. Yahara, IIRC, wrote a book about the mess afterwards.

Same thing at Iwo Jima, a bit earlier, with a commander unwilling to waste his men, but willing to sacrifice them to inflict maximum US casualties.

The garrison at Iwo Jima was typical "2nd raters" as per this logic as this unit was reformed in May 1944 from what seems to be non-veterans. Basically, while this is an interesting question, I think that what might be a massive factor with green Western troops - morale and breaking or not under fire, just did not apply as much to Japanese troops, who would not break but were outgunned and often wasted by their officers.

China veterans may been less willing to forego heroism, believing elan would win the day - which it might do against more limited Chinese firepower. Or they may have been more clever and cautious instead. It is hard to know and one would expect variation from individual commanders, along with extra resistance due to invasion of the homeland.

The comparison with pilots can be a bit misleading. First the Zeros started out technically superior, with some flaws, but were gradually just plain outclassed. Second, the Japanese Navy apparently was apparently not good at mass training. They had excellent pilots at the start, but once they were killed, no one of the same caliber replaced them. Infantry just requires a lot less training than pilots.

The civilian casualties in Okinawa were horrific btw.

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    Pilots: Just like Germany, Japan had no hope of winning a prolonged war of attrition. Their best chance was a quick, decisive victory; to this end, they pushed their best units (including pilots) forward, with little regard to training the next "generation" (because having to rely on those effectively meant the war was lost anyway). What looks like a dumb mistake starts to make sense once you look at it that way. "I can run wild for six months ... after that, I have no expectation of success." -- Isoroku Yamamoto
    – DevSolar
    Feb 18, 2020 at 10:05
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    Exactly. If you're willing to go the distance, you train as many people as you can, as quickly as you can, and throw them into battle. (Like the Russians did.) If you can't afford a war of attrition, you train up your men as best as you can, and then roll the dice. (As Germany and Japan did.) If the dice don't come up in your favor, it basically doesn't matter how you proceed from there, you'll lose. Too bad it took Germany and Japan all those extra years and millions of casualties on both sides to come to that conclusion.
    – DevSolar
    Feb 18, 2020 at 15:39
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    I think it goes beyond the need for a quick win and enters the domain of Japanese WW2 military idiosyncrasies (the video claims they kicked out folk for all sorts of non-performance reasons) I find it intriguing that the Japanese, with their extreme military ethos at the time, basically had seen no war whatsoever since Tokugawa times. While very smart, this must have been the triumph of theory over practical experience. A caste of (seniority-obsessed?) pros who had never used their skills in anger (1905 war w Russia aside). Sometimes it worked (they were smart and tough). Sometimes not. Feb 18, 2020 at 15:43
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    Hm. By the time Pearl Harbor was attacked, Japan had (very successfully, I might add) been at war for over four years... plenty of time to get practical experience. Especially given how dissimilar this war was to previous conflicts, invalidating most earlier experience.
    – DevSolar
    Feb 18, 2020 at 15:47
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    @DevSolar: WWI? Plus a number of "banana republic" things in the intervening years, which certainly gives you a core of experienced troops.
    – jamesqf
    Feb 18, 2020 at 18:17

Most of experienced Japanese troops, that had been used to do the bright land conquests of 1942, were destroyed in shipping in South Pacific (5th division) or were stuck in the battle of Burma until destruction by combined British, American and Chinese forces.

However, a lot of Japanese troops stayed in China for most of the war, even if they were mostly inexperienced in 1942 (see for example the battle of Changsha). Those troops were stil in China, victorious during the Ichi Go operation, and ready to fight. However Japan had no more merchant fleet to transport them back to homeland, so they were mostly inactive until the final capitulation. Some of them fought the Soviets in 1945, though.

Note that those troops, when being embarked back to Japan after the capitulation, were a major factor in Chinese nationalists not being able to take control of territories before communists.


The Japanese military was constrained by resources, not their troops or pilots. Due to lack of resources, Japan was not able to resupply their Navy or Air Force adequately. Many historical buildings and statues were torn down deliberately from scrap metal. They were not able to repair their planes and also had a shortage of fuel (this is the reason for annexation of South East Asian territories). This resource issue is the main reason for “Kamikaze” tactics in the air. Kamikaze pilots were highly skilled and they themselves were a precious resource used only as a last resort.

They still had a large standing army and trained new soldiers throughout the war, having a large population to draw from. Japan had military service from 1873 and in the years 1943-1945 this was expanded to men under 20 and “subjects” in occupied Taiwan and Korea. Heavy casualties sustained by the US in the Battle for Iwo Jima and Battle for Okinawa. Japan still had skilled military commanders and large population to draw troops from.

When the USSR invaded Japanese occupied territories in Manchuria during the final stages of the war, these fell quickly as they were lightly defended. It is likely that some of the “experienced” troops here were redeployed by this stage (to defend Okinawa and the home islands).

Considering the heavy casualties in earlier battles, it was actually thought that Operation Downfall (a proposed invasion of the Japanese archipelago starting with Kyushu) would be even more costly. Once islands closer to Japan we’re taken, these were used as a staging area and most major cities were heavily bombed from November 1944 until August 1945. Yet Japan refused unconditional surrender and soldiers fought to the death rather than be captured. It was thought that the Japanese would actually present more of a challenge when defending their “home” islands. They were not "greenhorns" but still a formidable standing army that made a ground invasion undesirable due to heavy causalities that would ensue. This was part of the justification for the proposal to use tactical nuclear weapons to strike the cities of Hiroshima and Kokura instead.

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    How does this answer the question? Feb 18, 2020 at 10:09

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