War Games II

posted in: WWII, WWII: Pacific Theater | 0

As the Japanese Imperial Navy was gearing up for war with the Allies, destroyer captain Tameichi Hara was brushing up on his Sun Tzu. The axiom from the third chapter of The Art of War jumped out at him:   “If you know your enemy and you know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you win [some] and lose [some]; if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” Captain Hara took these words to heart and made a study of the strengths and weaknesses of both sides as the war progressed. In retrospect, at least, he could be hard on himself, admitting a weakness for impulsiveness and, at times, an overindulgence of drink. He could be hard on his superiors, too, criticizing their mindless overuse of tactics that had worked once but became ineffective as the enemy made adjustments. After Japan’s string of early advances, Hara held no illusions. He told a reporter, “We have won a series of battles simply because the enemy out-blundered us.” [Hara 87]

All Japan’s military leaders had Sun Tzu in their training, yet few evinced an inclination to his precepts. In their righteous rage against the West, they seemed to lost sight of their civilization’s most valuable teachings. In other words, even as they invoked racial and cultural superiority, they failed to exploit the most advantageous elements of their heritage. They failed to seek to understand either own or their enemy’s strengths and weaknesses.

At least, these are the thoughts I have had as I have been studying the Pacific War and simultaneously learning the ancient Japanese game (also originated in China) of Go. The game is an obvious analogy for war, with territory claimed and lost, positions strong and weak, attacks and invasions, battles and fighting, walls and supporting stones. The game awed me with its complexity and competitiveness, with the richness of its lore. How could a nation raised on such a game conduct a war so deficiently? Why was I seeing no evidence of its wisdom in the thinking of Japan’s commanders?

The following is a personal musing on Go teachings that might have been overlooked in the heat and fog of the Pacific War, 1941-1945.



4-dan Go player and master teacher Jonathan Hop has a tongue-in-cheek name for aggressive Go players. He calls them “Barbarians,” out to slash and burn any “civilization” their opponent has built on the board. [Hop 134] They wreak havoc by compulsion rather than with strategic intent. Hop concedes that this type of player can be unsettling to play and challenging to beat. Early in his career the “Barbarian” gave him fits. To rookie players of this type, though, Hop cautions that attacks poorly planned can backfire and strengthen your opponent.

The same caveat applies in a war of expansion. Japan was on the short end of a demographic trend and needed its own version of lebensraum. As an island nation three times as dense as Britain, yet with only fifteen percent of its land suitable for agriculture, Japan struggle to feed its people. With few natural resources to bolster trade, she struggled to pay for the raw materials necessary for industrialization.

And militarization.

One Japanese officer explained his presence in Manchuria, 1931, candidly: “There are only three ways left to Japan to escape from the pressure of its surplus population…: …emigration, …world markets, and …territorial expansion.” [Edgerton 236] The first two were precluded by other nations’ quotas and tariffs, leaving the last as the only realistic option. The world had forced Japan’s hand.  Manchuria gave the Empire access to coal and fertile land. China proper gave it Shanxi iron–and eight years of headaches, besides. Malaya, Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines in 1941 supplied the oil, aluminum, iron, nickel, tin, tungsten, chrome, manganese, and rubber to satisfy its industrial appetite.

Yet, in the language of Go, Japan had established a “zone of control” rather than true “territory.” [Hop 151] It failed to build a “framework” for mounting future attacks and defending against future counter-attacks. Nor did it create “influence in a useful direction.” To the contrary, it seemed to be projecting its might in all directions at once. The Aleutians? Solomons? New Guinea? Burma? India itself? Which were the priorities? Could the Empire defend the full extent of its reach?

While the Allies were still recovering from the setbacks of December 1941 to May 1942, Japan might have done better to strengthen its defense-in-depth, as James Wood argued. [Wood 40, 97] It could have converted a loosely held zone of control into genuine territory, with the equivalent of “eyes,” as in Go. Territory in war is never logically “alive” or “dead,” as it is in Go. Yet defense-in-depth likely would have made prosecution of the war too costly for a democracy, sending its young men to die thousands of miles away. Japan needed to think more in terms of establishing territory and less about winning attacks.



In Go, every stone played in the middle of the board gets four liberties, surrounding spaces that are free, available. As each player places stones upon the board, one at a time, like-stones can connect and increase their strength by sharing liberties. Opposing stones can attack and reduce another stone’s, or group of stones’, liberties, its freedom of movement, as it were. Reduce a stone or group to one liberty, and it is said to be in atari, in danger of being surrounded and thus captured. When the opportunity arises to put another player’s stone(s) in atari, the novice player fairly jumps at the chance. He believes he has caught his opponent napping as is on the path to victory. Nothing of the sort. Putting an opponent’s stone(s) in atari can be a bad, even the worst, move to make at a given time. Experienced players know to consider the ramifications of all possible moves and to make the most profitable one, even if it means foregoing a chance to atari.

Japan was not a beginner in game of war. She had been expanding her borders for more than half a century and successfully challenged the Chinese and Russian giants in the process. Still, by 1930, a noxious mix of militarism, racism, and fascism clouded her military thinking. By February, 1942, she had put Allied “stones” in atari all across the board. Many were captured outright. Those that held out were left to fend for themselves. Wake fell, unreinforced, in late December. The Philippines in early May. The Allies did not rise to the bait.

In this regard, United States was playing above her experience level. She would make many tactical errors in the early months, but strategically, she was wise enough to buy time and build up her resources. Rather than respond directly to Japanese instigations, U.S. naval units merely harassed Japanese ships. “Hauling ass with Halsey” took some of the sting out of Pearl Harbor for naval officers and men. Though the damage inflicted on enemy ships was small (far less than what was hyped in American media), the boost to troop morale was great. The Halsey and Fletcher raids gave naval units experience returning fire, and with it a sense of confidence.

It also gave officers immediate feedback on their units’ deficiencies. Ian Toll identifies at least five of them, including antiaircraft ineptitude, inability to identify enemy and friendly aircraft, jumpiness at nonexistent submarine “sightings,” poor cruiser gunnery, and an insufficient number of fighter planes. [Toll 229] Identifying these vulnerabilities was critical to future success in the war. Furthermore, the mosquito-bite attacks were effective enough get inside the Japanese commanders’ heads. Suddenly the possibility of a carrier raid on Tokyo became a realistic possibility. Such a strike would dishonor the Imperial Navy and shatter its prestige, to say nothing of the casualties within the capital city itself.

Playing away from atari won the Americans significant benefits on which they would capitalize later in the war. When they did respond to the ultimate atari threat at Midway, in June 1940, a combination of pluck and luck helped them escape capture and inflict great damage on the enemy. They were aided by the Japanese decision to try for two ataris at once, dividing the strength of her force between at the atoll and the Aleutians. It was first outright victory for the Allies in the Pacific.

In pushing for Midway, and likewise New Guinea and New Caledonia, the Japanese were playing for the quick atari and quick capture. It made a certain sense to strike while the Allies were reeling from the devastating initial strikes. Capture pieces early, get them off the board and they cannot exert influence later in the game. It didn’t work out that way. The Allies didn’t play their game (at least not primarily). In going for the kill, the Japanese conducted the war like beginners.



“It is not a wise strategy for the player who is ahead on the board to engage in complicated and risky fights or exchanges on the board. He should strive to settle the shapes and decrease the complexity of the game.”

In May, 1942, both sides knew the Japanese were ahead on the map. Settling shapes–shoring up lines of communication and supply, constructing self-reinforcing airfields, establishing a zone of defense-in-depth–these were the actions Japan’s Imperial Army and Navy should have prioritized. Instead, the Navy carried out a Midway operation that was, in Toll’s words, “a farrago of compromises struck to quell internal dissent and to balance the demands of rivals. …shot through with contradictions, flaws, and unnecessary risks.” [Toll 379] It paid dearly for the mistake.

The strategic error went beyond Midway and preceded it. Unrestrained advances west and south aroused the Allies’ resolve like nothing else. Britain feared a Japanese incursion into India from Burma. Australia was alarmed by the Japanese push south into New Guinea, a stone’s throw, or easy air raid, from its mainland. The United Sates understood the Japanese drive through the Solomons toward New Caledonia threatened to cut off its transports from the Allied base of operations in Australia.

All these threatening Japanese actions called into question the Allies’ natural inclination toward a Europe First policy. [Toll 266-267] By pressing the issue, Japan stiffened the Allies’ resolve and hastened their turn to the counter-offensive. By attempting to take Port Moresby in early May, the Japanese instigated the Battle of the Coral Sea, which gave Allied naval forces more valuable experience and a strategic victory. As a result, no JIA troops were landed at Port Moresby, and the next attempt at the port, by land over the Owen Stanley Mountains, would prove an unmitigated disaster.

In August, two months after Midway, the U.S. Marines landed at Guadalcanal, beginning another months-long train wreck for the Japanese. According to destroyer captain Tameichi Hara, military planners at the time underestimated both the Americans’ willingness and their ability to launch such an attack. These were symptoms of the so-called “victory disease” that had infected much of the country, even those who were in positions to know better.

In May, 1942, the Japanese military was a rich man but it picked unnecessary fights with a weaker opponent. It complicated the war, rather than simplified it. The Allies fought harder as a result. Another Go proverb comes to mind: GIVE YOUR OPPONENT WHAT HE WANTS. Japan could have let the Allies have Australia, New Guinea, and nearby archipelagos. Malaya, the Philippines, Indonesia and Indo-China provided the raw materials it needed for empire. Allowing the Allies time to build  up its Pacific forces and bases would have given Japan time to build up its own communications and supply networks, infrastructure, including air bases, and fortifications. She would have been hard to defeat without an attrition rate too high for democratic populaces to stomach.

Unfortunately for her, Japan did not do that.



It is a liability in Go to be too attached to one’s stones, to cling to unfailingly to one’s territory. There are times, many times in the course of any single game, when stones will have to sacrificed, territory conceded. It is better to take the initiative and build a more favorable position elsewhere than to give up sente or throw good stones after bad.

The Allies conceded territory, even if unwillingly, then reluctantly. Toll quote Roosevelt trying to buck up Churchill, “There is no use giving a single further thought to Singapore or the Dutch Indies. They are gone.” [Toll 266] He might have said the same of the Philippines, but that was a loss harder for him to swallow. The Japanese might have benefited from letting Guadalcanal and New Guinea go earlier and with less of a fight. They needed time to strengthen their defensive position. They squandered it and would never regain it.



I have not quite convinced myself that Go proverbs have much bearing on the planning and execution of the War in the Pacific. I am still too inexperienced with both the game and the war to make a convincing case. My ideas inchoate and have relied too heavily on a simplified understanding of James Wood’s already somewhat simplified argument about Japanese prosecution of the war.

Still, I sense the Japanese were less in tune with their own traditions in the 1920s through 40s than they might have been. The country had westernized so relentlessly for half a century that its “progress” sowed the seeds of virulent reaction. Japan became…well, a farrago of contradictions. To counter racial prejudice, she invoked racial superiority. To exploit Western weakness, she employed Western military methods. She tried to beat the Allies at their own game.

The uniforms, the salutes, the ranks, the ships, the planes, the armaments: they were all Western, if improved upon in certain cases by Japanese ingenuity. While I have seen evidence of Eastern, philosophical ways of thinking in Hara, Yamamoto, and Kuribayashi, the military, as a whole, has seemed almost willfully blinded by hubris and rage. Over-estimation of their own powers, underestimation of their enemy’s, and a surfeit of wishful thinking were the results.

If the Japanese were deaf to Sun Tzu’s precept to know thyself and thine enemy, they were still more obtuse toward his predilection for “winning” without fighting. Both before and during the war, too little thought–and too little action–was given to the winning of a negotiated settlement. Certainly, Japan should have sought to negotiate from a position of strength. Yet she did not actually seek the negotiation in the first place. Japan lacked a realistic endgame strategy.

In Go, close games are won and lost in costly endgame moves. That wasn’t the case with Japan. Her opening  moves, fuseki, gave her a strong position at the start of the war. Her failure to build strong shapes of territory, simplify the game, and have an overall strategy for winning through negotiation, cost her dearly. A little more Eastern philosophy; a little less Western fasco-militarism.


Hara, Captain Tameichi (with Fred Saito, translator, and Roger Pineau, annotations). Japanese Destroyer Captain: Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, Midway–The Great Naval Battles as Seen Through Japanese Eyes. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1967 (translation, 1961).

Edgerton, Robert B. Warriors of the Rising Sun: A History of the Japanese Military. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1997.

Hop, Jonathan. So You Want to Play Go? (Intermediate Level 2, 19-10 kyu). Sunday Go Publications, 2008.

Toll, Ian W. Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.

Wood, James B. Japanese Military Strategy: Was Defeat Inevitable?  Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007.

Wood, James B. Japanese Military Strategy: Was Defeat Inevitable?  Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007.



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