Code of "Law"?

A code of conduct imposed upon soldiers during wartime appears so starkly disassociated with reality when looked at through the eyes of a peace-time observer. But even after World War II, when the world became aware of the 1941 Military Field Code of the Japanese Army, there was a reaction of incredulity and horror.

This Code, as the word "code" suggests, was not some manual of best practices. It was law for soldiers, the disobedience of which could not only lead to court martial but, especially for Japanese soldiers during World War II, a quick death sentence and execution.1

Developed by the War Department in Tokyo in 1940, this code of law was promulgated, if not mostly written by the soon-to-be prime minister of Japan and war-hawk Hideki Tojo2, on January 8, 1941. The Military Field Code was even proudly published in the official government publication of new laws, known as the Tokyo Gazette, at Volume 4, #9, pages 343-346.

The essence, the uniqueness,of this Code which forced thousands of Japanese soldiers to sacrifice their lives needlessly when they should have surrendered, is contained in the following words from the Code: "Never give up a position but rather die.... Do not give up under any circumstances." Countless biographies of soldiers fighting in the Pacific theater of World War II relate pathetic stories of Japanese soldiers fighting and even attacking individually in hopeless situations, and being shot dead, rather than surrender.

It does seem surreal to reflect on the fact that at sometime either a committee or individual such as Tojo, and as recently as 1941, sat down with pen in hand and contrived this bizarre code of law, albeit verging on the religious and in any event, certainly military in nature. For the record of legal history, here is the full text of the Code as translated later by the governments of the Allied Forces for the purposes of subsequent war crime trials (see Note 2 below).

The 1941 Code of the Japanese Soldier

The battlefield is where the Imperial Army, acting under the Imperial command, displays its true character, conquering wherever it attacks, winning whenever it engages in combat, in order to spread Kodo (i.e. "the Imperial way"), whereby the Japanese people, achieving a unity of mind, with Emperor as Master and serving Him with loyalty and devotion, endeavor to establish a highly moral nation through whose moral influence they hope to contribute to the peace and welfare of the world far and wide so that the enemy may look up in awe to the august virtues of His Majesty.

Those who march to the battlefield, therefore, should exalt throughout the world the glories of the Empire by fully realizing what the country stands for and firmly upholding the moral tenets of the Imperial Army.

The Imperial Code to the armed forces is explicit, while the regulations and manuals clearly define the conduct in combat and methods of training. Conditions in the zone of combat, however, tend to cause soldiers to be swayed by immediate events and become forgetful of their duty. Indeed, they should be wary there lest they run counter to their duties as soldiers.

The purpose of this Code lies in providing concrete rules of conduct in the light of past experience so that those in the zone of combat may wholly abide by the Imperial Code to enhance the moral virtues of the Imperial Army.

Japan is the kokosu (i.e. empire). The Tenno (i.e., emperor) rules over it everlasting in a line unbroken through the ages as the successor in the high and broad cause established by the imperial ancestor at the time of the founding of the Empire.

Imperial benevolence is extended to all without favour, while the Imperial virtues enlighten the world.

The people too, handing down the traditions of loyalty, filial piety, and valour from generation to generation, and enhancing thereby the morality peculiar to the Empire, have assisted the emperor a perfect national unity under the emperor which has brought about the present national prosperity.

Soldiers in the field should seek to achieve, with unshakable determination, their mission of defending the Empire by laying to heart the essential character of the nation.

The army, under command of the Emperor, assists in furthering the Imperial fortunes by enhancing the glories of the Empire through the embodiment of the lofty spirit of valour. This spirit is the basic factor in realizing universal peace; for it is the spirit of justice combined with valour and of valour tempered by benevolence, in conformity with the Imperial wishes.

Valour requires strictness, while benevolence must be universal. Should there be an enemy who dares to oppose the Imperial army, the army must resolutely resort to force of arms and deal him a crushing blow. However, even though force may compel the enemy to submit, should a lapse in virtue occur by striking of those who do not resist or by failure to show kindness to those who surrender, it cannot be said that such an army is perfect.

Modesty in its strength, unostentatious in its kindness, the Imperial Army becomes the object of admiration when it quietly displays its valour and benevolence.

The mission of the Imperial Army lies in making the Imperial virtues the objects of universal admiration through the exercise of justice tempered with mercy.

The essence of discipline in the Imperial Army lies in the lofty spirit of complete obedience to His Majesty, the Grand Marshal (the emperor). High and low must have deeply engraved in their minds the solemnity of the right of command. Those above should exercise the right in all seriousness, while those below should obey the commands in the utmost sincerity.

Essential to victory and requisite for maintaining peace is the condition wherein the entire Army, united in the bonds of absolute loyalty, moves as one in response to a command.

Especially on the battlefield is the utmost observance of the spirit of obedience necessary. The spirit of the soldier is best exemplified by those who silently do their duty, joyfully braving death in obedience to a command given at a time when they are undergoing great hardships.

The Army looks up in awe to his Majesty (the emperor) as its august head. It must be united in compliance with the Imperial will, as one in spirit and in body and in single-hearted loyalty.

In keeping with the basic principles of command, an army unit should form a solid yet genial group with its commander as its centre.

It is essential that each man, high and low, dutifully observing his place, should be determined always to sacrifice himself for the whole, in accordance with the intentions of the commander, by reposing every confidence in his comrades, and without giving even the slightest thought to personal interest and to life or death.

Soldiers should not only be united in mind in carrying out their tasks, but should display the spirit of cooperation by forgetting themselves for the sake of victory.

Every unit should carry out its mission with responsibility, upholding its honour, placing confidence in others and assisting one another, volunteering to face hardships, exerting all its strength in cooperation, and fighting valiantly to achieve its objective.

Aggressiveness should constantly prevail in combat, which must be carried out with bravery and determination.

When attacking, be determined and positive, always taking the initiative, fighting vigorously and stubbornly, vowing not to cease until the enemy is crushed.

In defence, always retain the spirit of attack and always maintain freedom of action.

Never give up a position but rather die.

In pursuit, be thorough and inexorable. Act boldly intent on victory. Be fearless and calm, meeting the situation courageously, undergoing hardships with indomitable perseverance so as to overcome all obstacles.

Faith is strength. He who has faith in combat is always the victor.

The conviction to win grows from constant and rigorous training. Develop the strength to conquer the enemy by every possible effort and by improving every moment.

The destiny of the Empire rests upon victory or defeat in battle. Do not give up under any circumstances, keeping in mind your responsibility not to tarnish the glorious history of the Imperial Army with its tradition of invincibility.


  • Duhaime's Military Law Dictionary
  • NOTE 1: The quick killing of one's own soldiers during wartime for breaches of active combat orders or expectations, such as desertion or failure to execute the orders of a superior, is an ancient practice and is designed to ensure that an example is set in regards to any "freethinkers", and to the so-called good of the entire war machine.
  • NOTE 2: American-Jewish Cooperative Enterprise, the Jewish Virtual Library re Hideki Tojo [retrieved from the Internet on 2014-04-26 from the then-active link]: "Hideki Tojo was a Japanese general and the 40th Prime Minister of Japan (October 18, 1941-July 22, 1944). Tojo was a member of the military clique that pushed Japan into war in the late 1930s. As War Minister in 1940 he was instrumental in leading Japan into the Axis Alliance with Nazi Germany and Italy. By 1941, Tojo was premier and in command of the entire Japanese military, which so dominated Japan at the time that he was virtually the nation's dictator. He resigned in 1944 following a series of military disasters. After the war, he shot himself in the chest in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. He then was tried by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East for war crimes. He was found guilty.... He was sentenced to death on November 12, 1948, and executed by hanging."
  • Sides, Hampton, Ghost Soldiers (New York: Anchor Books (Random House Inc., 2001) at page 22.