Instructions for Japanese Regarding Korean Soldiers

Even prior to the annexation by the Japanese Empire, the Korean peninsula had close military ties with the Japanese, of varying degrees of warmth or animosity, and just as varied political motivations. Once the nation became a colony in 1910 however, Koreans were not permitted to serve in the Japanese military except for the following circumstances:

-Former Imperial Korean Army soldiers of any rank/grade transferring into the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA).

-Graduates of the Imperial Japanese Army Academy and military prep schools.

The Imperial Japanese Navy did not allow Koreans to serve until the 1944 conscription law was implemented.

A milestone of sorts was reached in 1938 when Imperial Edict No. 95 went into effect, expanding the national military service law to allow native Koreans to volunteer and expanding eligibility for Koreans to attend the army’s various institutions. Amendments to this edict and the Korean Volunteer Soldiers will be discussed in a future post.

Front page of the General Government of Korea Gazette publishing the articles of Imperial Edict No. 95.

Naturally, growing pains were to be expected as the Japanese military greatly expanded the integration of native Koreans into the ranks. Despite the two East Asian nations’ shared cultural and historical roots, enough difference existed in the habits and customs between the two that made difficult Japan’s plans of integrating the Korean’s along Japanese cultural and martial lines. Putting aside the colorful and very significant politics of Korea’s differing independence movements of the 20th century, the IJA did make a conscious effort to understand and accommodate Koreans’ cultural differences when and where possible, if doing so would not impact the mission.

An example of such efforts can be found in the 1943 “Army Direction For Sending Reference Material on Education for the Handling of Korean Soldiers.” This eleven page pamphlet provides information for those who would be leading or training Koreans.

Readers familiar with Korean culture will know how important sharing meals are with family, friends, and co-workers (known as “hoesik” in Korean) and Koreans’ proclivities to eat Korean style whenever and wherever they are. I found this excerpt from the pamphlet regarding eating habits humorous and relevant:

“…it is interesting that for food and drink, the amount distributed, side dishes, etc. may not be plain, and might expose sneaky behavior during field exercises, etc.”

The pamphlet is instructing the Japanese reader to be aware and understand Korean customs regarding meals, particularly in the training environment where soldiers’ diets are highly regimented, Koreans will pursue obtaining the necessary side dishes (“banchan” in Korean) even when faced with disciplinary action for violating the camp’s or exercise’s restrictions on foodstuffs outside of the mess or canteen.

Another excerpt:

“It is extremely urgent to understand the Koreans’ history, traditions, customs, habits, lifestyles, environment of the general public, ideological tendencies, etc.,…grasp the actual situation of education before enlistment in [military] schools and others… Therefore, it is necessary to thoroughly scrutinize the main points of these matters to junior ranking leaders, but it is necessary to be careful not to make these characteristics immediately by using an indigenous scale or to make them look down on the first-come-first-served basis.”

Here the pamphlet is raising awareness of Korea’s strongly vertically aligned social hierarchy, informing the reader that soldiers must be counseled to treat each other as equals and the only hierarchy that exists is that of rank and grade. Despite Korea’s old caste system being abolished in 1896, the rigid Confucian-style social hierarchy persisted and does to this day. The goal was to eliminate any preconceived discrimination the ranks may have among themselves on account of their age, economic background, or where they went to school or what class a graduate was part of. Private’s First Class should be treated the same by their peers or superiors, regardless of their pre-military background. Again, readers of this blog article familiar with Korean culture can intimately relate how dominant this order of hierarchy is in Korean society, particular in the professional environment. You may be of equal grade and even greater experience to that of your partner, but if he is one year older, you might be the one serving him tea.

The pamphlet cited, dated Showa 18 (1943), August 14.
(JACAR Ref. C01007778900)

The historical relationship between Korea and Japan has not been particularly cheery, but at least within the army there was some consideration and acknowledgement of the two people’s differences and how to best align those to serve the needs of the military.


  1. Army Special Volunteer Order, Original Signature, Showa 13th, Edict No. 95, National Archives of Japan Digital Archive 21506100.
  2. Ultimatum to the general Army regarding the sending of reference materials for education on handling Korean soliders, JACAR C01007778900.

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