March 10, 2014: Japan has decided, for the first time ever, to establish a force of marines similar to the U.S. Marine Corps. Apparently American marines will help train the new Japanese force, currently planned as a brigade of some 3,000 troops. American marines have been teaching Japanese infantry how to undertake amphibious operations for some time but these army troops were not considered marines. The new plan is to establish an elite force of Japanese marines to deal with Chinese threats to Japanese territory. Japan is aware that neighboring South Korea created a Marine Corps in the 1950s, mainly because American marines were involved in protecting South Korea during the Korean War (1950-53) and the Koreans were impressed by the American marines. The South Korean marines turned out to be very good and the Japanese will have to hustle to be competitive.
At this point some of you history buffs are wondering about the World War II Japanese marines. Well, there were no Japanese marines in World War II. What was sometimes mistaken for marines was what the Japanese called the SNLF (Special Naval Landing Forces).
As with most maritime powers Japan often found it needed to send troops ashore quickly when all they had available were warships sitting off the coast. The Japanese, like most navies, would simply arm sailors and have them land. If the warships involved were not going to move around or get into heavy combat themselves, a third or more of the crew could be sent ashore as infantry. For a week or so, anyway. As recently as World War I (1914), America did the same thing, most obviously in Mexico where sailors landed at Vera Cruz as infantry and seized the city. In continuation of this tradition, some sailors still regularly train as riflemen and the U.S. Navy recently established a permanent force of naval infantry for security and coastal operations.
Since the 18th century the U.S. Navy usually had a few Marines on most major ships. These marines were in the habit of going with sailors sent ashore with rifles and contributed some expert advice on infantry operations. Marines (trained soldiers serving on board ships) were an ancient practice as until the introduction of cannon naval battles largely consisted of ships colliding and infantry fighting it out as if on land. When cannon came along there was much less emphasis on infantry combat afloat. Some infantry troops (usually professional marines) remained on ships and these evolved during the past few centuries into soldiers who served as guards on ships, helped man the big guns and, when needed, went ashore to take care of infantry business. Since Japan got a late start in the Navy business (in fact, it never owned a sailing warship) it didn't develop marines in the traditional sense.
Yet Japan soon ran up against the need to land troops from warships along the China coast, especially in the 1920s and 30s. Using sailors for this worked pretty well because Japanese sailors were given infantry training as well as instruction in seamanship. But by the early 1930s the admirals were getting tired of seeing their crews stripped of sailors to take care of some emergency ashore and decided to do something about it. Thus was born the SNLF. These were sailors trained and equipped to fight ashore. Their weapons were identical to those used by the Army and their uniforms were very similar. One of the differences was the use of an anchor symbol on the steel helmet instead of a star.
The SNLF were organized into large battalions (of 1,000 to 2,000 troops), containing a wide variety of weapons. Each of the four major Japanese naval bases (Kure, Maizuru, Saesbo and Yokosuka) was ordered to organize one or more of these units (called Rikusentai in Japanese). A dozen SNLF "battalions" were organized before and during the war, including a handful of parachute units. There were also several other types of specialized Navy ground combat units. To put this in perspective, the U.S. Marines during World War II organized some one hundred battalion sized combat units while only about three dozen (of all types) were created by the Japanese Navy ground forces. Or, put another way, there were about five times as many American Marines as there were Japanese SNLF troops.
After Pearl Harbor, the SNLF spearheaded the Japanese offensive into the south and central Pacific. If was SNLF units that seized American islands such as Wake and the British Gilberts. In cooperation with Army troops, SNLF, including paratroopers, also participated in the attacks on the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and Rabaul (the major naval base just north of the Solomons and Australia.) A big difference here was that the SNLF was not trained or equipped to make landings on heavily defended beaches. That was a U.S. Marine Corps specialty.
When America began its drive across the Central Pacific in late 1943, the first Japanese garrisons they attacked consisted largely of SNLF and other Japanese Navy ground forces. The closer the U.S. Marines got to Japan, the more Japanese Army troops they encountered. Thus the SNLF were largely found as garrisons on small islands in the Pacific. Like the U.S. Marines, the SNLF's main purpose was seizing forward bases for the navy, and then holding on to them. Beyond that, there were many significant differences between the SNLF and the American Marines (U.S.MC). The USMC had a long tradition of highly trained and disciplined assault troops who were always distinct from the sailors they served with. The SNLF were sailors trained and equipped to serve mainly as infantry not ship crews. The SNLF officers were simply naval officers assigned to land combat duty. USMC officers were strictly marine officers. Thus the USMC leadership were far more expert at commanding infantry operations than their SNLF counterparts.
Most importantly the USMC units were specially equipped for amphibious warfare. While their gear included much that was identical to what the army used, where necessary unique weapons or equipment was developed. The SNLF had very little special equipment. In particular, the SNLF never had anything like the array of specialized amphibious equipment available to the USMC. The USMC was primarily an amphibious assault force while the SNLF spent most of its time guarding bases. The USMC also had "base defense units," but these were a handful of battalions compared to nearly a hundred assault units. Because of this specialization the USMC was, by tradition and training, an elite force that was expected to, and usually did, successfully undertake very difficult assignments. The SNLF, on the other hand, were not even considered as capable as their army counterparts. In short, there never were any Japanese Marines. The SNLF were sailors serving ashore as infantry and that's as far as it went. The new Japanese marines will be more like the American marines the SNLF faced during World War II.