Juergen Paul Melzer

Professor, Yamanashi Gakuin University (Japan)
Faculty Adviser: Sheldon Garon

Assisted Takeoff: Germany and the Ascent of Japan's Aviation, 1910-1937


This dissertation examines the trajectory of Japan's aviation from its birth in 1910 until 1937, when, on the eve of war with China, Japanese military aviation matched and in many aspects even surpassed that of the West. In particular this study, which draws predominantly on archival material from Japan and Germany, seeks to demonstrate that German influence on Japan's aviation became dominant by the mid-1920s and continued for a decade. German assistance prepared Japanese engineers for the important transition from imitation to independent design. It also profoundly reshaped the Japanese military's air fleet and air strategy. The 1919 Versailles Treaty drew the attention of the Japanese to the high standard of German aviation technology when it granted the Japanese free access to German factories and military facilities. These visits, together with the arrival of German war trophy aircraft in Japan, prompted the Japanese to purchase German airplanes and production licenses and to invite German engineers to Japan to educate a new generation of Japanese aircraft designers. German aircraft manufacturers became instrumental in the rise of the Imperial Japanese Navy's air power. German hardware and know-how laid the foundation for the design and production of flying boats and carrier airplanes. These state-of the-art aircraft substantially enhanced the navy's strike force and emboldened its air strategists to embrace a technology-driven hawkishness. With the help of German aviation specialists the Imperial Japanese Army also modernized its air squadrons. During the 1931 invasion of Manchuria the army deployed some of the world's most advanced military aircraft. Yet, the successes of these airplanes made the army's planners complacent. They drifted into a doctrinal slumber that paid little attention to the further development of an advanced air strategy. Shifting the focus from aircraft design toward aircraft production, the dissertation also addresses the limits of German influence. The Japanese were aware of the advances in Germany's production technology. However, the military's emphasis on aircraft with ever higher performance and the industry's continuing reliance on small subcontractors took a heavy toll on productivity. An industry that built world-class fighters and bombers was ill-prepared to produce them efficiently in large numbers.