Article originally published in:|
Military Heritage magazine, February 2004
Militaria: Japanese Headgear of the Second World War
By Peter Suciu
While sparred the horrors of the trench warfare, Japanese military planners in the 1930s were unprepared to design comfortable and dependable helmets and protective headgear for the coming war.
The European armies underwent a tremendous change in personnel equipment during the First World War and the look of virtually every nation involved changed considerably, except for that of the Empire of Japan. A minor player that sided with the Allies, the Japanese gained little in the way of experience from the conflict and as a result would suffer terribly as a result in the Second World War. Of all the major powers the Japanese have been regarded as being the least prepared when it came to equipping its individual soldiers.
The island nation produced a massive modern fleet of aircraft carriers and battleships but managed to lag behind in developing small arms and personnel equipment. Worse the varying climates that ranged from tropical to artic were especially hostile to the outdated Japanese uniforms, headgear and other equipment. Throughout the war however, and even in certain defeat the Japanese soldier proved brave, loyal to commanders and fought his enemies with a ferocity that can all but be described as fanatical. Because of this the helmets, hats and caps of the Japanese fighting man became well-earned battlefield prizes to the American and Allied forces that defeated this worthy advisory. As a result these items now are popular among collectors, and today many of these war relics would have quite a story to tell if they could talk.
Silhouette of the Japanese Soldier
Just as it is impossible to think of the German soldier without his steel helmet or the Nazi officer wearing the brimmed peaked cap, too it is hard to recollect the image of the Japanese officer without his tight canvas field cap, which has roughly the same dimensions of an American baseball cap of the era. Thanks to massive Hollywood productions like The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Thin Red Line have further added to the mysticism of the tough Japanese officer wearing this cap while shouting orders to his subordinates.
The Japanese military had greatly been influenced by the armies of Europe at the end of the 19th Century, with the navy taking a lead from the British while the army first utilized French advisors and then later those from Germany. As a result the Japanese army at the turn of the 20th Century had an appearance that was very European. The peaked caps, along with the uniforms for that matter that were used during the Meiji Era (1860-1912) were very much inspired by the French uniforms that had been in use prior and during the Franco-Prussian War. Uniforms and headgear underwent various changes during throughout the Meiji Era but the most notable revisions happened during the Taisho Era (1912-1926) when the military began to attempt a more modern field uniform. This included the introduction of the first khaki uniforms, which would evolve over the next 30 years and would culminate in the Type 90 field uniform in 1930.
The most common headgear worn throughout this era, which further became the standard for the Type 90 uniform in the 1930s was a rather archaic-looking peaked cap that had first been introduced in 1905. It was khaki on top, with a one and a half inch red band and a black leather peak and chinstrap. A brass five-point star, the symbol of the Japanese army, was worn on the front of the band by all ranks. Until the mid 1930s this cap was utilized in both rear areas and for field or combat dress. By the beginning of the Second World War this cap was relegated to rear area use only.
The more popular hat of the World War II era was the aforementioned field cap that was first introduced in 1932. This cap was worn in the field, at garrisons and even when on leave. The basic appearance of this cap changed little during the war but there were numerous manufacturing differences that have made these popular among collectors – while also opening the door for numerous fakes to flood the market.
Made of either colored wool or cotton these caps were almost always olive green or khaki and while there was a functional chinstrap, this accoutrement usually was worn over the brim. A yellow wool star for army personnel was sown to the cap, either directly to the fabric or attached to a green cloth/felt backing in the cap body. Marine and naval troops, including the Naval Landing Force personnel, used the same style cap but with a yellow anchor insignia on the front. These caps were issued to officers, NCOs and enlisted personnel throughout the war.
Other insignia including that of the Imperial Guard were also utilized on these caps, but as these were extremely rare in being issued these should be viewed with some skepticism when they are encountered for sale. A more commonly encountered version of these caps are those that had a Havelock attached. These cloth neck guards were provided in hot and very sunny regions to keep the wearer’s neck cool and to shade it from intense sunlight. Made of four cotton panels this addition was sewn directly to an existing cap but because these were often field made improvements it is often difficult to tell for certain if this Havelock was attached during the war or was added to boast the price in the post WWII era. As with other collectibles buying from a reputable dealer is advised when it comes to purchasing Japanese hats and caps, especially those that may be considered “rare variations.”
The Japanese, mostly in China and other northern areas, used one other type of hat in large numbers and this was the winter fur cap. Variations exist but it is usually similar in shape and design to the winter Chinese and Soviet fur caps with pull down earflaps. The main distinguishing feature is the army cap star, which was sewn to the front of this hat.
Steel helmets of Imperial Japan
As the Japanese did not fight in the trenches during World War I the country was slow to adopt its own steel helmet. But unlike many of the minor European powers Japan also did not quickly choose to rely on existing designs, such as that of Germany or France. Instead the island nation experimented with a variety of steel helmets before eventually putting the most commonly encountered helmet into production. Known as the Type 90 or Model 30, this was the basic helmet that would serve the Japanese armed forces throughout the war years.
In fact the first Japanese helmets were introduced into service in the early 1920s and these were roughly similar in design to the famous British Mark I that was used during the First World War, with a slightly lower rear. This helmet saw very little service, and at least one report suggests that it was limited to Naval Landing Force use only. This first helmet design was replaced by follow-up that is popularly known as the “cherry blossom” helmets. It featured a design that was inspired by the French model 1915 “Adrian” helmets and closely resembled the SSh-36 Soviet helmet (see article on Cold War helmets). It had a protruding front brim and sat low on the wearer’s head. This helmet saw limited use in China but there is no evidence that it was ever used in the Pacific Theater during the Second World War. Because of its rarity it has become highly sough after by collectors.
It is also worth noting that a variety of experimental helmets were introduced during the 1930s and used in the campaign in Manchuria, including helmets that had designs similar to that of the notable German M35, but it was the Type 90 that eventually won out and became the standard military helmet for both the Japanese army and the Imperial Navy and it was worn throughout the duration of World War II by all ranks.
Some similarities to traditional Japanese military helmets can be seen in this piece. “You could draw comparisons to the Type 90 steel helmet as resembling peasant or Samurai helmets,” explains collector and author Jareth Holub, who has dealt with Japanese headgear for more than 20 years.
This helmet was made of molybdenum steel and was generally considered to be ineffective against Allied small arms, but like the rest of the Japanese soldier’s equipment no attempt was made to refine or improve upon its design. The helmet’s dome shape, like the cap, has remained a fixture in remembering the image of the Japanese combat soldier. Almost all Type 90 helmets that were issued to the military had a standard insignia usually attached to the front. The Japanese army used a flat five-pointed star while the Naval Landing Force helmets featured an anchor with a cherry blossom, the standard insignia of the Imperial family. Additionally Naval Landing Force helmets are found without a formal badge but instead have a stenciled anchor on the front, usually in bright yellow paint.
These shells were produced in three basic sizes and are almost always stamped at the rear of the helmet in Japanese characters. “The army and navy used the same type helmets but were producing their own separate helmets,” stresses Holub who adds that different stampings from different arsenals are on the helmets. More to the point he adds, “These helmets did not share any components.”
The original liner for these helmets was designed to be three leather sections, which were individually attached to the shell by a pair of rivets and held together by a canvas drawstring. As leather did not fare well in the tropical climates attempts were made to introduce other materials – and often soldiers had to improvise while in the field. This was done by using bits of canvas or cloth to replace a rotted out leather liner. Still because of the sheer number of helmets produced throughout the war it is quite possible to find a nice original with the leather intact.
As the war continued the Japanese were faced with shortages and this shows in the quality of the helmets being produced. Late war liners and variations in the shell design were common. The last variation of the Type 90 was used by paramilitary and civilian organizations. According to Holub these helmets had also gone through liner designs and these had limited military service, often appear today with no insignia of any kind. “The earlier liners were made of coarse material like muslin or cheesecloth resembling army leather style liners. Last ditch liners were just a donut/round swath of cheesecloth. These helmets were used by police, firemen, students, air raid wardens and civilian defense forces.”
One notable item that is worth mentioning about the Type 90 – as well as other Japanese helmets – is that the chinstrap has often led to confusion to Westerners. Unlike most of the contemporary helmets of the era, the Type 90 featured a canvas chinstrap without a bucket. It is often thought to be too long, more than 18 inches long in most cases. To secure the helmet, a technique is used that was based on the method from the Samurai era with their combat helmets and involves looping the strap around the wearer’s chin.
Where the Type 90 shares features with the Western helmets of America or Germany is in the use of covering. Throughout the Second World War helmet covers and netting were commonly issued and these often have prices greater to the helmets themselves. Light green colored cotton covers were issued to soldiers to provide camouflage and to help protect the steel shell. These helmet covers featured either the army star or the naval anchor. The quality of these covers tended to decrease as the war dragged on and today it is very important to watch for small details like the stitch patterns when judging the authenticity of these items as they have been produced in large amounts in the post war years and sold as originals.
Netting was issued in great amounts to troops in jungle and tropical areas where foliage could be used to provide camouflage. Helmet netting was produced in great numbers but it is possible to find variations as soldiers in the field often used whatever was readily available. As with the covers judging the originality of netting, as the original color may have likely faded after 60 years, can be tricky business and expert options should be sought if you are uncertain. Even more than with the helmets themselves it is recommended that covers and nets be purchased from reliable and trustworthy dealers as fakes abound Internet auctions.
Sun helmets and other specialty headgear
In addition to steel helmets the Japanese issued an enormous number of sun or pith helmets to their land forces. There are several variants of the Japanese sun helmet but typically it is agreed that there are two basic styles. The first is a doomed bowl-like helmet that had the basic silhouette of the Type 90 steel helmet. It was constructed of six segments of khaki cloth cork with a strip of cloth fastened around the base of the helmet. As with the steel helmets it was issued to all ranks and appeared with and without a cloth insignia on the front. This style sun helmet is frequently encountered with the cap style Havelock and there are existing examples of the helmet having the liner removed and the cork shell being used as a steel helmet cover.
Officially this helmet was produced for use by the army and it is uncommon to see a helmet of this type with Naval Landing Force insignia. While the author has a helmet with this insignia in his collection it is believed that the insignia was either added in the field by the soldier or added on the “trip home” by the veteran who brought back this piece. It was acquired from the veteran’s son who had no further details except to say that this was the way it was given to him by his father.
The second type of sun helmet closely resembles the British or German pith helmets and is reminiscent of a “safari helmet.” This headgear was used by Naval Landing Force personnel and thus should not be typically seen with army insignia, although there is at least one known photograph of such an example. The NLF version of pith helmets is not as common as the army version but neither style has been widely reproduced in the post war period. However many of both styles of helmets were found throughout the 1950s and 1960s in storage and these have occasionally “flooded” the collector’s market as World War II issue helmets. While there is no doubt that these were manufactured during the 1937-1945 era these did not see service and thus some collectors do not consider them to be war era issue helmets.
Much more rare than sun helmets were the specialty produced tanker and paratrooper helmets that the Japanese issued in much smaller numbers. The early tanker crash helmets were leather-covered, fur-lined, featuring earflaps that tied together under the chin. The top of the helmet was domed shaped and padded, and this early-design was typically seen in China and Manchuria, as the fur-liner would have been far too warm for the tropical weather of the Pacific.
A “summer” version was produced that is essentially a specially designed sun helmet for tank personnel. It is a canvas-covered cork crash helmet that features laced flaps on the side for adjustment. Both helmets gave adequate protection against jolts and bumps inside the tank but provided no ballistic defense. Because of the limited use of Japanese armor these helmets were produced in small quantities, but there have been rumors of “post-war” discoveries of un-issued caches of these items. As with the sun helmets it is up to the individual collector to determine whether these helmets should be considered period pieces.
The final helmet of interest for the land forces was the paratrooper helmet, which resembles a cross between the sun helmet and the tanker helmet. Produced in extremely limited qualities collectors have sought after these helmets for years, and this has lead to numerous fakes cropping up on auction sites and from unscrupulous dealers. The helmets were known to be manufactured with and without a steel bowl covered that leather to provide additional padding. Those helmets without the steel bowl maintain the same basic shape but instead were made of cork. No one source has been able to confirm if one model appeared before the other or if they were issued at the same time.
Additionally there is photographic evidence of NFL troops that used standard Type 90 helmets with a modified liner in combat. It is not known if these were “jump” helmets or used after landing. Furthermore one source has suggested that German M38 paratrooper helmets were provided to the Japanese but this seem dubious at best as no known examples have come to light and there is no photographic evidence to support this claim.
Post war and collecting
As with the other major combatants Japan produced millions of helmets and although many made the trip across the Pacific to return to America with victorious veterans, other helmets ended up serving new soldiers well into the cold war era.
“Many Asian countries such as Thailand, China, Korea and Vietnam used Japanese helmets post war with replaced or modified liners,” emphasizes Holub. The government of Thailand equipped almost all of their post-war army with Japanese Type 90 helmets until the 1970s, adding a French World War II leather liner system along with a new starburst emblem.
Not as popular today with collectors as those from their German allies, the Japanese helmets have begun to go up in price. Interest in the Pacific Theater has further increased thanks to films like Windtalkers and Pearl Harbor. This has made collecting tricky business as with increased interest comes a wave of fakes.
“The standard infantry helmet is probably the most popular due to its availability and price,” adds Richard J. Williams of Williams War Relics, an online retail site dedicated to quality militaria. “Covers, nets, helmet liners and even some rarer helmets are all faked today. Helmet covers are highly prized.”
One thing to watch for, which both Williams and Holub would agree, is the condition. Tropical conditions are not good for inferior steel and leather, so “mint condition” helmets are far and few between! “Mint helmets are available, however they were most likely obtained during the occupation of Japan or later,” adds Williams. “Helmets used in the islands all seem to be ‘salty” and used as would be expected due to climate and hard use.”
Considering that these helmets are 60+ years old they won’t, nor should, look brand new. But like with other war booty, these are items that no doubt would have many tales to tell.
Sources and further reading:
Imperial Japanese Army and Navy Uniforms & Equipment
Tadao Nakata and Thomas B. nelson
Format: Hard cover, 1987 (revised edition)
Publisher: Chesa Ltd., English-language summary published by Arms & Armour Press
Uniforms and Equipment of the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II
Format: Hard cover, 2002
Publisher: Schiffer Publishing Ltd.
The Japanese Army 1931-45 (1): 1931-42
Philip Jowett, Illustrated by Stephen Andrew
Format: Paperback, 2002
Publisher: Osprey Publishing
The Japanese Army 1931-45 (2): 1942-45
Philip Jowett, Illustrated by Stephen Andrew
Format: Paperback, 2002
Publisher: Osprey Publishing
Japanese Military Uniforms 1841-1929
Publisher: Egmont Childrens Books
Japanese Military Uniforms 1930-1945