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Kempei officers aboard a train in 1935.
Active 1881–1945
Country  Japan
Branch  Imperial Japanese Army
Type Gendarmerie
Role Various duties including judicial, counterinsurgency and military roles
Size 7,500 (c.1945)
Part of Home Ministry (within Japanese home islands)
Ministry of War (overseas territories)
Disbanded August 1945

The Kempeitai (憲兵隊, Kenpeitai?, "Military Police Corps") /kɛmpt/ was the military police arm of the Imperial Japanese Army from 1881 to 1945. It was not a conventional military police, but more of a secret police.

While it was institutionally part of the Imperial Japanese Army, it also discharged the functions of the military police for the Imperial Japanese Navy under the direction of the Admiralty Minister (although the IJN had its own much smaller Tokkeitai), those of the executive police under the direction of the Interior Minister, and those of the judicial police under the direction of the Justice Minister. A member of the corps was called a kempei.[1]


The Kempeitai was established in 1881 by a decree called the Kempei Ordinance (憲兵条例?), figuratively "articles concerning gendarmes".[2] Its model was the Gendarmerie of France. Details of the Kempeitai's military, executive, and judicial police functions were defined by the Kempei Rei of 1898,[3] which was amended twenty-six times before Japan's defeat in August 1945.

The force initially consisted of 349 men. The enforcement of the new conscription legislation was an important part of their duty, due to resistance from peasant families. The Kempeitai's general affairs branch was in charge of the force's policy, personnel management, internal discipline, as well as communication with the Ministries of the Admiralty, the Interior, and Justice. The operation branch was in charge of the distribution of military police units within the army, general public security and intelligence.[citation needed]

In 1907, the Kempeitai was ordered to Korea[4] where its main duty was legally defined as "preserving the (Japanese army's) peace", although it also functioned as a military police for the Japanese army stationed there. This status remained basically unchanged after Japan's annexation of Korea in 1910.

The Kempeitai maintained public order within Japan under the direction of the Interior Minister, and in the occupied territories under the direction of the Minister of War. Japan also had a civilian secret police force, Tokko, which was the Japanese acronym of Tokubetsu Kōtō Keisatsu ("Special Higher Police") part of the Interior Ministry. However, the Kempeitai had a Tokko branch of its own, and through it discharged the functions of a secret police.

When the Kempeitai arrested a civilian under the direction of the Justice Minister, the arrested person was nominally subject to civilian judicial proceedings.

The Kempeitai's brutality was particularly notorious in Korea and the other occupied territories. The Kempeitai were also abhorred in Japan's mainland as well, especially during World War II when Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, formerly the Commander of the Kempeitai of the Japanese Army in Manchuria from 1935 to 1937,[5] used the Kempeitai extensively to make sure that everyone was loyal to the war.

According to United States Army TM-E 30-480, there were over 36,000 regular members of the Kempeitai at the end of the war; this did not include the many ethnic "auxiliaries". As many foreign territories fell under the Japanese military occupation during the 1930s and the early 1940s, the Kempeitai recruited a large number of locals in those territories. Taiwanese and Koreans were used extensively as auxiliaries to police the newly occupied territories in Southeast Asia, although the Kempeitai recruited French Indochinese (especially, from among the Cao Dai religious sect), Malays and others. The Kempeitai may have trained Trình Minh Thế, a Vietnamese nationalist and military leader.

The Kempeitai was disarmed and disbanded after the Japanese surrender in August 1945.

Today, the post-war Self-Defense Forces' internal police is called Keimutai (See Japanese Self-Defense Forces). Each individual member is called Keimukan.

Japanese Secret Services and the Axis Powers[edit]

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Kempeitai forged various connections with certain pre-war European intelligence services. Later when Japan signed the Tripartite Pact, the Japanese Secret Services formed formal links with these intelligence units, now under German and Italian fascists, known as the Abwehr and the Italian SIM. Along these lines, the Japanese Army and Navy, contacted their corresponding Wehrmacht intelligence units, Schutzstaffel (SS), or Kriegsmarine concerning information regarding Europe and vice versa. Europe and Japan realized the benefits of these exchanges (for example, the Japanese sent data about Soviet forces in the Far East and in Operation Barbarossa from the Japanese Embassy, and Admiral Canaris offered aid in respect to the Portuguese neutrality question in Timor).

One important contact point was at the Penang Submarine base, in British Malaya. This base served Axis submarine forces (Italian Regia Marina, German Kriegsmarine and the Dai Nippon Teikoku Kaigun, or Imperial Japanese Navy). Here at regular intervals, technological and information exchanges occurred. Until the end of conflict, Axis forces used the bases in Italian occupied Ethiopia, the Vichy France territory of Madagascar and some "officially" neutral places like the Portuguese Colonies of Goa in India.

Human rights abuses[edit]

The Kempeitai ran extensive criminal and collaborationist networks, extorting vast amounts of money from businesses and civilians wherever they operated. They also ran the Allied prisoner of war system, which often treated captives with extreme brutality.[6][7] Many of the abuses were documented in Japanese war crimes trials, such as those committed by the Kempeitai East District Branch in Singapore.

The Kempeitai also carried out revenge attacks against prisoners and civilians. For example, after Colonel Doolittle's raid on Tokyo in 1942, the Kempeitai carried out reprisals against thousands of Chinese civilians and captured airmen,[8] or in 1943 the Double Tenth massacre which was in response to an Allied raid on Singapore Harbour. All these actions together—including Unit 731's vivisection campaign—include some of the worst atrocities committed during World War II.[9]


The Kempeitai maintained a headquarters in each relevant Area Army, commanded by a Shosho (Major General) with a Taisa (Colonel) as Executive Officer and comprising two or three field offices, commanded by a Chusa (Lieutenant Colonel) and with a Shosa (Major) as executive officer and each with approximately 375 personnel.

The field office in turn was divided into 65-man sections called 'buntai'. Each was commanded by a Tai-i (Captain) with a Chu-i (1st Lieutenant) as his Executive Officer and had 65 other troops. The buntai were further divided into detachments called bunkentai, commanded by a Sho-i (2nd Lieutenant) with a Junshikan (Warrant Officer) as Executive Officer and 20 other troops. Each detachment contained three squads: a police squad or keimu han, an administration squad or naikin han, and a special duties squad or Tokumu han.

Kempeitai Auxiliary units consisting of regional ethnic forces were organized in occupied areas. Troops supplemented the Kempeitai and were considered part of the organization but were limited to the rank of Shocho (Sergeant Major).

The Kempeitai had 315 officers and 6,000 enlisted men by 1937. These were the members of the known, public forces. Allies estimated that by the end of World War II, there were at least 7,500 members[10] of the Kempeitai, figuring in undercover personnel and so on. This number might be even higher.

Wartime mission[edit]

A Kempeitai Sōchō uniform at the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence.

The Kempeitai was responsible for the following:

  • Travel permits
  • Labor recruitment
  • Counterintelligence and counter-propaganda (run by the Tokko-Kempeitai as 'anti-ideological work')
  • Supply requisitioning and rationing
  • Psychological operations and propaganda
  • Rear area security

By 1944, despite the obvious tide of war, the kempeitai were arresting people for antiwar sentiment and defeatism.[11]


Personnel wore either the standard M1938 field uniform or the cavalry uniform with high black leather boots. Civilian clothes were also authorized but badges of rank or the Japanese Imperial chrysanthemum were worn under the jacket lapel. Uniformed personnel also wore a black chevron on their uniforms and a white armband on the left arm with the characters ken (憲, "law") and hei (兵, "soldier").

A full dress uniform comprising a red kepi, gold and red waist sash, dark blue tunic and trousers with black facings was authorized for officers of the Kempeitai to wear on ceremonial occasions until 1942. Rank insignia comprised gold Austrian knots and epaulettes.

Personnel were armed with either a cavalry sabre and pistol for officers and a pistol and bayonet for enlisted men. Junior NCOs carried a shinai (竹刀, "bamboo kendo sword") especially when dealing with prisoners.

Other intelligence sections[edit]

  • Kempeitai (Imperial Japanese Gendarmerie) had responsibilities similar to German Schutzstaffel ("SS") and Sicherheitsdienst ("SD") (German Security Service) or Soviet Russian NKVD, and Politruk unit, for watching exterior enemies or suspicious persons and watching inside of own unit for possible defectors or traitors; and used the security doctrine of "Kikosaku".
  • Overseas Security and Colonial Police Service special unit dedicated to the maintenance of security in occupied territories in Southeast Asia. This also undertook some administrative responsibilities.
  • The Kempeitai was divided into:
    • Keimu Han (Police and security)
    • Naikin Han (Administration)
    • Tokumu Han (Special Duties)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Masae Takahashi (editor and annotator), Zoku Gendaishi Shiryo ("Materials on Contemporary History, Second Series"), Volume 6, Gunji Keisatsu ("Military Police"), (Tokyo: Misuzu Shobo, 1982), pp. v–xxx.
  2. ^ Dajokan-Tatsu (Decree in Grand Council of the State) of 11 March 1881 (14th Year of Meiji), No. 11. This decree was subsequently amended by Chokurei (Order in Privy Council) of 28 March 1889 (22nd Year of Meiji), No. 43.
  3. ^ Order in Privy Council of 29 November 1898 (31st year of Meiji), No. 337.
  4. ^ Order in Privy Council of 1907 (40th Year of Meiji), No. 323.
  5. ^ Naohiro Asao, et al. ed., Simpan Nihonshi Jiten ("Dictionary of Japanese History, New Edition", Tokyo: Kadokawa Shoten, 1997) p. 742 ("Tojo Hideki"), and pp. 348–9 ("Kempei").
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ Peter Williams, Robert Williams (1993). Unit 731. Random House Value Publishing. ISBN 0517097494. 
  10. ^ The Japanese achievement, Hugh Cortazzi, Page 231
  11. ^ Edwin P. Hoyt, Japan's War, p 397 ISBN 0-07-030612-5

Further reading[edit]

  • Deacon, Richard, Kempei Tai: A History of the Japanese Secret Service Berkley; Reprint edition 1990. ISBN 0425074587

External links[edit]