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The Evolution of IJA Canteens (1894-1945)

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    The Evolution of IJA Canteens (1894-1945)

    The Evolution of IJA Canteens (1894-1945)

    Another monumental article is being uploaded. Please do not interrupt and wait until the last photo says “The End”. Association Members are welcome to upload photos of their canteen variants later, but members without direct uploading rights should put up any photos in a separate thread, not to pockmark my hard work with dead photo links.


    The army canteen is one of the first things that a collector picks up. They are fairly inexpensive, yet offer quite a variety to collect. However, unlike German canteens, very little information has been provided to collectors until now. I know how the German canteens evolved down to almost on a year by year basis, but with Japanese army canteens everything is a fuzzy blur. I wanted to fix that for myself and I’m sure many others here would like that too. When there is no book that will give me satisfactory information, writing it myself is the only way to read it, so here goes.
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    Last edited by Nick Komiya; 09-10-2015, 03:01 PM.

    Japanese Origins

    The word for canteen in Japanese is 水筒(Suito, literally Water Tube). It was described as a tube structure, because the Japanese traditionally used bamboo sections as water bottles since the Samurai days. Bamboo has hollow chambers and drilling a hole into a section already makes it into a serviceable water bottle. Another plant that served as a liquid container was gourds. These dried out into a wood-like container and were often used to contain sake. Japan has plenty of water, so the need to carry water was not that great, whereas sake didn’t spring from the ground, so sake in gourd bottles hanging at the hip come to mind more easily when one wants to picture a samurai with a canteen.
    The army did not seem to forget this tradition completely, as a survival guide for tropical climates issued in December 1941 recommends use of local bamboo as canteens to carry extra water. Here sketches of Samurai canteens.
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      Blind Spot in Japanese Martial Tradition

      When Japan reopened itself to the Western world and embarked on its path of militarization, it initially did so by extending the Samurai tradition of defenses based on castles. Thus the early army bases were at former castles. This would soon change when Japan called on Prussia for help in modernizing its army and they sent Major Klemens Wilhelm Jacob Meckel as instructor in 1885. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jakob_Meckel He reorganized the Japanese Army in the Prussian style, aimed at conquering territory abroad. This meant a 180 degree switch from an army to defend itself from foreign invasion to an army serving the purpose of Imperialism, namely active territorial aggression.
      Thus the Japanese army was initially set up only to fight on Japanese soil, but through Meckel, learned the importance of the capability to fight battles abroad and equipped itself to this end.

      The Glass Canteen and the Sino-Japanese War of 1894/95

      6 years after Mekel returned to Germany, war broke out with China. Japan issued its troops dog tags just before this conflict, but its canteens were not yet adapted for use in the continent.
      At that time, for hygiene reasons, the IJA was using canteens made of glass housed in a leather harness. Shortly before they had tried tin canteens, and these were still in use by reserve divisions stationed inside Japan. However, these were susceptible to corrosion inside, which became a health hazard, so the new canteen used glass as a counter measure. The glass canteens solved one problem, but only to fall victim to another, which Lt. General Motoharu Yamaji, commander of the 1st Division about to be sent to the continent had already correctly anticipated. He wrote a letter to the army minister on September 23rd, 1894 in which he requested budget approval for issuing his troops pouches of double layered blanket material for the canteens. This letter quoted the results of tests carried out with water filled canteens in the minus 20 degree centigrade temperatures expected in Korea and China to show that double layered blanket pouches prevented the water from freezing and shattering the canteens through the expansion. This letter was further followed up by another letter dated 26th September 1894 by the Chief of Field Medical Services, recommending the same. This letter further stated that metal canteens also had the drawback of releasing toxins unless enameled to seal the inside, so blanket bags were the only realistic short term solution available. Prince Arisugawa, Commander-in-Chief of this war, issued his approval on 28th September.
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        Too many fingers in the Pie

        In late October of 1894, troops started to land in China, and Commander Kuroki of the 6th Division, half of whose troops were also now in China, made an official request on 27th October for metal canteens to be developed with suitably non-toxic rust-proofing inside for later resupply to the troops in China.
        In addition to this, the First Reserve Division, the home base unit for the 1st division, which kicked off the discussions on the need for adapting canteens to the cold climate, had done further homework by testing some prototype metal canteens. A model tested by the replacement battalion of the third infantry regiment was submitted as promising at the end of 1894. And on 9th January, 1895 the army made the decision to officially launch development of a new canteen design.

        Further Drawbacks of the Glass Canteen Design

        In 1895, the 6th Regiment also sent in a large report on a wider range of equipment shortcomings that required improvement. This report addressed some other problems experienced with the glass canteens. Besides the exploding glass when frozen, they also complained about the outer leather shell, which was split into an upper section and a lower section. The lower section was formed like a leather cup, which was actually meant to function as a drinking cup. The glass bottle rested inside this cup structure and the top leather section went around the neck of the bottle like a pullover. The shoulder strap was attached to the bottom leather shell and went through loops on both sides of the top shell. When filling the canteen with water, one needed to submerge the glass bottle into the river, but before this was done, one was expected to remove the leather fittings not to damage them. This was too much fiddling to expect from soldiers in the field, who would just dunk the whole leather-clad canteen in water. And once this water-soaked leather shell got exposed to the heat of the sun, it shrank and hardened around the canteen, no longer possible to remove. In winter, the soaked leather shell only helped to freeze and explode the canteens quicker. Their idea to overcome this problem was to make the bottom shell as a wicker basket. This idea was to allow the dunking of the whole canteen in water, yet provide good drainage that would allow quick drying. This also had the benefit that the wicker basket remained reusable even when the glass bottle broke and needed to be replaced. See the diagram below. Furthermore the idea of using the bottom shell as a drinking cup also was received badly by the troops. It was cumbersome to remove and also gave off a disgusting smell in hot climates, so no one actually used this shell to drink from. One unit allowed soldiers to use a wooden cup, which turned out to be quite a popular solution and the report recommends cups made from sandal wood with a cloth wrapping that got hardened with a lacquered finish.
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          1895 The Frantic Search for a Solution in Metal

          In those days, Reserve Divisions (留守師団), which were home-based house-sitting troops for the divisions deployed outside Japan, also seem to have taken on the more active role of development work for the parent field division and not only the training of new recruits. In addition to the efforts already made by other divisions, on February 20th of 1895, the 6th Reserve Division responded to the needs of its sister division in China by preparing prototype canteens of steel, 79 pieces of which were with carry harness and 267 pieces with hanging rings, for trial by the first engineer reserve company of the Field Signals unit. Now everyone seemed to have their own prototypes, as the 2nd Reserve Division also scrambled to ship steel canteens to its sister Division in China on March 12th, 1895.

          As you see from the foregoing, all the divisions got themselves drawn into a panic run after steel canteens. Aluminum was not yet a material familiar to them at that time, as it barely became available in the form of a metal after the deoxidization process was found in France in 1854. However, back then it was still prohibitively expensive to produce, costing as much as 1000 French Francs per kilogram. This made it a precious metal suitable only for jewelry like necklaces and brooches. It was even called “light silver” at the time. Only after the development of the electrolysis process in 1886 did the industrial use of aluminum become viable and cost rapidly fell to 10 Fr/kg in 1891 and further to 3 Fr/kg in 1898. So in 1895, when Japan sought a new material for canteens and mess kits, aluminum was at the very forefront of new material development, and still approximately 3 times more expensive than the cost it would eventually have .

          The first sample of aluminum ever to come to Japan arrived in 1887, but not as material, but rather as a sample of a new wonder metal. The first aluminum products to come to Japanese shores were a couple of components used in an elaborate street lamp installed at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, made in 1887 by a German firm in Duisburg close to Dusseldorf.

          By 1893, aluminum was being researched as an ingredient for bronze alloys by the Osaka Arsenal, which reported to the Minister of the Army in April that very promising results were attained in their recent prototyping efforts. At that time, Japan still hadn’t mastered the technology to fabricate cannons in steel, so they were seeking ways to tweak the alloy in bronze cannons. Although this effort was not quite successful in the end, it did give birth to aluminum military hardware such as buckles for belts and bayonet frogs as a byproduct in 1894. So in the year 1895, when the divisions were scrambling to put together steel canteens to replace the glass canteens that kept exploding in the freezing climate of the continent, the arsenal was ready to upgrade their aluminium output from buckles to canteens and mess kits.

          So it was fortuitous timing when on 19th February of that year, a German military supplier, John Brandes of Berlin, wrote to the Minister of the Japanese Army, introducing his line of aluminum products that just got adopted by the German army and further being offered to the armies of France, Russia and the USA. He supplied not only canteen and mess kit samples, but also drinking cups, shelter quarter hardware, spurs, buckles and buttons as samples.
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            1895 And the Winner is-------Aluminum!

            By 14th November of 1895, both the Tokyo and Osaka Artillery Arsenals had come up with prototypes of aluminum canteens and mess kits and the Ministry of the Army was now totally sold on the merits of this material that a notice was sent out to the troops that further orders for canteen and mess kit production would be suspended until the new aluminum products finished being developed. An order for production machines to produce these items also went out to Germany.

            On 7th May, 1896 the arsenals had finally come up with a prototype with which they sought the army’s approval before launching mass production. However, this was not yet quite the happy end to the development story, as even 2 years later in January 1898, the Tokyo and Osaka arsenals still had not delivered the ordered goods! This was initially due to a delay in delivery of the production machines, because of a worker’s strike in Germany. However, that same month did see some progress in other areas when on 20th of January,1898 a memo went out to the 1st Division explaining that three alternative carry harness designs had been proposed and these samples needed to be field tested by its Cavalry Regiment and response provided by end of February 1898.

            1898 Finally an aluminum canteen is available

            The delayed delivery of the production machines to Japan had set things back, but by July of 1898 they had finalized the specifications for the new aluminum canteen, which finally came out as Army Ordinance 97 on 21st October 1898. This ordinance launched the new mess kit as well. The canteen specs were announced as follows.

            Canteen body---------Aluminum

            Carry Harness---------Side Skin Leather

            Capacity---------------3 go (about 540cc)

            Weight----------------78 Mon approx 293 grams (Canteen body 180 grams, harness 113 grams)

            Colors-----------------Canteen body to be painted matt black, the carry harness to be in natural leather color (Both the canteens and mess kits in
            aluminum were thus initially produced in black.)

            Manner of wear------Cavalrymen were to wear it with the strap slung from the right shoulder, and the canteen hanging at the left hip. Infantrymen were to wear it the other way around slung from the left shoulder.

            These canteens never had any type designation, so later when they came up with a new model in 1930 they were simply called “the old model”. Most collectors in Japan call them “Tokkuri (sake bottle)” canteens, because of the shape. Or they name it by the war and call them Russo-Japanese War canteens. Yet some call them the type 98 canteens by the year of introduction, which I will adopt for this article for reason of convenience only.
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              Fragile, Handle with Care!

              These canteens and mess kits were anticipated to be in short supply for some time, so only a week after the spec announcement, on 27th October, they came up with a special conservation policy in the form of handling instructions for the new aluminum gear.

              1. The anticipated product life of these items is 20 years, so careful handling is necessary to make them last.

              2. Although the canteen and mess kit withstand direct heating, putting them over a fire for boiling is prohibited in peacetime, unless with prior permission from the divisional commander.

              3. Scrapped products are still a recyclable resource for the precious aluminum, so they are to be held for this purpose.

              1900 Easier said than done

              The conservation policy was indeed not a bad idea, because even almost 2 years later, they still found it a struggle to produce anything close to the required quantities.

              A letter from the Tokyo Arsenal dated 29th June, 1900, explained that due to lack of production know-how, products could not avoid having uneven surfaces in the form of ripples, which needed to be ground off in order to yield a smooth surface. However, this kind of process was far from ideal, as grinding led to excessive waste of the expensive metal, was very labor-intensive and risked over-grinding and weakening that spot, which could not easily be caught in the quality checks. The arsenal could finally solve this problem after endless trials in tweaking the production machinery, so that grinding could be completely eliminated, and instead be finished merely with a polish by machine. However, upgrading all the machines to produce all output in this quality would still take some time, so during the interim these two different production treatments would need to run parallel to meet the necessary demand.

              1900 Not a bad idea, but no Cigar

              The year 1900 also brought a couple of new innovations to the attention of military authorities in Japan. One was the American invention by Lanz Owen & Company of Chicago, who came up with an insulated canteen with a cloth cover that got soaked in water and kept the content cool through the heat loss through its evaporation. However, Japan decided against this product in a memo dated 22nd December 1900 which said the canteen held little water despite the cumbersome large size.
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                The other invention was the army’s own, credited to an army engineer attached to Imperial Guards HQ, named Masahiro Horitani. His invention was a canteen design with an integral water filter. Murky water could be fed into the canteen from the top opening and filtered water would come out from the other opening. The army experts did study it, but by July of the following year, 1901 they reached the verdict that the complicated filter design was totally impractical for military use and the idea was rejected. However, no one could deny that a canteen with filtering function would indeed be a handy thing to have and the army will revisit this challenge still a couple of times more in the future.
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                  1901 Back to Square One?

                  Back then, the army soldiers tended to greet new technology with a certain amount of mistrust. If you have read my article on Japan’s first helmet, the 1918 model, you will remember how the troops shot up the helmets full of holes to test whether those steel hats really made them impervious to bullets. This time, the army arsenal was starting to hear about aluminum dishes dissolving, crumbling like a sunbathing vampire!

                  Soon after the launch of the new aluminum canteens, the 4th Division decided to try out aluminum as material for dishes and bowls in its mess hall. However, these new aluminum plates started to develop dark blotches on the surface after only a few days of use and longer use aggravated the corrosion to the extent that they eventually became totally useless for holding food. Thus a worrying investigation had to be launched. Tests by the Imperial Guard Infantry and Cavalry even showed that daily use resulted in a steady loss of net weight of the aluminum material, whose rate of weight decline extrapolated into 8 months of continuous use would have meant total disintegration of the container! After exhaustive scientific lab tests, the final verdict came out on 19th July 1901, which said aluminum by nature did show a certain amount of corrosion, but the overwhelming benefits of its convenience as a material far outweighed its drawbacks and as such aluminum was not found to be an unsuitable metal for production of canteens and mess kits. An army manual on care and maintenance of uniforms and equipment eventually would warn not to keep things like pickled plums in mess kits for long, as the acid would corrode the metal. It further said that simply burying the sour plum in the rice would prevent such accidents. So soldiers were conditioned to adapt themselves a bit and meet new technology half way.

                  In the meanwhile, production of aluminum models continued without interruption, but shortage of these new models would persist almost until 1913, 15 years after the introduction of the design. The army also wanted to use up its inventory of the old glass canteens during this time, so they continued to issue reserve and replacement units with glass canteens with the intention of following up with aluminum ones when these reserves got called to the front. Nonetheless the frontline troops were equipped with the new model canteens by the Russo- Japanese war of 1904/05 and thus Japanese collectors often refer to the model as the Russo-Japanese War model canteen.
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                    1905 Change of Canteen Color

                    Midway into the Russo-Japanese War the army decided to change the paint finish on its canteens from black to a brownish earth color, which by then was accepted as having a better concealment effect from the enemy. This announcement came out on 31st January 1905 as Army Ordinance Number 5. Memos say that black canteens returning from the field were stripped and repainted in the new color for reissue.

                    Canteens that needed to be stripped of its paint finish in the field were recommended to be thrown into a fire until the paint turned to carbon, to be quenched in water, then scraped off and sanded. A Sodium Hydroxide solution was recommended for a larger scale repainting operation, which also had the benefit of cleansing the inside at the same time, but one needed to beware of damage to one’s skin and melting the aluminum when soaked too long in the solution.

                    Naturally camouflaging the canteen by changing the color has no meaning, if the soldier himself was wearing a uniform in a conspicuous color. The canteen color change was associated with an overall switch to the earth color in uniforms. This uniform color change was initially intended only as a wartime measure, but as of April 1906 it became the standard uniform color even in peace time. And finally the type 45 uniforms adopted in 1912 put every army soldier in a uniform of this brown color. However, this color change had some unexpected victims in the beginning. A fashion conscious officer was quick in ordering the new colored uniform during the Russo-Japanese War, when the soldiers were still not familiar with the new color. As a result, he was promptly shot dead by his own soldiers, who mistook him for an attacking Russian soldier.
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                      1910/1919 Canteen Strap Material Change to Webbing

                      On 23rd June 1910, the commander of the 18th Division wrote to the Minister of the Army in some surprise that when his units took inventory of stocked hardware, they found out that as many as 1900 canteens in the inventory of the 46th Infantry Regiment received after the Russo-Japanese War had the incorrect specs of carry harnesses made of cotton webbing instead of leather. This same problem existed in stocks at the Heavy Artillery Battalion, where 438 pieces were found with the incorrect harness. The Division wanted to receive the correct leather harnesses to replace the wrong ones.

                      During the Russo-Japanese War, Japan was at the brink of bankruptcy and didn’t even have enough money left to produce the badly needed artillery shells, so this tight situation had naturally caused this emergency switch in materials without a change in specs.

                      However, this situation suddenly became the norm 9 years after the complaint from the 18th Division. Army Ordinance Number 7, which was announced on 14th March, 1919 said that the carry straps for the canteen was now to be in cotton webbing in a brownish earth color, the only exception being the strap for the cork stopper, which was to be in leather. Metal hardware was to have a baked on earth color paint finish. The background for this change was that leather supply was always tight and leather had the drawback of losing suppleness during storage to become brittle and moldy. Furthermore the leather harness had to be supplied in different versions for cavalry and infantry models, making production inefficient. Leather also did not stand up well to the heat when the canteen needed to be filled with hot water. The design of the harness stayed unchanged from the leather version, but the cotton webbing was now supposed to serve both cavalry and infantry needs.

                      At this point, like me, you will be saying “huh, where did I miss the explanation on how the leather cavalry harness used to differ from those for the infantry?” Well, the specs never mentioned this, and I also only heard it the first time as background explanation for this change to webbing in 1919. But it had been there before our eyes ever since the spec descriptions of 1898, hidden within the comment that said “the cavalryman needed to keep his right hip free of canteens (presumably to wield a saber or a lance), but infantrymen were to wear it at the right hip”. Have you figured it out?

                      If not, the answer is in the position of the adjustment buckle of the shoulder strap. This has to come to the front when infantrymen hang it from left to right, and cavalry men from right to left. The canteen itself has a flat back, so the harness was also made in a way that did not allow wearing the front and rear reversed. This meant that the leather infantry canteen harness had the buckled strap section on the right side of the canteen when you looked at the canteen from the front. The cavalry version had the buckle on the left side. A 1917 manual explains that the correct wearing height of the canteen was to have the top of the cork stopper just about touching the lower edge of the waist belt, so adjustment to this height meant you needed access to the strap buckle. This distinction between the infantry and cavalry models would have existed since 1898, as the cavalry had always been involved in the field tests prior to the introduction of the new canteen. This difference was abolished in 1919 by allowing the webbed harness to accommodate the canteen front and back reversed, which changed the strap buckle position to suit infantry and cavalry.

                      Taking over the design from the leather version also meant that the harness was put together using webbing of various widths. The shoulder strap was 1.8 meters long and was 2.7 cm wide. The top band around the canteen had a width of 3 cm and the strap to which the stopper was attached had a width of 2.3 cm.
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                        1920 Another Color Change

                        In May of 1920, IJA uniforms went through another color change, this time from the earth color of the Russo-Japanese War to an olive color favored by the British in India and Africa. Naturally, the canteen color also had to be coordinated with that of the uniform. One tends to see this canteen in leather straps despite the introduction of the web harness the year before. As you are about to read, by 1915 they had too many canteens in stock with leather harnesses, so these would have been repainted not to make them obsolete dead stock.
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                          1922 Webbed Strap Width Change

                          In 1922, 3 years after the official change to webbing, the army realized that it had perpetuated a totally unnecessary complication by unthinkingly carrying over the leather harness dimensions to its webbed harness design. Varying the widths of the webbed straps that composed the carry harness was not a smart idea. They decided to simplify and make it all from either the 2.3 cm or the 2.7 cm wide webbing (the spec diagram, showing new the dimensions, is badly smudged and it is impossible to read, which webbing width was selected). This came out as Army Ordinance Number 44 dated 7th July 1922. This also allowed using up of the old specs without giving it any deadlines.
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                            1913 Enough aluminum canteens to go around

                            I thought readers would find it easier to follow the development when I stayed on the same track for a while, but before the harness got changed to webbing, production of the aluminum canteens finally caught up with the demand and started to create even a surplus. On 13th March, 1913 the miserly 1898 restrictions on the peacetime use of the canteens and mess kits over fire, etc were lifted. This was, because now they had enough canteens and mess kits in aluminum, and also aluminum was now much cheaper than it was back then (about one third of what it used to cost). In addition to that, even in peacetime, soldiers needed to be taught how to cook rice in the mess kits and you couldn’t teach this without putting mess tins over fire!

                            1915 The aluminum glut

                            If 1913 was the equilibrium between demand and supply, by 1915 they had gone to the other extreme of overproduction. It is almost comical to read an army memo dated 19th February 1915, which stated they had 500 tons of aluminum base metal, and 300 thousand pieces each of surplus canteens and mess kits in aluminum to sell to any one or any country who wanted to buy them. Japan fought on the side of England and the US in WW1 that was still raging on in Europe, but the Japanese Army had already beaten the Germans in the Fortress in Qingdao, China in November of 1914 and within the coming month the Japanese Navy was also about to score a monumental victory over the Germans by sinking the Dresden. Henceforth the Japanese navy was assigned to the protection of coastal wars off America, which virtually meant a peacetime state had returned. So the letter said Japan should take the opportunity of the continuing war in Europe to sell these items off, as keeping them in stock only meant exposure to oxidization.

                            Phasing out of the Type 98 Canteen

                            The canteen would continue to serve the army well past the launch of the new canteen model in 1930 and was retired after 40 years in service just before WW2. A memo dated 27th March 1939 talks about 73000 of these old canteens in inventory at the Kwantung Army to be returned and exchanged with the new model canteens.

                            The Last Shogun and His Aluminium Mess Kit

                            At this point let me digress to tell you a funny, but true story. It had more to do with the mess kit, but it does illustrate how the Japanese approached aluminium, a new material not yet familiar to them. In May of 1903 the former Shogun, Yoshinobu Tokugawa (The last Shogun, who had to step down and return the authority to rule Japan to the Emperor, thus ending the reign of the Samurai) made a factory tour of the Osaka Arsenal, which was busy producing the aluminium canteens and mess kits. The new mess kit in aluminium caught his eye and he asked whether he could have one as a souvenir of his visit. He was also shown how to cook rice with the mess kit, and when he tried it at home he thought the rice tasted even better than what his kitchen provided. However, later he would ask the chief of the arsenal as an afterthought whether cooking rice in this aluminium mess kit could have an adverse effect on health. The arsenal had to admit it was still early days for this new innovation for the Army, so they did not have enough track record to guarantee complete safety in comparison to metals like silver. So what did Yoshinobu do? He provided silver to the Osaka arsenal and they made him a silver mess kit, which the former Shogun would use to personally cook his rice.
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                              1930 A New Canteen Design Arrives

                              On 21st April, 1930 the whole look of the IJA was revamped from head to toe and from tropical gear to extreme cold gear. Moreover the variety of attire addressed every possible occasion from a new army strait jacket for the mentally deranged, sports outfits, to the most advanced assortment of flight gear and tanker gear. The line-up of the new model launch was so extensive that one can only call it the “The Showa 5 Tokyo Spring Collection”. They are indeed referred to as 昭5式(Sho 5 Type)by the Army. Nomenclature can be deceptive, so one fails to see that Showa 5th Model is merely another way of saying Type 90. So yes, the launch of the new Type 90 helmet was part and parcel of the Showa 5 Spring Collection. This confusing difference in how to name things came from the fact that helmets were still regarded as weapons and the Sho 5 series were uniform items coming under separate development and issuing authority. Helmets would later switch categories to a uniform item, and if it had been so from 1930 already, it would have become the Sho 5 Type Helmet.

                              Normally a change of such magnitude is preceded by prototyping and field tests, as you have seen with the type 98 canteens, but for the 1930 canteens such documentation is strangely missing and the earliest reference to a new design is the launch announcement of 21st April. However, the minimum one could count on from the army was that they took the exploding glass canteens as a lesson and would have now considered the other extreme of the need for huge quantities of water necessary to sustain a soldier in the jungle, water consumption levels of 4 litres per person/day as the army survival guide would say. So the capacity was now 1 litre, almost double of that of the Type 98 canteen.
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