The Hiroshima Garrison had responsibility for the western region of Honshū (Chugoku district), ranging from Hyōgo Prefecture to Yamaguchi Prefecture. The six regional commands were transformed into divisions under the army reorganization of 14 May 1888.
The 5th Division entered the First Sino-Japanese War with the battle of Seonghwan on 28 July 1894. It also participated in the battle of Pyongyang on 15 September 1894, securing Japanese control over Korea. On 24 October 1894, the 5th division crossed the Yalu river into the Chinese territory unopposed, encountering only token rearguard resistance and thus ending the Battle of Jiuliancheng 24 October 1894. It then proceed inland to Mukden (now Shenyang) in December 1894. The 5th division last saw action in the war during the Battle of Yingkou on 4 March 1895, resulting in the peace negotiations and the treaty of Shimonoseki, signed 17 April 1895.
On 27 January 1900, the 5th division participated in the Eight-Nation Alliance (of which only the Japanese were non-European) action against the Boxer Rebellion, with a divisional detachment becoming the core of the Gaselee Expedition. Other parts of the division garrisoned Tianjing city and Tanggu District. The Japanese combatants won, on 5 August 1900, the Battle of Beicang single-handedly. On 14–16 August 1900, the same Japanese combat detachment participated in the Battle of Peking. The division received praise from foreign observers for its bravery, professionalism and discipline.
In the Russo-Japanese War, under the command of General Nozu Michitsura, it saw combat at the Battle of Shaho, the Battle of Sandepu, and the Battle of Mukden.
The division was assigned to Liaoyang, Manchuria from 30 April 1911 until 19 April 1913, whendivisional headquarters returned to Hiroshima.
On 24 August 1919, the 5th division was assigned to the Siberian Intervention, on the request of United States government. This mission has ended 24 June 1922 with the unilateral Japanese withdrawal.
After the Second Sino-Japanese War erupted 7 July 1937, the 5th division was subordinated to Japanese China Garrison Army on 27 July 1937 as a combat division. It participated in the Operation Chahar on 14–27 August 1937. At the same time, one reinforced regiment was participating in Beiping–Hankou Railway Operation.Soon afterwards, the division was re-routed to newly formed Japanese Northern China Area Army on 31 August 1937, immediately starting participating in Battle of Taiyuan, where the 3rd battalion of the 21st infantry regiment was ambushed and wiped out in the Battle of Pingxingguan on 24 September 1937. On 30 March 1938, the division was assigned to 2nd Army for the Battle of Xuzhou.
19 September 1938, the 5th division was subordinated to 21st Army and sent to South China, participating in Guangdong province offensive capturing Nanning in November 1938, and was subordinated to 12th Army and ordered to return to North China on 29 November 1938. Plans went awry because the 21st infantry brigade was surrounded by Chinese in the Battle of Kunlun Pass in December 1938. As a consequence, these troops suffered large casualties and were delayed until late January 1939. The division has returned to 21st Army on the south China on 16 October 1939. The 21st Army was reformed to 22nd Army on 9 February 1940. As part of newly formed army, the 5th division has become the core of the forces allotted for Japanese invasion of French Indochina on 22 September 1940. Immediately, the division was used as garrison force of the northern part of the French Indochina.
With its combat experience and record in China, the 5th division was considered one of the best divisions in the Imperial Japanese Army, therefore on 12 October 1940, the 5th division went under direct control of the Imperial General Headquarters and started an intensive training program, including paratrooper exercises in Kyushu together with the 5th air group. The division was officially committed to the Nanshin-ron 9 November 1941, subordinated to Tomoyuki Yamashita (25th Army), subordinated in order to Field Marshal Terauchi Hisaichi of (Southern Expeditionary Army Group) based in Saigon.
The 5th Division landed on the east coast of Thailand at Singora and Patani on December 8, 1941. The 5th Division fought its way through northern and central Malaya. It was particularly successful at the battle of Jitra 11 December 1941 and battle of Slim River on 6 January 1942 where, in both battles, it defeated the Indian 11th Infantry Division. At the Battle of Slim River, the 5th Division's 41st Infantry Regiment, supported by tanks, swept through sixteen miles of British defenses, shattering the exhausted combatants of the 11th Indian Division and inflicting an estimated 3,000 casualties.
The 5th Division did not have it all its own way during the Battle of Malaya, suffering heavy casualties during the Battle of Kampar from 30 December 1941. Nonetheless, the division was able to capture Kuala Lumpur 11 January 1942. After overcoming the stiff resistance of the 8th Australian Division during the Battle of Muar at Gemensah Bridge, the 5th division has opened the way to Singapore 22 January 1942.
On the night of 8 February 1942, six battalions of the 5th Division, under command of Lieutenant General Matsui Takuro as part of Lieutenant General Yamashita Tomoyuki's 25th Army along with the IJA 18th Division crossed the Johor Strait using landing craft.
On the Singapore side, Sarimbun beach was heavily defended by 2 companies, one each from the 2/20th and 2/18th battalions of the 22nd Australian Brigade, supported by a machine gun company, three artillery batteries and an anti-tank battery. However, the Japanese combatants managed to penetrate the British defense perimeter, and the Australian troops retrograded after midnight allowing the 5th Division, to move on to Ama Keng village and established a beachhead, where they fired a red starshell over the straits to indicate their success to General Yamashita.
Immediately after this important victory, the 5th Division moved inwards into Singapore to capture more strategic areas such as Tengah Airfield on 9 February 1942. The unit fought against the 2/29th, 2/20th, 2/18th battalions of the 22nd Australian Brigade and the Jind Indian Infantry Battalion, the airfield garrison. On 11 February 1942, Bukit Timah Road was captured by the 5th Division after fierce fighting. Singapore surrendered 4 days later.
The 41st infantry regiment was detached from the division in March 1942, therefore the 5th division has become triangular division. The 4,160-Man strong Kawamura detachment (comprising an elite part of 41st infantry regiment of 5th division) have landed on Panay island on 16–18 April 1942, resulting in 7,000-strong U.S.-Filipino combatants retreating from the coast 20 April 1942. Kawamura detachment then proceed to land on north coast of Mindanao 3 May 1942, forcing surrender of the Americans and Filipinos on 10 May 1942, after heavy fighting.
The rest of detached 41st infantry regiment has re-formed as Yazawa detachment, initially deployed in Cagayan on north coast of Luzon. It was transferred, landing in Davao City on 28 June 1942, and used to reinforce Nankai Shitai (South Seas Detachment) under command of Major-General Tomitara Horii. On 18 July 1942, the detachment was reinforced by a company of tanks plus company of close-support artillery, and ordered to join the thrust to Port Moresby on 31 July 1942. Initially arriving to Rabaul staging point 16 August 1942, Yazawa detachment have departed on 19 August 1942 on board of Kiyokawa Maru and Myoko Maru and landed on Gona Japanese beachhead 21 August 1942. During battle of Isurava the Yazawa detachment was held in reserve. During inland Battle_of_Brigade_Hill, the Yazawa detachment make its way to Girua River mouth (near Buna), where it secured a landing of the supplies and reinforcements, starting from 23 September 1942. On 29 October 1942, the bulk of Yazawa detachment took a defensive positions inland near Oivi Creek, to cover a retreat of 144th regiment and other units. The Australians attacked with superior forces on 4 November 1942, mauling and routing the Yazawa detachment. About 900 combatants left of Yazawa detachment narrowly escaped the encirclement and run away to the heavily wooded Ajura Kijala Range to the north-east on 10 November 1942. The last rearguard covering the Oivi Creek was wiped out 13 November 1942. Yazawa escapees have reached Kumusi River mouth area north of Gona by 28 November 1942, but was largely not combat-ready because of leaving all heavy equipment behind and of nearly 100% incidence of malaria. Therefore, majority of malaria-weakened combatants were transported by landing craft to the mouth of Girua river on 29 November 1942, losing hundreds to the Allied air attacks in sea. The more healthy ones joined them after an overland march on 2 December 1942. On 31 December 1942, Colonel Yazawa was ordered a desperate rescue mission to the Buna with the composite unit gathered from the jumble of shattered Japanese detachments. Fall of Buna on 2 January 1943 have aborted the mission, but Yazawa detachment still clashed with Allied combat patrols and rescued about 190 combatants escaping from Buna. As the retreat to Gona on 20 January 1943 have failed, Yazawa detachment have ceased to exist, with only few survivors reaching Japanese lines.
In 1943, the division was subordinated to 19th Army. The 5th Division subsequently saw action in Rabaul and Guadalcanal and various islands in the Dutch East Indies before surrendering to the Allies on Ceram, in the Dutch East Indies.
The division was involved with Tachibana Maru incident, comprising hospital ship been used to transport armaments (up to howitzers) and healthy combatants. As result of the incident, about 1,500 prisoners of war of the division were captured by United States 3 August 1945.
The 5th division headquarters buildings in Hiroshima Castle were destroyed by the atomic bomb explosion on 6 August 1945. Loss of life was light because the headquarters were already used to reinforce 125th division in Manchukuo in March 1945.