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Japan's History

European Influences

The Japanese didn't embrace the tank, as it didn't have the calvary tradition that the other countries that developed the tank more extensively had. In traditional Japan, calvary was used for reconnaissance in the mountainous countryside.

During most of the war the Japanese focused their industry on building warships and aircraft during the war years as they were the more prestigious weapons of the time. By 1945 production was to be concentrated on the defense of the Japanese homeland, and tanks finally got higher priority, but this was too late.


Captain Yoshitoshi Tokugawa was sent to France and Captain Kumazo Hino sent to Germany to learn to fly and purchase aircraft. On December 19, 1910, they demonstrated their abilities. One of the pilots, Captain Tokugawa, modified the design of the Henri Farman biplane that was imported and built the first Japanese constructed aircraft.

On November 2, 1912, two Imperial Japanese Navy officers flew Farman and Curtiss seaplanes from the new Yokosuka naval air station.

1913 the seaplane tender Wakamiya Maru was commissioned.

In September and October 1914 four seaplanes from the Wakamiya Maru attacked the German fortress at Tsigntao.

In 1916 First Lieutenant Chikuhei Nakajima and Second Lieutenant Kishichi Magoshi designed and constructed the first Japanese operational aircraft the Type Yokosho float biplane.

In April 1916 the Yokosuka Kokutai was activated.

In March 1918 the Sasebo Kokutai was activated.

After World War I the Japanese acquired several different foreign tanks (French Renault FT and NCI, and Britain's Vickers 6-Ton and Medium C). After analyzing them they began to develop light and medium tanks.

Aircraft manufacturers, Nakajima Hikoki K.K. was founded in 1917 and Mitsubishi Jukogyo K.K. and Kawasaki Kokuki Kogyo K.K. in 1918. Engineers from the firms were sent to Britain, France, Germany, and the United States to learn about the design and manufacture of aircraft.

A few Japanese served with the French Aviation Militaire in 1918 in non-combat areas.

In October 1918 the Japanese acquired a British Mark IV tank that was to be used in trials.

In 1918/1919 Japan acquired six British Whippet tanks that they eventually assigned to the Infantry School. At the end of the Russian Civil War two Whippets were sent to Vladivostok.

In 1919 the thirteen French Renault FT light tanks were purchased and ended up being assigned to the 1st Tank Unit of the 12th Division in 1925.


In the 1920s NC27 Renault tanks were purchased and named Renault Otsu-Gata.

In June 1920 a deck was added to the Wakamiya Maru and a Sopwith Pup, piloted by Lietenant Kuwabara, successfully took off.

In 1921 the world's first aircraft carrier, the Hosho, was launched.

In 1925 the Japanese Army’s technical Bureau was directed to develop a light tank. The Type 89 was developed. Since it weighed over 10 tons it was designated a medium tank. Production begin in 1931.

On May 1, 1925, the Army Air Corps was created and placed under the command of Lieut-General Kinichi Yasumitsu. There were 3,700 officers and men and 500 aircraft under his command.

The first tank designed was the Type 87 (Experimental Tank Number 1) and was produced at the Osaka Arsenal in 1927. It had a crew of five and had a water cooled, 8 cylinder, gasoline engine that produced 140 hp. The maximum speed was 12.5 mph. It had a 57 mm gun in a turret with two 7.2 mm MG in a turret that was located at the front and rear of the hull.

In 1925 a development program was started and a tank unit created. However, Japanese produced tanks weren't available yet, so ordnance officers were sent to Europe and the United States to purchase tanks. Britain refused to sell any of the Vickers Mediums as there weren't enough for their own forces. France had plenty of the FT-17s, and a few were purchased for training.

In 1925 two tank companies were established, with one established at the Chiba Infantry School to study tank tactics. The 1st Tank Detachment of the 12th Division was formed at the Chiba Infantry School.

Requirement for Japan's first indigenous tank was delivered to the 4th Military Laboratory of the Imperial Japanese Army Technical Bureau. The prototype was similar to the French Char 2C and was built from soft steel. This was finished in the summer of 1926, but at 18 tons it was too heavy.

In the late 1920s six British Carden-Loyd Mark VI MG carriers and two Mark VIb carriers were purchased. After trials were conducted the Tokyo Gas and Electric Industry (later Hino Motors) built a prototype. It became the Type 94 Tankette.

The Osaka Arsenal in March 1927, developed the Experimental Heavy Tank I. It weighed 22 tons, with 57 mm gun in the main turret, and two machine guns in subsidiary turrets. In 1930 the 2nd Heavy tank was developed, but it only made some modifications from the first. In 1932 the Type 91 or Type 92 was developed. The Type 95 was then developed. However, no production orders were placed.

A Vickers Model C tank was delivered in March 1927. During trials the engine was burnt out. Six month later a replacement arrived. This accident lead to the Japanese developing diesel engines for their tanks. In 1933 a prototype diesel engine was developed and then adopted for use in 1936.

In 1929 the Type 89 (Experimental Tank Number 2) was designed. It weighed 10,000 kg and had a turret mounted 37 mm gun, a turret rear machine gun, and a bow mounted machine gun. It's engine was a 6 cylinder gasoline Daimler that propelled it to 15 mph. Mitsubishi started production on it as the Type 98 Medium tank.


During the 1930s the Japanese considered mechanization. Studies focused on armored cars at first, but with the terrain in Asia, it was decided to go with tracked vehicles. Ishikawaijma designed the Type 92 'combat car'.

During the 1930s the Japanese Army and Navy decided that only aircraft and engines designed and built by Japanese companies would be considered for purchase.


The Imperial Japanese Army ordered ten French Renault NC 1 tanks because of the delays in production of the Type 89.


By 1932, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries was producing an air-cooled diesel engine that was suitable for tanks. This was placed experimentally into a Type 89. This later became known as the Type 89-B.

The first of the Dokuritsu Sensha Chutai (independent tank companies) that was created when companies were detached from tank regiments was created in China and sent to Shanghai. Saipan and the Philippines received 12 Dokuritsu Sensha Chutai during World War II. Most of these were set up in static defensive positions.

The 1st Special Tank Company was sent to Manchuria with Renault FT and NC tanks after the Manchurian Incident in January 1932. Near Harbin the company saw action.

The 1st and 4th Cavalry Brigades were sent to Manchuria. When their armored cars were replaced by Type 95 light tanks in 1937 they became the Kihei Ryodan Senshatai (tank units). In 1942 these units were then converted into reconnaissance units and were placed into the 3rd and 1st tank divisions.

During the Shanghai Incident in February 1932 five Type 89 and ten Renault NC tanks were used. In action the NC's suspension proved to be inadequate and was retired.

Construction Program

The Imperial Japanese Navy started the 7-Shi production program that wanted carrier and seaplanes. Most were failed designs except for the Kawanishi E7K1 seaplane.


During the Shanghai Incident, Vickers Crossley armored cars were sent to the Special Naval Landing Force (SNLF). The Shanghai SNLF were equipped with 6 – 8 Type 89 medium tanks and some armored cars to form a tank company. These vehicles had the Imperial Japanese Naval anchor symbol placed on them and painted olive drab. When the Sino-Japanese war started the tank company was disbanded and its vehicles were distributed to the SNLF infantry.

The SNLF tank school was located at the Tateyame IJN Ordnance School that was across from Tokyo on the Boso Peninsula.


Japan's Tomio Hara Tomio Hara

In 1933 Major Tomio Hara designed the basis of many of the suspensions of future Japanese tanks, the bellcrank scissors which had paired bogie wheels connected by a coil spring.

The first three tank regiments were formed:

  • 1st Regiment at Kurume
  • 2nd Regiment at Chiba Tank School
  • 3rd Regiment at Kurume

Four tank regiments were formed during 1933-34 in Japan and Manchuria. Three of the regiments had 2 companies of 10 Type 89s each. The 4th had 3 Type 89 companies and was known as the Independent Mixed Brigade which included:

  • motorized infantry
  • artillery regiment
  • engineer company

In 1933 the Independent Mixed Brigade was formed in China of mainly Type 95 and Type 89 tanks. It was a combination of 3 Type 89 companies, infantry regiment, artillery regiment, and engineer company, all of which were motorized. The Mixed Brigade was used to spearhead attacks in 1937 but the lack of Chinese opposition prevented the leadership to see it's potential and was disbanded.

In the Jehol Province the 1st Special Tank Company saw action with only Type 89 tanks.

During the war in China the Japanese used the tanks as mobile pillboxes as the Chinese didn't have quantities of antitank weapons. Also air-cooled diesel engines were preferred as water was scarce in Mongolia, Manchuria, and North China.


In 1934 the Type 89B was fielded.

In 1934 the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) formed the 1 st Independent Mixed Brigade.

Construction Program

The Imperial Japanese Navy instituted its 9-Shi construction program which resulted in the successful production of the Kawanishi H6K, Mitsubishi A5M, Mitsubishi G3M, and Yokosuka B4Y.


Eleven infantry divisions had tankette training centers established.

In 1935 the Type 94 tankette, with a gasoline engine, was fielded.


By 1937 Japan had approximately 1,060 tanks and 8 tank regiments.

In 1937 the 1st Independent Mixed Brigade was deployed to China. Due to the terrain many of these tanks broke down. During operations in Quhar the brigade’s tanks were dispersed to support the infantry directly.

In July 1937 thirteen tankette companies were created and sent to China. The companies had four platoons each with four tankettes. There was one tankette in the company HQ.

The Army reorganized their air units into more flexible unit structures. The basic unit was the Sentai (group) commanded by a Lieut-Colonel or Major. The Sentai was usually made up of three Chutais (squadrons) of nine to twelve aircraft and a Sentai Hombu (HQ section). A Major-General or Colonel commanded a Hikodans (wing). Two to three Hikodans made up a Hikoshidan (air division) and two to three Hikoshidans made up a Kokugun (air army).


From 1938 to 1940 two (1st and 3rd) Senshadan (tank groups) were formed in Manchuria to control armored regiments. The group’s job was to provide administrative and logistical support and not tactical control. By 1942 these groups were found not able to do the job and were merged into the tank divisions created in 1942.


From July to September 1939, in border clashes with the Soviets, the Japanese army was defeated by infantry supported by tank units. Still many IJA generals wouldn’t admit to the superiority of tanks. However, Germans successes in Poland and France finally convinced most of them.

Khalkin Gol / Nomonhan Incident

Starting in May 1939 several border classes near the village of Nomonhan, in Manchuria, steadily escalated until the 23rd Infantry Division attacked the Soviet Army near the Khalka River. There were two tank regiments in support. The Soviets put General Georgi Zhukov into command and he was successful in defending off the Japanese attacks that clearly defeated the Japanese forces.

On August 20, 1939, the Soviet forces sent three rifle divisions, two motorized infantry divisions, two armored divisions, two armored brigades, and two Mongolian cavalry divisions into the attack and surrounded the 23rd Infantry Division. The Japanese forces suffered 40,000 casualties with the 23rd Infantry Division losing 73% to casualties.

After the battle of Khalkin Gol in 1939 against the Soviet Union and the successes in Europe by the Germans, two armored divisions were formed in 1940 in Manchukuo.

The 3rd and 4th Tank Regiments were equipped with 26 Type 89B Otsus, eight Type 89A Yi-Gos, four Type 97 Chi-Has, 35 Type 95 Ha-Gos, ten Type 94 tankettes, and four Type 97 tankettes.

The Soviets fielded five Mechanized Brigades with 550 tanks and 450 armored cars.

Initially the Japanese forces were able to penetrate the Soviet defenses but within days the Japanese were decimated. 42 out of the 73 tanks were destroyed or damaged.

The Soviets lost 32 BT tanks and 35 armored cars.

Due to their failure the Japanese tanks were recalled on July 9, 1939.

The defeat also prompted the Imperial Japanese Army to rethink tactics and formations of armored units.

Armored production was to be ramped up from 500 tanks per year to 1,200.

New Armament

The Japanese decided they needed a better antitank gun and developed the 47 mm in response to the Soviet 45 mm guns encountered in combat in 1939. This was placed into the Type 97 and designated the Type 97-Kai Shinhoto Chi-Ha. Production started in 1942. Around 300 of the Type 97s were upgraded.

1940? or 1941?

German Influence

Japan's Tomoyuki Yamashita Tomoyuki Yamashita

After the success of the Wehrmacht a delegation led by General Tomoyuki Yamashita went to Germany to learn about armored warfare. His report stated that the Japanese Army needed to be mechanized and that the medium tank should be its primary weapon. The report also recommended that due to the poor equipment in the Japanese Army that a war should not be started against Britain, the Soviet Union, or the United States.


In April 1941 the armor branch was finally established as its own entity. General Shin Yoshida was the first head of the armor branch.

Rengo Kantai (Combined Fleet) Air Units

  • 1st Kantai
    • 3rd Koku Sentai
    • Battleships and Cruisers: 34 seaplanes
  • 2nd Kantai
    • Cruisers: 39 seaplanes
  • 3rd Kantai
    • Cruisers and Sanuki Maru: 15 seaplanes
    • Twelfth Koku Sentai
      • Kamikawa Maru: 12 seaplanes
      • Sanyo Maru: 8 seaplanes
  • 4th Kantai
    • Cruiser and Mine Layer: 2 seaplanes
    • 24th Koku Sentai
      • Chitose Kokutai: 36 G3M
      • Yokohama Kokutai: 24 H6K
    • Kokutais: 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th: 42 seaplanes
    • Kiyokawa Maru: 12 seaplanes
  • 5th Kantai
    • Chichijima Maru: 6 seaplanes
    • Kimikawa Maru: 8 seaplanes
  • Nanha Homen Kantai (Southern Area Fleet)
    • Sagara Maru, Kashii: 9 seaplanes
  • 1st Koku Kantai
  • 11th Koku Kantai
    • 21st Koku Sentai
      • Kanoya Kokutai: 27 G4M1
      • 1st Kokutai: 36 G3M2
      • Toko Kokutai: 24 H6K
    • 22nd Koku Sentai
    • 23rd Koku Sentai
    • Special Seaplane Tender Detachment
      • Mizuho: 20 seaplanes
      • Chitose: 20 seaplanes
  • Shina Homen Kantai (China Area Fleet)
    • Special Detachment: 12 B5N2, 8 seaplanes

Malay Peninsula

In 1941 the 2nd Senshadan (tank group) was formed for the Malaysian campaign. A group had three regiments, company sized supply train (140 trucks) and a maintenance group.

The 25th Army, commanded by General Yamashita, had a total of 211 tanks spread amongst the 1st, 6th, and 14th Tank Regiments.

On December 11 the 1st Tank Regiment went through the British Jitra line. On January 2, 1942, the 6th Tank Regiment went through the Slim River line that was just north of Singapore.

The 3rd Hikoshidan was assigned to the Malaya operation:

  • 3rd Hikodan (27th Sentai: 23 Ki-51, 59th Sentai: 24 Ki-43, 75th Sentai: 25 Ki-48, 90th Sentai: 30 Ki-48 & Ki-30)
  • 7th Hikodan (12th Sentai: 21 Ki-21, 60th Sentai: 39 Ki-21, 64th Sentai: 35 Ki-43 & 6 Ki-27, 98th Sentai: 42 Ki-21)
  • 10th Hikodan (31st Sentai: 24 Ki-30, 62nd Sentai: 22 Ki-21, 77th Sentai: 27 Ki-27, 70th Dokuritsu Dai Shijugo Chutai: 8 Ki-15)
  • 12th Hikodan (1st Sentai: 42 Ki-27, 11th Sentai: 39 Ki-27)
  • 15th Dokuritsu Hikotai (50th Dokuritsu Dai Shijugo Chutai: 5 Ki-15 & Ki-46, 51st Dokuritsu Dai Shijugo Chutai: 6 Ki-15 & Ki-46)
  • 83rd Dokuritsu Hikotai (71st Dokuritsu Dai Shijugo Chutai: 10 Ki-51, 73rd Dokuritsu Dai Shijugo Chutai: 9 Ki-51, 89th Dokuritsu Dai Shijugo Chutai: 12 Ki-36)
  • 81st Sentai: 9 Ki-15 & 7 Ki-46
  • 12th Hiko Chutai: Ki-57


The 4th and 7th Tank Regiments were with the Japanese forces that invaded Luzon.

On December 22, near Damortis, Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks of the 4th Tank Regiment attacked M3 light tanks of the American 192nd Tank Battalion.

The 7th Tank Regiment found that their 57 mm guns in the Type 97 Chi-Has couldn't penetrate the M3's armor. As a result two Type 97-Kai Shinhoto Chi-Has were used in the assault on Corregidor. A captured M3 was also used by Major Matsuoka, their commander.

The 5th Hikoshidan was assigned to the Philippine operation:

  • 4th Hikodan (8th Sentai: 27 Ki-48, 9 Ki-15, 2 Ki-46, 14th Sentai: 18 Ki-21, 16th Sentai: 27 Ki-30, 50th Sentai: 36 Ki-27)
  • 10th Dokuritsu Hikotai (52nd Dokuritsu Dai Shijugo Chutai: 13 Ki-51, 74th Dokuritsu Dai Shijugo Chutai: 10 Ki-36, 76th Dokuritsu Dai Shijugo Chutai: 9 Ki-15 & 2 Ki-46)
  • 24th Sentai: 36 Ki-27
  • 11th Hiko Chutai: Ki-57


In June 1942 three Sensha Shidan (tanks divisions), the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd were formed in Manchuria. Each had two Sensha Ryodan (tank brigades). In July the Kikogun (Armored Army) was created with two of the tank divisions and a tank group.


The 2nd and 14th Tank Regiments led the way into Burma. There were several battles with the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment which cost the British all but one Stuart tank.


In March 1942 the 4th Tank Regiment was sent to Java, but most of the Dutch East Indies had already been taken over by other Japanese military forces.


At the battle at Midway the Japanese Navy suffered severe losses in ships, planes, and trained crews and pilots.


The Type 2 Ka-Mi was developed for the SNLF. The school for amphibious tanks was at the Q-Base on Nasakeyima in 1943. The first units were sent to Rabaul and the Marshall Islands in October 1943.

More German Influence

The Germans sold the Japanese a 50 mm PzKpfw III and a 75 mm PzKpfw III. However, by the time they were shipped to Japan they were obsolete compared against the Allied tanks that were then in use.


The 4th Sensha Shidan was created in Japan in July 1944. It was to be used in the defense of the Japanese home islands.

From 1944 to 1945 the 1st – 9th Dokuritsu Sensha Ryodan (independent tank brigades) were formed. The 1st and 9th were sent to Manchuria while the rest stayed in Japan. These brigades were to support infantry divisions in their counterattacks.

Resource Shortages

By the middle of 1944 the blockade of Japan was causing shortages in materials used in aircraft engines. By the fall airframe production was outpacing engines and combat aircraft couldn't be finished.

Bombing Raids

On June 15, 1944, the first China based B-29 raid against Japan was conducted against the Yawata steel plant.

On November 24, 1944, the first Marianas based B-29 raid was conducted.

The bombing raids caused engine production to go down by 43% and airframes by 18%.


On December 7, 1944, a large earthquake damaged the Aichi, Mitsubishi's Nagoya, and Nakajima's Handa plants in the Tokai District.


In February an Urgent Dispersal of Plants Act was enacted to disperse manufacturing. It didn't get momentum until April or May which was too late to make a significant difference. By September there were around 100 underground aircraft plants under construction and any machinery in place was still be aligned and tested. Around 10 aircraft, 30 engines, a few thousand parts were produced in the underground factories.

Formation of Tank Regiments

  • 15 tank regiments (1st – 15th) created by 1940
  • 7 tank regiments (16th – 19th, 22nd – 24th) in 1941 – 1942
  • 9 tank regiments (25th – 30th, 33rd – 35th) in 1944
  • 15 tank regiments (36th- 48th, 51st – 52nd) in 1945

1st Tank Division “Taku”

1st Tank Brigade    
  1st Tank Regiment  
  5th Tank Regiment  
2nd Tank Brigade   Disbanded March 1944
  3rd Tank Regiment  
  9th Tank Regiment Sent to Marianas in March 1944
Activated June 1942, Ningan, Manchuria  
Transferred Sent to Japan in March 1945  

2nd Tank Division “Geki”

3rd Tank Brigade    
  6th Tank Regiment  
  7th Tank Regiment  
4th Tank Brigade    
  10th Tank Regiment  
  11th Tank Regiment To Luzon in August 1944
Activated June 1942, Kungchuling, Manchuria  
Deployed To Kuriles in August 1944  

3rd Tank Division “Taki”

5th Tank Brigade    
  8th Tank Regiment To New Britain in late 1942
  12th Tank Regiment  
6th Tank Brigade    
  10th Tank Regiment  
  11th Tank Regiment  
Activated December 1942, Baotou, China  

4th Tank Division “Hagane”

28th Tank Regiment  
29th Tank Regiment  
39th Tank Regiment  
Activated July 1944, Chiba, Japan
No infantry or artillery regiments  


71,300,000, 72,200,000, 72,222,700

Military Personnel

  Available Casualties
December 1941 July 1945 Killed Wounded
Army 2,100,000 5,710,000 1,289,605 53,028
Navy 291,359 1,663,223 298,209 7,844
Total 2,391,359 7,373,223 1,587,814 60,872


The names were based on the last 2 digits of the year in the Japanese calendar. The Japanese Empire was founded in 660 B.C. (Add 660 to western calendar to get year in Japanese calendar.

Sensha (from word sen which meant battle, and sha which meant wagon)


  1. Tanks of World War II, Duncan Crow, 1979
  2. World War II Japanese Tank Tactics, Gordon L. Rottman, Akira Takizawa, Peter Dennis, 2008
  3. Japanese Tanks 1939-45, Steven J. Zaloga, 2007
  4. World War II Airplanes Volume 2, Enzo Angelucci, Paolo Matricardi, 1976
  5. Profile AFV Weapons #49 Japanese Medium Tanks, Lieutenant-General Tomio Hara, 1972
  6. Tank War 1939-1945, Janusz Piekalkiewicz, 1986
  7. Atlas of Tank Warfare From 1916 to the Present Day, Dr. Stephen Hart, 2012
  8. World War II in Numbers, Peter Doyle, 2013
  9. Japanese Destroyer Captain, Capt. Tameichi Hara, 1967
  10. Japanese Aircraft of the Pacific War, 1987, René J Francillon
20th Century American Military History Crucial Site