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Japanese Tank Development – First Steps

When thinking back to World War II and Japan, most people think of honourable warriors, fearsome planes, kamikaze pilots and powerful navy. But tanks? Why would an island nation have tanks?

Japan was the only country outside Europe and North America to manufacture a significant number of tanks during World War II.

Japanese tank production in the 1930s was much greater than that of many European armies, due to the conflict in China. At that time, Japan was at the forefront of tank technology, introducing a number of innovations such as diesel tank engines and geared steering.

By 1940, the Japanese tank force was the fifth largest in the world, following those of the Soviet Union, France, Great Britain and Germany.

However, after 1941, the shift in strategic focus of the Japanese war effort changed industrial priorities from the needs of the army to that of the Imperial Japanese Navy. So both tank production and development were seriously reduced in the following years.


Mk.IV female tank at Chiba Infantry School.

How it came to be

In the early 20th century, Japan was both curious about Western military advances and somewhat concerned with their own hardware. They looked to Europe for inspiration.

An interesting pattern had emerged in which Japan would acquire the best European technology and adapt it to Japanese requirements. This was most notably in warship construction, in which British technology played an important part.

After World War I, Japan began to modernise its army based on the lessons learned from the conflict.

A small number of tanks were acquired for evaluation purpose, starting with a single British Mark IV in October 1918 and followed by about six British medium A Whippet tanks and 13 French Renault FT tanks in 1919. They were used mainly by the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) Infantry and Cavalry Schools, although two Whippets were deployed to Vladivostok with Japanese occupation troops towards the end of the Russian Civil War. The first tank units were formed in 1925, with five Renault FTs being deployed with the 1st Tank Detachment of 12th Division, and the Whippets forming a separate tank detachment at the Chiba Infantry School.

Whippets in Japanese Service.

 

The only vehicle purchased for service use was the Renault NC tank, of which ten were ordered and delivered in 1929. Unwilling to import war materials, the IJA formed the “Military Laboratory” in the Okubo district, to design and develop motor vehicles and related items. Another section of the laboratory was responsible for tanks and armoured cars.

While most countries new to tank development started out with small vehicles, Japan launched straight into what was at the time, a medium tank. Soon, the first requirements were given to IJA Technical Bureau in the Okubo District.

The first prototype was constructed of soft steel, and fitted with a main turret in the centre and subsidiary turrets to the front and the rear, similar to that of the French Char 2C. Although completed in the summer of 1926 at the Osaka Arsenal, at 18 16.3 tonnes it was deemed far too heavy. It later evolved into the Type 91 and Type 95 heavy tanks, but both were scrapped and not accepted for IJA service as the designs were considered just too cumbersome.

Experimental Tank No1

 

In March 1927, Japan acquired a Vickers Model C prototype. However, the vehicle’s engine caught fire during trials, prompting Japanese designers to opt for a diesel engine during future development.

 

Type 89 Yi-Go

A second light tank design was undertaken, and it was accepted for service in 1929 as the Type 89 Yi-Go.

Some of you might recognize it as the “little vehicle” belonging to the Duck Team (アヒルさんチーム, Ahiru-san Chīmu) from the popular anime series Girls und Panzer.

 

Responsibility for the production of the Type 89 medium tank was handed over to the Sagami Arsenal, which owing to limited production capability outsourced to a number of civilian firms, Mitsubishi being the most well-known.

Two versions of the Type 89 were built simultaneously, the 89A with an 118hp gasoline engine and the 89B with a 120hp diesel engine. In addition, since this was the first tank to be produced in Japan, detail improvements were needed and introduced at various stages throughout the production run of both models. Most of these changes were based on troop experience.

For example, the commander’s cupola on the turret was changed on the later production runs, from a small “top hat” design to a more practical cupola with a split hatch for ventilation and access.

 


Japansese soldiers next to a Type 89 tank

 

As the production of the Type 89 did not begin until 1931, the IJA ordered about ten NC 1 tanks in 1930. The Renault NC took part in the earliest actions (China) of the IJA tank force.

The 1st Special Tank Company with Renault FT and NC tanks was sent to Manchuria after the Manchurian incident in January 1932.[i] The Independent Tank Company, with five Type 89 tanks and ten Renault NC tanks, took part in the January 28th incident[ii]. Although the new tank performed well, the suspension of the Renault NC was troublesome, and the tank was retired from service.

As a result, when the 1st Special Tank Company saw combat with Chinese troops in March 1933, it was equipped solely with the Type 89 tank.

Production of the Type 89 did not become significant until 1933 when the diesel-powered Type 89 became the predominant type, with 291 of the 404 manufactured by the time production ended in 1939.

The start of large-scale tank production led to the formation of the first three Japanese tank regiments, in 1933: the 1st Regiment, based on the Renault FT detachment at Kurume: the 2nd Tank Regiment, based on the Whipped detachment at the Chiba Tank School; and the 3rd Regiment, also formed at Kurume.  The 1st Tank Regiment was the first deployed into a combat theatre, being sent to Kwantung Army[iii] in China.

Location of Manchukuo (red) within Imperial Japan's sphere of influence.

 

During its time the Type 89 was one of the world’s best tanks. It was less prone to mechanical failure than its Renault FT predecessor, and was well received by the troops.

To put this into perspective, at the time, Germany and the USSR were still developing Leichttraktor and MS1 respectively, while the Yi-Go was just starting its reign.

 

Specs. Type 89 I-Go  
Dimensions (L-w-h)  5.73 x 2.13 x 2.56 m
Total weight (battle ready) 9.9 Tons (metric)
Crew 4 (commander, driver, loader, gunner)
Armament Type 90 57mm - 2 x Type 91 6.5 mm Mgs
Armour  6 - 17mm
Propulsion

Mitsubishi A6120VD air-cooled inline 6-cylinder diesel

120 hp (90 kW)/ 1800 rpm 14,300cc.
Range (road):          150 km

Total produced (both types)   409


 

The Later Years

Japan’s early victories in the Pacific War displayed a skilful and imaginative use of tanks in a terrain that the British and US commanders believed limited their use.

After winning critical early victories against the Allies, the Japanese strategy now shifted to a more defensive orientation. Production priority was now given to the warships and aircraft that bore the brunt of the new defensive naval campaigns. As a result, in spite of their important role in the victories of 1941-42, tank production actually fell after its peak.

Furthermore, new tank designs stagnated because Japan had still been dependent on European influences to help direct its technological advancement.

The Philippines, 8th December 1941 – 8th January 1942.

 

In numbers, the Type 95 Ha-Go light tank was the main tank-force of the IJA, with 2,300 specimens being produced by the end of the war.

The remaining backbone of the Imperial Japanese Army was the Type 97 Chi-Ha and its upgrade, the Type 97 ShinhoTo Chi-Ha.

Neither of these Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFV) were able to effectively engage their allied counterparts. For the Type 95, the American M3 Series proved to be a stiff competitor. Likewise, the M4 Shermans were a huge obstacle for the Chi-Ha series.

 

By the end of the war, Japan had ventured into some more resilient designs, such as the Type 3 Chi-Nu, a successor to the Type 97 Chi-Ha, which fared better against the M4. However, due to industrial overload and the bombings of Japan, only 144 were completely built by the end of the war. These production vehicles were kept back for the final defence of the Home Islands.

Additionally, Japan had developed The Type 4 Chi-To. This was the Japanese equivalent of the German Panther, and was meant to take on the T-34 by being armed with a long 75mm gun. The first units were completed only weeks before the end of the war, and they never saw combat. Only six chassis were built and only two tanks completed.

Type 4 Chi-To heavy tank.

 

Nevertheless, Japan was one of the world’s largest tank forces, and if we take the circumstances into the account, they possessed an interesting array of concepts and designs. Many of these, we will have the chance to see in the game.

 

Sources:

  • Zaloga, Steven J. Japanese Tanks 1939–45.
  • Coox, Alvin D. Nomonhan; Japan Against Russia, 1939.
  • Jane's World War II Tanks and Fighting Vehicles by Leland Ness
  • Open source

 



[i] The Mukden Incident, also known as the Manchurian Incident, was a staged event engineered by rogue Japanese military personnel as a pretext for Japan invading the north-eastern part of China, known as Manchuria, in 1931.

[ii] A short war between the armies of the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan.

[iii] A military group of the Imperial Japanese Army largely responsible for the creation of the Japanese-dominated Empire of Manchukuo.

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