Light & medium tanks, armored cars
Around 10,000 AFVs
Infantry support tanks
Self propelled guns
The very origins of Japanese armor
During WW1, Imperial Japanese troops actively fought against positions of the Central Powers in the Pacific theater. The navy emerged as an almost independent institution and played a minor role within the drama of WWI, but the army saw little action. However, after the Bolshevik Revolution, the Japanese sent 70,000 troops into Siberia, in order to support the White Russians. The results and costs of the campaign were not well appreciated back home and, in this context, the need for tanks emerged. Officers found themselves acutely aware of the tank development by the western powers, and the military junta quickly purchased several machines abroad.
In 1921, the IJA acquired a few British Mark A Whippets, which became the first Japanese tanks, and around 6 machines were duly tested and used in maneuvers until 1930. In 1919, thirteen Renault FTs were bought, the most common tank of the day worldwide, which became the mainstay of the early infantry tank force, under the name of “FT-Ko”. They served during the “Manchurian incident” in 1931, with the 1st Tank Unit of the 12th Division. 10 more vehicles were ordered in 1931 from France, namely the Renault NC27, called “Otsu” by the Japanese, a modernized and improved variant of the FT. They were deployed in the 1st Tank Unit in Kurume, and remained in China for the duration of WW2.
Development during the thirties
The first indigenous design came after the study of contemporary British designs, like the Medium Mark C, at the Chiba Infantry School. These, along with new information about tank tactics, led to the experimental Type 87, in 1927. It was initiated by the 4th Military Laboratory of the Imperial Japanese Army Technical Bureau, and made of soft steel. The Type 89 Yi-Go was built in large numbers, first with the Ko variant, and later the Otsu (278 and 126 units).
It was a relatively fast (25 km/h), diesel-equipped, well-armored infantry tank built from 1929 to 1936. It formed the mainstay of the Japanese army in China, participating in the Shanghai incident and subsequent conquest of China. By 1941 they were seen as obsolete, but many participated in the Philippines operations, were they remained until 1944. Also in 1927, the Japanese bought 6 Carden-Lloyd Mk.VI tankettes, and copied the suspension system and drivetrain. The first derivative was the “combat car” Type 92 Jyu-Sokosha, built for the cavalry corp. Later on, they built several hundreds of small reconnaissance tankettes, like the Type 94 Te-Ke.
Operations in China
By 1933, the IJA had created its first three tanks units, the 1st and 3rd Regiment at Kurume and the 2nd Regiment at the Chiba Tank School. An Independent Mixed Brigade was formed in China the same year, mainly with Type 89 and 94 tanks. In 1934, this was renamed to the 1st Independent Mixed Brigade. The Chinese had no tanks and few capable antitank guns, so these tanks served as mobile pillboxes and provided infantry support. By 1937, 8 tank regiments had been formed, with a total of 1060 vehicles. By July of the same year, thirteen tankette companies (with four platoons of four tankettes each) were sent to China. The bad roads and general terrain in Manchuria were a proving ground for many tank designs, where engines, suspensions, tracks and transmissions were thoroughly put to the test. In 1938, two (1st and 3rd) Senshadan, or tank groups, were formed to control Manchuria’s borders with USSR.
War with the Soviets
In 1938-39, several frontier incidents had degenerated into a full scale battle. The biggest clash occurred at Kalkhin Gol. IJA forces were defeated by the better tanks and more aggressive Russian tactics. The generals, whom had always seen tanks primarily as a mean to offer support to the infantry, began to see them as a fighting force in themselves. The 3rd and 4th Tank Regiments in Manchuria were equipped with all the range of IJA models in service that year. They were committed during those days, were they lost 42 tanks out of 73, while the Russians had lost 32 BT tanks. After some initial successes, the Japanese tanks were surrounded and decimated. This failure triggered many changes in the IJA tactical thinking and, in response to the Russian tanks, several new antitank guns and new tank models were devised. General Tomoyuki Yamashita was sent to Germany to study Wehrmacht tactics and armored warfare doctrine. He made a report, full of recommendations for new medium tanks and better infantry equipment against tanks. In April 1941, the armored branch became independent, with General Shin Yoshida as first commander in chief.
World War Two
The tank force was primarily under the command of the IJA, and not the navy. Also, due to the nature of the Pacific theater, were operations mostly involved small islands ill-suited for tanks, these were deployed only in several large scale operational areas, were they could be effective in blitzkrieg-style tactics. These include China, the Philippines, Burma, Indonesia (Java), while some were dispersed in support of infantry units on Okinawa, Iwo Jima and several other islands. On December 22, near Damortis, on Luzon island (Philippines) the first clash between Japanese and US tanks occurred. They were opposed to M3 and M2A4 light tanks of the American 192nd Tank Battalion. The 57 mm (2.24 in) gun of the Chi-Ha, then the best frontline IJA tank, proved useless against their armor. In Burma, engaging second and third rate light tanks, and a few Stuarts from the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, the Japanese proved deadly. By 1943, the SNLF, or Navy Armored Force, received its first amphibious tanks, like the Ka-Mi. 223 units would be built until 1945. The Germans sent two Panzer IIIs to Japan, followed later by plans of their more advanced tanks. However, upgrades were slow to appear and the development of really effective German-style tanks never really materialized. Only a few of these new types were completed by 1945, and many prototypes never entered production. Lacking materials and petrol, Japan’s industrial capacities were hampered to the point of complete inefficiency.
The last tanks built were allocated to home defense units, waiting for the invasion (operation Olympic), which never came. When the Soviets invaded Manchuria in August 1945, they found an impressive tank force, at least on the paper, but a deep ravine separated the IJA and Soviet types. The latter had constantly improved their models in response to German tanks, and were much more advanced in speed, firepower and protection than the average IJA models, which were light and/or obsolete by any standards of the time.
It has to be said that the Japanese never had the capacity to develop large-scale production, at least comparable to the western powers. Even during the war, the US naval blockade, mostly performed by the US Navy Air Force and submarines, began to be felt in 1943. By late 1944, Japan was deprived of all kinds of industrial resources, previously taken from south-east Asia, and their industries were constantly hammered by swarms of B-29 bombers operating from China, and later from Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Production efforts were split between the needs of the Army and Navy, leading to many specifications and many proposed vehicles, almost all never surpassing the prototype or pre-series stages.
Tankettes (~ 1547 units)
Light tanks (~ 2633 units)
Medium tanks (~ 3150 units)
Type 89 Yi-Go (404 units)
Type 97 Chi-Ha (1162 units)
Type 97 Shinhoto Chi-Ha or -kai (930 improved units)
Type 2 Ho-I infantry support tank (30 units)
Type 1 Chi-He (170 units)
Type 3 Chi-Nu (166 units)
Type 4 Chi-To (2 units)
Type 5 Chi-Ri (2 units)
Heavy tanks (3 produced)
Amphibious tanks (223 units)
Type 1 Mi-Sha (prototype)
Type 2 Ka-Mi (184 units)
Type 3 Ka-Chi (19 units)
Type 4 Ka-Tsu (20 units)
Type 4 Ka-sha (1 prototype)
Type 5 To-Ku (1 prototype)
F B Swamp Vehicle (1 prototype ?)
SRII Ro-Go Amphibious Tank (1 prototype ?)
Self propelled guns (~ 252 units)
Type 1 Ho-Ni I (124 units)
Type 1 Ho-Ni II (54 units)
Type 3 Ho-Ni III (41 units)
Type 4 Ho-Ro (25 units)
Type 4 Ha-To (4 units)
Type 5 Na-To (2 prototypes)
Type 4 Ha-To 30cm SP Heavy Mortar Carrier (1 prototype)
Type 5 Ho-Ri (1 unfinished prototype)
Type 5 Ho-Ru (1 prototype)
Type 5 Tok (1 prototype)
75 mm SPG “Kusae” (1 prototype)
Other armored vehicles
Type 95 So-Ki armored railroad car (? built)
Type 98 So-Da armored ammunition carrier (100 built ?)
Type 1 Ho-Ki armored personal carrier (200 built ?)
Type 1 Ho-Ha half-track armored personnel carrier (200 built ?)
Type 100 Te-Re observation vehicle (? built)
Links about IJA armor
IJA Type 92 armored car Chiyoda, 1932. The most modern 6-wheel heavy armored car in service in China. It was based on the 6-wheeled Type Q truck.
IJA Type 93 armored car Hokoku. Data on IJN armored cars is scarce at best. It seems a few were built; most served in China.
This broad gauge railroad armored car was the most numerous in service, notably in the Philippines and China, and most of southeast Asia.
The most impressive IJA self-propelled gun, with two variants conceived in 1945, the Ho-Ri and Ho-Ri II. They were both equipped with a heavy 105 mm (4.13 in) naval gun. The first was an unfinished prototype, the second existed only as paper project.
A rare view of a captured Te-Ke tankette (Type 94), at Kwajalein. The size of the Sherman gives a good clue about their scale.
O-I heavy tank. This impressive machine seems to have been completed by the manufacturer, and rumors state it was sighted in China for trials. No photos of it were found.
SR II Ro-Go amphibious tank. It seems that only a prototype was built.
Type 3 Ka-Chi, an amphibious tank, bigger and more heavily armed than the Ka-Mi.
Type 5 To-Ku, the biggest of the amphibious tanks, was developed in 1945, but production never started. Only a prototype was built.
The Type 5 Na-To was a tank destroyer armed with a 75 mm (2.95 in) Type 5 high velocity gun. The first prototype was completed in 1945 but, despite an order of 200, only 2 were completed before the end of the war.
The Type 1 Ho-Ki was a fully tracked armored personnel carrier.
Type 4 Ho-Ro, built by Mistubishi in small numbers, was inspired by the German sIG 33 self propelled howitzer. It was equipped with an old Krupp-designed 150 mm (5.9 in) howitzer, but vulnerable due to its weak side protection.