Light & medium tanks, armored cars

Around 10,000 AFVs

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 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 Whippet Mark As, which became the first Japanese tanks, and around 6 machines were duly tested and used in maneuvers until 1930. In 1919 thirteen Renault FT 17s 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 1925, with the 1st Tank Unit of the 12th Division. 10 vehicles were ordered in 1931 from France, namely the Renault NC-27 “Otsu”, a modernized and improved variant of the FT 17. They were deployed in the 1st Tank Unit in Kurume, and remained in China for the duration of WW2.

Development of tanks 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, similar to the French Char 2C. 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 TK.

Operations in China

By 1933, the IJA had created its three first 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 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 tanks designs, where engines, suspensions, tracks and transmissions were thoroughly put to the test. By 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 Russian had lost 32 BT tanks. After an initial success, they 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 tanks 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) 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 a 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.

Tankettes (~ 1547 units)

Type 92 Jyu-Sokosha (167 units)
Type 94 tankette (823 units)
Type 97 Te-Ke tankette (557 units)

Light tanks (~ 2633 units)

Type 95 Ha-Go (2300 units)
Type 98 Ke-Ni (104 units)
Type 2 Ke-To (29 units)
Type 4 Ke-Nu (100 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-To ( 2 units)

Heavy tanks (3 produced)

Type 91 Heavy Tank (1 prototype)
Type 95 Heavy Tank (1 prototype)
Super-heavy Tank “O-I” (1 prototype)

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 SPH (124 units)
Type 1 Ho-Ni II SPH (54 units)
Type 3 Ho-Ni III Tank Destroyer (41 units)
Type 4 Ho-Ro 150 mm SPH (25 units)
Type 4 Ha-To 120 mm SPG (4 units)
75 mm SP AT Gun “Na-To” (2 prototypes)
Type 4 Ha-To 30cm SP Heavy Mortar Carrier (1 prototype)
105 mm SP Gun Tank “Ho-Ri” (1 unfinished prototype)
Type 5 Ho-Ru 47 mm SP Gun (1 prototype)
Type 5 Na-To Tank Destroyer (2 units)
Type 5 Mortar Launcher “Tok” (1 prototype)
75 mm SPG “Kusae” (1 prototype)

Armored cars

Aikoku/Hokoku Armored Car (unknown)
Type 87 Vickers/Crossley Armored Car (~ 200)
Model 92 Osaka Naval Armored Car (~200 units ?)
Type 2592 “Kokusan” Naval Armored Car (~500 built ?)
Type 2593 “Sumida” Armored Car (~1000 units)
Type 91 So-Mo Armored Railroad Car (~1000 units ?)
Model 92 “Chiyoda” Armored Car (200 units)

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

A list of Japanese WWII armor on Wikipedia

Armored Car Chiyoda

IJA Armored car “Chiyoda”, 1932. The most modern 6-wheel heavy AC in service in China. It was based on the 6-wheeled Type Q truck.

Armored Car Hokoku

IJA armored car Hokoku. Data on IJN armored cars is scarce at best. It seems a few were built; most served in China.

M2593 Sumida railroad armoured car

This broad gauge railroad armored car was the most current 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 captured Te-Ke tankettes (Type 94), at Kwajalein. The size of the Sherman gives a good clue about their scale.

O-I Heavy Tank

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

Type 3 Ka-Chi, an amphibious tank, bigger and more heavily armed than the Ka-Mi.

Type 5 To-Ku

Type 5 To-Ku, the biggest of the amphibious tanks, was developed in 1945, but production never started. Only a prototype was built.

Type 5 Na-To

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.

Type 5 Ho-Ki

The Type 5 Ho-Ki was based on the Type 1 Ho-Ki transport, but adapted as a self-propelled anti-aircraft gun with twin Type 98 20 mm (0.79 in) AAGs.

Type 4 Ho-Ro

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.


Type 5 Chi-Ri

Type 5 Chi-Ri with a prospective camouflage, 1945 (off-scale).

The Type 5 Chi-Ri (五式中戦車 チリ Go-shiki chusensha Chi-ri) was the last Japanese tank model to reach the prototype phase during WWII. Not a heavy tank, but a medium, it was designed to be more heavier and powerful than the Type 4 Chi-To. It was based on a lengthened version of the Type 4 Chi-To chassis (8 road wheels), with thicker sloped welded armor. This included 75 mm (2.95 in) on the frontal glacis, and from 25 to 50 mm (0.98-1.97 in) on the sides, rear and turret. Initially, it was to be powered by a Mitsubishi diesel engine, but a 800 hp V-12 gasoline-fueled aircraft engine designed by BMW, licence built by Kawasaki Heavy Industries, was selected instead. This Kawasaki Type 98 Ha-9-IIb” could provide 550 hp, which could comfortably propel the 37 ton tank. The Type 5 75 mm (2.95 in) Tank Gun Mark I had a semi-automatic loader at first, same as the Chi-To. Eventually, a 88 mm (3.46 in) gun, based on the Type 99 AA Gun, was planned for the turret. Secondary armament comprised a front hull-mounted Type 1 37 mm (1.46 in) gun, and a Type 97 light machine gun was mounted coaxially to it. Work started in mid-1944. Military planners thought of equipping several mobile armored division with this new model, ready to throw the invaders to the sea. Indeed, the Type 5 was quite a worthy adversary for the Sherman.

Well advanced by May 1945, the Chi-To was cancelled, and the Type 4 was given first priority, due to the lack of resources at this stage. An unfinished prototype was captured by American occupation troops in the fall of 1945. It was to be, apparently, shipped back to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, but was lost at sea or scrapped in situ. The Ho-Ri tank destroyer was based on the same chassis, and was to be equipped with a more powerful 105 mm (4.13 in) gun, in an arrangement very similar to the German Elefant/Ferdinand. It remained a paper project, and only a scale mock-up was found.

Type 5 Chi-Ri specifications

Dimensions 8.5 x 3.05 x 3.10 m (28x10x10.2 ft)
Total weight, battle ready 37 short tons
Crew 5 (driver, commander, gunner, loader, hull gunner/radio)
Propulsion Water-cooled Kawasaki Type 98 aircraft petrol engine, 550 hp
Speed 45 km/h (28 mph)
Armor 12 to 75 mm (0.47-2.95 in)
Suspension Bell crank
Armament Main: 75 mm (2.95 in) Type 5 or Type 99 88 mm (3.46 in) AA gun planned

Secondary: 1x 37 mm (1.46 in) Type 1 & 1-2 Type 97 7.7 mm (0.3 in) machine-guns
Range (road/off road) 250 km (160 miles)

Type 5 To-Ku

Type 5 To-Ku

Type 5 To-Ku in a fictional regular Imperial Japanese Navy Blue-Grey livery, for trials, 1945 (off-scale).

Type 5 To-Ku 特五式内火艇 トク (1945). This last and ultimate Japanese IJN amphibious tank was particularly massive, built on the chassis of the Type 5 Chi-Ri, with the same water-cooled 12-cylinder Mitsubishi diesel, supplying 240 hp. It had quite extensive armor protection (from 10 to 50 mm/0.4-1.97 in), it was fitted with a 47 mm (1.85 in) Type 1 gun in the casemate, and a secondary 25 mm (0.98 in) AT light gun Type 1 in the turret, plus two Type 97 machine guns. It was 29.1 tons, with a size of 10.8 x 3.6 x 3.88 m (35.4 x 11.8 x 12.7 ft) and had a crew of five, but was utterly slow at 32 km/h (20 mph) on land and 10 km/h (6 mph) on water. A single prototype was built and later captured by US troops.

Type 4 To-Ku specifications

Dimensions 10.8 x 3.6 x 3.88 m (35.4 x 11.8 x 12.7 ft)
Total weight, battle ready 29.1 short tons
Crew 5 (driver, commander, gunner, loader, hull gunner/radio operator)
Propulsion Water-cooled 12-cylinder Mitsubishi diesel, 240 hp, 8 hp/ton
Speed 32 km/h (20 mph) on land, 10 km/h (6 mph) on water
Armor 10 to 50 mm (0.4-2 in)
Suspension Bell crank
Armament 47 mm (1.85 in) and 25 mm (0.98 in) guns

2x 7.7 mm type 97 (0.3 in) machine-guns
Range (road/off road) 198 miles

2 Responses to Japan (ww2)

  1. Jake says:

    The Japanese made more tanks, some even bigger than the Maus!

    • Profile photo of Stan Lucian Stan Lucian says:

      Well, if you’re referring to the new WoT heavy tanks, do take those designs with a grain of salt.
      There is little to no information available on those, and we are unsure how much is reality and how much is WG fantasy.

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