In the mid-19th century, Japan transitioned into the “Meiji Restoration” era. Within a few decades, the humble agricultural country developed into a force to be reckoned with. It was also the times Japan took an aggressive stand when it came to external politics. War victories in 1895 and 1905 ensured the country’s domination in the Far East region.
The Japanese military forces became interested in tanks when they first appeared in 1916. Colonel Hoshino even recognized the importance of tanks in writing during World War I: “No country can consider itself defended, if it has no powerful artillery, modern tanks, and aviation under control.”
A special Imperial general staff committee was created soon after. Its sole purpose was to build and develop the Japanese armored forces. In 1917-1927, Japan began actively purchasing and testing foreign tank prototypes.
The Japanese began working on developing and manufacturing their own tanks in the mid-1920s. Osaka was home to the most important center of armored vehicles development. Many private and government factories were reequipped for that purpose. The leading position in this industry was soon claimed by ‘Mitsubishi’ – which was also constructing cars in addition to tanks.
Japan’s First Tank – The #1 Chi-I
In 1927, the first Japanese tank was born in Osaka – it was named “#1 Chi-I”. The machine was equipped with two turrets, which had 57mm and 70mm guns mounted along with two machine guns. But because of the low-power engine, which was chosen for that vehicle by Japanese engineers, the tank had low functionality and speed on cross-country terrain. For that reason, it never entered series production.
The light “Type 87” project was carried out simultaneously with the “Chi-I”. Production was held back as military officials decided that the vehicle had weak firepower and thin armor. But the wait turned out to be a strategic move. By combining the tank with the British Vickers MK C, the result was a “Type 89” medium tank – which was the first vehicle Japan sent for serial production. New vehicles were manufactured until 1937.
In 1930, Japan purchased the light Renault NC27, modified it, and called it the NC27 Otsu. The Japanese version had better armoring and greater firepower in comparison to its French predecessor. These tanks also received locally manufactured engines. Most of them ran on gas, but there were also diesel variants.
The Type 95 “Ha-Go”
One of Japan’s most famous Japanese Light tanks became a finished prototype in the summer of 1935. The Type 95 “Ha-Go” was created. It weighed 7.4 tons. Transmission was placed in the front of the tank, while engine space was put in the vehicle’s rear. Its hull armor was around 10-12mm on average. The turret had space for only one crew member and it was equipped with a 37mm gun and a 6.5mm machine gun in the rear niche. A machine gun of the same caliber was also placed in the frontal hull.
Speed-wise, the tank could reach up to 30km/hr on a cross-country terrain with its 120-h.p engine. Its engine was selected with the economy in mind – gas consumed more fuel. The vehicle’s suspension system was designed by Japanese engineer, Tomio Hara. Based on data collected from previous battles, an improved suspension system was designed. It had additional track wheels, which helped to rationally distribute pressure on soils and damp strikes when moving through difficult cross-country terrain. The Japanese tankers liked the “Ha-Go” for its simple and reliable design.
However, the tank had several weaknesses. Among them, the tank lacked of modern communication devices, a coaxial machine gun, availability of numerous access doors, and removable armor components.
Out of all the contemporary tanks, only the “Ha-Go” was manufactured until 1945.
A Scout and Infantry Support: The Type 97 “Te-Ke”
In the second half of 1930s, ‘Tokio Gasu Denki’ corporation presented the small Type 97 “Te-Ke” tank prototype to the Japanese military. It was developed based on the British Mark VI tankette. The “Te-Ke” weighed 4.7 tons and was equipped with a 37mm gun. A 7.7mm machine gun was available for mounting instead of the main gun. Thanks to its small size and good speed (up to 42km/hr), it could complete reconnaissance missions. The ‘Te-Ke’ entered service in 1937. Aside of scouting missions, it was also used as infantry support, heavy armor transport, or as an observer vehicle.
The Fast and Furious Type 98 “Ke-Ni”
Developed in 1938 by the “Hino Jidosha Kosho” company, the Type 98 “Ke-Ni” light tank was an interesting project. It has a powerful diesel engine that enables the tank to reach speeds up to 50 km/hr. Changes in suspension design helps decrease lateral oscillation during tank movement. The “Ke-Ni” was equipped with a new turret that had enough space for two crew members to increase battle effectiveness. It also had a 37mm gun on the turret and a 7.7mm machine gun mounted to the right from the main caliber. There was even a Type 98B modification, which had a radial cylinder engine and a Christie suspension.
The ‘Ke-Ni’ was never mass produced. In 1942-1943, the tanks were created in limited quantities of 20-100 tanks (different sources quoted different numbers).
New Medium Tanks
In 1936, Japanese military officials have reviewed the required performance characteristics for medium tanks. From that year, engineers had to construct more maneuverable armored vehicles with more powerful guns mounted. In order to meet the requirements, the Imperial army engineers created the 9.8-ton “Chi-Ni” prototype.
Mitsubishi constructed a 15-ton “Chi-Ha” prototype.
Production: “Chi-Ni” vs “Chi-Ha”
When it came to choosing which tank to produce for battles, the Japanese thought carefully.
The “Chi-Ni” medium tank had a 135 HP engine which allowed it to travel at a maximum speed of 30km/hr. A “tail” was designed to be part of the rear hull for passing ditches, trenches, and escarpments. Its armor thickness was also increased by rational armor plates angles. The tank required three crew members for regular operation.
Although the military was considering the “Chi-Ni” at first, prior war experience proved that a cheaply-produced light tank was not a better choice over the “Chi-Ha” and its tougher armor.
A War Weapon – the “Chi-Ha”
The “Chi-Ha” first entered service in 1937, but was mass produced in 1939. This vehicle could speed up to 40km/hr. It was armored with a 57mm Type 97 gun and two 7.7mm machineguns. The frontal armor plate was 22mm thick. And its hull was constructed by riveting rolled armor plates. Its turret was built towards the tank’s right.
In 1940, after battles during the Nomonhan Incident, a new modified tank appeared – “Shinhoto Chi-Ha”. It was equipped with a new turret which had a 47mm gun with 48 caliber length mounted. Shells from that gun can penetrate 50mm armor from a 500m distance.
Approximately 1200 “Chi-Ha” tanks were produced.
Japan’s Military Growth
Compared to Western civilizations, Japan started creating their own armored forces relatively late. But by the start of the Second World War, the Japanese were able to create almost twenty original projects. This shows how fast and dynamic Japan was in tank development and production.
In the third part, we will briefly describe Japanese tanks during the Second World War, the structure of Japanese tank forces, and their tactics.