Debunking Japanese Tank Myths

Tank factory

A persisting myth, especially when it comes to Japanese tanks and other ground units of World War II and the years leading up to it is that “(Imperial) Japan made “bad tanks”. Casual dismissals like “almost all Japanese tanks could be defeated by a rifle” are uninformed at best. This fallacy can be exposed with one example: The first Japanese-designed tank to be widely used in battle was the Type 89 I-Go Medium Tank, designed in 1928 and mass produced by Imperial Japan for its ambitions of territorial expansion in places like China. It had a maximum hull thickness of 17mm, while the well-known Soviet BT-7 tank (which was produced years later) had a hull thickness of 6-20 mm, and a turret thickness of only 10-15 mm. If the I-Go in its heyday could be defeated by a “rifle,” then so could the BT-7. The Type 89 was a perfectly suitable tank for its time and performed well in its intended role.

If Japan can be faulted for something in its tanks, it is that they kept some of their best designs at home while the soldiers in remote locations across the Pacific made do with older, obsolete tanks, especially once the Allies came back at them in force. It is likely in many games that Japanese anti-infantry and anti-fortification tank designs from the 1930s will reflect that situation and will be put up against US tanks from as much as 5 years later in the same “tiers.” That is hardly a fair measure of whether the Japanese were capable of manufacturing “good” versus “bad” tanks, especially in WW2, when technology jumped by leaps and bounds in a few years – from biplanes to jets. An example of the disparity in years of introduction can be seen in Men of War: Assault Squad (1 & 2) where the Type 95 Light Tank and a Type 93 Armored Car are pitted againt the M3 Half Track and M24 Chaffee respectively, both vehicles introduced roughly 10 years later. This is more palatable to an audience that recognizes the Type 95 Ha-Go from movies like The Pacific, or boardgames like Axis and Allies, but may have never heard of the U.S.’s M1A1 light tank designed around the same time.

There are several sources you can consult if you want the real story on Japanese tanks, but a great and easy to digest English resource is the book Japanese tanks 1939-1945 by Steven J Zaloga. You will tear through it if you are interested in the subject (pick up a copy on Kindle). The book covers quite a bit more in fact, and goes back to the early 1930s as well as a bit into the 20s to fully explore what the Japanese were doing domestically with tank design and other armored vehicles while some countries had little more than armored cars with machine guns or imported tanks designed by other countries. Zaloga does not rely only on common Western knowledge or preconceptions, but instead delves deep into Japanese sources and correspondence to give a well-rounded picture of Japanese tanks and how they were used in battle.

Here are several points to consider:

  1. Japanese tank development was at the forefront by the mid to late 1930s. This is contrary to the notion that the Japanese developed tanks like the Ha-Go to battle American forces … when in fact they were designed in 1933. At the time the Ha-Go was being deployed effectively in the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Americans were not at war and had only machine gun-equipped vehicles like the M1 Combat Car, produced in small numbers, and the “Mae West” M2A2.
  2. During the Japanese campaigns in China, medium tanks and tankettes were effective in the field against what the opposition had at the time.
  3. During the border wars with the Soviet Union (Khalkin Gol), tanks under the rogue Japanese command of the Kwantung Army fought to a standstill against an overwhelming armored force of Soviets over the course of weeks and eventually were defeated. While not victorious, they did break through Soviet lines despite being outnumbered by Soviet tanks 500 to 135 (and aircraft by 809 to 250) by some estimates. http://en.wikipedia….of_Khalkhin_Gol    It is worth considering what may have transpired  if the Japanese had fielded 500 tanks of their own.
  4. When WW2 started in full swing, the Imperial Japanese swept into places like British occupied Burma or US occupied Philippines with tanks and tactics designed with lessons learned during battles with the Chinese and Soviets, and took the Western forces  there by surprise. The British made the mistake of thinking tanks were not suitable for the jungle terrain of SE Asia, and the Japanese tanks’ successes in those invasions proved otherwise.
  5. Since the Japanese were at war before the war with the USA in the Pacific, they had developed tanks to that point primarily with their experiences in the 1930s, and spread tanks developed in that era to the four corners of the expanding Japanese empire. Many of these older tanks were encountered later, often in “hull-down” positions when the Allied forces attacked fortified Japanese islands.
  6. Japanese tanks early on were not designed for tank-vs-tank combat, and low-velocity guns mounted on them were more useful against fortifications like pillboxes (though they could use anti-armor ammunition). They had only what armor was required to be successful in their infantry support operations overseas. Overall weight, and as a result armor thickness, was limited for purposes of land speed, sea transport, and considerations such as wooden or ancient Asian bridge crossings.
  7. Japanese tank commanders worked with the older tanks they had when the Allies came, using superior gun depression (the amount a tank can lower its barrel, usually measured in degrees.  Basically, how well a tank can point its main gun downward.) tactics of hiding tanks behind fortifications or by using mountain ridges for “hull down” additional defense since their tank armor was thinner than the newer Allied tanks’, and effective armor penetration range might have meant waiting for Allied armor to get closer before firing.
  8. The Japanese Army kept tankettes in service long after the tankette “fad” had faded in Europe, and favored light, cheap, and resource-light armored vehicles that could keep up with the infantry’s other modes of transport. The result was often inexpensive and lightly armored vehicles, but this did not mean that such light tanks (and the Ha-Go itself) were not effective against the Chinese and their assortment of light tanks bought from Europe, for example. Japan destroyed the imported opposition in China with the their own homegrown designs that included relatively thinly-armored tanks and tankettes. It is also worth noting that having light and small tanks versus an enemy who had no tanks at all was always advantageous, and for this reason (and for a lack of available production tank guns) many Type 97 Te-Ke and Type94 TK tankettes were only equipped with a machine gun in the turret and can be seen in photos patrolling streets of captured cities in China or Hong Kong.
  9. Against common wisdom, the Japanese won the first tank vs. tank battle in the Pacific vs. the USA, with an M3 Stuart destroyed by a sudden assault by Ha-Go light tanks, with other M3s damaged as they retreated. http://en.wikipedia….f_armor_in_WWII
  10. The Japanese Navy generally had priority over resources with their ships (the Japanese focus on massive resource sinks like Battleships was in hindsight a tactical mistake), especially once WW2 started in full swing. Even the Army’s own planes and transport ships had to compete for metal, rubber, etc. required to build tanks, so Japanese tanks were never built in great numbers once the Japanese were on the defensive.
  11. Most battles in the latter years of the war saw Japanese tanks dramatically outnumbered as the manufacturing might of America was able to simply outbuild the Japanese with thousands of fresh, newly designed tanks for deployment against the older Japanese designs of years past.
  12. The latest and best Japanese tanks designs (such as the Chi-Nu http://en.wikipedia….i/Type_3_Chi-Nu ) were reserved for defense of the home islands, and some models never saw battle, lined up waiting for the expected Allied invasion in places like Tokyo that never happened.
  13. Aside from their problem with resources, the Japanese did not have the sort of advanced manufacturing lines for mass production like the ones in Detroit at the time, and were doomed once the resource-rich Americans entered the war against them in full force (notably even as the U.S. split its attention attacking Germany with bombers). They depended heavily on “unskilled” labor and local artisans in small shops across Japan for manufacturing parts for their weapons of war. As an example of what they were up against, by some estimates the number of grounded U.S. warplanes the Japanese destroyed at Pearl Harbor would take the Americans only 2 weeks of manufacturing time to replace.
  14. When the US landed in places like Okinawa or Guadalcanal, they were facing for the most part Japanese tanks developed years prior, bordering on obsolete. The few advanced Japanese tanks (such as the Ho-Ni I http://en.wikipedia….Service_history ) deployed to such places like the Philippines were severely outnumbered and were not built in large enough numbers to have a measurable impact on the war.
  15. Older, comparatively thinly-armored models of tanks like the Ha-Go continued production late into the war for one reason or another (well-established manufacturing lines, a lack of metal and other resources, and leadership decisions that the older tanks were “good enough”) despite the introduction of newer light tank designs like the Ke-Ni that would arguably have fared better and sat unused at home in Japan.
  16. U.S. anti-tank guns, .50 caliber heavy machine guns with AT rounds, and perhaps most importantly bazookas (a weapon the Japanese did not expect) were capable of destroying the older Japanese tanks deployed in the Pacific, while the Japanese equivalents had difficulty against thickly armored U.S. tanks like the Sherman.
  17. Many older Japanese tanks were “wasted” in suicidal “banzai charges” in the Pacific against U.S. troops that were ready for these predictable rush attacks borne of desperation, seishin, and the belief that the best defense was offense. The tanks might as well have been in a shooting gallery when they rushed across swampy terrain towards American troops, illuminated by naval star shells from US ships offshore.

In a nutshell: Japanese tanks that saw the most combat action in WW2 were older designs that were outnumbered, outarmored, and outgunned by the wave of new tanks coming in against them from the USA (and the Commonwealth). The best tanks held in reserve on the home island, while competitive in design, would also have been outnumbered in the event of an invasion of the Japanese homeland due to a lack of resources and hampered or limited production. The Japanese tanks that saw battle in WW2 were not “bad” designs, but they were built for the wars of the prior decade in China and as tools for an element of surprise, siege, and infantry support in the early years of Imperial Japan’s expansion and the outset of WW2. For gaming purposes, it is an unfair comparison to take tanks of other countries from 5 years later in WW2 and place them in the same competitive tiers. Developers should think hard on the tiering method for Japanese tanks if they want them to appeal to players, and introduce unusual or undeployed tank variants and prototypes to keep interest up.

How Japanese tanks perform in games is likely to be a very different story from what happened in the war, mainly because the latest and best designs of Japanese tanks will be available for play if the missions are not authentically historical (the models that stayed on the main home island during the war and did not see combat). Besides, 16 v. 16 type battles rarely ever happened historically anyway. Since the min-maxers love tanks with big guns, they may like some of the later Japanese tanks like the Chi-To or Type 3 Ho-Ni III, but light tanks, mobility, and amphibious qualities should appeal more. If having a big gun or advantage early on is key, the very early Type 89 I-Go had a large gun before some countries even mounted such guns on their tanks.
Non-Resource Intensive: Japanese tanks in games should be cheap to obtain, repair, and replace because they generally used much less metal than tanks of other nations. A game that makes a Type 94 tankette cost as much as a Soviet or U.S. light tank is missing the point. One could make the argument that Japanese manufacturing lines were less advanced and slower to produce units (than Detroit-based U.S. tank lines, for example), to balance things out. In other words, the game could make Japanese tanks less resource-intensive, but slower to produce.
Water-Borne: The Japanese had some interesting designs, such as the Type 3 Ka-Chi and Type 2 Ka-Mi amphibious tanks, that could make battle on some maps fun by allowing the tanks to sneak around in other directions across water or arrive from water locations off-screen. This could make taking objectives much easier than a frontal assault, and was in fact a tactic used by Japanese forces that landed in Malaya against the British. In historic use, it could be argued that Imperial Japan often mis-used Ka-Mi amtanks in hull-down positions, when it would seem that the SNLF could have put them to much better use in sneak attacks. Why not have your force of amtanks come up from behind enemy infantry that has just landed? We will see what game developers will allow on that front.
Boom Power: For an unusual weapon that packs a big punch from a distance, the Ha-To heavy mortar launcher may not quite fit the typical “artillery” tank role, but would be fun to play due to its range and destructive power. It already exists in Men of War: Assault Squad. The SNLF’s 120mm Short Naval Gun Chi-Ha also packs a nasty surprise in the form of a large submarine gun mounted on a tank.
On Rails: The Japanese Army often utilized railroads for their armored vehicles to cover ground quickly in China and some parts of Southeast Asia, including the Sumida Broad-Gauge Armored Rail Car, the Type 95 So-Ki, and even a variety of armored trains (see photo below). These could provide an interesting an unexpected addition to the Japanese arsenal in any game, if only as a method to deliver, escort, and protect troops.
Tankettes for fun: The small TK tanks, even earlier ones like the Type 94 TK could make for some interesting tactics in early reserve tiers against slower, heavier vehicles – going after lightly armored vehicles and popping up unexpectedly due to their low profiles. The tankettes were, after all, used heavily by Japan even until the end of the war. They should be cheap to research or crew, at the very least. The more obvious choice, however, would be the Type 97 TK since it had a 37mm gun. On that front, even the Type 92, the first model from the early 30s, was successfully upgraded later in its life with a Type 98 20 mm Machine Cannon. The obvious “tankette scenario” would be to have the Japanese across a series of rice paddies in some part of China where the dirt berms are only wide enough for the small tanks to cross.
If game developers truly stick to “eras of development”, Japan would be on par with the best nations in the years leading up to and the start of WW2 (since there were indeed European nations also on the forefront of early tank development – Japan learned from models they bought from those nations such as England or France). Unless they are fans of this site, it is doubtful many developers in the name of “balance” will stick to actual years, however. One could argue that one way or the other as to whether or not it is fair to pit a 1933-designed tank against one from 1939 in the same tier. But in truth and as a matter of history the Japanese were the ones to blame for fielding their older tanks against newer Allied tanks, failing to replace them quickly enough with the latest and best designs, with their heavy focus on shipbuilding and planes instead. So having Japanese tanks designed in the early 1930s go up against US tanks developed in the late 30s or early 40s is historically accurate … while not telling the whole story.

2 thoughts on “Debunking Japanese Tank Myths

  1. Japan’s tanks were inferior, even despite the age gap. The is US Army made training videos showing troops how to take out a Jap tank with rifles and grenades also the film shows where to shoot them to achieve this, this is not a myth. This was also done to disable the tank not destroy it the Japanese tanks had some maneuvering mechanisms exposed which made it easy to disable the turning and or movement of the tank with small arms and grenades.
    Next the optics, Japanese tanks had very poor optics compared to the American tanks.
    Long story short I disagree with this article for the most part it sounds like your just making excuses for Japanese armor.

    • Fair points Bill and I know the Type 95 US military video you refer to, however its worth considering that the Japanese could not have made a similar check of ways to exploit tanks like the M2 “Mae West” designed around the same time because those early US tanks of the 1930s were never deployed overseas. Same goes for the Japanese Chi-Nu, Ke-To etc. — the US saw weaknesses and exploits in old tank designs and rarely had a chance to observe, face, much less capture and examine the newest ones left on the Japanese homeland for homeland defense. Not until after the war at least when they were quickly scrapped. In the end the manufacturing might and easier availability of metal to pump into vehicles like Shermans, along with Detroit-style know-how (along with the relentless attacks of American bombers) made it impossible for Japanese engineers to develop and deploy mass-producible designs to compete across the Pacific once the war swung in the US’s favor. The only alternate history where they could have possible competed – at least while Germany was diverting US manufacturing of bombers, etc. – is one where Japan had dedicated far less to giant Naval boondoggles like the Yamato or suicide planes and spent more resources building effective aircraft carriers, tanks, and other armored vehicles, but the Japanese Navy often seemed to have a corner on the best resources for vehicles of war and loved the perceived propaganda value of giant Battleships which were already obsolete by Pearl Harbor, ironically by the Japanese use of aircraft carrier-borne bombers. In the end losing control of lines of supply, and having Japanese soldiers starving and stranded with 5 to 10-year old tank (and other weapon) designs – while US forces went in with their latest greatest well-fed (though often green) troops is what the US military faced, so it’s no surprise they came to the conclusions they did during the war.

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