Japanese ground troops in games have too often been portrayed as late-war generic baddies in their last desperate fights, carrying katanas over their heads in banzai charges like Samurai out of time, ready to be mowed down by the dozens by a nearly invincible Allied player. But what if Japanese ground forces were portrayed as the British, Chinese, and U.S. forces perceived them at the beginning of the war in the Pacific or earlier, when Imperial Japan scored victory after victory and it appeared they could not be stopped?
An enemy that the player in a game does not fear as a challenge does not make for good gameplay, so how to utilize the unique characteristics of the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy to make them a “fearsome” and memorable opponent?
1. The Invincible Years: Developing a flavor for Japan’s unstoppable aggressive actions should start with early WW2 and pre-WW2 battles where the player’s Allied troops (or otherwise, if the player is in the shoes of troops in China, Thailand, or Inner Mongolia) are hard pressed to stand against the Japanese onslaught. The player should be given the opportunity to win in minor skirmishes, but overall the feeling should be one of barely hanging on. Here are some examples:
Later in the war there was a strong push into China known as Operation Ichi-Go. While this was not during their “invincible years,” Japan did make significant and mostly unfettered progress through China with the intent of destroying several U.S. airfields.
2. Ruthless Conquerers:
The Japanese during WW2 were said to have very little sympathy for enemy troops willing to surrender, as they would not consider surrendering themselves. Based on the scenario and political sensitivity / maturity rating of the game in question, the player might be given glimpses or hints of atrocities or war crimes being committed as the Japanese advance.
The implied use of chemical weapons and Japanese troops wearing gas masks (as in the image above) could be enough to hint at atrocities without offensive depictions of “massacres” in-game. It should be noted that not all Japanese troops or commanders engaged in or endorsed such activities.
Players fighting against an Imperial Japanese enemy in-game could be inspired to defend locals in Burma or other locations based on rumors of such atrocities / massacres.
3. Amphibious mobility and the SNLF: Much is made of Japan’s air power, but without “boots on the ground” they would not have made the gains they did during the Second Sino-Japanese war and early advances in the Pacific. The vanguard of those troops was often the Special Naval Landing Forces, who were able to make astonishingly quick territorial gains by landing on beaches by assault boats or amphibious landing craft. The Japanese version of the Marines, the SNLF were skilled in amphibious landings of all sorts and the ability to approach from anywhere connected to water often undetected. A famous example of this was in the invasion of Malaya, in which Japanese forces did not come head on at the city where fortifications had large cannons facing out to sea, but instead landed amphibiously and came from the opposite direction crossing inland. In games this could mean:
- Heavy use of surprise landings by common Type 2 Ka-Mi and the much larger Type 3 Ka-Chi amphibious tanks (see image below – rarer since only 19 were built) , and battleship gray or olive green Ha-Go light tanks with Naval flag emblems on the turret
- Attacks that come from unexpected directions on an Island map, including attacks from behind landing Allies since the amtanks were capable of firing their tank guns from the water as well
- Frequent landings of flag-carrying troops by Daihatsu-class landing craft or amphibious trucks like the Toyota Su-ki.
- The unexpectedly powerful 120mm Naval Short Gun Chi-Ha. Not amphibious, but borne by standard transport ships, these Chi-Ha tanks would have been an unwelcome surprise for the Allies with their powerful armament
- Different clothing for Japanese SNLF troops, different tactics, different shouted commands and voice acting, and different infantry weapons than used by the Imperial Japanese Army troops encountered
- Use of armored cars like the Type 93 Naval model which SNLF troops favored for keeping the peace in cities they had conquered.
4. Ditch the generic Japanese music and use instead Imperial Japanese military songs or “Gunka”: A wargame is not the place for traditional Japanese koto and shakuhachi music suitable for viewing a peaceful zen rock garden. Samurai and Geisha did not go to war in WW2. Instead, songs like the famous “Umi Yukaba” (“If I should go to sea”), Teki wa Ikuman (“The enemy should come by tens of thousands”), and 歩兵の本領 “Hohei no Honryō” (“Specialty of the Infantry”) are uniquely Japanese and give the sense of the nationalism that raged in Japan during the 1930’s and 40’s.
5. Jungle fighting tactics:
The Japanese employed jungle-fighting tactics better than the Allies at the beginning of the war and gained a fearsome reputation for their ability to ambush Allied troops and cut off their lines of supply.
“In the Malayan Campaign time and again the Japanese infiltrated through the jungle to bypass static British positions based on road blocks so that they could cut the British supply line and attack the British defenses from all sides.
In early 1942 the fighting in Burma at the start of the Burma Campaign took on a similar aspect and resulted in the longest retreat in British military history. Most members of the British and Indian army left Burma with the belief that in the jungle the Japanese were unstoppable.”
Later in the war the Japanese continued to instill fear by surrounding Allied troops and calling out insults to them in the dark jungle nights (using names of famous Americans like Babe Ruth or Bob Hope to get a reaction). Allied troops who fired into the jungle out of frustration would give away their position with gunfire and would then be targeted. Raids often came in darkness and meant Allied troops could only sleep lightly.
6 . Camouflaged troops, hull-down armor, bunkers, and artillery:
The Japanese made heavy use of bamboo, coconuts, palm fronds and other jungle foliage to camouflage themselves in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. They also camouflaged their bunkers, artillery, and older tanks (such as the obsolete Type 89 medium tanks) positioned in “hull down” or stationary fortified positions protected with earth and logs. Sometimes, oddly, even the Ka-Mi amphibious tanks were found in hull-down positions with modifications like anti-air guns placed into their pontoons which provided extra armor.
7. Early use of light tanks, tankettes, and other vehicles in jungle and island terrain:
When the enemy has armored vehicles and you have none, the situation becomes a desperate one. While this was reversed on the Japanese late in the war, Allied troops found themselves in this position at the start of the Pacific War.
The Japanese were able to use Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks along with Type 94 and Type 97 tankettes in Southeast Asian countries where Allies like the British had nothing to oppose them except perhaps a few armored cars. The Allies made the wrong assumption that tanks could not be deployed in the Pacific theater, but the Japanese who had been using tanks in China and Manchuria for years knew they could traverse the narrow berms between rice fields, pass through swampy terrain, and cross Asian bridges with their small and comparatively lightweight tanks. The Japanese even had a strange-looking “swamp recon/crossing vehicle” with water filled bags on its tracks that allowed for “silent” travel across muddy terrain that could literally bog down troops for hours if on foot.
8. Unexpected and bizarre weaponry:
No game is fun if it is predictable. A sure-fire way to inspire fear is with a faceless enemy that is protected from something you are vulnerable to, or one who appears suddenly from an unexpected, even “impossible” direction.
- There was a Type 94 Tankette variant made for chemical weapons that towed a mustard gas-dispersing tracked trailer. Though there is no clear record of their use in combat, Imperial Japanese SNLF troops in China are often seen in photos wearing gas masks, and chemical attacks by the Japanese were said to have occurred multiple times in Chinese towns. Artillery shells with gas were known to have been used. In games: An example of one such tank passing by in a game could cause an area effect damage-over-time to players who stay in the zone with the mustard gas, and eliminating the small tank or tanks from a distance with armor-piercing bullets while avoiding immune Japanese SNLF soldiers with gas masks and rubber gloves could be a tough challenge. Alternately, the player could attack a lone soldier and obtain one of the gas mask and glove sets to enable him to enter the area with the mustard gas-spewing tankettes.
- The Submarine-launched Type 4 Ka-Tsu transport was a late war amphibious landing vehicle armed with a pair of torpedoes and 2x 12 mm machine guns that was carried underwater by submarine with a sealed engine, then could be deployed from literally anywhere. The element of surprise was meant for a specific purpose – namely to launch into a bay and sink American ships with torpedoes, or in other cases to simply resupply troops cut off from normal shipping supply lines by U.S. naval advances. The sudden appearance of a pair of submarine-borne Ka-Tsu vehicles attacking and sinking U.S. ships defending a harbor would sow chaos and fear — perhaps followed by landings of Ka-Mi amphibious tanks! Note that a Ka-Tsu used for resupply only would move much faster since the amphibious vehicle was not originally intended by its designer to carry torpedoes at all.
- Armored cars on rails and armored trains. The Japanese made extensive use of armored rail cars like the So-Ki and the versatile rail and road-capable Sumida Type 91 So-Mo armored car to make faster headway deep into China than was possible on roads alone. The Japanese also regularly employed armored trains with cannons in China and Manchuria that can be seen in postcards of the Japanese war in Manchuria.
9. Suicide and last-ditch tactics: The addition of these may be considered distasteful depending on the game, but they were undeniably a part of WW2, especially when things turned sour for Japan. Only late in a game versus Imperial Japan should these be employed. Japanese troops were perceived by the Allies as fanatical in their loyalty to their cause, though Japanese saw this as a sworn duty to never surrender, and in turn did not understand or respect Allied troops who did surrender to them. Some ground troop suicide tactics could include:
- Spider holes: Japanese troops in last-ditch attacks were known to pop up and place magnetic Type 99 Turtle Mines (sometimes double-stacked for extra effect using the magnets) on tanks as they passed by using “spider holes” dug into the ground, camouflaged by vegetation. A lone and exposed soldier then would not be expected to last long, especially if the passing tank were to move slowly by – since the “turtle mines” were actually grenades with a fuse.
- Pole-driven anti-tank mines: These were improvised and not official weapons used by the Japanese in their defense of Southeast Asian territory versus Allied armor once other anti-tank weaponry and their own armor had been defeated or depleted of ammunition. A crude but ingenious mine attached to a pole would be driven into the tank by a soldier who would most likely die when the mine detonated despite the conical shape of the charge.
- Bayonet and Katana “banzai” charges: During the Russo-Japanese war, Japanese troops were respected for their skill with bayonets, and they regularly employed bayonets in close quarters until the end of World War 2. Katanas were used less commonly but were perhaps more memorable due to the iconic nature of the uniquely Japanese swords and the fact that an officer might brandish one at the front of a charge. A Japanese soldier erupting suddenly from the bushes with a long-reaching bayonet would be more fearsome than a soldier yelling and rushing from a distance with an ancient sword poised over his head, however. Banzai charges were also possible with groups of tanks, often obsolete or even damaged but still dangerous – and Japanese troops would use them as moving “shields”.
- Grenade-carrying wounded: Reports on how frequently this sort of thing actually occurred differ (and could have been used as an excuse by war-weary U.S. servicemen to kill wounded Japanese “like rats”), but one highly publicized account had a wounded Japanese soldier grab a U.S. infantryman and detonate a hand grenade to kill them both. Such actions in a game, even if very rare, would have a player on his toes as U.S. servicemen surely were in the actual war.
10. Support from the Sea and Air: As much as can be made of ground forces alone, the support from airplanes, both carrier and land-based, and warships should not be left out of any game completely. Additionally, without shipped in supplies from far away, Japanese ground troops would have been unable to continue their offensive actions around the Asia-Pacific theater. Unlike Germany, all of Japan’s expansion meant crossing the ocean and building airstrips in places far removed from the homeland. As far as the player is concerned this would mean a few things:
- Strafing attacks from (for example) K-27, Ki-43, and A6M “Zero” fighters
- Bombing attacks from Ki-21, Ki-46, and Ki-33 planes
- Offshore bombardment from warships
- Amphibious landings of troops, supplies, or armored vehicles from any direction, possibly even through protected waters if supplied by the Type4 Ka-Tsu.