Game Ideas: Playing Imperial Japanese Ground Forces

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Playable Japanese units in turn-based computer wargames have existed for decades, dating back to games like War in the South Pacific for the Commodore 64. Tabletop miniature and board-style wargames have also had the Japanese as a faction, but until the mid to late 2000’s and introductions from Flames of War and Bolt Action the unit selection was often limited, with most WW2 wargaming involving miniatures focused around the European theater and German tanks. Games thus far have had a fairly detached “unit” view that treats the Japanese as faceless enemies. They also tended only toward sea and air warfare, ignoring most of the ground operations Imperial Japan engaged in.

More recently, things have changed. Computer RTS games like Men of War Assault Squad have pioneered the way for adding the Japanese as a playable faction with voice acting, a wide variety of ground units, and overall more of a “personality” to the troops. Vehicles previously unknown even to history buffs like the Type 4 Ha-To mortar launcher have been introduced to a wider audience through such games. FPS games such as Rising Storm have dared to break new ground (already broken for Nazi troops in other games long ago) allowing for first person gameplay of Japanese ground troops as well. In tabletop wargaming, both Bolt Action and Flames of War have recently made special rules books for Japanese ground units, further expanding possibilities of play.

So the question remains – how to make Imperial Japanese land battles equally interesting and iconic as the exploits of carrier-borne A6M Zero fighters in the air and surprise Japanese naval tactics at sea?

1. Start on the Offensive:

There a rich source of historical scenarios involving the Japanese army and naval ground forces on the offensive to build upon, starting in 1931. The Japanese fought against several nations in many campaigns before the U.S. had time to strike back in the Pacific, including China, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, Australia, Thailand, the Netherlands (in the Dutch East Indies), Inner Mongolia, and Vichy France. Of course the U.S. was also engaged at the Philippines. All of these required “boots on the ground.”

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Some of the battles included:

The Battle of Rehe

The Invasion of Inner Mongolia

The Battles of Khalkin Gol

The Battle for Shanghai

The Battle of Hong Kong

The Japanese Conquest of Burma

The Battle of Singapore

For those who lean towards a U.S. vs. Japan scenario, there is a rich source material to be found in the Philippines Campaign.

Later in the war there was a strong push into China known as Operation Ichi-Go which has several battles that could be recreated in a game.

Japan’s invasion of India in 1944 is also worthy of attention as a bloody campaign that was waged on both sides, and Japan’s final aggressive push to conquer new territory.

It is imprtant to note that unlike Germany’s Blitzkrieg doctrine which went head on against defenders, the Japanese used artillery, air superiority, bombing, and naval strikes to soften targets along with naval landing forces and light mobile armor to push their way into new territory often from unexpected directions. Since transport by sea was often the only option for Japan in its invasions, amphibious landings were key to their successes.

Not all of their battles were completely successful, and some, such as the Battles of Khalkin Gol, would be an extreme challenge to win considering the amount of Soviet armor present there. However, in the full scope of the initial invasions from the early 1930s until the early 1940s, they were largely successful. It is during this time that the game player can experience the “offensive phase” of Imperial Japan’s war experience, and only a portion of the battles of Khalkin Gol need be waged by the player. The Japanese actually made surprising wins during those battles as well, and a single player campaign could focus there instead.


2. The Occupiers, and Build up:

Once taken, the Japanese solidified positions in places like Burma, Malaya,  and even Wake Island. They prepared defenses on a number of islands and Asian territories in expectation of the attacks from the U.S. and other Allied Western forces. There was also a need for raw materials, and this forced further invasions. Sometimes the Japanese faced stiffer resistance than expected, and guerrilla-style tactics from Allies or Allied sympathizers, such as in The Battle of Timor.

Just as some games with Nazi German scenarios have Soviet Partisan attacks on supply lines, Japan also faced similar challenges from various factions in China or where the Allies held influence.

A down side to all of their expansion was that they were spread thin across a wide number of countries, territories, and islands, and all from a relatively small island nation that was not an industrial giant. In many cases the Japanese needed to rely on the skill and determination of their light infantry to overcome “unbeatable” enemy fortifications such as the Commonwealth’s “Gibraltar of the East” base in Singapore with its huge coastal gun defenses. To cover the gap in their manufacturing capability and hyper-focus on shipbuilding, the Japanese deployed what tanks they had left over from war in China such as Type89 I-Go medium tanks designed in 1929 in battles such as the Battle of Singapore. In many cases when the Allies returned to fight the Japanese years later, the Japanese still had those obsolete vehicles for defense.

These quests for resources, such as the need for rubber and tin which was one thing that prompted the Attack on Malaya and Singapore , could spawn a game scenario. It is easy to see how the following could be made into a game, particularly an RTS:

On 1 Feb 1942, the Japanese reached Singapore island after overrunning British, Australian, and Indian troops. On 5 Feb, down to 18 tanks and lacked ammunition and food, the smaller force commanded of Yamashita attacked the island of Pulau Ubin on the east, creating a bluff that another Japanese force was attacking from the east. This deceived Percival, who moved his major ammunitions stores to the east when the actual Japanese attack came down from the northwest. On 8 Feb, the actual attack on Singapore started with landing of troops on Singapore’s northwest coast. Australian troops fought off initial landing attempts while inflicting enormous casualties on the part of the Japanese. However, the Australian troops retreated unnecessarily amidst the confusion of battle, allowing Japanese troops to gain a strong foothold at the shore defense installations. Subsequent landings would be unopposed.

From very early on, British commander Percival had his troops destroy docks and fuel dumps to prevent enemy capture. While it indeed took away Japan’s ability to have readily available infrastructure and various resources, the early destruction of such facilities further destroyed defender morale. Such moves instilled the soldiers with the notion that the battle had already been lost.

On 10 Feb, the Japanese 5th and 18th Divisions routed the 22nd Australian Brigade, who retreated further into the city and turned on its citizens, pillaging the city of its food and liquor. By this time, Japanese tanks were also in Singapore in force, first routing Indian troops at the hills of Bukit Timah then denying a successful counterattack by British Brigadier Coates. While RAF fighter pilots bravely downed several Japanese bombers early in the assault, most of them were picked off one by one in dogfights by the superior Zero fighters.  SOURCE


3. Then Defend:

Defense of Japanese outposts can be worked into scenarios, again with ample source material to draw from. Massive fortifications were built all over the Pacific by the Japanese, often making use of local materials and laborers – see this informative document on Japanese defenses: large PDF file.

Note in the image below one of the hills in Okinawa and how it was fortified underground with machine guns, 47mm guns, and rifle ports.



The battles at Okinawa, Tarawa, and other places in the Pacific were bloody and brutal for both sides. The Japanese had been bombed into oblivion and often had little in the way of supplies coming to them from anywhere, but they stubbornly defended the islands to the death. The same went in places where the Commonwealth struck back in Southeast Asia.

Historically the Japanese felt that enough Allied casualties would have turned the tide of the war. In games, a string of successful defense scenarios could in theory lead to an alternate history game ending where the Allies agree to a truce with Japan (which was the goal, far more acceptable to Imperial Japan than surrender).

The possibilities for defense scenarios are wide and varied. Japanese even fortified a submarine base in Alaska! Read more HERE.

 4. Get Creative:

The Japanese had several secret projects and little known vehicles, some covered right here at the Ikazuchi site. Many revolved around Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s preference for “surprise attacks.” Why not have the player take command of Ka-Chi amphibious tank and several Ka-Mi amtanks to stage a surprise raid from an unexpected direction on a beachhead the Allies are confident they can take with LVT-1’s and M4 Light Tanks, or launch aircraft from a submarine to strike at the West Coast of the U.S. as was planned with the Aichi M6A? Read more around the site for various ideas on unique vehicles and weapons that could play a role in creative Japanese campaigns that need not hew so tightly to history.



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