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Japanese Armour - Not the easiest...

Identifying and painting Japanese armour is not the easiest task for many of us. Japanese armour is just not as familiar to us growing up in wargaming as German or Allied. It is even harder than identifying Italian or Romanian simply because for most of us in the west the names are just tricky to remember and then to place against less familiar profiles.

Secondly the lack of easily accessible source material on the use and battles of Japanese armour has contributed to general 'ignorance' as the largest armour battles took place in the less than well known Nomonhan and Manchurian theatres against the Soviet Union in 1939 and 1945. Due to the nature of the regimes at the time neither theatre is particularly well covered in popular histories.

A third reason is the perception amongst wargamers that Japanese armour was all rubbish so why buy it? This is less forgivable as like all armies the Japanese armoured force was designed to meet the strategic requirements of the time and fit within the economic resources allowed to it. In the case of Japan armour was designed in the main for the principal theatre that was China and after the strategic defence zone was established by 1941 very little need was seen to update it as there was no more strategic offence to be had. Japanese tanks in the early war period in China were perfectly suited to the task in hand which was all they needed to be.

Having said all of that an increasing variety of Japanese vehicles have passed across my painting desk in recent times and using the two sources listed at the end of the article and my Advanced Squad Leader chapter H notes (!) I have managed to piece together some information on camo and the various lesser known vehicles.

Ha Go

Firstly here we have a Ha Go first produced early 1930s as an infantry support tank but also to be a light tank which seems a bit odd from our perspective of post ww2 but of course they were not to know the future of tank development/philosophy. The gun again seems light for infantry support at 37mm but again this was the period of the Vickers light tank and even this is heavier than the later Pz I and II used against Poland and France..

Over 2200 of these were built and in service from 1937 until the end of the war.

Similarly armour maxes out at 12mm which is tin can level by later standards but in the mid 1930s is pretty good and probably as good as anything at the time. The T26 which was realistically the only potential rival in East Asia had 25mm max so no better armourwise in reality. Interesting talk on Ha Go here

These Ha Go are painted in a China service version of the three colour camo described in the articles listed below with a slightly darker green shade than used in the southern areas. Tank Encyclopedia article here

Chi Ha

Classic Airfix! For anybody who likes Japanese tanks the old Airfix kit was the gateway drug. The Chi Ha itself is again a tank which seems poor viewed from our perspective but at the time of its roll out from 1937 was a well armoured (20mm+) and decently gunned for its Infantry support role with a shortish 57mm gun. Bear in mind that British tanks up to 1941 were still using a 2pdr which had no HE round so a 6pdr HE equivalent on a reliable and well armoured tank was not a bad design for its supposed use in China.

Like many Japanese designs at the time the Chi Ha had a rear facing machine gun. As a child I assumed this was to stop sneak attacks on a surrounded tank however it has been suggested to me that just as likely is the idea that the turret could turn the machine gun to the front to allow the single man in the turret to fire a second machine gun on a target to the front as the turret was just too small to fit a coaxial next to the main gun. This also works but is less dramatic...

Shinhoto Chi Ha

In the 1939 Nomonhan campaign Japan realised with a jolt that the future of tanks was in anti tank guns as well as infantry support. Outnumbered and outshot by Russian 45mm anti tank guns and tanks such as the T26, BT5 and BT 7 which all carried the same gun the Japanese quickly developed a Chi Ha upgrade which took the Chi Ha chassis and put a 47mm anti tank gun in a 3 man turret on top. This was called the Shinhoto Chi Ha or Chi Ha Kai for some reason.

This version saw off both British armour in Malaya and US armour on the Phillipines and Corregidor completely undercutting the myth of hopeless Japanese tanks. The problem was not that they started off poor but that the Japanese economy was unable to allocate the resources to tank production in the face of more important Naval and Air requirements because strategically once the Japanese had their defensive sphere established tanks were not really a key part of island defence.

As an aside the low priority given to tanks within the strategy by 1942 is reflected in the way Japanese tank crew who were trained specialists were expected to fight as common infantry once their vehicle was disabled resulting in a wasteful loss of a resource. This was not the case in other armies who recognised them as valuable trained men to be safely returned to a tank.

Chi Nu

The last of the Chi Ha tanks was an upgunned Shinhoto with a 75 l 38 gun added. Only about 150 were made from 1944 and were allocated to the home islands so never saw combat. They had a maximum of 50mm frontal armour but only 25mm elsewhere so probably would not have fared well against even Bazooka armed infantry.

Type 94 Tankette

Tankette based on earlier British tankettes but made a little bit bigger. The Type 94 entered service in 1935 and was used mainly for recon in the vast spaces of the Chinese theatre. It was absolutely fine for this job in the knowledge that there would be little or no armoured or anti tank opposition from the Chinese Nationalist army. Obviously as time passed it became less useful everywhere else as HMGs could penetrate its 12mm armour, never mind shells. A later version - Te Ke put a 37mm in the tiny turret. About 500 were made all told of this version though I cant imagine it was successful.

This was the fate of one in has been loaded onto the engine deck of a Sherman!


The Ho Ni was a self propelled gun concept much like the German Wespe or the 75mm Lorraine conversion with an open top crew compartment mounting a 75mm artillery piece with very limited crew protection and some did see action on the Phillipines but not in enough numbers to make any real difference. The version pictured here was probably a lessons learned version and has a completely enclosed crew compartment which was armoured only enough to stop shrapnel or small arms. This is the Ho Ni III

This again shows the position of Japanese armour in the production/supply rankings as it is using the minimum of steel on an old chassis with an existing artillery gun. All these "improved" Ho Ni were on the home islands and saw no combat and probably due to fuel shortages would have just been dug in anyway.

Type 93 Sumida Armoured Car

This is a cool concept, an armoured car which can run on any railway just by adjusting the axle width and removing the tires. Used in China from 1933 it was nippy and very mobile on road and railway and completely useless off road. Also largely useless against any force armed with anything bigger than a rifle...

Type 87 Armoured Car

From what I can gather the Type 87 was basically a Crossley armoured car from the 1920s but renamed for Japanese service in China. The cool thing here is obviously the flying saucer vibe of the domed roof with its 2 machine guns. These were only used on paved roads in towns as they were unable to cope with cross country in China.

Ho Ha

I had no idea that the Japanese had developed an APC based on the German 251/1 but apparently small numbers were used in action in the Phillipines in 1945 as well as in the ongoing "China ulcer". The design philosophy is clear and only from the front where the engine space is formed is it different from the 251. It also had 3 machine guns so could be useful in Bolt Action.

Ho ki

Another tracked APC with apparently a capacity of 14 men...closely packed I imagine. Also used as a tractor for artillery and as tracked transport in heavy terrain. No idea how many were made but recorded as serving in China, Burma and the Phillipines.

SS KI Engineering tank

This is one of my favourites as it was built from before the war and saw service until the end. Mainly deployed in China where its bridging capacity was probably useful alongside its mine clearance. 20 went to the Philipines where it's triple or even quintuple short range flamethrowers were a serious threat.

Camouflage is better dealt with in the following links written by people far more expert than me and these are what I always use when painting Japanese vehicles. The third has a really useful colour equivalency chart as well.


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