Imperial Japan did not make the kind of investment in tanks that the European powers did between the wars. In part, this can be attributed to the Japanese experience of World War I, which did not suffer from years of bloody stalemate, but even more importantly, Japanese ambitions focused on China, where they would face neither enemy tanks nor anti-tank weaponry. A few models of light and medium tanks suitable for disrupting infantry formations were deemed adequate. Of these, the Type 97, or Chi-Ha, gave the best overall performance during World War II, but it remained weak in comparison with American and British tanks.
With the benefit of hindsight, modern students are tempted to see large-scale armored clashes as inevitable, and therefore to write off light tanks as obsolete from the beginning of World War II. A more careful analysis reveals that this is not true. The early German Blitzkrieg victories were accomplished with a tank arm that consisted primarily of light tanks, with a few medium tanks in support; they prevailed against enemies that possessed substantially heavier tanks, as well. Light tanks could therefore be highly useful, as long as they were deployed in their proper roles, such as racing through breaches in the enemy lines to harass lines of communication and supply, or to soften up enemy defenses by destroying machine gun positions. When light tanks are used properly, their principal risk comes more from enemy anti-tank guns, rather than from enemy tanks.
This recognition is important when considering Japanese tank development in the years before World War II. Japan’s resources were quite limited, and naval construction was given a high priority. The Japanese could not build large quantities of powerful tanks at the same time, but the Japanese Army did not believe that such construction was necessary. The Japanese saw China as their principal land opponent, and against the Chinese fighting forces of that time, modest numbers of relatively light tanks were more than sufficient to build on the Japanese Army’s advantages over the Chinese, who had no tanks at all.
Free from the prospect of having to fight enemy tanks, the Japanese pursued their tank development solely as infantry-support vehicles. Without the need to compete with enemy tanks to spur technical improvements, Japanese tanks were compared only with each other; accordingly, the Japanese developed light and medium tanks which were clearly distinguished from each other in weight, armor and armament, but in comparison with western tanks, the Japanese medium tanks seem more like powerful light tanks. Both of the medium tank models in use at the beginning of World War II, the Type 89B and Type 97, were roughly twice as heavy as the principal light tank, the Type 95; and their 57 mm guns were clearly superior to the 37 mm guns of the light tanks. Armor thickness was also superior, at 17 mm and 25 mm against 12 mm, respectively. Compared with the American M3 light tank, however, the Type 89B is actually lighter in weight, while the Type 97 is only slightly heavier. The M3A5 (Lee) medium tanks were nearly twice the weight of the Japanese medium tanks, with armor thickness reaching 57 mm and two main guns, one 75 mm and one 37 mm. For this reason, the term “medium tank” in connection with the Chi-Ha should be considered an internal designation in the Japanese Army, while earlier comments about the use of light tanks still apply.
The Type 89 medium tank had been developed in 1929. It was improved in 1936 with the replacement of its original engine by one that used diesel fuel, and the new version was called the Type 89B, but army planners considered this only a stopgap measure. Because of dissent between the General Staff and the Engineering Department, prototypes were developed simultaneously by Osaka Arsenal and Mitsubishi. The Mitsubishi design, reflecting the perspective of the engineering department, boasted more horsepower; Mitsubishi won the contract, and its tank was designated Type 97 Chi-Ha. Production began in 1937.
In some respects, the Chi-Ha compared favorably with foreign tanks when it began service. Its diesel engine was a substantial asset, extending the vehicle’s range and mitigating its fire hazard. The engine was air-cooled, and with 170 horsepower, it could exceed 24 miles per hour. Its suspension system was modern. With a more powerful gun, it might have been a leading tank design in 1937.
With a caliber of 57 mm, the Chi-Ha’s main gun would have seemed reasonably powerful in 1937; its short barrel gave it little penetrating power, however. In China, this was not a disadvantage, but it would later become a serious problem when the Japanese confronted Soviet, British and American tanks. The main gun was complemented by two 7.7 mm machine guns, one mounted in the front hull next to the driver’s position, and the other mounted in the turret. The turret machine gun was not mounted in the more familiar coaxial position, nor in an anti-aircraft position on top; Japanese tanks of the period frequently mounted their turret machine guns at the rear of the turret, facing in the opposite direction as the main gun. Given that a turret is intended to provide 360 degrees of fire in the first place, this measure seems unnecessary, but the Chi-Ha moved its turret through the use of a hand crank, which made it slow. The rear placement of the machine gun allowed the tank crew to deal with unarmored threats in a rear quadrant more quickly than would be possible if it were necessary to turn the turret around first; again, given the kinds of threats anticipated in China, this seemed a suitable measure.
Slow turret movement was not the only challenge that the Chi-Ha design would pose; the main gun was also aimed by hand. Together, these elements slowed the fire of the main gun and reduced its accuracy, further weakening the tank against an armored threat. Performance in China was good, but soon the Japanese faced better-equipped foes. In 1939, the Japanese were defeated by the Soviets at Nomonhan, or Khalkin-Gol; this inspired the Japanese to avoid any further conflict with the Soviets until the latter declared war on them in 1945. Then in 1941, Japan went to war against the United States and Great Britain. Initially, they faced few tanks, but as the Allies reinforced their positions in the Pacific, they also brought more armor to bear against the Japanese.
The Japanese realized that the Chi-Ha competed poorly with western tanks, so in 1942 Mitsubishi built a larger turret with a more powerful main gun. This new gun, a longer-barrelled 47 mm piece, offered much better armor penetration than the larger, but shorter, gun it replaced. This new version became known as the Shinhoto Chi-Ha. The Shinhoto served extensively for the remainder of the war, but soon production ceased in favor of a new tank design, the Type 1 Chi-He.
Once the Western Allies were able to deliver tanks to Asia and the Pacific in numbers, all of Japan’s tanks were outmatched. The advantages of the M3 Lee/Grant have already been mentioned; the M4 Sherman was even more dominant. It mounted a 75 mm gun on its turret, and its armor plating reached 76 mm in thickness, roughly triple the strength of the Chi-Ha’s armor. During the latter years of the war, Japanese tanks were relegated to a defensive role, firing from prepared positions and being lost when the position was eventually taken.
In all, some 3000 Chi-Ha tanks were built. Both in quality and quantity, they proved to be too little for the role that was eventually demanded of them. In this, they serve as an indicator of Japan’s unpreparedness for a large-scale conflict. At the same time, however, it should be remembered that the Chi-Ha tanks had fared well in their intended roles; the Shinhoto version of the Chi-Ha is generally considered Japan’s best tank in World War II by overall performance.
Bishop, Chris. The Encyclopedia of Weapons of World War II. Sterling, 2002
Dougherty, Martin J. Tanks of World War II. Amber, 2011
Forty, George. Illustrated Guide to Tanks of the World. Bookmart, 2007
Haskew, Michael. Weapons of WWII. Amber, 2012
Jackson, Robert. Tanks and Armored Fighting Vehicles. Book Sales, 2012
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