Vintage Saturday: Motorized Type 38 Arisakas

Japanese soldiers in China in 1937 with Type 38 Arisaka rifles
This represents typical horsepower, armor, and crew space in a Japanese WWII armored vehicle (click to enlarge)

If they all fire in the same direction simultaneously, that cart will exceed the maximum speed of a Type 89 medium tank.

Okay, I’m exaggerating. A bit. (I know someone will chime in to defend Japanese armor, and they will probably be right)


  1. An interesting tongue-in-cheek comment :). Although somewhat antiquated in appearance, even by mid-1930’s standards, and generally outclassed by its Allied and Axis counterparts during the Second World War, the Type 89 medium tank was nevertheless an effective and reliable weapon when deployed correctly in a tactical scenario. General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s drive down the Malayan Peninsula to the bastion of Singapore in 1941-1942 is a case in point.

    The Type 89 was cramped and noisy, it was slow ( max. speed was only 16 mph / 25.6 kmh ), the silhouette was very tall, and the armor and armament left a lot to be desired, part of the problem being that the low-velocity 57mm main gun was designed for infantry support against pillboxes and fortifications, not tank-versus-tank combat. However, the Japanese tank crews were well-trained and highly-motivated, and certainly did not lack courage. During the latter years of the Pacific War, encounters between Type 89’s ( and the later, improved Type 94’s ) and late-model, upgraded American M4 Sherman medium tanks were the proportional equivalent of Shermans versus Panthers in Europe — not a very pleasant way to commit suicide.

    An often-overlooked virtue of Japanese tanks from the early 1930’s on was the incorporation of the diesel engine in their design. The diesel provided superior range, mobility and reliability under adverse conditions, and also significantly reduced the risk of fire when hit, advantages that did not go unnoticed by the Soviets, whose entire armored force became diesel-powered during the Second World War.

  2. Never the less, their advance into Malaya/Singapore was still spearheaded by bicycles. That probably says something about the terrible speed of the armor.

  3. You made a very good point there, Aegen. The use of the humble bicycle enabled Japanese infantry to constantly surprise the Allies, who consistently underestimated the speed of the Japanese advance down the Malayan Peninsula.

    However, we should bear in mind that the sheer speed and momentum of that advance was sustained by a combination of factors, including the now well-known outflanking movements through supposedly impenetrable jungle and the deployment of armor and infantry assets along established road routes.

    A prime example of this was the Battle for Jitra in the north-western state of Kedah. British-led 11th Indian Division, under the command of Major-General Murray-Lyon, was tasked with the defence of the Jitra Line, which included the vital airfield at Alor Star. In a prelude to the main battle, Lieutenant-Colonel Saeki’s Reconnaissance Battalion, supported by ten medium tanks, effectively destroyed 1/14th Punjab Battalion as well as 2nd Anti-Tank Battery, and routed 2/1st Gurkha Rifles. This event deprived 11th Indian Division of its entire Divisional Reserve before the main battle had even begun. The results were predictable — it exerted sufficient influence on the main Battle for Jitra such that the shattered remnants of 11th Indian Division were eventually forced to withdraw to a position behind the Sungei Kedah ( Kedah River ) some 15 miles further south, mostly out of a fear of being outflanked and assaulted by tanks.

    The whole job was accomplished almost entirely by the advance guard of Lieutenant-General Matsui’s 5th Division — just two battalions and a company of tanks. Their total losses were one tank and fifty men.

    • Good call there, Mike! It is a matter of record that some of the Japanese tanks that became casualties in the Malayan campaign were damaged by Boys AT rifles fired at very close ranges in roadside ambush set-ups. However, the very nature of the Boys projectile and its ballistic characteristics meant that while the unfortunate crew of the tank in question that was penetrated were frequently rendered hors de combat and the tank was therefore technically knocked out for the duration, the machine itself usually did not suffer much damage. It was therefore repairable for return to service with a replacement crew. The only instances where the tank was considered damaged beyond repair would be if the Boys projectile set off the on-board main gun ammunition, or actually caused a major fire resulting in a catastrophic kill.

      An examination of records covering damage to tanks from enemy action from the Second World War up to the present time reveals the same general trend regardless of the conflict. Again, unless there is catastrophic damage that makes restoration not worth the time, effort and cost, most damaged tanks and other armored vehicles are generally repairable for return to service.

  4. Most tanks are recoverable and can be returned to duty unless they burn.

    That’s a key reason we won in France, the Germans couldn’t recover their “dead” tracks.

    It was decisive for Israel in Sinai as well.

  5. Seriously though, Japanese tanks were rotten, provided we are talking about any point past 1936 or so. I mean, yea, they were effective in surprise attacks against poorly trained, armed, and supplied forces, but thats the extent of it. A 50 BMG would’ve laid open most any of these designs…

    Their poor quality, coupled with the Jungles, were the large reasons that tank to tank combat was never a serious option in the pacific theatre. The US halftrack had the same level of armor as most Japanese tanks, and it was understood that the halftrack wasn’t actually supposed to go into combat. Japanese equipment development effectively ended in 1941, and the rest of the war was spent trying to develop new tactics to inflict casualties with whatever was on hand (tunnels and bunkers, kamikaze attacks, etc).

    The Japanese were tough group to defeat, but it was their men and not their equipment that made it so. Just my opinion.

  6. The Japanese certainly continued development of their armor until the latter stages of the second world war, their war industry couldn’t tool up to produce anything en mass like the Germans could though. Russian armored formations would have devastated them late war had they been put to use earlier in Manchuria, ick. The Japanese used their machines competently, and they were plenty strong against heavy machine gun and light cannon fire but like the M3 in America or the Vickers in England, the power of modern armor simply made them obsolete in anything but a near static role to be used against infantry

  7. I agree with Historynut’s assessment. Other important factors that caused Japanese armored development to lag after the 1930’s and into the Second World War were as follows :

    1. During the latter part of the war, continued bombing of Japan’s industries and infrastructure severely degraded her ability to sustain manufacturing capacity. The severing of sea lanes and access to raw materials from conquered lands also greatly exacerbated this problem.

    2. Prioritization of scarce resources and manufacturing capacity in favor of other recipients. The Navy generally had first priority, followed by the Air Force, then the Army. Within the latter, armor was considered one of the lower priorities.

    3. The premature Japanese entry into the war — before advanced weapons systems and the necessary training, as well as establishment of a viable industrial and infrastructure capacity to support them, had become fully viable — due to the complex divisions within the political and military heirarchies of the time.

    4. Narrow-minded and unimaginative General Staff thinking, resulting in obsolete equipment requirements . This was hardly the fault of the armored vehicle designers and tankers, who had to make do with what they had been given.

  8. For a deeper understanding of the “complex divisions within the political and military heirarchies of the time” in my previous post, I would recommend reading “Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy” ( William Morrow & Company, Inc., New York, 1971 ) by David Bergamini. The author grew up in Japan and was fully immersed in Japanese culture and society from a young age, and so is able to provide a rare insight into the often-violent convolutions surrounding the rivalry between the Strike-North and Strike-South Factions, and the true role played by Emperor Hirohito and his Cabinet.

    Equally interesting is the part the American Occupation Government played in restoring Hirohito to a pre-eminent political position in the immediate post-war years in spite of controversy surrounding his wartime conduct.

    The book comes in two large volumes, so be prepared for a lengthy but very interesting read.

  9. The Japanese never really “got” armored technology or operations at the level of the U.S., Britain, Germany or the Soviet Union.

    This is made glaringly obvious in Coox’s book “Nomonhan”, detailing Zhukov’s crushing defeat of the Japanese in Asia in 1939.

    Not only were the Japanese tanks technologically inferior to the Soviet BTs, their doctrine was sometimes astonishingly ill-conceived, in particular their policy regarding disabled armored vehicles. In most other armies, when a tank is knocked out or fails mechanically, the crew bails, taking what they can and disabling what they can’t. Japanese doctrine was that the tank commanders (and their crews) went down with the ship like English sea captains. They were to stay with the disabled vehicle and die in place. Given that it takes a lot longer to build a competent tank crew than the tank itself, this was horrendously flawed doctrine.

    But then what can you say about an army that took a hydrogen filled observation balloon to a battle against the Red Army… in 1939. The inevitable outcome of THAT decision hardly requires much imagination.

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