On December 7, the "day of infamy," and in the weeks immediately following, the Japanese war machine scored a number of striking successes. In them the airplane, used with great shrewdness (to say the least) played a prominent part. This has led to the impression that Japanese aviation is powerful indeed, and that our previous dismissal of it as weak was wrong.
Yet our prewar estimates were not so far off, although, as is now obvious, there was no justification (there never is) for having dismissed the Japanese force merely because it was not overwhelmingly powerful. The Japanese gains were due less to inherent Japanese strength in the air than to surprise, errors of judgment by their opponents (glaring example: sending the Prince of Wales and the Repulse beyond the umbrella of fighter protection), favoring geography and occupation of Allied planes elsewhere. For the Island Empire's aviation industry and no air force is more powerful than the industry behind it is small compared to the American, British, Russian or German. Its products are inferior as well.
Securing exact data on any phase of Japanese military activity or preparations has been practically impossible since the invasion of China in July, 1937. At that time an already harsh censorship was greatly tightened. Nevertheless, it has been possible to piece together a considerable body of information by which to measure the enemy's air industry.
This indicates that, despite intensive expansion efforts over a period of several years, Japanese plane and engine factories now are turning out not more than 4,500 aircraft a year, if that many. Early in 1940, even before the Tripartite Pact creating the formal military alliance among Germany, Italy and Japan was signed, Tokyo began to import Nazi technical experts. (They reached the Island Empire via the Trans-Siberian railway; Germany and the USSR were not then at war.) Their efforts plus those of the Japanese themselves boosted production to a rate of 2,500 planes annually by January, 1941. The increase since then has been not more than 80 per cent and probably less. Thus 4,500 planes a year is the current top rate. For purposes of comparison, the last published rate (late last year, since exceeded) showed the US was producing as many planes in a month as Japan in six.
There are several reasons why the Island Empire's air industry is thus limited and its progress slow. Most decisive is a shortage of aluminum. Japan produces practically no bauxite, the principal ore of aluminum, nor do the areas she has conquered on the mainland of Asia. She has had to import bauxite from overseas and pay for it in large part out of her limited supplies of gold and foreign exchange. Second is the peculiar organization of industry in Japan, with a great deal of production handled in extremely small shops almost completely devoid of modern power tools. Third is a perennial shortage of machine tools. Four years ago the Island Empire was only three-eighths self-sufficient in machine tools; its position has been improved since then, but Japan doesn't yet manufacture all the machinery she needs Nazi aid has helped particularly in this direction but it hasn't been able to close the gap entirely. Fourth is the lack of an engineering tradition the accumulated "know how" of modern industry. This is not only a general handicap, but is responsible for the well-known fact that virtually all Japanese planes of military or commercial importance are copied from foreign designs and are hence inevitably obsolescent by the time they enter regular service. And fifth, the delays that always attend launching the manufacture of radically new engine and plane types (in comparison with what had been produced before in Japan). Within the last 18 months a great many of such new types have been introduced.
Most of the better known Japanese air manufacturers produce both engines and planes. There is, in fact, only one company which manufactures motors only, Nippon Diesel Industrial Co, Ltd. (Nippon Diesel's work is probably still largely experimental; at any rate there have never been any reports of Japanese aircraft diesels in regular use.) The seven plane and engine manufacturers are:
Aichi Watch & Electric Machinery Co; Kawasaki Dockyard Co, Ltd; Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd; Nakajima Airplane Co, Ltd; Showa Aircraft Co, Ltd; Tatikawa Airplane Co, Ltd, and the Tokyo Gas & Electric Engineering Co, Ltd.
Five other companies also are in the plane building field, but they don't make engines:
Kawanishi Aircraft Co, Ltd; Nippon Airplane Co, Ltd; Tokyo Airplane Co, Ltd; Tokyo Aviation Co, Ltd, and the Watanabe Iron Works Co.
No planes designed or built by either Tokyo Airplane or Watanabe have been reported recently, however, and it is doubtful that either is now independently active.
Practically all Japanese aircraft of military importance originate in the shops of four of these companies, Kawanishi, Kawasaki, Mitsubishi and Nakajima. A fifth, Tatikawa, is of considerable importance as a supplier of trainers. Kawasaki and Mitsubishi, curiously enough, are not primarily aviation organizations at all. The Kawasaki plane plants are simply departments of Japan's second biggest shipbuilding company. Mitsubishi is the largest heavy industrial organization in the Empire and includes not only plane plants and the biggest private shipyards in Japan, but also great machine and tool building departments. Kawasaki is tied in with the Sumitomo family combine, one of the three fabulously wealthy family trusts which dominate Japanese industry. Mitsubishi is another of the three trusts. Kawasaki and Mitsubishi both specialize in army fighters and bombers; Kawanishi, whose plant is on the Inland Sea near the great port of Kobe, is the chief producer of seaplane and flying boats; and Nakajima turns out wheeled craft of every description for both the army and navy. Nakajima founded just before the last war, is the oldest Nipponese aircraft manufacturer.
How many now are employed in Japanese plane and engine plants is a particularly closely guarded secret. How ever, it is known that Mitsubishi, the largest aircraft organization, had 6,000 employees at its Nagoya (one of the chief Japanese munitions centers, on the Pacific coast of the main island) factory in 1938, and another 2,000 on aircraft work at its Tokyo plant. Since then Mitsubishi has at least doubled in size. Nakajima is almost as large, but none of the other has half as many employees as Mitsubishi. A fair guess for present employment in the industry is 75,000 to 125,000.
In Germany, Britain and the USA an independent design and engineering tradition, regardless of how much borrowing, exchanging and copying of idea goes on among them at all times, war or no war, is the base of each aeronautical industry. In the Island Empire the situation is reversed. Although the Japanese have made some original contributions chiefly in the nature of adaptations of the work of others, the bulk of the engineering is based on foreign work whether in the form of pirated design (not so common in aviation as in other fields owing to the greater difficulty involved), commercial licenses or license secured for political reasons (ie, the licenses secured from Germany in the last few years). Some of the more important licenses held by Japanese companies as well as basic inspirations for some of the better known Japanese planes, follow:
The Mitsubishi organization makes a wide variety of accessories as well as planes and engines, and seems to have the most licenses. Among them: Armstrong-Siddeley (British), Hispano-Suiza (French), Mercedes-Benz and Junkers engines; Levasseur metal propellers; Farman reduction gears and superchargers (French); the well-known British Claudel-Hobson carburetors; Herzmark (German) and Letombe (French) engine starters; Lamblin radiators; and Handley-Page automatic slots. The Mitsubishi-built Mercedes-Benz and Junkers liquid-cooled engines are, of course, the most powerful currently being produced in Japan. Better known as Mitsubishi trademarks, however, are the Type IV, A-4 and Kinsei engines, all of which are air-cooled radials of Armstrong-Siddeley and Hispano-Suiza design, but which is which I don't know, although I suspect that the Kinsei, rated at 900 hp, is a Hispano-Suiza. The Type IV, A-14 and Kinsei are all used in Japanese bombers.
Besides these licenses for engines and accessories, Mitsubishi also has bought the designs for the French Hanriot series of trainers, Curtiss biplane fighters, Junkers planes of all types, Blackburn reconnaissance and torpedo planes and Messerschmitt fighters. The Army Type 96 twin-engined bomber is a modified Junkers Ju-86K. The Army Type 97 light bomber, also Mitsubishi-built, resembles the American Northrop A-17 attack bomber closely, although Mitsubishi has no license for this (the Northrop probably served merely as general inspiration). Both the Type 96 and 97 bombers, as well as the Japanese Messerschmitts, have seen extensive service in the war so far.
Nakajima's most famous license is for the Douglas DC series of transports, including the DC-4 (the prototype DC-4, the 52-passenger giant the airlines wouldn't take because they thought it was too large, was sold to Nakajima). But Nakajima also has licenses for Fokker transports and, in the engine field, for the Bristol Jupiter air-cooled radial, Lorraine (French) radial and Gnome-Rhone, also French. One of the Nakajima radials, the Kotobuki III, is a 550-hp job which resembles the Wright Cyclone closely. But Nakajima has no Wright license and the Japanese insist it is an original design.
A more powerful Nakajima engine is definitely a heavily beefed-up and enlarged Jupiter. The Nakajima 96, first Japanese monoplane carrier fighter, has a wing plan very similar to that of the Seversky (Republic) series of planes, but came out too early to have been a copy. The Nakajima 96 single-engined mono- plane light bomber is basically a Fokker design. The Nakajima 97 is the twin-engined Japanese bomber that closely resembles the Martin 166. Nakajima is located near Tokyo.
Kawasaki's chief engine licenses cover the German BMW liquid-cooled engines, which are fitted with Kawasaki-made Vincent Andre radiators. The company also has the Dornier patents on metal plane construction. The best-known Kawasaki bomber, Type 93, is twin-engined monstrosity with an even bigger front porch than had the unfortunate French Amiot, mainstay of the prewar French air force. Type 93, however resembles nothing on this earth. But Kawasaki biplane fighters bear a striking resemblance to Curtiss jobs of another age, although Mitsubishi has the Curtiss biplane rights. The Kawasaki plant is in Kobe.
Kawanishi, Japanese agent for Rolls-Royce Buzzard engines although it does not make them (remember the Buzzard? It was a 12-cylinder liquid-cooled type developed for Schneider Cup racers; its present-day descendant is the 1,600-hp Griffin, power plant for a new type of Vickers fighter) has a weird collection of plane licenses. Among them are: the older types of Short (British) biplane flying boats; Rohrbach-Romar flying boats (a German type that went out some time ago); and Potez CAMS (French). The Potez copy is the four-engine flying boat with which Japan about year before the outbreak of the war in the Pacific began flying one of the oddest "commercial" airline routes in the world between Fukuoka, in Japan; Palau Island, one of the largest of the Japanese-mandated Carolines; and Timor, the obscure Portuguese-Dutch island in the East Indies which popped up into the news recently when Allied troops occupied the Portuguese half of the island to forestall a threatened Japanese move. There is no commercial traffic to speak of along this route, but it does traverse the strategic area where decisive history is now being made. Kawanishi is also the builder of a Type 97 twin-engine flying boat which bears a striking resemblance to the Douglas DF flying boat of a few years back.
This list does not exhaust by any mean the role of licenses held by these four companies, and the others also have rights on many foreign patents. For instance, to it must be added licenses for practically all items of German equipment, from radio to compressed air loading systems for guns. The 20-mm cannon with which Japanese planes are currently armed is built under rights acquired from the Rheinmetall-Boersig one of the big German gun makers. Of other licenses and other companies, the only one familiar to most American aviation people would be the Aichi license to build the liquid-cooled Lorraine engines. These are not, however, powerful enough to be militarily significant, although many were used for quite some time in the Japanese navy. This resume therefore does present the general picture.
In the past several years, the Japanese have undertaken a series of characteristically energetic measures to overcome the aluminum shortage which has always handicapped their efforts to achieve high output of military planes. They have, however, achieved only limited success.
In 1936, Japanese production of aluminum totaled only 7,000 metric tons. It rose to 10,000 in 1937; 17,000 in 1938; 23,000 in 1939 and 35,000 in 1940. The last figure is a Bureau of Mines estimate as no recent official figures have been made available. Last year it was apparently 45,000 tons. For purposes of comparison, Germany in 1940 produced about 240,000 tons of the silvery white metal which is the base of dural, and the USA, 187,000 tons. Japan thus ranks far behind the leading powers in aluminum production. In fact, she approaches only the USSR (about 55,000 tons in 1940) in output. But even here, Japan's position is weaker than it seems at first glance. The USSR is one of the world's leading steel producers and has made extensive use of steel alloys in plane fabrication. The Japanese haven't the steel for that even if they were ready to turn out steel alloy aircraft in quantity.
Japanese aluminum output has been comparatively small mainly because of lack of bauxite, the most important aluminum ore. No bauxite has yet been found on the Island Empire's home islands, nor is there any bauxite in China or Manchuria. The sole sources under Tokyo's control as this article is written are on the island of Palau and in IndoChina. But neither is of decisive importance. Palau's maximum possible production is 40,000-50,000 tons yearly, enough for only 8,000 tons of aluminum.
Prior to this war, Japan has imported bauxite chiefly from the Dutch East Indies and Johore, the Malay state immediately north of Singapore. Most of the Indies' bauxite is found on Bintan, a small island within gunshot southeast of Singapore. Japanese imports of bauxite in 1940 aggregated 235,000 tons from the Indies and 59,000 from Johore.
At the same time that plants for the extraction of aluminum from bauxite have been expanded, the Japanese government has also attempted to encourage its extraction from raw material found in the Empire: alunite, alum shale, aluminiferous schist, clay and phosphatic alum. In 1940, however, only one of the many small aluminum companies into which the Japanese industry is divided was actually using such materials. This was the Manchuria Light Metals Co. But the Kokusan Light Metals Co, Asia Light Metals Co, Korea Nitrogen Fertilizer Co and several others have begun production from these assorted materials on a small scale since then.
Nevertheless, the Japanese aluminum industry is not adequate to serve a big air industry, even though it is supplemented by a surprisingly large magnesium industry (4,000 tons output in 1940, about two-thirds of the US production in that year) and even the capture of Johore, Java and Sumatra assuming that all this is done will not altogether solve the Nipponese problem. For capture of these sources does not close the ocean gap between source and plant. The sea haul is long enough and exposed enough to put a heavy burden on the Japanese merchant marine. Furthermore, Japan has suffered from an acute shortage of power for the last three years. Aluminum requires enormous amounts of power to extract about 10 kilowatt hours of electricity per pound, enough to light a standard reading lamp for about 135 hours.
In other words, there is no prospect of the speedy expansion of the industry. Which in turn means no prospect of the speedy expansion of the air industry and of the Japanese fighting services. Which does not mean Japan is or will be a pushover, but does mean the US has a potentially decisive advantage.
This article was originally published in the April, 1942, issue of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 30, no 4, pp 20-22, 82, 84.
The original article includes 5 photos.
Photos are not credited.