The Japanese Army
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Foot soldiers provided the backbone of the
Japanese Army in the Guadalcanal campaign,
as indeed they were throughout the Pacific
war. Japanese industry not only lacked the
capacity to produce modern weapons in any
quantity; much like Italian industry it also lacked
the will. Local designs were more profitable
to make without paying pesky license fees
to foreign firms.
Grenadier: The Kokoda Campaign game shows
the Japanese Army at the peak of its fighting
performance. Japanese troops fought with heroic
fanaticism, only to be ground down by Marines
of equal determination and much greater firepower.
Today we'll take a look at what some of the
game pieces represent.
A Japanese infantry platoon had four squads:
three rifle squads and one with three or four
of the uniquely Japanese "grenade discharger."
Each squad included a Type 96 light machine
gun, often called the Nambu after its designer,
Capt. Kijiru Nambu. A balky weapon fed by
a 30-round magazine (rather than a belt),
it used a 6.5mm round but could only accept
rifle ammunition at the cost of a greatly
reduced rate of fire.
Most Japanese riflemen carried the Type 38
6.5mm rifle, usually called the Arisaka. This
was one of the longest rifles ever issued
— 50 inches long, tipped by a bayonet
almost 16 inches long. This met the Japanese
requirement for a rifle suitable for bayonet
attacks (with fixed bayonet, the weapon was
longer than the average Japanese recruit,
at 5 feet 3 inches, was tall). Other than
that, it had little to recommend it: the small
cartridge was underpowered, though post-war
tests showed that the rugged action could
have taken a much more powerful round. Many
shorter Japanese soldiers had a hard time
working the bolt while holding the rifle to their
shoulder — it was simply too far away.
Making it even more difficult to handle, most
Japanese officers required their men to keep
their bayonets fixed at all times.
By 1939, a replacement began to reach the
troops, the Type 99 Arisaka rifle. Of very
similar design, it was six inches shorter
and fired a much more powerful 7.7mm round.
As the war went on more and more of these
appeared on the battlefield, but the Japanese
never managed to fully replace the older weapon.
It did sport a chrome-plated receiver, very
useful in humid environments like Guadalcanal.
While officers had their cherished swords,
the infantryman's equivalent weapon was his
rifle, the focus of the belief that certain
physical objects are worthy of reverence for
the spirit they possess. A soldier who damaged
his rifle not only would face severe physical
punishments, he would also have to apologize
to the weapon.
The Japanese had great confidence in their
close-quarter fighting capabilities, for which
either rifle sufficed. In game terms, this
has the positive effect of granting the Japanese
a special modifier in close combat (something
they share with Finns, Gurkhas, Maoris, Somali
bande and a handful of others) but they have
trouble exiting a close combat that carries
over into a subsequent activation.
The Type 89 grenade discharger could fire
a standard 50mm hand grenade about 670 meters
at maximum range, but only 120 meters with
any effective aim. On Guadalcanal the Japanese
quickly found that firing them in the jungle
could prove hazardous, as the Type 89 grenade
had a contact fuse sensitive enough to be
set off by jungle vegetation. Called a "knee
mortar" by Western troops, the weapon
was not actually placed on the leg but fired
from the ground like an ordinary mortar. It
required a crew of three and a well-trained
team could put out an enormous rate of fire
— in the Nomonhan battles of 1939, Japanese
battalion commanders gathered these squads
together to support attacks with impromptu
A Japanese machine gun platoon had four
Type 92 heavy machine guns, a copy of the
French Hotchkiss. It fired the 7.7mm round,
but was not belt-fed, instead using 30-round
strips. The platoon did have much greater
manpower than similar units in other armies
— 11 men for every gun plus an "ammunition
squad" of seven more men in each platoon
to help in transport duties. Machine gun platoons
were expected to keep up with the advancing
infantry in an attack, and press forward with
equally suicidal determination. Thus a Japanese
Army HMG unit has a movement of 3, compared
to 2 for almost all others in the Panzer
Like just about every nation on the planet
outside the British Empire, the Japanese copied
the French-designed Brandt 81mm mortar. Thanks
to inferior materials the Japanese Type 97
was slightly heavier than the original and
had a slightly lesser range, though not enough
to show up in game terms. Early in the war
the mortars were not seen as often as they
would be in later years; Japanese industry
could more easily produce mortar tubes than
actual artillery pieces.
Instead of mortars, Japanese infantry battalions
drew their support from a platoon with two
Type 92 70mm infantry guns. This was a short-ranged
weapon for an artillery piece, and much heavier
than similar light artillery pieces fielded
by other nations. But the Japanese provided
a large roster of personnel to move the guns,
and so they did have some degree of tactical
The Type 94 37mm anti-tank gun was a licensed
copy of the Rheinmetall weapon that equipped
the German Army. As such it probably deserves
a longer range than we gave it in the game.
Likewise, the 105mm howitzer was a licensed
Rheinmetall design, the same design that equipped
American batteries as well and the most lethal
weapon of the Second World War in terms of
total casualties inflicted. However, where
American factories poured out over 20,000
of the weapons during the course of the war,
during the four years of hostilities Japanese
plants managed to complete only twelve.
The Japanese brought no tanks over the Kokoda Trail,
and there are only two Japanese tank units
in the game. The Type 95 Ha-Go light tank
had a 37mm gun and two machine guns. Introduced
in 1935, by 1942 it was hopelessly outdated
and easily destroyed even by the outdated
anti-tank weapons issued to Allied troops.
The Type 97 "Chi-Ha" medium tank was a development
of the Ha-Go and was the most common Japanese
tank of the war. It carried a short-barreled
57mm gun in keeping with the tank's infantry
support role, and two machine guns. Also no
match for enemy anti-tank weapons, it could
still provide valuable support against infantry.
you lead the Japanese to victory on New Guinea?
Get The Kokoda Campaign and find out!
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his happy dog, Leopold.