When WWII began in 1939 Japan was an aeronautical giant; one of the top five aerospace powers on Earth. Six years later the industry lay in ruins and a year after that, no longer even existed on paper.
With the possible exception of Mitsubishi, very little was ever written about Japanese aerospace companies before WWII and most were unknown outside of their homeland; in contrast to companies like Messerschmitt or Boeing which were famous worldwide. Nearly no attention at all was given to what happened to them after WWII.
A study of their final fates also has a second story. This is how defense contractors – which dominated Japan’s GDP during the early 1940s – were dismantled in a controlled way to limit the “contagion” of their loss to the wider postwar economy.
(Mitsubishi’s bombed-out factory at Nagoya at the end of WWII.)
(The Nakajima Aircraft corporate offices in Ota during the post-WWII American occupation. Today a Subaru factory; one of Nakajima’s descendants, is on these grounds.)
Many of Japan’s warplane manufacturers were VIEs, or vertically-integrated enterprises. Vertical integration means a company tries to “in-house” as much of the production flow from the raw materials level to the completed final product, as opposed to buying from outside subcontractors.
(This corporate medal was awarded to Nakajima employees injured during WWII.) (photo via Stewarts Military Antiques)
For comparison when say, Grumman, wanted to build a carrier-based fighter it might buy sheet aluminum from Alcoa, engines from Pratt & Whitney, propellers from Hamilton Standard, spark plugs from General Motors, tires from Goodyear, and so on. Meanwhile a VIE like Nakajima made many or most of these things themselves, including the plane’s engine. Mitsubishi even forged its own raw aluminum billets in-house.
(The Aichi M6A1 Seiran was intended to be launched from surfaced submarines. It was unknown to American intelligence and never received a WWII reporting name. The Seiran was built by Aichi, as was its engine, the Aichi Atsuta 30.)
(There were exceptions, including the most famous Japanese warplane of all. The first two prototype Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighters had Mitsubishi engines. The Imperial Japanese Navy instructed Mitsubishi to use a competitor’s engine, the Nakajima Sakae 12. This was reluctantly done under protest but the results were spectacular. The pile above are “Zero”s waiting to be scrapped at Atsugi naval airbase after WWII ended.)
WWII ended on 2 September 1945 and the American occupation of Japan began. By then American bombing raids had left almost every factory in the aerospace field damaged or destroyed.
(B-29 Superfortresses mounting a daylight raid against Japanese warplane factories during WWII. This is from a filmstrip Target Tokyo which was narrated by a young Ronald Reagan.)
One of the occupation’s key tenets was demilitarization of Japan, which in 1945 was intended to be total and permanent. The most immediate step was demobilization of the imperial army and navy, and the collection and disposal of their weapons. Secondary but still important was the elimination of Japan’s “…means to wage war”; the nation’s defense industries.
American authorities decreed that all airplane production would be prohibited in Japan. After World War One, the Treaty Of Versailles dictated that Germany was prohibited from warplane production, but was allowed civil aviation. This turned into a game of semantics between the Germans and the League Of Nations, where bombers were designed as “postal aircraft” and fighters as “acrobatics planes”. Now at the end of another world war, the Americans were not going to play games in Japan so all aspects of the aviation industry were prohibited.
(Excerpt from a series of orders on 18 November 1945 from Gen. Douglas MacArthur to the civilian Japanese government.)
Dismantling of Japan’s WWII aerospace industry was led by MajGen. Lester Whitlock. He was one of the “Four G’s”, four departments each headed by an American general responsible for specific aspects of the occupation. The four reported to LtGen. Richard Sutherland who directly answered to Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Whitlock’s department was G-4, responsible for the destruction of Japanese weapons not actively deployed, and disposal of military-related machinery.
MajGen. Whitlock was already known to MacArthur as he had served on his staff throughout WWII, advising him on logistics matters.
G-4’s task dovetailed into another aspect of Gen. MacArthur’s view of the occupation. Unlike defeated Germany, which was totally disestablished as any sort of political entity in 1945, MacArthur viewed Japan as an ongoing nation – albeit one under occupation and his control. MacArthur wanted to get demobilized Japanese troops into civilian employment as fast as possible and a demilitarized Japanese economy running again. Hence for the G-4 department, a goal was to take big VIEs in the defense sector and splinter them into small pieces, tailored to making civilian goods.
“special accounting companies”
With the surrender in September 1945 large defense companies continued to exist. This presented problems from an economics standpoint.
The biggest was what the Japanese called “war reparations”, which had an entirely different meaning than the normal English usage of the term. These “reparations” were IOUs from the imperial treasury promised to private enterprises, covering things like the cost of relocating factories to make them less vulnerable to B-29s, insurance claims against requisitioned property destroyed, etc.
By 1945 these “reparations” were effectively functioning like securities and could be collateralized for loans. So just simply making them vanish by diktat would cause knock-on effects down occupied Japan’s economy, likely pushing it past the brink.
Kijuro Shidehara, the prime minister who began his term five weeks after the surrender, proposed to pay off the “reparations” at 100% via a property tax increase and special one-time national tax. This was blocked by Gen. MacArthur, who felt that companies which manufactured Japan’s WWII weapons should pay a price for the war.
Another issue was loss of the empire. The Korean peninsula had been a protectorate since 1905 and a direct part of Japan (Chōsen) since 1910; in 1945 it was divided into American and Soviet zones to become South and North Korea. Taiwan had been a protectorate since 1895; in 1945 it was given to nationalist China. Manchuria had been occupied by Japan in 1932 and made into the nominally-independent nation of Manchukuo; in 1945 it was overrun by the Soviet army during WWII’s final weeks.
These territorial losses created financial black holes. Japanese companies with accounts receivable due from entities in the lost regions would obviously never be paid; but in corporate accounting they were still ledgered on the credit side. Especially in Manchukuo, many Japanese defense corporations had offices or factories; these were still theoretically assets; however they were now lost forever.
(Yokohama Bank’s regional office in Shenyang financed Japanese ventures in Manchukuo, both commercial and military. It was overrun by Soviet troops in August 1945 and expropriated. As of 2022 the physical building still exists, now used by Industrial & Commercial Bank of China.)
Proper accounting would mandate an immediate one-time write-off of their entire value; however such a blow would render entire companies insolvent.
Within Japan itself, another issue was what economists call “stranded assets”. These were still tangible goods with value; yet; now effectively worthless due to the prohibition on airplane manufacturing. Things in this category included company-owned airstrips, aluminum skin extruders, wind tunnels, etc.
(Production machinery being removed from a Mitsubishi aircraft factory during the spring of 1946.)
These “stranded assets” still showed on the credit side of the ledger, implying a company had more worth than it did. Meanwhile banned equipment gathering dust continued to depreciate on the debit side.
In 1946 the concept of “special accounting companies” was created. This applied to corporations capitalized above ¥200,000 with exposure to “war reparations”, holding “stranded assets”, or issues related to lost regions of the empire (they often had all three). Overwhelmingly these “special accounting companies” were in a few sectors: steel, banking, shipping, and defense contractors.
“Special accounting companies” had to begin keeping two sets of books: a normal set, and one excluding the issues above. These issues were not trivial. Combined, they amounted to ¥92 billion in 1946, or about -20% to occupied Japan’s GNP that year.
On 19 October 1946 the Diet (which continued to meet under American occupation) passed Law #40, known as the Corporate Restructuring Law. This was to enable “special accounting companies” to survive in the post-WWII world. These corporations could spin off a company, sometimes called the “sick company”, to isolate WWII accounts receivables, bad debts, and assets which were now illiquid or useless. The “sick company” would not make anything, it was just a limited-lifespan legal entity to wind down WWII affairs.
There is no trick to make negatives magically disappear. The blow often came through stock dilution. Shares were cancelled and proportionally reissued, some to the ongoing entity and the rest to the worthless “sick company”.
Segregating “stranded assets” and bad receivables allowed the ongoing entity to present investors, suppliers, and potential customers with a clear view, without the overhang of WWII’s legacy on the balance sheet.
end of the restrictions
With the occupation going smoothly, during 1949 Gen. MacArthur ordered many responsibilities delegated to the civilian Japanese government. Instead of first asking permission to act, they would act first and SCAP (the occupation authorities) would only block them if objectionable.
During June 1950 SCAP instructed Japan to issue “regulations for traffic and sales of domestic air transportation”. Both in English and Japanese, the SCAP order and subsequent Japanese cabinet rules (simply called the 1950 Air Law) were extremely vague. While a consensus was that the intent was self-regulation by occupied Japan of airlines, it was unclear what that “traffic and sales” entailed – buying & selling foreign airplanes, servicing them on the ground, making Japanese parts for them, or even making whole airplanes again.
In any case the most liberal interpretation was taken and the United States did not object. With that, aviation was again legal in Japan. The USA’s occupation authorities ended with the 1951 San Francisco treaty. Designing armed combat types became legal with the 1954 Self-Defense Law, which interpreted Article 9 of Japan’s constitution (prohibiting a military) to “not preclude self-defense forces”.
fates of WWII Japanese warplane manufacturers
Aichi was founded in 1920, as a subsidiary of the larger Aichi Group which itself started in 1898. During 1943, with warplanes now its main product, the main part of the company spun off as Aichi Aircraft Co., Ltd. During WWII it was Japan’s fourth-largest aerospace concern.
Engines were made at a factory in Nagoya and airframes at Eitoku about 6 miles outside Nagoya. There was also another factory near Yokohama. Very late during WWII, Aichi attempted a company-wide “dispersion” to geographically separate as many of its manufacturing processes as possible.
Aichi got a leg up between the world wars. Japan fought on the Allied side during World War One and as such, was part of the Treaty Of Versailles verification team which inspected airplane factories in Weimar Germany to ensure that production was civilian-only. Japanese delegates struck an arrangement with the Heinkel company that they would secretly warn them about surprise inspections, in exchange for technical advice being funneled to Aichi.
(The Aichi D2A “Susie” naval dive bomber was a near copy of the Heinkel He-50. These fought during the Sino-Japanese War of the 1930s and during WWII until 1942.)
Easily the company’s most famous WWII product was the Aichi D3A “Val” dive bomber which entered service in 1940.
Even today in the mind of the American public, this fixed-undercarriage plane is associated with the 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. The “Val” was already obsolete in its intended role midway through WWII, but during the conflict’s final year the D3A gained a second form of infamy as surviving examples were widely expended as kamikazes.
The company produced a variety of other types during WWII.
(The Aichi E16A “Paul” was a reconnaissance type of which 256 were made. They could be flown from either the “hybrid” battleship conversions IJN Ise and IJN Hyūga, or ashore as operated by four kokutais. This one was evaluated by the US Navy after WWII.)
The S1A Denko (lightning bolt) was an Aichi night fighter to counter nocturnal B-29 Superfortress raids. When WWII ended only a mock-up and a nearly-finished prototype had been made.
In March 1946 the company’s name changed to Aichi Entrepreneurship Company, Ltd. to reflect the occupation’s ban on aircraft production. In April 1947 production of the Giant AA1, a three-wheeled minicar, began.
Subject to the 1946 restructuring law, the company was split. The “sick company” Aichi Kigyo was dissolved in May 1949. The ongoing entity was renamed Aichi Machine Industry in 1952, manufacturing automobiles under the Giant and Cony brand names.
(A ’65 Cony Guppy.)
Aichi was acquired by Nissan in 1965 and became Nissan-Cony until October 1970, when it discontinued automobile production. Aichi never reentered the aerospace field after WWII. The company’s stock was finally delisted in 2012, ending the lineage of the WWII warplane manufacturer. As of 2022 there is still an office with the Aichi Machine name, a subsidiary of Nissan which designs automobile transmissions.
The Kawanishi industrial group was an early investor in Nakajima. After witnessing that company’s growth, the conglomerate decided in 1920 to start its own branch to compete with it, Kawanishi Aircraft Company.
Kawanishi’s main factory was at Nishinomiya, equidistant about 8 miles to Kobe and Osaka in opposite directions. There was a second large factory in Kobe. Other factories were at Himeji City about 21 miles from Kobe and Takarazuka deeper inland on Honshu. All four were massively damaged by American bombing in 1945.
A fifth factory at Matsushida actually belonged to Matsushida Electric Industrial Company (the WWII predecessor of modern Panasonic) who aimed at eventually making it an independent company. However throughout WWII it license-built Kawanishi designs.
As WWII neared its end, Kawanishi (like many Japanese aircraft manufacturers) established “dispersion” factories, including an underground one at Fukuchiama.
Kawanishi only built aircraft for the navy. The company had something of a symbiotic relationship with the IJN, and was allowed to use active-duty naval airbases for company business.
(The Nishinomiya factory used Naruo Naval Airbase as a flight test center and delivery staging airport. This photo was taken in 1948. Three years after WWII, significant portions of the city were still rubble. The two runways were overbuilt with rows of buildings for the US Navy occupation force. Today the WWII airbase is long gone but Koshien Stadium (upper left) still stands as of 2022, home to baseball’s Hanshin Tigers.)
Kawanishi is mostly remembered for its seaplane offerings, specifically the big “Mavis” and “Emily” types.
(A Kawanishi H8K2 “Emily” being evaluated with US Navy PBM Mariners at Oak Harbor, WA after WWII.)
The company also made the Kawanishi N1K “George”. This type entered WWII in 1943 and was steadily improved throughout the war. A total of 1,104 of the N1K and 406 of the improved N1K2-J were made. In the hands of a skilled pilot, a “George” was a highly-capable fighter.
(Kawanishi “George” fighter being tested by an American pilot.)
From April 1945 onwards the Imperial Japanese Navy used them in the kikusui tactic; large coordinated waves of kamikazes. “George”s themselves were rarely expended as kamikazes. Instead they tied up American Hellcats and Corsairs to allow less-capable types to reach US Navy warships.
In March 1945 the company’s name was changed to Jinmu Akitsusha to hide it from American intelligence. The name was dropped again five months later.
Kawanishi was in very rough shape by the end of WWII. All its factories had been bombed. On 11 May 1945, the US Army sent 92 B-29 Superfortresses targeting just the factory in Kobe alone. Upstream production work orders were in disarray due to destruction of subcontractors. The entire company managed to complete just five airplanes in early August. Operations collapsed and production ended during the second week of August 1945.
During the interim between the emperor’s surrender broadcast and the actual end of WWII, many records which survived American bombing were intentionally destroyed. What remained of the company’s factories were taken over by the American military or razed. For example the big Takarazuka factory, heavily bombed in 1945, was bulldozed in 1949. Today the Hanshin horse racing track is atop the site.
Kawanishi Aircraft was a subsidiary of Kawanishi Machinery and as such, the “sick company” was established further up the chain. In 1946, production of a civilian motorcycle called the Pointer began at the remains of the Nishinomiya factory.
(A lineup of ’46 Pointers.)
These were later offered for sale in the USA under the brand name Lassie. The line was discontinued in 1962.
During 1947, the company wanted to distance itself further from WWII and was renamed Meiwa Kogyo. In November 1949 it split three ways with one of the new companies being Shin Meiwa Industries. Shin Meiwa was interested in a return to aerospace and began manufacturing drop tanks for American warplanes based in Japan. With the 1950 air law, it was free to again begin designing its own types.
One Grumman HU-16 Albatross was purchased and taken apart for study. In 1962 a technology testbed called the UF-XS was completed. It was the first Japanese aircraft of this type since WWII.
(Shin Meiwa UF-XS in flight. The grids are photo-calibration markings.) (photo via ShinMaywa)
The JMSDF placed an order for an ASW offshoot, the PS-1, during 1969. Shin Meiwa continued to design and build warplanes for the JMSDF throughout the Cold War era and beyond.
(Shin Meiwa US-1A amphibious search plane of the JMSDF during 2011.)
During 1992 the company’s name changed from Shin Meiwa to ShinMaywa. Reportedly the change was in response to an internal study that the original name was too difficult to pronounce by non-Japanese persons. As of 2022 it continues in the aerospace field.
Kawasaki Heavy Industries was the second airplane maker in Japan, following Nakajima by a few months in 1918. During 1937 the conglomerate’s railroad, shipyard, and aerospace units split into independent companies with the latter becoming Kawasaki Aircraft Industry, Ltd. The headquarters and main factory was in Kakamigahara. There were two factories in Nagoya and one in Akashi City. During WWII “dispersion” factories were established, one in rural Aichi prefecture and one in Kobe. It was the third-largest aircraft company in Japan.
A well-known WWII offering was the Kawasaki Ki-48 “Lily” bomber. It entered service in 1940 and 1,997 were made, serving the IJA until the end of WWII.
(A “Lily” of the ROCAF, or nationalist Chinese air force. These WWII leftovers were used during the Chinese civil war, with the last not being retired until the early 1950s.)
Perhaps the company’s best type was the Ki-61 “Tony” fighter. It used a Kawasaki Ha12 liquid-cooled V-12 engine, as opposed to the air-cooled radials used by most other Japanese fighters. The Ki-61 first saw action in 1942 but entered large-scale combat in early 1943. It was a very good fighter. Early in WWII it outclassed the P-40 Warhawk and was at least on par with a P-38 Lightning. Later during WWII it was disadvantaged to the P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang, but even in 1945 was still a lethal type.
(Ki-61 “Tony” of the ROCAF which still had a few in service during 1949, four years after WWII.)
(photo via airwar.ru website)
The Ki-91 strategic bomber made it as far as a wooden mock-up. With a 157’2″ wingspan, it would have been slightly larger than a B-29 Superfortress. Kawasaki started the Ki-91 project in response to an Imperial Japanese Army request specifically for a type equal to the B-29. During February 1945 the prototype was 60% complete when it was damaged by an American air raid. The project was cancelled. It is surprising it even existed, as Japan’s fuel and aluminum woes totally precluded a strategic bomber force by then.
(official US Navy photo)
Kawasaki’s final WWII aircraft was the Ki-108, a development of the highly-capable Ki-102 “Randy” twin-engine fighter which itself only entered service in 1944. This was to be a Superfortress destroyer optimized for high-altitude combat. It had high-performance engines, a pressurized cockpit, and pilot oxygen.
Two were converted from stock “Randy” airframes and two were built new. During postwar American tests, it was found to be not only good against bombers, but agile enough to hold its own against a F6F Hellcat.
The I-Go-1b was Kawasaki’s anti-ship missile. The intended mount was a Ki-102 “Randy”. One of three missiles in the I-Go family, the I-Go-1b was guided by radio command. It was fired at 4,600′ about 6½ NM from the target ship. The rocket burned for 80 seconds after which it glided to the target. It had a 661 lbs AP warhead.
The I-Go-1b was withheld from combat in 1945. The IJA set up a special unit of the best Ki-102 pilots who were prohibited from volunteering for kamikaze missions. When the expected American invasion came, the missile would be unveiled as a rude surprise. As the sea war was already lost by mid-1945, these pilots were instructed to ignore American battleships and carriers and only target the LSTs and LSMs bringing US Marines ashore. With the unexpected surrender, none was ever used.
Kawasaki’s factories took a heavy pounding during the last twelve months of WWII. The large Kakamigahara factory was almost completely destroyed.
(The Kawasaki Aircraft main office at the Gifu (Kakamigahara) factory in 1945.)
The Gifu (Kakamigahara) factory was impounded by the US Army on 8 October 1945. As part of Gen. MacArthur’s employment policies, civilians were allowed to re-enter in December for basic repairs. By early 1946 production of consumer goods like kitchen utensils was underway. The worker dormitories were liquidated as part of the “sick company” wind-down and became civilian housing.
The WWII corporate headquarters in the photo was partially rebuilt after WWII. It was two three-story structures with a common center. After WWII the east side lost its top story so today the building looks asymmetrical.
The “sick company” Kawasaki Sangyo was dissolved in 1951. With the 1950 air law the reformed Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Ltd. wanted to get back into aerospace. It obtained licenses to manufacture spare parts for American jets stationed in Japan and in 1952 began license production of the Bell 47D helicopter.
The same year, the KAL-1 was unveiled. It was a three-passenger civilian lightplane and the company’s first homegrown type since WWII. The company revived the WWII logo for both the helicopter and airplane.
During October 1951 a representative of Douglas met with Kawasaki executives and struck an agreement that Kawasaki would be the designated partner for maintaining American-made aircraft in Asia. Naturally this would have been unthinkable just six years previous.
Kawasaki went on to become heavily involved in military aircraft after Japan rearmed in 1954. Along with Mitsubishi it is one of the two leading suppliers to the JASDF in the 21st century.
(Kawasaki OH-1 Ninja attack helicopter in 2020.) (photo via Japanese Ministry of Defense)
During the 1930s, Watanabe Steel Foundry dabbled in aircraft production. In 1943, the aircraft department was spun off into an independent company, Kyūshū Aircraft Company, Ltd.
As might be guessed, Kyūshū was entirely on Kyushu, the southern large home island. The main factory was at Zasshonokuma, a modern facility which opened in 1931. Other factories were nearby at Itazuke and Kashii. During WWII “dispersion” factories were opened at Setaka and Karatsu, both about 35 miles from the main plant.
(Machinery from Kyūshū’s Itazuke factory. After the facility was bombed, it was moved to a temporary structure in a nearby forest. Note the tree trunk in the middle of the building.)
During WWII Kyūshū accounted for only 3% of complete warplanes, but license-made parts for competitor’s designs including the landing gear found on many Aichi, Nakajima, and Mitsubishi fighters.
One of the company’s own products was the Kyūshū Q1W “Loma”. It was the first designed-for-the-role anti-submarine warfare (ASW) plane.
(Q1W “Loma” being evaluated by the US Navy after WWII.)
Still popular with scale model builders today is Kyūshū’s very last design, the J7W Shinden (lightning). Unknown to American intelligence, it never received a WWII reporting name.
(Shinden prototype being examined by American servicemen after WWII.) (photo via combinedfleet.com website)
A sleek pusher design with canards, the Shinden was intended to have the ceiling, rate-of-climb, and firepower to take down B-29s but also be more agile than single-engined American fighters. The prototype was finished in April 1945 and the Imperial Japanese Navy ordered production before it even flew. As it turned out, only two were finished before WWII ended.
Kyūshū was definitely not a VIE and relied heavily on a complicated web of subcontractors and sub-subcontractors. All were on Kyushu and most were in cities in Fukuoka Prefecture. This proved a hindrance when American strategy switched to carpet-bombing cities with incindiary ordnance. Many of these small subcontractors were in older wood buildings, and two or three might be lost to a single B-29 raid.
Kyūshū Aircraft Company, Ltd. was shut down upon the general surrender on 2 September 1945. Because it was so young, essentially the whole company became a “sick company” however after resolving WWII-related issues, it did not dissolve.
The bombed Zasshonokuma main factory site was taken over by the US Army in December 1945 and housed a 1,500 man detachment during the occupation. After Japan rearmed, the grounds were turned over to the JGSDF which continues to use the area as Camp Fukuoka. Today it is the garrison of the JGSDF 4th Infantry Division.
In 1953 the dormant corporate entity was reborn as Watanabe Automobile Industries, relocated to Kasugi-shi. It made body and chassis parts for Japan’s automotive industry, and never again designed aircraft. It went out of business in 2001. A different small post-WWII successor company of Kyūshū called Watanabe Tekko in Fukuoka City still exists and makes torpedo parts for the JMSDF.
This was the only Japanese aircraft manufacturer not in the home islands.
Manchuria Airplane Manufacturing Company, or Mansyuu / Manshū for short; was headquartered in Harbin, Manchukuo with a secondary factory and company airstrip in Mukden (today, Shenyang).
(A 1930s postcard illustrating “the famous Mukden Mansyuu”. The inset photo is Mukden Arsenal, which was a totally separate enterprise nearby also serving the Japanese military, making Arisaka rifles among other things.)
In 1938 the imperial government was encouraging investment in Manchukuo and Nakajima provided majority funding for the establishment of Mansyuu, which initially operated as a subsidiary of Nakajima.
During WWII Mansyuu primarily manufactured designs of Nakajima, but also some competitors designs including the Tachikawa Ki-55 “Ida” trainer and Mitsubishi Ki-30 “Ann” attack plane. It only made army types.
The company’s lone homegrown military design, and only half at that, was the Ki-79. This was an adaptation of the 1930s Ki-27 “Nate” fighter. Obsolete by the 1940s, Mansyuu tweaked the design into an advanced trainer. During WWII 1,329 were made.
(Mansyuu Ki-79 of the Indonesian air force after WWII.)
Mansyuu’s history after WWII is brief as there is none. During August 1945 the Soviet army overran Manchuria. The company simply ceased to exist.
Mao’s communists captured Shenyang from the nationalists in 1948. The former Mansyuu Mukden airstrip and whatever hadn’t been looted by the Soviets in 1945 was reestablished as Shenyang Aircraft Corporation in 1951, with warplane production restarting in 1953. The WWII Mansyuu airstrip, now extended and repaved several times, is still in use.
(The former Mansyuu company airstrip in 2022. When built it was in the city’s eastern suburbs; today modern Shenyang surrounds it on all sides.) (image via Bing)
Established in 1870, Mitsubishi was a zaibatsu. In pre-1945 Japan, a zaibatsu was a super-conglomerate and might be imagined as an octopus. The “head” was the main holding company (which did or manufactured nothing itself) paired with a bank. The “arms” were VIEs and standalone subsidiary conglomerates, each independently moving but controlled by the central holding company.
Zaibatsus were wealthy, had hundreds of thousands of employees, and were politically powerful. Mitsubishi was involved in every area of Japan’s WWII effort: warships, steel, ordnance, coal, warplanes, electric systems, land vehicles, engines, and so on.
(Mitsubishi Torpedo Works in Nagasaki was one of many defense-oriented enterprises within the zaibatsu. It was completely destroyed on 9 August 1945.)
During 1928 the zaibatsu renamed its Mitsubishi Internal Combustion division into Mitsubishi Aircraft Company. During WWII it had many factories, contracting shops, and subdivisions all throughout the home islands; far too many to list here.
(Part of Mitsubishi’s Nagoya factory in 1945. There were actually two factories in the immediate vicinity. Both were large and if considered one entity, was the largest warplane factory on Earth. Both were massively bombed during WWII.)
It goes without saying that Mitsubishi designed and built some of the empire’s finest warplanes.
Most famous was the A6M “Zero” carrier-based fighter which fought all of WWII. A total of 10,939 were built before and during WWII. The one above in mixed American and Japanese markings was at a postwar expo of Axis technology in Ohio. Behind it is a German Ju-290 transport.
Mitsubishi’s J2M “Jack” was a land-based fighter of the Imperial Japanese Navy which entered WWII late in 1942. Because of the American bombing campaign, production was difficult. One of the last dogfights of WWII was between “Jack”s and F6F Hellcats about two hours before the emperor’s surrender broadcast. Above is one of two evaluated by the United States during 1945.
The sleek Ki-46 “Dinah” was one of Mitsubishi’s offerings for the Imperial Japanese Army. It was a reconnaissance plane of which 1,742 were built. Early in WWII it was regarded as a difficult quarry by Allied fighter pilots. Towards the end of the war, some were being modified to serve as makeshift “bomber-destroyers” to attack B-29 Superfortresses over Japan. This “Dinah” was tested by the United States in 1945. The type also saw post-WWII use during the Chinese civil war.
During WWII most of Mitsubishi’s aircraft factories were hit hard and repeatedly. The big Nagoya mega-complex was totally destroyed.
(The Nagoya factory was hit first in December 1944 and repeatedly through 1945.)
Designed by Mr. Tomio Kubo who previously designed the “Dinah”, the Mitsubishi Ki-83 was a long-range fighter with extreme maneuverability for its size. This project was handled in utmost secrecy and was unknown to Allied intelligence. A prototype flew in November 1944 but the design had a long working-out period and by the end of WWII only three more were finished. By midsummer 1945, the Imperial Japanese Army had ended pretty much any project not suitable for defending against the expected American invasion. None the less when WWII ended there were still production orders for the Ki-83, even though its mission had seemingly vanished. So it would appear that IJA generals thought highly of it.
(official US Army photo)
The A7M “Sam” was supposed to be the successor of the A6M “Zero” as the IJN’s standard carrier-based fighter. Although concept work started even before the December 1941 Pearl Harbor operation, a prototype was not ready until May 1944 and was not given official sanction until November. By then many of Japan’s flattops were already on the seafloor. Only eight “Sam”s were completed but the project was still ongoing when WWII ended. During June of 1945, precious scarce aviation fuel was allocated to the A7M test-flight program.
During 1944 Germany agreed to provide Mitsubishi via submarines with a complete Me-163 Komet rocket-powered fighter, three spare engines, full blueprints, a pilot’s manual, and technical reports. The physical cargo was lost when U-1204 was sunk en route, but IJN I-29 made it from occupied France to occupied Singapore with some of the documents. Once transferred to Japan, the documents were sufficient for Mitsubishi to reverse-engineer the Me-163. It planned to make the Komet for both the imperial army (Ki-200) and navy (J8M). The name for both was Shūsui (sound of a swinging sword).
Even in Japan’s dire circumstances, disputes between the army and navy held up the project. The first powered flight was not until 7 July 1945. When WWII ended only four Shūsuis were complete with another half-dozen unfinished. One is today displayed at Mitsubishi’s corporate museum.
Mitsubishi Aircraft Company was disestablished immediately at the end of WWII. Much of its physical property was in ruins and what remained was largely “stranded assets” due to the aerospace ban.
(Never-finished Mitsubishi aircraft parts awaiting to be melted as scrap in June 1946.)
Mitsubishi as a whole was shortlisted by the USA’s anti-zaibatsu campaign of 1946 – 1949. The parent holding company was dissolved and had its assets seized. It was prohibited for executives to serve on the board of more than one company thereby preventing cooperation, and use of Mitsubishi’s “three diamonds” trademark was banned.
The Mitsubishi aircraft factory at Mizushima had made G4M2 “Betty” bombers until a 22 June 1945 raid by B-29s permanently knocked it out of WWII. During November 1945 local civilians petitioned Gen. MacArthur to allow some type of employment to resume there. The factory was reorganized as Mizushima Engineering Works and made the TM series of microcars beginning in 1946.
(A ’49 Mizushima TM3C)
During 1950, dissolution of the zaibatsu was completed. Three successor corporations, all using the Mitsubishi name and trademark, emerged. One of them, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, desired to return to the aircraft industry after the 1950 air law passed. After Japan rearmed in 1954 Mitsubishi made spare parts for imported American-made warplanes used by the JASDF. During 1964 the company started “Project T-X” for Japan’s first homegrown supersonic design. The first post-WWII Mitsubishi warplane, the T-2 trainer, entered production in 1971.
(A Mitsubishi F-1 supersonic fighter of the JASDF.)
The company has since designed numerous other combat types.
In April 2008, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries established a new airliner subsidiary, Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation. It has no lineage to the WWII Mitsubishi Aircraft Company.
Nakajima Aircraft Company was the first airplane maker in Japan, opening in 1918. During WWII it was either the second-largest or largest Japanese warplane company, depending on how it and Mitsubishi are accounted. Nakajima made both engines and airframes. It had factories in Tokyo proper, near Tokyo at Musashino, and factories in Ota, Handa, Isesaki, Mishima, Donryu, and Koizumi. During WWII a whole archipelago of “dispersion factories” were constructed. There was also an engineering center and prototype shop in Mitaka.
(Nakajima’s Mitaka product engineering center. After WWII the surviving buildings were taken over by International Christian University.)
(GIs inspect a G8N “Rita” strategic bomber at Nakajima’s Koizumi factory a month after WWII ended. Today the grounds are home to a factory of the electronics company Sanyo.) (official US Army photograph)
The Musashino factory was an early B-29 Superfortress target. On 24 November 1944, 111 B-29s attacked the Nakajima factory there. It was the first time American bombers had been near Tokyo since the Doolittle Raid in 1942.
(The November 1944 air raid. The Nakajima factory’s periphery is to right-center, clear of the impact area.)
The raid was judged an abject failure on both sides. The B-29s were caught in the upper-air jetstream at bomb release and almost all missed the target. Meanwhile the Japanese were frustrated that fighters failed to effectively engage the unescorted bombers.
Nakajima made many of WWII Japan’s most effective warplanes.
(C6N “Myrt” at Army Air Depot Middletown, PA in 1946. This WWII base, built on the grounds of a Heinz pickle plant, later became Olmsted AFB and since 1973 is Harrisburg International Airport.)
Nakajima’s C6N “Myrt”, entering service in 1944, was a high-capability reconnaissance plane. It was outright faster than the F6F Hellcat and only 55 kts slower than a F4U Corsair. As it was so difficult to intercept, the C6N was used to shadow US Navy task forces. After the Leyte Gulf engagement in 1944 the Imperial Japanese Navy was so decimated that they bemoaned the inability to capitalize on great intelligence gathered by “Myrt”s.
(Ki-43 “Oscar” of the ROCAF, the nationalist Chinese air force. Both sides fighting the Chinese civil war made use of this type in the late 1940s.)
Best known of all Nakajima products was the Imperial Japanese Army’s Ki-43 “Oscar”. A total of 5,919 were built during WWII. In WWII’s early phase, this highly-maneuverable army fighter was well-regarded, equally effective as the naval A6M “Zero”. Outclassed later in WWII, the “Oscar” none the less remained in service and production until the very end.
In August 1943 the company’s CEO, Mr. Chikuhei Nakajima, wrote a thesis Strategy For Victory of which fifty copies were printed by the company and given to IJA generals, IJN admirals, and politicians whom he felt would be sympathetic. It should be mentioned that doing something like this in WWII Japan was not without personal risk. Nakajima argued that WWII would not be won or lost by infantry charges or battleship duels, but by strategic bombing. He proposed a rejuvenation of the dormant 1942 “Z Proposal” for long range bombers. In a refined and more realistic form, he proposed a very large type which could hit Los Angeles, Seattle, and Oakland from Japan proper. It would be joined by a slightly smaller type which could hit Honolulu from the Marianas. Nakajima proposed that his company’s Mitaka engineering facility be expanded as to not disrupt current types in production.
The Imperial Japanese Navy was interested enough to order development. The larger plane would have had six engines and been roughly the size of a modern Boeing 747. It was designated G10N. It would have had such a long development that WWII would already be won or lost anyways before it was ready.
The smaller type would have four engines. It was designated G8N Renzan (mountain range) and received the Allied reporting name “Rita”.
(Nakajima G8N being evaluated in the USA after WWII ended. The other plane is a C-45 Expeditor transport.)
The 106′ wingspan G8N had a 10-man crew. The prototype first flew in October 1944. By then the window for Japan to field a strategic bomber force had already closed. None the less, a production order was placed to Nakajima for one 48-bomber squadron operational by September 1945. In light of aluminum and fuel shortages, this was wildly optimistic. Only four were completed before the project was cancelled in June 1945, of which one was destroyed in an American air raid.
One “Rita” was evaluated by the United States after WWII. It was said to have decent flight characteristics. It would have had range roughly equal to a B-29 Superfortress but bombload only similar to a B-24 Liberator.
The abortive strategic bomber was the least of Nakajima’s problems late in WWII. By mid-summer 1945 every one of Nakajima’s factories had been hit hard by American airstrikes. The company was also running out of aluminum and rubber.
(Nakajima’s Koizumi factory being bombed. Judging by the snow this was early in 1945.) (official US Army photo)
Two of Nakajima’s last efforts illustrate opposite ends of the spectrum of late-WWII Japan.
The Nakajima Kikka was Japan’s only indigenous jet fighter of WWII. Despite a visual similarity to the Me-262, it had no relation to the German fighter. It was powered by two Ne-20 turbojets. The prototype flew on 7 August 1945, eight days before Emperor Hirohito broadcast his intention to surrender. One more was completed before WWII ended, and another 18 were under construction.
(An incomplete Kikka in a bombed Nakajima factory after WWII.)
This late in the war it is doubtful they would have made any difference. After WWII several incomplete Kikkas were taken to the USA where one was reassembled for study. Two loose Ne-20 engines were provided to Chrysler. The United States already had the P-80 Shooting Star in service by then.
A grim counterpart to Nakajima’s Kikka project was the Nakajima Ki-115. It was a built-for-the-purpose kamikaze.
The Ki-115 was (by intent) the crudest possible airplane. It was intended to be made in austere conditions by semi-skilled laborers. The Ki-115 was made of wood, plywood, and any available steel or iron to preserve aluminum. It had the bare minimum of controls needed to stay in the air, and would be equipped with any available military radio. It was intended to be flown by rookie pilots with a bare minimum of flight instruction. The “armament” was intended to be a de-finned bomb mated to the fuselage.
A unique feature was a “generic” front firewall. The default engine was a Nakajima Ha35 but most any radial piston engine type, stripped off obsolete biplanes if necessary, could be fitted.
Far from being simple to fly, the Ki-115’s horrible flight traits required a skilled pilot just to stay in the sky without crashing.
Essentially unlimited orders were placed during the summer of 1945, with Ki-115 production hoped to peak at 8,000 planes/month by 1 January 1946. Only 104 were actually finished and none were ever used before WWII ended in September 1945.
The last Nakajima warplane rolled off the line on 14 August 1945. The following day all company operations were suspended. Overall Nakajima had made 25,935 airplanes and 46,726 engines.
Nakajima’s CEO Mr. Chikuhei Nakajima became the last Imperial Munitions Minister. His tenure was short as Gen. MacArthur viewed the post as incompatible with the occupation and the cabinet position was abolished. He passed away in 1949, aged 65.
(A statue of Chikuhei Nakajima unveiled during October 1984 in his hometown of Ojima-cho.)
Without question this company would be broken up by the occupation. Even before the Americans arrived, Nakajima Aircraft renamed itself Fuji Sangyo Company, Ltd. This would also later be the name of the “sick company” which was finally dissolved in 1950.
On 6 November 1945, the former Nakajima was broken up by occupation authorities. From it emerged six large and six smaller companies. Most were headed by former Nakajima executives. One of these, Fuji Kogyo, fielded a cheap simple scooter called the Rabbit. The debut 1946 model was designed to use a maximum amount of surviving Nakajima machinery; for example wheel hubs were made on the jig used for WWII bomber tailwheels. The Rabbit was a commercial success and the line continued in production for many years.
(A ’46 Fuji Rabbit.)
On 15 July 1953, five of the successor companies joined with a sixth outside firm to form Fuji Heavy Industries. As its logo it chose the subaru, the Japanese name for the Plaiedes constellation (hence the current Subaru hood ornament).
Fuji Heavy Industries entered the automotive market for the 1954 model year. Their first offering was the ’54 Subaru 1500 sedan, which sold poorly. Later models did better and the Subaru name was trademarked.
(Subaru’s Ota-kita factory in 2022. This was Nakajima’s Ota North factory during WWII. It had been used by the US Army from 1945 -1959, still technically belonging to Fuji Heavy Industries. The modern automobile plant still sits in the cruciform footprint of the WWII warplane factory. The WWII factory fly-away runway was turned into a golf course by the US Army in 1945 and used as such until 1987.) (photo via Subaru)
In 2017, Fuji Heavy Industries rebranded itself Subaru Corporation as the automobile marque was by then its best-known trademark.
Fuji Heavy Industries intended to resume aircraft production. In 1953, its founding slogan was “Return to airplanes!”. However now eight years after WWII, this proved more difficult than anticipated. The company’s first postwar type was the T-1 Hatsutaka, an advanced trainer which 62 were built for the JASDF during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
(Fuji Heavy Industries T-1 trainer.) (photo via Subaru)
Yosuki Kogyo Company, Subaru’s aerospace subsidiary, still uses the site of the WWII Nakajima factory at Handa.
A former Nakajima-owned airstrip at Utsunomiya was used by the American military and then Japanese self-defense forces until 1973. It was then reacquired by Fuji Heavy Industries, and Subaru still owns it today. Part of the WWII Nakajima factory at Donryu is still owned by Subaru.
Various other traces of Nakajima exist in different forms now in the 2020s. Nakajima’s corporate hospital in Tokyo became Ogikubu Hospital in 1946. The Nishi-Koizumi railroad station, originally built to service Nakajima’s Koizumi factory, is still in use with Japan’s modern railroad network.
Other parts of the Nakajima legacy have vanished. The huge Musashino mega-complex was seized by the US Army in 1945. Salvageable buildings were remodeled into US Army housing and storage, and a portion cleared of rubble was made into a baseball diamond in 1951. The American military used the former factory in various roles beyond the Korean War era. The US Army relinquished the grounds in 1976 and during 1977, most of the WWII site was razed. Some was turned into Musashino Chuo Park, the rest redeveloped. The last two remaining WWII buildings were torn down in 2001.
(An American reconnaissance photo of the Musashino factory on 7 November 1944. It was declassified on 9 July 1945, while WWII was still in progress. The factory had been repeatedly bombed in the interim so there was little harm in doing so.) (official US Army photo)
The left side block of buildings in the above photo was called Tama Factory by management and the ‘west complex’ by Nakajima employees, and is where the public park is today. The right side block of buildings was called the ‘east complex’ by factory employees and made aircraft engines during WWII. It was replaced by residential housing. The upper part of the ‘west complex’, nearest the curving road, is still owned by Subaru which has offices there.
(photo via motor-fan.jp website)
In August 2016, construction workers in Musashino discovered an artifact of the WWII Nakajima factory. During the late 1930s a network of small tunnels was built under portions of the factory, to allow shifts to change without disrupting operations on the plant floor. This slab of concrete, dated 1938, was part of that. It was left in Musashino Chuo Park with a sign explaining its history.
Elsewhere a shopping mall today sits over the site of the Isesaki factory; another mall is atop the Nakajima airstrip at Omiya. One of the WWII “dispersion” factories, at Tsutsumioka, was so heavily damaged that the rubble was simply plowed under and is farmland today.
During 1924 Ishikawajima Shipyards decided to diversify into aerospace and opened a large aircraft factory at Tachikawa. At the time this was roughly 8 miles inland of downtown Tokyo; today it is a neighborhood within the sprawling Japanese capital.
During 1936 the Imperial Japanese Army bought a controlling stake of the factory’s stock. This was not unusual as prior to 1945, the imperial army and navy were each allowed to buy and sell securities of private companies. The company was renamed Tachikawa Aircraft Company, Ltd.
During WWII Tachikawa made a wide variety of warplanes.
(The Ki-9 “Spruce” was a 1930s vintage basic trainer of which 2,395 were made plus 220 under license at the Hino Motors factory in Tokyo. The “Spruce” above was used by Indonesia after WWII during that nation’s war of independence against the Netherlands.)
(The Ki-55 “Ida” advanced trainer was a development of Tachikawa’s earlier Ki-36 “Ida” ground attack plane. During WWII Tachikawa made 1,078 and Kawasaki made 311 under license. This WWII survivor was used by Mao’s communists during the Chinese civil war.)
(The Ki-74 “Patsy” was a fast bomber. The prototype first flew in March 1944. Because of Japan’s deteriorating war situation only 16 were finished. This one was briefly tested by the United States after WWII.)
The Tachikawa Ki-106 was developed in response to an Imperial Japanese Army request to simplify the Ki-84 “Frank” fighter minimizing use of aluminum.
Tachikawa was provided with Ki-84 blueprints from Nakajima. The Ki-106 was mostly wood and could be made by unskilled laborers. Portions could be made in little “neighborhood workshops” and then assembled at an airbase. Armament was reduced to just two guns. The prototype was assembled during the second week of August 1945 and test-flown at least once before occupation troops arrived. Above, it is in American markings after WWII in front of a B-24 Liberator.
The Ki-94-II was Tachikawa’s final project during WWII. This was to be an extremely advanced fighter, with a top speed of 443 kts. It had a pressurized cockpit and pilot oxygen system, and a ceiling of 48,150′. Armed with 30mm autocannons, it was designed to shoot down B-29 Superfortress bombers at their maximum altitude. When American troops came to Tokyo in 1945 one prototype (above) was nearly completed and a second was under construction.
Tachikawa was in a difficult position by the end of WWII. Overnight on 9 – 10 March 1945 the US Army sent 325 B-29 Superfortresses to fire-bomb Tokyo in operation “Meetinghouse”. Known as the Tokyodaikūshū in modern Japan, this air raid burned 16 miles² of the city. While the Tachikawa factory was not a specific target, “Meetinghouse” disrupted operations in the forms of lost employees and destruction of local suppliers.
During April and June of 1945, the factory itself was specifically targeted by B-29s and seriously damaged. The factory fly-away runway was made a “target within a target”, cratered so that even if Tachikawa machinery had been relocated into bunkers, completed planes would not be able to depart.
US Army occupation troops arrived at the factory on 5 September 1945, three days after WWII ended. They found it largely in ruins. During the remainder of 1945 the fly-away runway was patched up and designated Tachikawa Army Airfield.
From 1947 – 1949, some of the factory buildings were repaired and used by the US Air Force’s Far East Material Command. Meanwhile the western side of the complex, where the fly-away runway and corporate hangars had been, was made into Tachikawa AFB.
A post-WWII successor was Prince Motors, an automobile company formed by the merger of remnants of Tachikawa and Fuji Precision Industries, a successor of Nakajima. During June 1947 it set up shop in a factory located in Fuchū which during WWII had belonged to Ohta, a maker of cars and trucks.
(A ’65 Prince Gloria.)
During August 1966, Prince was bought out by Nissan.
Another offshoot which intended to return to aviation was New Tachikawa or in Japanese, Shin Tachikawa Kōkūki K.K. It was established in 1949, the same time as the “sick company” related to the WWII corporation was dissolved. In 1952 it unveiled a simple civilian airplane, the R-52. Several other designs were made as prototypes during the Korean War era.
(New Tachikawa R-53 during the mid-1950s. Despite wearing a hinomaru, it was not used by the JASDF.)
The R-53, unveiled during 1953, was an uncomplicated parasol type intended for recreational or agricultural use. Another goal was to demonstrate to the National Police Reserve (a force which existed prior to Japan formally rearming) was that New Tachikawa was capable of conceiving a design and bringing it to fruition.
Unfortunately the R-53 was a commercial flop. In 1955, New Tachikawa withdrew from aerospace and renamed itself Tachihi Group. It deals in real estate, insurance, and facilities management. As of 2022 it remains successful in these endeavors.
The company continues to use the northeast corner of the site of the WWII factory. During 2013, a R-53 was restored and is displayed in a company office.
(The Tachikawa factory complex during WWII.)
(The same site in 2022.) (image via Bing)
The eastern side, where the factory’s production facilities had been, were turned into the US Air Force’s Far East Material Command. In 1973 this area was turned over to the Japanese government for civilian redevelopment.
The western side, which had been Tachikawa AFB, closed on 30 September 1977 and was turned over to the Japanese military. The JASDF did not want it as it was felt unsafe to fly jets within the city. It was given to the JGSDF which renamed it Camp Tachikawa. It remains in use today.
Within the redeveloped eastern half, a surprising number of WWII buildings still exist; repaired by the Americans after WWII. This is in contrast to other WWII Japanese defense factories which were largely razed.
Besides the Tachihi Group, other users are Sagawa Logistics, Jamco, and Neos Corporation. There is also a basketball arena, firehouse, and a jail on the former factory grounds.
One other very tertiary aspect of WWII Japan’s aviation industry endured through the Cold War and lingers even today.
Early in WWII, the Allies had a difficult time simply describing Japanese warplanes. Besides the expected secrecy, the imperial navy and army had totally different nomenclature systems, and the IJA itself had two systems running concurrently.
Intelligence agencies of the Allies each had different numbers for enemy aircraft; and servicemen often ignored them anyways and just made up their own. For example the Ki-43 fighter was called “Land Zero” while twin-engined types were just lumped together as “Mitsubishis”. Finally there was a language issue. Even if the correct manufacturer was known, it was challenging for everybody to pronounce it the same way.
During 1942 US Army Cpt. Frank McCoy designed a system where an Allied-wide code word was assigned to each Japanese type. Fighters received male names, bombers female names, miscellaneous types tree names, and gliders bird names. Words selected were clear in English spoken with British, American, or Australian accent.
(An exception to the rule was the A6M carrier-based fighter. Intended to be “Zeke”, Americans continued to call it “Zero”. This would-be “Zeke” was tested at NAS San Diego, CA.)
This seemingly small step of creating a Japanese warplanes code name list, was phenomenally successful and useful during WWII.
Early in the Cold War, NATO grappled with similar problems regarding Soviet military systems. The general idea was resurrected and combloc aircraft, missiles, and electronics each received a reporting name. This accounts for words like “Fishbed”, “Scud”, “Acrid”, and “Hormone”; some of which lived on past the end of communism.
(This brass sign of Kawasaki Aircraft’s WWII logo survived the near-destruction of the main office at Gifu during WWII. The building is still owned by Kawasaki and the sign is still over the entrance.) (photo via shinkokunippon website)