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Japanese Aircraft 1910—1941

25 August 2022

Japanese Aircraft 1910—1941, Robert C. Mikesh & Shorzoe Abe, 1990, ISBN 1-55750-563-2, 293 pp.

Front cover and the right side of Keith Woodcocks painting of IJN Soryu’s Mitsubishi A5M4 Claude fighters in 1939 over the East China Sea
Back cover and the left side of Keith Woodcocks painting of IJN Soryu’s Mitsubishi A5M4 Claude fighters in 1939 over the East China Sea

Japan defeated the Russian Navy surprisingly as well as spectacularly in 1905 (Battle of Tsushima Strait) and set a course to be a world power. Japan chose to do so by emulating the colonizing done by western powers in the previous centuries beginning with the invasion of Korea in 1910. This was closely followed in 1937 by invading a portion of China (Manchuria)—the Second Sino-Japanese War—but now largely accepted as the beginning of World War II (WW II). This “Asia for Asians” strategy of forceful country invasions by Japan would, of course, lead Japan into World War II (WW II) where she proceeded to invade Burma, Malaysia, the Philippines and other West Pacific island territories—beginning with the attack on the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor. 

Japan strove to keep pace with aviation development during this time and remarkably so by building aircraft under license (e.g., Kawasaki-Dornier’s Wal flying boat) as well as developing aircraft of original design. Eventually creating a few aircraft which were among the best of their types during World War II—e.g., the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, the Kawanishi H8K Emily, and the Yokosuka D4Y Suisei Judy. These are the later aircraft models than addressed in this book, but what of the designs which preceded them? Were there many? Were they interesting? Was there a thriving aviation industry with more than the three manufacturers just mentioned?

These question are difficult to answer using English language based sources but, once again, Robert Mikesh has stepped up and polished this hidden facet of aviation’s history. In his spare time serving in the U.S. Air Force while station in Japan for seven years he also studied Japan’s aviation history thoroughly and made vital personal connections. Much of his study culminated in Japan’s Aircraft 1910-1941 which he co-authored with Shorzoe Abe (an aeronautical engineer who was on the editing board for Tadashi Nozawa’s native Japanese language premier eight volume history, Encyclopedia of Japanese Aircraft 1900-1945).

Fortunately, Japanese Aircraft 1910-1941 is much more brief than Nozawa’s epic work since it comes in at a more easily digestible 293 pages. But these 293 pages of wonderful and insightful material are packed with images, data and descriptions. The format of Japanese Aircraft 1910-1941 will be familiar and comforting to readers of Janes All the World’s Aircraft in Service.

Leafing and perusing through this book is perhaps the best way to absorb its material. Given this period of aviation history is all but ignored in western media there are many surprises easily discovered in Japanese Aircraft 1910-1941.  A few of them are:

  • The number of aircraft design firms which number well over the handful made famous for their  WW II aircraft.
  • Aircraft were shipped to Japan from many countries.
  • Japan’s aviation industry had advanced sufficiently to design an ultra long distance aircraft beginning as early as 1932—the Gasuden Koken Long-range Research Aircraft which had several advanced features for the time.
  • The number of floatplane and seaplane designs is astounding.
  • Japan employed German aircraft firms for some of its military aircraft (e.g., the Ki-20 derived from the Junkers G 38)  in 1928—helping both Japan and Germany to prepare for initiating war. 

Thankfully the authors explain the naming system of the Imperial Japanese Army as well as the Imperial Japanese Navy. There are also four appendices which are especially helpful:

  • A list of WW II Japanese aircraft employed in the Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO)
  • Calendar conversion dates from Japan’s imperial calendar to the Gregorian calendar for the aircraft type numbers
  • As well as a compete bibliography as well as glossary.

Mikesh sagely optimized Japanese Aircraft 1910-1941 to address that country’s aircraft designs up to the onset of the attack on Pearl Harbor, bringing the U.S. into WW II—though aircraft employed by the Imperial Japanese forces in the 1937 invasion of China are included. But why? Well, for good reason in that both authors recognize René Francillon’s book Japanese Aircraft of the Pacific War as the signal publication for this phase of Japan’s aviation history. Obviously this is an excellent reference book for anyone with interests in Japanese aviation as well as the years between WW I and those leading into WW II.

Leaving no detail of presentation forgotten, the book’s cover wraps from the front all the way around to include the back as a marvelous copy of an original Keith Woodcock painting. It shows a pair of Mitsubishi A5M4 Claude fighters which were assigned to the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Soryu while flying a mission over the East Chine Sea in 1939.

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