ABOVE: Howa produces the Minimi 5.56mm light machine gun under license. This weapon fitted with an older optical sight is being used by a Japanese paratrooper.
The Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) is charged with defending Japan and its territories. Founded in 1954 in the wake of World War II, it is the largest service in the Japan Self-Defense Force. At last count the JGSDF had 150,863 soldiers, and could call upon 54,075 reserves if required.
The JGSDF has been undergoing deep and far-reaching changes as it plays catch-up in the transition from the Cold War to a period of regional and asymmetric threats. Whereas once the greatest danger came from an invasion by the Soviet Union, now the most dire threats emanate from a belligerent North Korea armed with ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads, as well as an increasingly assertive China that has been testing Tokyo’s resolve over sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
The transformation of the JGSDF thus revolves around the ability to quickly move units around the country to respond to any threat, especially in the southwestern islands. That requires brigades that are mobile and readily deployable.
Japan has an extensive defense industry and it is able to cater to most of the JGSDF’s needs in terms of small arms. Some weapons are designed and manufactured locally, whereas others are foreign designs that Japan has chosen to produce under license. The following sections outline the main small arms used by regular infantry units of the JGSDF.
This 9 mm pistol is a license-produced version of the Sig Sauer P220, which was adopted by the JGSDF in 1982. Made by MinebeaMitsumi (formerly Minebea Co., Ltd.), a company specializing in ball bearing manufacturing, it has a nine-round magazine. Typically issued to officers, it is carried in a leather holster. More recently it has been carried in a black-colored carbon-fiber thigh holster. The Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) also use this sidearm.
M9 9mm Machine Pistol
The JGSDF refers to this weapon as the M9, but not many people use this nomenclature so it is more commonly referred to as the 9 mm Machine Pistol. Introduced in 1999, it is distributed to elite units such as the 1st Airborne Brigade, 12th Brigade and Western Army Infantry Regiment (WAIR), as well as non-frontline troops such as drivers and artillery crews. The M9 is also used by the JASDF (including air base guard units) and JMSDF (it is carried on warships and submarines).
Manufactured by MinebeaMitsumi and designed to replace the ageing M3, the M9 is based on the Israeli Mini Uzi. However, Minebea designed its blowback shooting principle, plus it differs in that there is a foregrip under the barrel. It features a flash hider and telescoping bolt. Original weapons had wooden pistol and foregrips, but later ones changed to plastic.
The M9 is 399 mm long (of which the barrel is a mere 120 mm) and it weighs 2.8 kilograms. The machine pistol fires 9 x 19 mm rounds from a 25-round magazine.
Its range is listed as 100 meters but, as one Japanese paratrooper told Small Arms Defense Journal during a recent exercise, it is not accurate and is only good for spraying fire. Certainly, its rapid 1,100 rounds-per-minute rate and the lack of a shoulder stock greatly affect its accuracy. This all explains why the JGSDF has been considering a replacement for some time now.
Type 89 5.56mm Assault Rifle
Made by Howa Machinery, Ltd, the Type 89 is the standard assault rifle of JGSDF soldiers. It replaced Howa’s 7.62 mm Type 64 rifle upon its introduction in 1989. Representing Japan’s first move to a 5.56 mm-caliber rifle, it costs much less than its predecessor due to 10 percent fewer parts than the Type 64.
The Type 89 bears certain similarities to the Armalite AR-18, which Howa once produced. The gas-operated rifle uses forged aluminum and molded thermoset plastics to reduce weight and improve fit. There is a folding bipod that soldiers can easily detach. Weighing 3.5 kilograms unloaded, it is suitable for Japanese soldiers whose physique might be lighter than that of the average Westerner.
Due to strict export laws regarding military equipment, the 920 mm long Type 89 has never been exported. The barrel is 420 mm long, and its rate of fire is 850 rounds per minute at a muzzle velocity of 920 m/s. Its effective range is 500 meters.
As well as the rifle with standard fixed buttstock (which boasts a storage compartment inside), a shorter Type 89-F version with folding tubular stock is available for troops such as paratroopers, tankers and mortar crews. When folded, the Type 89-F is 670 mm long.
Ensuring interoperability with allies such as the U.S., this rotating-bolt weapon fires a 5.56 x 45 mm round. Indeed, it can accept magazines designed for the M16 family, although the Type 89’s 30-round magazine has a specially shaped follower that holds the bolt open after the last round is fired. Soldiers complain its magazines are not easy to reload because the magazine well is not beveled or tapered. A bayonet can be fitted.
There is a flip-up aperture rear sight, while the selector switch offers settings for safe, auto, three-round burst and semiauto. Some soldiers serving in Iraq added a red dot sight such as the MD-33 from Tasco Optics Japan. Removable foregrips were added to some Type 89 rifles by troops serving in Iraq but this is now prohibited by the JGSDF because it caused damage.
Type 06 rifle grenades that attach to the muzzle can be fired from either Type 89 or 64 rifles. Made by Daikin Industries, the JGSDF opted for this type of grenade rather than the M203. The Type 06’s development kicked off in 2002 and it entered service four years later. It has a HEAT warhead for use against armor, and if the contact fuse fails to detonate, it has a second time fuse to ensure self-destruction.
At this stage there seems to be no desire to get rid of the Type 89 rifle, but the government has explored future modifications. As part of its Advanced Combat Infantry Equipment System (ACIES), a modified carbine version of the Type 89 appeared around 2010. It measured 800 mm long and had a four-sided rail and polymer retractable stock. This work by the Technical Research and Development Institute also spawned a full-length rifle with extendable buttstock and rail system. In a prototype publicized in 2015, there appeared an under-barrel digital interface on a foregrip, while a massive NEC infrared sight incorporating a ranging device and video camera was mounted on top. This included a flip-out video screen so soldiers could shoot round corners, for example. However, it appears that development work on ACIES may have halted as no new information has appeared in the past couple of years.
Type 64 7.62mm Battle Rifle
The Type 64 battle rifle preceded the Type 89, though it can still be found in reserve or second-line units since there are not enough newer rifles to go around. Development commenced in 1957 when the JGSDF was dependent on 7.62 x 51 mm cartridges, and it uses a 20-round detachable box magazine. When introduced, Howa’s Type 64 replaced the in-service M1 Garand. However, its overcomplicated design led to reliability problems.
Each round uses 10 percent less powder charge in order to reduce recoil and muzzle climb and make it more manageable for Japanese soldiers. Another feature is a large muzzle brake. The Type 64’s muzzle velocity is 715 m/s, making it more controllable on full auto.
It uses a tilting bolt and a short-stroke gas piston located above the barrel. The stock has a hinged butt plate to enhance accuracy. A manual external gas regulator controls its cyclic rate, and there is a setting available for firing normal 7.62 x 51 mm NATO rounds. Open sights are mounted on folding posts, while the rear sight has settings for 200 meters and 400 meters.
A 2.2x scope (e.g. an M84 or local equivalent) can be fitted to convert the Type 64 into a designated marksman rifle, but the scope’s attachment with a single screw is problematic.
Even though it was produced until 1988, the Type 64 is definitely geriatric. It is heavy, too, at 4.4 kilograms (without bipod or magazine). It measures 990 mm long and has a 450 mm barrel. Its rate of fire is 500 rounds per minute, and the maximum effective range is 400 meters.
7.62mm Sniper Rifle
The standard bolt-action sniper rifle is the 7.62 mm M24 Sniper Weapon System from Remington. It is used by snipers, the 1st Airborne Brigade, Special Forces Group and the Special Boarding Unit.
Minimi 5.56mm Light Machine Gun
This famous FN Herstal weapon is another one produced under license in Japan. In this case, Sumitomo Heavy Industries has manufactured it since 1979. It was designed to replace the Type 62 machine gun.
Type 62 7.62mm General-Purpose Machine Gun
Produced by Sumitomo, the Type 62 is an air-cooled machine gun of 7.62 x 51mm caliber. Although it has been largely supplanted by the much lighter Minimi, it can still be seen in JGSDF units. Development commenced in 1954 and it was formally adopted in February 1962. However, production models suffered reliability problems that cause it to jam too often.
The Type 62 weighs 10.7 kilograms without a bipod, and it is 1.2-meters long, of which 546 mm is the quick-detachable barrel. Its rate of fire is listed as 650 rounds per minute. With a bipod fitted, the maximum effective range is 1,500 meters, and for sustained fire a tripod is available.
The weapon uses a long-stroke gas piston positioned beneath the barrel. The extraction system is unusual in that it employs a solid claw-shaped hook above the breech face instead of a more common spring-loaded hook extractor. The Type 62 is belt fed from the left side. A three-times scope from Fuji is available for this weapon that only fires on full auto.
The Type 74 7.62 mm machine gun from Sumitomo is a variant of the Type 62. It is used as a coaxial machine gun on armored fighting vehicles and can be door-mounted on helicopters. It is 1.085-meters long and weighs 20.4 kilograms.
M2HB 12.7mm Heavy Machine Gun
As well as the Minimi, Sumitomo also produces the M2 heavy machine gun under license. Production started pretty much in line with the formation of the JGSDF.
Type 96 40mm Automatic Grenade Launcher
The Type 96 automatic grenade launcher, produced by Howa, can be fitted on vehicles (most commonly on the Type 96 Wheeled Armored Personnel Carrier) or on a tripod as a dismounted weapon.
It weighs 24.5 kilograms and is 975-mm long. The barrel measures 454 mm and the weapon can fire 250-350 rounds per minute using the blow-forward principle. While this principle contributed to a reduction in weight, the Type 96’s reliability is regarded as insufficient. The Type 96’s maximum range is 1,500 meters, with the 40 x 56 mm grenades fed on 50-round belts. The operator uses a ladder sight to aim.
Those anti-armor weapons available to the JGSDF are Saab’s 84 mm Carl Gustaf recoilless rifle (made under license by Howa) and the 110 mm Panzerfaust 3 license-built by Nissan/IHI Aerospace. The JGSDF used the Carl Gustaf M2 but it eventually became ineffective against third-generation tanks. The Panzerfaust 3 was therefore introduced to reinforce the antitank capability of infantry units. The Panzerfaust 3 is known as the Light Anti-armor Munition (LAM) in the JGSDF.
When the JGSDF was allotted guerrilla, commando and peacekeeping missions, the service reevaluated the multipurpose capability of the Carl Gustaf, as it can shoot HEAT, HE, smoke and illumination rounds. The JGSDF therefore introduced the M3 in 2012 and it is deployed preferentially to the WAIR and 1st Airborne Brigade.
Mortars include the 120 mm-caliber towed 120 RT from TDA Armements. Produced by Howa Machinery since 1992, this heavy mortar is typically towed behind a Toyota 4×4 HMV.
The most common mortar is the 81 mm L16 license-built by Howa since 1992. It replaced the Type 64 of 81 mm caliber. More recently the JGSDF has started to field the 60 mm M6C-210 light mortar from Hirtenberger Defence Systems. Small numbers have been fielded by the WAIR.
JGSDF special forces keep a low profile, and they use a range of additional small arms. Types known to be in use include the Heckler & Koch USP pistol, MP7 machine pistol and G36 and HK417 rifles, plus the M4 carbine, FN SCAR, M203 grenade launcher and M32A1 multishot grenade launcher.