Japan is a leading force in the cause of peace today, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have an impressive array of fighter jets. As one of the best in the world when it comes to aeronautical engineering, Japan has been able to develop, adapt, and buy some of the world’s best jets. Here are some of the best Japanese fighter jets.

Since WWII, Japan’s government hasn’t had nearly the same kind of single-minded social needs-ignoring focus on military spending, including jets. This has opened the doors for foreign contractors, especially those in America, to build and sell them fighter jets. 

In a testament to how far we’ve come since WWII, America and Japan are now two of the world’s biggest trading partners, which extends to defense contracting. As a result, several Japanese jets in the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force are American-made by Lockheed Martin and McDonnell Douglas.

Japanese Air Self Defense Force maintainers work on a F 15J fighter
Editorial Team Japanese Air Self Defense Force maintainers work on a F 15J fighter

That said, Japanese manufacturing giants such as Mitsubishi still do a considerable amount of contracting work for their air force.

With tensions between Japan, North Korea and China escalating, Japan’s air defense capabilities have been thrust into the international spotlight. Given that context, let’s take an in-depth look at six of the most prominent Japanese jet fighters in the JASDF.

0. Japan’s Unnamed New Fighter Jet

new japanese fighter jet
Japan Ministry of Defense New Japanese fighter jet

Japan’s ministry of defense has recently announced a timeline for the development of a new stealth fighter jet intended to replace the aging Mitsubishi F-2. Not many details are known yet, except that it will enter production in 2031.

The contractor will be selected by October 2020, and construction of the new Japanese made fighter should commence by 2024. The aircraft should join the Japan Air Self Defense Force by 2035 according to the Japanese ministry of defense.

The development comes after the United States recently decided to ban exports of the Lockheed Martin F-22 to keep the technology out of the hands of rival nations. Japan had planned on purchasing a number of F-22s to replace their aging F-15s.

1. Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II

F 35A Lightning II
Editorial Team F 35A Lightning II

This is one of the newest additions to Japan’s air force, and one of the newest fighters produced by Lockheed Martin and sold to Japan in 2016.

This fighter jet makes our list because of its newness as well as its unique stealth capabilities. The aircraft was designed to be the first supersonic stealth jet fighter. Its experienced years of testing difficulties, with its first test flight taking place all the way back in 2006.

Japan’s postwar constitution, adopted in 1947, placed severe restrictions on military conduct, and affirmed its commitment to pacifism. 

As a result, Japan has not flown military combat missions in decades.

However, the F-35 has recently seen its first combat. The Israeli Defense Force used F-35s for airstrikes in Syria in May 2018, while the United States Air Force used them for anti-ISIS missions in 2019.

2. McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II

McDonnell Douglas RF 4EJ Kai Phantom II Japan Air Force
Toshi Aoki McDonnell Douglas RF 4EJ Kai Phantom II Japan Air Force

Whereas the F-35 is one of the newest aircraft in Japan’s air force, the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II is one of the oldest. This fighter jet has been in service since the late 1960s.

The F-4 has seen a great deal of combat service for other nations. It was flown on the United States side in the Vietnam War, by the Israelis during the Yom Kippur War, and by the Iranians in the Iran-Iraq War.

Despite their age, they are used as training planes. Interestingly, despite the fact that it is decades older than the F-35, the F-4 Phantom II is actually faster than the newer model, with a max speed of Mach 2.23 vs. Mach 1.61 for the F-35.

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The F-4s are being phased out in favor of the F-35, with the JASDF’s 302nd Squadron set to complete the phase-out in 2020.

3. Mitsubishi F-2

Mitsubishi F 2 in flight
Editorial Team Mitsubishi F-2 in flight

The F-2, nicknamed the “Viper Zero,” is Japan’s most prominent nationally-produced fighter aircraft, and has been a staple of the JASDF since the mid-90s.

It has often drawn comparisons to the American-made AF-16. On the whole, it the F-2 is larger. Its wingspan is 25% larger, it has a larger tailplane, and a longer, wider nose.

The plane’s max speed varies depending on its altitude. The F-2 can reach speeds of Mach 2 while cruising at high altitudes and Mach 1.1 at lower altitudes. 

The F-2s are used for airspace patrol work. In 2013, Japan detected two wayward Russian jets entering their airspace, and four F-2s were scrambled, demanding they leave. 

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4. Mitsubishi F-15J

Japanese F 15
Editorial Team Japanese F 15

This version of the vaunted F-15J has been a staple of the Japanese since production first began in 1975. Early in its history, it was seen as a potential replacement for the F-4 Phantom II. A total of 223 F-15Js were produced for use by the JASDF.

By 1981, these aircraft were part of the 202nd Tactical Fighter Squadron. In the wake of the Soviets accidentally shooting down commercial flight KAL007 on 1 September 1983, further plans were made for their operational use.

Japanese Air Self Defense Force work on F 15J
Editorial Team Japanese Air Self Defense Force work on F 15J

They remained part of the JASDF repertoire for decades. By 2018, however, these Japanese fighter jets were considered obsolete.

It is here that the strong trade relationship between America and Japan becomes apparent. Japan has considered selling the craft to America, who would then sell them to other allies with weaker air forces.

5. Kawasaki T-4

Kawasaki T-4 Japan
Editorial Team Kawasaki T-4 Japan

This supersonic aircraft was first produced in the mid-80s as a training aircraft. It continues to be used in that capacity to this day. The T-4 is one of the most commonly-used training aircraft in the JASDF, with more than a dozen squadrons still using it.

While Japan’s air force has not flown in combat for decades, that does not take away from their incredible skill, both of which are on display with the Kawasaki T-4.

In Japan fighter jets skills are displayed to the world via their Blue Impulse team of pilots who, like America’s Blue Angels, are able to pull off amazingly aerobatic maneuvers and formations. 

The T-4 has been used by the Blue Impulse Team since 1995.

6. Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin

Mitsubishi X 2 Shinshin
Editorial Team Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin

Finally, there’s this still-experimental craft. The Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin was taken for its first test flight in 2016, and is still in the testing stage.

Its full name is the Mitsubishi ATD-X Shinshin. The “ATD-X” stands for “Advanced Technology Demonstrator-X,” while “Shinshin” roughly translates to “one’s mind” in Japanese.

The Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin is intended to be a stealth jet fighter. While the F-35 is a new jet, it is American-made, and some reports have indicated that Japan would like its own model so as not to rely on foreign imports to cover that military need.

With China and Russia stepping up their radar systems, the need for more advanced stealth fighters is all the greater. 

Other intended features include a 3D thrust and specialized radar which will make use of electronic scanning array technology via a “Multifunction RF Sensor.”

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