Modeling-ABC by Wilfried Eck


Japan 1941-1945

Japanese Aircraft Colors

Ki-61 I otsu Hien from 149 Shimbu Tai (Army Kamikaze) - Photo Sreco Bradic


Aircraft Colors in General Colors  Imperial Japanese Army Colors Imperial Japanese Navy Japanese Paint Quality



In keeping with Japan's location, naval aircraft in particular were designed for range.  Fighters also for maneuverability and climbing rate, bombers for sufficient payload. However, since Japan did not have powerful engines, the required performance could only be achieved by lightweight construction, dispensing with self-sealing tanks, armor and (in the case of bombers) strong defensive armament. Although this was not yet a general standard in the West either, it was possible there to upgrade quickly when the need was recognized, while corresponding improvements in Japanese planes led to a limitation of performance. With more powerful engines, it was possible later to achieve selective improvements, but only in comparison with the predecessor model. The previous superiority was gradually lost, which was reflected in increasing losses. Later new designs were more in line with requirements, but came too late and/or were too few in number.

To describe all the types involved and their appearance would overwhelm this page. For starters, it is important to know that Japan - unlike Germany - had two separate air forces. Army and naval air forces. Since their relationship to each other was characterized by strong rivalry, there was virtually no common ground. The different requirements were already reflected in the construction and appearance of the planes. Naturally, the type designations also differed.

Imperial Japanese Navy

Aircraft carrier deployment, land based in New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Central and North Pacific



Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa (all.: "Oscar"), 25 Sentai 2.Chutai  Profile: Srecko Bradic


Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero Sen, carrier Kaga, June 1942, Profile: Srecko Bradic,  

Type designation Ki- ("Kitai") plus number indicates only the Army Office's sequential order number with no distinction between fighters, bombers, manufacturers, etc. Variant identified by Roman numeral and lower case letter.   Type designations analogous to US Navy composed of purpose, number of type ordered by manufacturer, code letter of manufacturer, no. of sub-variant if applicable. Above, shipboard fighter (A), 6th type ordered by Mitsubishi, variant 2.
The combat unit was the "Sentai" (group), consisting of three to four "Chutais" (squadrons). A wing, "Hikodan", was represented aeronautically at most by an independent staff chutai, "Sentai Hombu". In practice, by four reconnaissance chutais and four independent "hikotai" (unit without fixed number of aircraft).   Combat unit was the Air Group ("Kokutai" for a land-based unit, "Koku-Sentai" for a ship-based one), identified by name or number. Depending on the individual case, it was further subdivided into squadrons ("Hikōtai") of 18-27 (from 1944: 16) machines each. A group could also contain different types.
Typical of army machines was the colored mark on the vertical stabilizer. The basic pattern referred to the Sentai, the colors to those of the Chutais. White for 1st Chutai, red for 2nd, (some Sentais also vice versa), yellow for 3rd; green for 4th. (rarely led) as well as cobalt blue for a staff chutai (if led). The design ranged from simple colored stripes, to variations of the sentai number, to elaborate variations of a "kana" character, related to the home base, a structure, etc. - Examples below. Particularly striking was the lightning bolt of the 50th Sentai, which continued from the vertical stabilizer to the trailing edge of the wing.   Systematic markings on the vertical stabilizer. On the fin, the identification of the carrier or, in the case of land-based machines, the base of the division; designation in Latin letters and numerals, only occasionally "Kana" characters. With the following individual number the first digit showed the purpose (e.g. fighter with "1").  From mid-1943, bare numbers predominated, beginning with the number of the "Kokutai," with the first digit omitted in some cases.
    Colored bands on the vertical stabilizer identified lead aircraft within the group, those on the fuselage within the squadron,
A vertical band between the national insignia and the tailplane (called a "combat band") indicated that the aircraft was a fighting unit. One or two others indicated leadership within the Sentai or Chutai. For easier identification of own aircraft, fighter planes carried an orange-yellow stripe on the leading edge of the wing (length about 1/3 wingspan), which was even adopted by some Sentais with multi-engine aircraft.

Common to all of them was the manufacturer's plate on the rear fuselage (comparable to that of the USAAF).

Markings for carrier based aircraft until June 1942: "AI" Akagi, "AII" Kaga, "BI" Soryu, "BII" Hiryu, "CI" Hosho, "CII" Zuiho, "DI" Ryujo, "DII" Shoho, "EI" Shokagu, "EII" Zuikaku, "EIII" Zuiho

Aircraft of a "shimbu-tai" (kamikaze unit) carried their own decorations in place of the earlier ones, usually indicating the coming mission.   Markings for for land-based aircraft, related to home base, not location of operation:
    G ("Genzan") = Korea, T ("Takao"),= Formosa, K ("Kyushu") = Kyushu; S ("Chitose") = Hokkaido,
Personal markings were not common.   V ("Tainan") = Formosa; X (Newly built base at Rabaul); others: Q, U1, T2, KD, SD, U)


Colors in general:

Japan, as a country poor in raw materials, had a fundamental interest in saving materials. The plane had to have the longest possible service life. The paints applied also had to take this into account. Navy planes, since they were exposed to the influence of seawater, had to be particularly protected against corrosion. Prior priming was therefore mandatory.

Particular attention was paid to the protection of the insides. The clear varnish "Aotake" used here, with color pigments, was obtained from the sap of a tree and was better than the "zinc chromate" used in the West. Green pigments were used in the cockpit area, and blue-green in the navy. Since the metal still shone through, this gave an overall metallic impression. However, there were also cases where paint was applied.

The uniform national insignia, "Hinomaru," centered on the fuselage and on wing tops and bottoms, was blood red, not scarlet. On a dark background with a white border, on Japan-based aircraft on a white square or fuselage band.

As for the color scheme of the outer skin, the official color tables of 1938 and 1942 did show color tones, but these were in their own scheme, not based on Federal Standard 595a, RAL or other Western systems. Although they also had subdivisions, they otherwise relied on text, not letters and numbers. In the result very practicable, but only understandable who also knew the appearance of Japanese plants and other things of nature. Whoever knew what "mother-in-law's tongue" (a plant) looked like, also knew the exact shade of green. Whether this shade had an equivalent in FS 595a etc. is another question.

As a result: color designations analogous to FS 585a etc. are mostly only approximate values

To make matters worse, documents on the actual application are no longer available and the decentralization of production was also reflected in the application of the paints. The respective manufacturer received from his subcontractors ready-assembled individual components provided with protective paint, so that "only" the outer skin had to be painted after installation of all components. This, however, was at the discretion of the manufacturer. An A6M Zero produced under license by Nakajima had a more yellowish dark green than that of Mitsubishi, the dividing line of upper and lower side color (light gray) ran in an arc to the tailplane in the case of Nakajima, and in a straight line to the tail light in the case of Mitsubishi. Overall, I would advise against any dogma. Which color(s) a particular machine actually had could only be determined beyond doubt by looking at the original machine, fresh from the factory.

In model making, the scale effect must not be disregarded. An original color only looks right on the original. This is due to the light refraction of the pigments. In 1:24 the color tone already appears too dark, even more so in smaller scales. Lightening would only be possible with a related, lighter shade, which poses an additional problem. As a result, since the original color tone can rarely be determined exactly, the yardstick should not be set too high.

For color details, see links at the end of the section.


Colors Imperial Japanese Army:

Japanese army colors are a complicated issue. There was no central authority that determined what army aircraft should look like. Each "Sentai" (group) oriented itself according to its own ideas. In addition to the universal color of dark green, other shades were used depending on the area of operation and type. As a result, color variations were the rule, not the exception.

Ki-43 Hayabusa (all.: "Oscar"), 25 Sentai 1 Chutai
Nakajima Ki-44 II ko Shoki (all.: "Tojo") 85 Sentai, 3 Chutai
Ki-45 Toryu (all.: "Nick"), Sentai ?
Ki-46, 19.Hikodan Chutai Ki-43, 248.Sentai Hombu Ki-45Kai, 53.Sentai, 1.Chutai Ki-67, 14.Sentai, 3.Chutai Ki-84, 102 Sentai, 1 Chutai

Fighter planes:
Fighter planes were initially popular in natural metal, without topcoat. However, the original idea of being highly visible to challenge the enemy to combat proved to be disadvantageous, as the aircraft was easily spotted on the ground as enemy air attacks increased. Camouflage was the order of the day if aircraft were not to be lost unnecessarily. The respective pattern was oriented to the place of operation (small-scale when trees offered cover, striped when palm trees were present, otherwise according to the ground). Bare spots supported the light-dark effect and were a deliberate part of the camouflage, not paint damage, as is unfortunately often claimed (see page "Bad Japanese paints?").

The paint application could be done deliberately by hand to achieve the desired effect.

From about the fall of 1943, dark green topsides and light gray undersides became common (night fighters also very dark green or black). But this did not exclude a Ki-84 Hayate (all.: Frank) in natural metal or other colors in 1945.

In principle, the painting of Japanese fighter aircraft developed in four stages:
  • Natural metal (early period).
  • Narrow curved small stripes in dark green, hand painted or sprayed.
  • Sprayed pattern, spots or stripes.
  • Solid colored upper sides (mostly dark green), undersides greenish gray (night fighters very dark green or black).
Multi-engine planes (reconnaissance, night fighters, bombers):

lways in protective or camouflage paint. This was dependent on the color of the mission area. The result was a color palette that ranged from solid green-gray to color combinations to the taste of the Sentai. Spots, stripes, larger fields, whatever seemed appropriate. The color palette here was very wide, On the other hand, the reconnaissance Ki-46 ("Dinah) was mostly monochrome, but often in unusual color. This short introductory page would be far too much to show all the variations that were used for lack of standardization.
Kawasaki Ki-48 (all.: "Lily"), Sentai ?
Ki-87 57 Shimbu-Tai (Kamikaze, Profile Srecko Bradic)
Mitsubishi Ki-21 (Typ 97, "Sally")


Colors Imperial Japanese Navy:

Compared with the color spectrum of the Japanese army plain simplicity.

A6M2 Zero in early paint scheme
A6M3 Zero, "Tainan"-Air Group (marking retouched), date unclear
J1N1-S Gekko (all.: Irving), 1945
A6M fighters, D3A dive bombers:
  • A6M2 fighters and D3A dive bombers stationed on board: greenish light gray*, hood black (D3A with glare shield); lettering on vertical stabilizer in red. Since the clearcoat "Aotake" was not lightfast, this probably explains the various tints found later.
  • Always: Orange-yellow identification stripe on the leading edge of the wing, length approx. 1/3 wingspan.
  • A6M3, D3A land stationed: As before, lettering in black. Text on the fuselage sides indicates the sponsor.
  • Propeller and spinner of aircraft destined for aircraft carriers natural metal, orange-yellow stripes at tips. On land-based propellers reddish brown.
  • After June 1942: Since only stationed ashore, camouflage required. The previous paint scheme is painted over in dark green by hand, as seen on A6M3 No. 105 flown by Hiroyoshi Nishizawa in the photo below left (The "V" of the "Tainan" group censored). Note the cockpit frames left free of paint. - For paint damage, see below.
  • From 1943 on: Dark green over greenish light gray with black motor cowl.
  • From March 1944 a very dark dark green, cowl in the same color.
  • From the fall of 1944, bare undersides could be seen on fighters designed only for land operations. The reason for this was a shortage of materials due to a lack of oil supplies.
B5N Horizontal bomber and all other types:  
Factory-applied reddish-brown primer* and protective paint in dark green for topsides, greenish light gray for undersides. Land-based bombers G3M ("Nell") initially often still with brown fields (inherited from the war in China), also sometimes early G4M ("Betty"). Later as usual.  
* A bare spot on one flying boat shows that the factory had to skimp on the primer, but that doesn't mean poor quality topcoat.
A6M5c Zero, 201 Air Group (Profile: Srecko Bradic)
Aichi D3A ("Val") "Akagi" Group
Nakajima B5N ("Kate"), unit unknown
G4M ("Betty") from home base Kyushu (letter "K").

In summary: in the Navy, a uniform system for colors and markings; in the Army, a variety of colors and markings.

Recommended literature:  
History Japanese lacquer works:
Lacquer "Urishi":
Quality of Japanese lacquers:
Protection lacquer "Aotake" I:
Protection lacquer"Aotake" II :

Japanese Colours in general:

Colors Japanese Army, Navy:
Color table Army, Navy:
Color table IPMS Stockholm (FS 595a color shades)
Japanese color hues and Federal Standard 595a:
A6M Zero colors in detail:
A6M5 Zero colors (incl. gray-green)
Early A6M2 colours:
Special thanks to Mark Davies and Petr Buchar  


Japanese paint quality, bad or good?


Some modelers believe Japanese aircraft paints to have been of poor quality.  Photos and illustrations with comments stating Japanese paint peeling off easily makes it easy to believe such comments. Yet there are plenty of photos of Japanese aircraft with in pristine paint condition. So where does the truth about Japanese paint quality lie?

Because of text and the necessary photos the present page would become too long. See page "Bad Japanese paint?."