Japan isn’t particularly known for its firearms and defense industry, yet in 2022 they were the world’s 39th largest weapons exporter, and the world’s 7th largest weapons importer. In fact, many of the top companies and conglomerates in Japan, including Nissan, Mitsubishi, Yamaha, Kawasaki, Subaru, Hitachi, Toshiba, and Daikin are making everything from rifles to anti-tank missiles.
Japan’s annual military spending is the tenth highest in the world, so defense is a booming industry. However, when it comes to civilian firearm manufacturing in Japan, the field is much narrower. As private gun ownership and weapons exports are heavily restricted, as of 2023 there are only two Japanese companies making firearms for private use.
In this article we’ll introduce six top firearms and ammunition producers in Japan and explore their most popular weapons.
Howa Machinery was founded in 1907, as Toyoda Loom Company, by Sakichi Toyoda. Sakichi Toyoda, who invented the automatic power loom, is highly regarded as the father of Japan’s industrial revolution, and one of Japan’s greatest inventors. In the early 1930s, Toyoda Loom Company started progressing away from the textiles industry, into two separate directions. Sakichi Toyoda's son, Kiichiro, successfully petitioned his father to develop an automobile department, and around the same time, with Japan expanding into Asia and the potential for large-scale war becoming more and more a possibility, they began receiving contracts from the Imperial Japanese government to produce armaments.
In 1937, Toyoda’s automobile department was spun-off as an independent company, Toyota Motor Corporation. Toyota’s first car, the Toyota AA started production in 1936, but they only produced around 1,400 of them before being appropriated by the Imperial Government to produce trucks for the war effort. Toyota wouldn't make another passenger vehicle until 1952, but has since become one of the most recognizable automobile brands worldwide.
Meanwhile, as Toyoda continued to advance in the automobile industry, they also made great strides in the defense industry. In 1941, after Toyota Motor Corporation had already detached from Toyoda Loom Company, Toyoda Loom merged with another Japanese weapons company, and changed their name to Howa Heavy Industries. Throughout the second world war, they continued to produce much of Japan's firearms and artillery.
At the end of the second world war, in accordance with the Potsdam Declaration, Howa Heavy Industries was forced to cease manufacturing weapons, and returned to their roots in the textile industry. But then in 1952, with the outbreak of the Korean War, the US government requested that Howa begin producing hand grenades, 91mm mortars, and bombs for the US military.
In the 1960s, Howa entered the civilian firearms market, and started producing a range of extremely popular sporting and hunting rifles. In particular, the Howa Golden Bear, a .308 Winchester bolt-action hunting rifle, which is still a very sought-after gun in the United States. A modified Howa Golden Bear, chambered in .30-06 Springfield and equipped with a Brushnell scope, was the first high-powered sniper rifle to be issued to police forces across Japan, after a series of unsuccessful hostage rescue attempts forced them to reconsider their handgun-only policy.
Howa also continues to make many of the weapons carried by the Japanese Self-Defense Force, including the Type 89, which is the standard-issue assault rifle of the JGSDF. The Type 89, loosely based on the design of an Armalite AR-18, is a 5.56 mm-caliber rifle made specifically to match the needs of Japanese soldiers.
One interesting gun produced by Howa is their honor guard gun, a ceremonial rifle which has been used by Japan's esteemed military honor guard (pictured below) since 2017, when it replaced the M1 Garand. The honor guard gun is a single-shot bolt-action rifle with affixed bayonet, which doesn't emphasize accuracy or effectiveness as a weapon, but instead emphasizes aesthetic appearance and ease-of-use. Its vivid red wooden body, snow-white sling, and black sights and barrel all look fantastic alongside the honor guard's red, white and black uniform.
Japan's honor guard is a unit of the 302nd Security Police Company of the JGSDF, they perform ceremonies welcoming heads of state, official guests, and high-ranking officials from foreign countries. Requirements to join the honor guard are especially strict. Each member must be no shorter than 170cm, and no taller than 180cm. They must be no lighter than 60kg, and no heavier than 70kg. The official criteria also states they must be good-looking, have strong physical and mental endurance, and pass a grueling training system.
Miroku is the second of the two Japanese gun makers that manufacture civilian firearms. What’s special about Miroku is that they’re likely the only company in Japan that makes gun manufacturing their core business. In addition to that, they’re the only company on the list that doesn’t produce military or police firearms, they’re strictly a civilian gun manufacturer.
Miroku's story is a little bit complicated, and there seems to be some confusion about just who they are and what they do. They were founded in the 1890s in rural Kochi Prefecture to produce hunting guns, however they never saw much commercial success until the early 1930s, when they began producing harpoon guns for Japan's resurging whaling industry. Following the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951, when weapons restrictions on Japan were lifted, Miroku once again shifted toward producing hunting guns. In particular, they produced over-and-under shotguns based on the Browning B25. Their shotguns proved to be enormously popular, both in Japan and abroad. When Browning executives visited Japan, with the goal of enforcing their copyright and forcing Miroku to stop producing copies of their guns, they toured the Miroku factory and were impressed with the quality and craftsmanship. Instead of forcing Miroku to shut down production, they signed a licensing agreement, and Miroku began producing Browning guns legitimately.
When Browning was bought by the regional government of Wallonia in Belgium, and placed under control of the enormous firearms and defense conglomerate Herstal Group and their weapons manufacturing company FN Herstal, Miroku was able to secure a similar licensing agreement with Winchester, which is also under the Herstal umbrella. Now, most of the Winchester and Browning shotguns and rifles sold around the world are actually made by Miroku in Kochi, Japan. Miroku also makes their own Miroku-branded guns using Winchester and Browning designs, which are typically made using higher quality materials and craftsmanship, but sold at a lower price.
MinebeaMitsumi is another Japanese gun maker with an interesting origin story. Its story starts with Kijiro Nambu, who was born to a samurai father in the Saga domain in 1869. Nambu joined the Imperial Japanese Army as a young man, and was assigned to work directly under Nariakira Arisaka, the inventor of Japan's most famous gun, the Arisaka rifle (the standard-issue Japanese military rifle from 1897-1961).
Under Arisaka, Nambu helped design various versions of the Arisaka rifle, including the highly collectible Type 99, and eventually began designing his own weapons, including the Type 3 Heavy Machine Gun, the Type 11 Light Machine Gun, and an 8mm semi-automatic pistol. After retiring from the military as a Lieutenant General in 1924, he founded the Nambu Arms Manufacturing Company, which was absorbed into MinebeaMitsumi after his death.
Nambu is now considered, alongside Nariakira Arisaka, to be one of Japan’s most prolific weapons designers. The standard-issue police sidearm carried by officers in Japan, the New Nambu M60, a .38 special double-action revolver, was named after him.
MinebeaMitsumi produces a range of firearms for the Japanese military and police forces, including a domestic version of the Sig Sauer P220 9mm pistol, and the PM9, a version of the Mini Uzi machine pistol (pictured below).
Sumitomo Heavy Industries
In 1630, Sumitomo Masatomo, a Buddhist monk, left the monastic life to open a bookshop called Fujiya in Kyoto. Over the next 400 years, what started as a little bookshop near Kiyomizu-dera grew into one of the largest corporate groups in the world: The Sumitomo Group. The Sumitomo Group is composed of many large corporations including: Dunlop, Fujifilm, NEC, Sega (until 2004), and the Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group (the 10th largest company in Japan).
Sumitomo Heavy Industries began in 1888 by making heavy machinery for the Besshi Copper Mine, which at the time was Sumitomo Group's main income provider. They're famous for building the world's largest ever ship, the Seawise Giant, in 1979. A record which still hasn't been broken. They also produce excavators and other heavy construction equipment, laser systems, and semiconductor machinery. But we’re here to talk about their lesser-known products: guns.
Sumitomo Heavy Industries have been producing machine guns and warships for the JSDF since as far back as 1962 - perhaps further, but public information about the company's weapons program is limited. In 1962, Sumitomo developed the Type 62 light machine gun, firing .22 caliber rounds, to fill an infantry support role for the Japanese military. This has largely been replaced by the Sumitomo MINIMI (more on that later), but the Type 62 is still used in a medium machine gun role, when mounted to vehicles and chambered in .30 caliber. Sumitomo also makes the JSDF's go-to heavy machine gun, the .50 caliber Sumitomo J2 - which is a Japan-made version of the M2 Browning made under license from FN Herstal.
The Sumitomo MINIMI (pictured below), is also made under license from FN Herstal, and is currently the JSDF’s favored light machine gun. Sumitomo Heavy Industries have slightly modified the design of the FN Minimi to better suit Japanese soldiers and JSDF tactics and practice. Two such modifications include Sumitomo's version having a stock constructed out of steel pipe, and a heat-shield attached to the barrel.
Daikin is known mostly for their air conditioners, and today they’re the second largest air conditioner manufacturer in the world by market cap (second only to Samsung). When people learn that Daikin also produces ammunition, artillery shells, and grenades at their Osaka plant they might begin to think: “Did an air conditioner company realize it was profitable to start making explosive weapons too?" but that's not the case. In reality, an explosive weapons company realized it was profitable to start making air conditioners.
In fact, Daikin’s first air conditioners were developed as a way to keep their bombs cool on submarines and warships and prevent premature explosion. Rumor has it that the battleship Yamato was nicknamed “Yamato Hotel” because the whole ship was luxuriously air-conditioned to keep armaments at ideal temperatures. Daikin developing and manufacturing air conditioners to keep their explosives at the right temperature allowed them to survive by selling consumer air conditioning units when the war ended and weapons manufacturing was forced to a halt.
Today, air conditioning makes up over 90% of Daikin’s sales, and they really don’t like to make their Defense Systems Business department public. They rarely talk about it in their press releases or official accounts, and they've scrubbed the war years from their company history, in which from 1920-2020, only the years from 1941-1950 are conspicuously unaccounted for. But they’re still one of the JSDF’s main defense partners. Even though their Defense Systems Business department makes up just 1% of Daikin’s business, they’re one of the largest suppliers of domestic ammunition and explosives to the Japanese military, and their 12th largest business partner overall.
They produce everything from high explosive howitzer shells to hand grenades, but their main product is the large armor-piercing explosive round fired from the main cannon of Japan's Type 10 battle tank, pictured below.
While most of us around the world know Kawasaki primarily for their motorbikes, ATVs and Jet Skis, their business is so much more than that. Kawasaki came into existence in 1878, when Shozo Kawasaki, a successful businessman and shipping expert, opened the Kawasaki Tsukiji Shipyard with support from the Japanese government. From then, Kawasaki's history was a series of firsts. From Japan's first submarines in 1906, to Japan's first privately-constructed large warship in 1908, to Japan's first domestic steam train in 1911, and Japan's first all-metal aircraft in 1922 - just 19 years after the Wright brothers took their first flight.
Kawasaki, since their very beginning, has had a close relationship with the Japanese government, and particularly with the Japanese military - for whom they built those first submarines, warships, and aircraft. And that relationship continues, all these decades later. Today, Kawasaki Heavy Industries is the JSDF's second largest business partner, with Mitsubishi taking first place.
Unlike many other companies that do business with the military in Japan, Kawasaki is heavily involved in the research and development of new products, vehicles and weapons - just as they were in the early 1900s.
According to the JSDF's recent procurement report, Kawasaki's main business involves medium-range guided missiles and fixed-wing military aircraft. But they build a lot of different products for the military, such as the Type 01 Light Anti-Tank Missile and its handheld launcher, the truck mounted MPMS Multi-Purpose Missile System (pictured below), and the Type 79 Anti-Landing Craft Missile and launcher. They also build many of Japan's military helicopters, including the CH-47 Chinook on license from Boeing.
So now you know all about Japan’s booming, but little-known, firearms and weapons industry, and its ties to many popular companies you know and love. Have you ever owned a product from one of the companies mentioned above? Let us know.