The first aircraft factory in Japan, the Nakajima Hikoki, was founded in 1916. The following year Mitsubishi Jukogyo and Kawasaki Kokuki Kogyo were established.
In 1930 Isoruku Yamamoto took command of the 1st Air Fleet and the following year was promoted to rear admiral in charge of the navy's technical service. Yamamoto became convinced that future wars would be decided by air power and embarked on a massive new building programme.
In 1934 the Japanese built around 445 aircraft. This increased to 952 (1935), 1,181 (1936), 1,511 (1937), 3,201 (1938), 4,467 (1939) and 4,768 (1940). This included fighters, torpedo-bombers and dive-bombers. The most important of these were the fighters Mitsubishi A5M, Nakajima Ki-27, and the Mitsubishi A6M and the bombers Mitsubishi ki-21 and Mitsubishi G3M.
By 1941 the Japanese Army Air Force had about 1,500 aircraft ready to attack land targets. This was backed up by the Japanese Navy Air Force that had over 1,400 planes.
On Sunday, 7th December, 1941, 105 high-level bombers, 135 dive-bombers and 81 fighter aircraft attacked the the US Fleet at Pearl Harbor. In their first attack the Japanese sunk the Arizona, Oklahoma, West Virginia and California. The second attack, launched 45 minutes later, hampered by smoke, created less damage.
In two hours 18 warships, 188 aircraft and 2,403 servicemen were lost in the attack. Luckily, the navy's three aircraft carriers, Enterprise, Lexington and Saratoga, were all at sea at the time. The following day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a united US Congress declared war on Japan.
Until the summer of 1942 Japan's air forces were extremely successful. This changed during the Battle of Midway when Japan suffered heavy losses of pilots and aircraft. Japanese aircraft factories were never able to match the output of those in the United States and the Japanese Air Force gradually lost control of the air battle over the Pacific.
After the fall of Saipan in July, 1944, Admiral Takijiro Onishi, commander of 1st Air Fleet in the Philippines, created the Special Attack Group of suicide dive-bombing pilots known as kamikazes. Young men were inspired to volunteer as they wished to die for their country. Pilots were trained in just over a week to fly their modified Mitsubishi A6M fighters.
The first kamikaze attack on enemy warships first took place in the struggle for the Philippines in 1944. Kamikaze pilots aimed at the central elevator on carriers and the base of the bridge on large warships. As they had to fly at low altitudes they were very vulnerable to anti-aircraft guns.
During April 1945 kamikaze pilots under Admiral Soema Toyoda launched 1,400 suicide missions as part of Operation Ten-Go. It is estimated that these suicide pilots sunk 26 ships during this campaign. More than 2,000 kamikaze missions were also flown against the US fleet at Okinawa (April-July 1945). By this time the US Navy had learnt how to deal with kamikaze attacks and few ships were hit.
Kamikaze pilots continued to be active until the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Admiral Takijiro Onishi, the commander of the Special Attack Group, committed suicide when he heard that Emperor Hirohito had surrendered.