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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Howa Type 89: Meet the Assault Rifle of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces

The Howa Type 89 was at least partially influenced by an American assault rifle design, the Armalite AR-18, which in turn was co-designed by Eugene Stoner of AR-15/M16 fame.

Howa Type 89
Howa Type 89

Since the end of the Second World War, Japan has had a largely pacifistic foreign policy, though, in more recent years, thanks to ever-increasing belligerence on the part of Red China and North Korea alike, Japan has slowly but steadily started to re-militarize somewhat, first under the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and more recently under current PM Fumio Kishida. In addition, Japan has extremely strict anti-gun laws

What gets lost in the shuffle as a result of these policies is that Japan still does have a viable small arms industry. Arguably the best example of that is the current standard issue assault rifle of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF; 自衛隊), the Howa Type 89 5.56mm.

Howa Type 89 History and Specifications

The Howa Type 89 Assault Rifle (89式小銃, hachi-kyū-shiki-shōjū; affectionately nicknamed “Buddy” by Japanese troops) was adopted by JSDF in 1989 – hence the numeric designation – thus replacing the Howa Type 64 7.62x51mm battle rifle. Both weapons are/were produced by Howa Machinery, Ltd. (豊和工業株式会社, Hōwa Kōgyō Kabushiki-gaisha), headquartered in Kiyosu city, Aichi Prefecture. It was also adopted by the Japanese Coast Guard and the elite Special Assault Team antiterrorist unit. As noted by an article in Military Factory:

Like the Americans, the Japanese abandoned the Battle Rifle and accepted the Assault Rifle as a standard frontline weapon system … Something of a no-frills service rifle, the gun became yet another in a long line of indigenously-designed and produced rifles for the nation of Japan … At its core, the weapon relies on a gas-operated action with a rotating bolt function. The gas arrangement is such that a smoother action results, producing less recoil and stress on critical moving parts when compared to other guns of this class.”

Indigenous design and production notwithstanding, the Howa Type 89 was at least partially influenced by an American assault rifle design, the Armalite AR-18, which in turn was co-designed by Eugene Stoner of AR-15/M16 fame. Specifications include a weight of 7.7 pounds, a barrel length of 16.5 inches – generating a muzzle velocity of 902 meters per second and an effective range of 500 meters – and an overall length of 36 inches. Cyclic rate of fire on full-auto is 750 rounds per minute, feeding from either a 20- or 30-round detachable box magazine. 

Field Performance

Well, there’s no battlefield performance per se to report on; going back to that whole thing about pacifist post-WWII Japan, the island nation has not been in a shooting war since 1945, when the Imperial Japanese Army wielded the Arisaka Type 38 and Type 99 bolt-action rifles.

In the only incident thus far of any present-day Japanese military unit firing shots in anger, during the Battle of Amami-Ōshima in December 2001, the Japanese Coast Guard sank a North Korean spy trawler. 

All I’ve been able to glean from media reports on the incident is that 20mm rounds were used to sink the Communist vessel, with no indication of small arms fire being brought into play by Japanese forces, and that the enemy vessel sank before the JMSDF Special Boarding Unit (SBU; 特別警備隊, Tokubetsukeibitai) could be deployed, but there is little doubt that Type 89 rifles were on the scene and ready to rock even if they didn’t actually end up being fired.

The Military Factory article goes on to state that “In practice, the weapon offers basic man-stopping value for JSDF forces in the same vein as the American M16. Quality and finish are quite good, particularly when compared to the preceding Type 64 series and the new gun is less complex in terms of operation, repair, and maintenance.” 

Want Your Own?

The Type 89 rifle is strictly forbidden for export, so unless you have Yakuza connections, don’t even bother.  

Christian D. Orr has 33 years of shooting experience, starting at the tender age of 14. His marksmanship accomplishments include: the Air Force Small Arms Ribbon w/one device (for M16A2 rifle and M9 pistol); Pistol Expert Ratings from U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP), Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) Criminal Investigator Training Program (CITP); multiple medals and trophies via the Glock Sport Shooting Foundation (GSSF) and the Nevada Police & Fires Games (NPAF). Chris has been an NRA Certified Basic Pistol Instructor since 2011. 

Written By

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).