One of the major Japanese industrial groups in the twentieth century. Kawasaki manufactured aircraft—including what many consider to be the best Japanese fighter of the war— before and during World War II and again after 1954.
Kawasaki Heavy Industries was formed in 1878 as Japan’s first shipbuilder and in 1918 established an aircraft department— perhaps the first in the country. Initially, the company made substantial use of foreign personnel and designs at its Kobe headquarters. By 1920, it had built a factory and airfield. Its first government contract was for 300 copies of a license-built version of a Salmson reconnaissance aircraft for the army.
By 1923, Kawasaki had hired Richard Vogt (later with Blohm and Voss) as chief designer; he stayed for a decade and trained many others. Among his designs were the Type 88 biplane reconnaissance bomber (1927), of which more than 1,000 were manufactured; the Type 92 biplane fighter (1930), with nearly 400 made in two versions; and the Ki 3, the country’s last biplane bomber (1933), some 240 being made.
After Vogt’s departure the Ki 10, the last Japanese biplane fighter (1935), appeared (600 manufactured, some by Nakajima). The Ki 32 monoplane single-engine light bomber (1937) was also made in large numbers (850) and later became a trainer. In 1937, the aircraft branch was spun off into a separate firm; aircraft engines followed in 1939.
Kawasaki’s wartime total production of 8,250 aircraft made it third among Japanese firms. The key aircraft included the 1939 Ki 45 twin-engine ground attack plane (“Nick” to the Allies) later used as an excellent night-fighter. About 1,700 were built, and four became the first kamikaze aircraft used in May 1944. The Ki 61 Hein (Swallow; “Tony” to the Allies) liquid-cooled fighter of 1941 was in service by 1943; some 2,600 were made.
Disaster can lead to unexpected innovation. One of the best Japanese fighters of World War II, the Ki 100, was the product of such an emergency. The manufacturer had 275 completed Ki 61 airframes when its engine factory was destroyed by Allied bombing. In desperate need of fighter aircraft, those airframes were modified to take a Mitsubishi radial engine rather than the intended Kawasaki inline motor. First flown in February 1945, the result startled its creators as one of the fastest and most maneuverable aircraft ever built. With a top speed of more than 365 mph, performance surpassed the Ki 61.The new models were in service by May. In June, manufacture began of the Ki 100–1b, with a cutdown rear fuselage and bubble canopy. Nearly 100 had been made by the end of the war. Three prototypes of an improved version were built just before the surrender.
The company was revived in 1954 to overhaul U.S. aircraft and develop its own new models. The latter included the C-1 high-wing twin-jet cargo plane (first flight 1970) and the T-4 jet trainer (first flight 1985).