By: Warren Gray

Copyright © 2022

“Within Hataya Castle, there was a glorious shinobi (ninja), whose skill was renowned, and one night, he entered the enemy camp secretly. He took the flag from (the camp commander’s) guard…and returned, and stood it on a high place on the front gate of the castle.” — From the Ōu Eikei Gunki (War Chronicles of the Ōu Region), 16th century.

In feudal Japan, from about 1485 to 1638, the stealthy, ninja warriors, or mercenaries, usually referred to as shinobi, were covert operatives, specially trained in espionage, deception, surprise attacks, sabotage, scouting, intelligence gathering, raids, irregular warfare, psychological warfare, and assassination. They were highly skilled in martial arts, survival techniques, scouting, long-distance running, swimming, rock climbing, medical practices, poisons, explosives (small bombs and grenades), and weaponry, especially including tantō (meaning “short sword,” with six-to-12-inch blades) knives, katana swords (with 24-to-32-inch blades), darts, spikes, bows and arrows, and sometimes firearms. They were, essentially, early special operations troops.

Contrary to popular depictions in modern times, the secretive ninja frequently wore lose-fitting, dark-blue (not black), farmer’s clothing, often with kusari (chain armor) or karuta (armor plates) underneath, and employed a variety of tools for infiltrating castles, such as chisels, hammers, drills, picks, ropes, and other devices, even collapsible ladders. Their daring deeds have been subject to gross exaggeration and extraordinary legends over the centuries, attributing the ninja with superhuman or supernatural powers (bakemono-jutsu, or “ghost techniques”), including invisibility, flight, and shapeshifting.

In the 21st century, much of the traditional, ninja heritage is carried on by the Special Forces Group (SFGp) of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (the army) at Narashino Garrison in Funabashi, just east of Tokyo, Japan, where they are collocated with the elite 1st Airborne Brigade, and most SFGp recruits are drawn from the brigade’s personnel, so they are all paratroopers. Established on March 27, 2004, the SFGp’s military roles are counterterrorism, special operations, and airborne operations, and they were initially trained by U.S. Army Delta Force operators, with their unit structure based upon Delta Force organization. In fact, the SFGp is frequently referred to as Japan’s Delta Force.

All SFGp operators must first serve in the 1st Airborne Brigade, founded in 1958, which currently has a strength of 1,900 men, commanded by a major general, and the assigned roles of airborne operations, air assault, direct action, reconnaissance, and unconventional warfare. The brigade is divided into three airborne battalions, and an airborne artillery battalion with 120mm mortars. At the end of an intensive training process, paratroopers may earn the coveted, Ranger badge and qualification, after which they become eligible to apply for the SFGp.

Since Japan renounced its right to declare war in Article 9 of their new constitution after the end of World War Two, its armed forces are now purely defensive in nature, and do not engage in combat operations in any war. Since 1992, however, the National Diet (parliament) has permitted Japanese troops to participate in international, peacekeeping missions, including limited involvement in Iraq, Haiti, and Somalia, engaging in humanitarian activities or acting as VIP bodyguards. 170 paratroopers served in Iraq in 2006, for example, trained by American soldiers from the Oregon National Guard, who also helped to establish the 1st Airborne Brigade’s new sniper school that same year.

In early 2007, a brand-new Central Readiness Force was created in Japan, including the SFGp, 1st Airborne Brigade, 1st Helicopter Regiment, and 101st NBC Protection Unit. This is the closest thing  that Japan has to a special operations command.

On December 5, 2021, Mari Yamaguchi wrote for the Associated Press (AP) that, “Japan…boasts a military that puts all but a few nations to shame…ranked fifth globally in overall, military power, after the United States, Russia, China, and India…it looks to defend its territorial and military interests against an assertive China, North Korea, and Russia…in pursuit of the best equipment and weapons (that) money can buy…One of North Korea’s missiles flew over Hokkaido (Island, part of Japan), landing in the Pacific in 2017…In fiscal year 2020 through March (six months alone), Japanese fighters scrambled more than 700 times, two-thirds (about 470 times) against Chinese warplanes, with the remainder (230 scrambles in six months) mostly against Russians.

“Japan has rapidly stepped up its military role in alliance with Washington, and has made more purchases of costly, American weapons and equipment, including fighter jets and missile interceptors…(and) hosts about 50,000 U.S. troops, mostly on the southern island of Okinawa…Japan has (a military force) that exceeds Britain, Germany, and Italy…(and is) the largest user of American (F-35A/B Lightning II) stealth fighters outside of the United States…(New Prime Minister, since October 4, 2021, Fumio Kishida) is open to doubling the (defense budget) cap to the NATO standard of two percent.

“In part because of a relative decline in America’s global influence (thanks for that, Joe Biden!), Japan has expanded military partnerships and joint exercises…including with Australia, Canada, Britain, (and) France…Japan also cooperates with NATO… (However) ‘a soaring, defense budget could cause neighboring countries to misunderstand that Japan is becoming a military power, and accelerate an arms race.’”

Since 1991, most Japanese military units wore the Type II woodland-camouflage uniform, featuring black, brown, and green dots on a khaki background, but beginning in 2007, the similar, Type III camouflage pattern was universally adopted. A desert-camouflage uniform is also available, since 2010, for Japanese troops deployed to the Middle East. Combat boots are the standard Type 2 or Type 3 in black leather, and ballistic vests are issued when required.

All members of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) may wear the rifle-green beret, but it’s normally a special dress item, for public relations events or ceremonies only. Most of the SFGp soldiers also routinely wear a black, balaclava hood at all times to protect their identities.

The 1st Airborne Brigade’s weapons include Howa Type 89-F assault rifle (based upon the Armalite AR-18 design, but with side-folding stock, for paratroopers) in 5.56mm, SIG P220 pistol in 9mm (gradually being replaced by the H&K SFP-9M in 9mm), Minebea PM-9 submachine gun in 9mm, Remington M24 sniper rifle in 7.62mm NATO, M249 Minimi light machine gun in 5.56mm, Toshiba Type 91 Kai shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missile (SAM) launcher, similar to the American FIM-92FStinger, and Kawasaki Type 01 LMAT infrared-homing, anti-tank missile. These are all standard-issue within the Japanese armed forces.

These highly-skilled, Airborne Rangers may then apply for the Special Forces Group, which consists of only about 300 men, commanded by a colonel, and is divided into a headquarters staff and three SFGp companies. The companies are subdivided into specialized platoons, with the 1st Platoon consisting of experts in freefall (HALO) parachuting, with sniper and assault squads, the 2nd Platoon specializing in naval warfare, the 3rd Platoon specializing in mountain warfare, and the 4th Platoon specializing in urban warfare.

Japanese Special Forces weapons are more varied than those employed by the 1st Airborne Brigade, and include the following:

Assault Rifles: Colt M4A1SOPMOD Block I in 5.56mm, Howa Type 89-F (being phased out), H&K G36 in 5.56mm, HK416 in 5.56mm, and FN SCAR-L in 5.56mm.

Battle Rifles: HK417 in 7.62mm and FN Mk. 17 SCAR-H in 7.62mm.

Submachine Guns: H&K MP5SD6 in 9mm and Minebea PM-9 in 9mm.

Personal-Defense Weapons: H&K MP7A1 in 4.6mm and FN P90 in 5.7mm.

Pistols: H&K USP9 in 9mm is the standard, Special Force handgun.

Sniper rifles: Remington M24 (based upon the Remington 700 long action) in 7.62mm NATO.

Tactical Vehicles: Komatsu LAV (Light Armored Vehicle) with green-and-brown camouflage, Toyota Koukidousha utility vehicle in OD green, and Honda XL250 (250cc) light, reconnaissance motorcycle in OD green.

The SFGp and 1st Airborne Brigade are supported by the 1st Helicopter Brigade, (army aviation unit) based at Camp Kisarazu. This unit flies the CH-47J/JA Chinook heavy transport, EC225LP Super Puma, Kawasaki OH-1 “Ninja” scout helicopter, OH-6D/J Cayuse, Mitsubishi LR-1 liaison aircraft, LR-2 (Beechcraft Super King Air), and UH-60JA Black Hawk transport helicopter.

Japanese Special Forces routinely train with American advisors, such as making joint parachute jumps with U.S. paratroopers in both Japan (February 2015) and Alaska (September 2015), or participating in joint marksmanship training with instructors from the 1st Special Forces Group in Japan in 2021. Japan is a powerful, U.S. ally in the western Pacific region, and any potential, aggressor nation that interprets their relatively-pacifist, semi-isolationist, political policy as a sign of weakness would be making a very serious mistake.

The author in Tokyo in June 2004.

Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, and traveled to Japan in 2004 on a Fulbright Memorial Fund Scholarship. He also earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: