Hasegawa 1/32 N1K2-J Shiden-kai
KIT #: 08883
PRICE: 4,000 yen from www.hlj.com
DECALS: Two options
REVIEWER: Tom Cleaver
NOTES: New tool kit


          As historian William Green put it, “It was characteristic of the improbabilities of the air war in the Pacific theater that one of the finest land-based fighters employed operationally by Japan was a naval machine, and stranger yet, a fighter evolved from a floatplane!”  Unfortunately, by the time it was introduced in early 1944, the N1K1 “Kyofu” (“Mighty Wind”)had no real role left and was produced only in limited numbers.

          By mid 1942, the JNAF leadership understood they needed fighters with greater capability than the Zero, particularly high-altitude capability.  As a back-up to the Mitsubish J2M “Raiden” project which was experiencing delays, in November 1942 is was suggested to Kawanishi that they might consider revising their floatplane for land-based operation, given its performance. 

          Kawanishi accomplished something very unusual when they took their N1K1 and turned it into a land plane, which was accomplished only 9 months after the project began.  Perhaps the most important thing that was done was to equip the aircraft with a “combat flap, operated by electricity and hydraulic pressure, changing their angle automatically with changes in “G” value during maneuvers and providing outstanding maneuverability.  Top speed was 362 mph and service ceiling was 39,700 feet.  353 “Shiden Model 11" (Shiden translating as “Violent Lightning”) fighters were produced during 1944, and 112 in 1945 before production ended due to bombing in June 1945.

          First introduced into combat during the Marianas invasion in June 1944, the Shiden was a match for its U.S. Navy opponents, with the F6F Hellcat being regarded as an easy kill to a pilot with any experience.  Unfortunately, pilots with any experience were becoming rare in the JNAF; coupled with the small number of Shidens committed, the airplane had no effect on the outcome of the Marianas campaign.  The results were similar in the fighting over Formosa and the Philippines invasion that fall, the next times the U.S. Navy confronted the fighter, and it also participated in the Okinawa campaign; it was so good it was one of the few Japanese airplanes not modified for “special attack.” 

          While the N1K1‑J was at the time of its introduction in the spring of 1944 the outstanding fighter aircraft used by the Imperial Japanese Navy and remained a potent adversary throughout the rest of the war, the aircraft had a number of shortcomings. Chief among these was the unreliability of the Homare 21 engine; additionally, the wheel brakes were so bad the aircraft was often landed on grass next to a paved runway to reduce the landing roll without brakes. 

          Kawanishi undertook what was a near-complete redesign in mid-1943, to simplify the design and solve the problems testing had revealed.  The wing was changed from the mid to the low position with the most obvious visual difference from its predecessor bing that all four 20mm cannon were housed within the wing. The airplane was also simplified for ease of production, using only 43,000 parts compared with the 66,000 of the N1K1‑J. The Homare 21 engine was modified, but in the end proved no more reliable in the N1K2‑J than it had in the N1K1‑J. The first prototype flew December 31, 1943, and it was accepted as the N1K2-J “Shiden Model 21" also known as the Shiden-Kai for “modified.” Seven prototypes were finished by June 1944, but they experienced a long series of teething troubles that proved difficult to eliminate.  By the fall of 1944, the Shiden-Kai was behind schedule and now confronted by the B-29 campaign, which was originally aimed at the Japanese aircraft industry; sub-contractors were hit, which led to engine shortages, steel forgings, aluminum stock and landing gear assemblies.  Only 60 Shiden-Kais were delivered in 1944, and only 294 produced in 1945.  Production was assigned to other factories, but the numbers produced were negligible.  Had the war extended into 1946, JNAF plans called for production of 9,240 Shiden-Kai fighters, which shows the aircraft’s importance.  Only 428 aircraft were produced by all manufacturers.

          The Shiden-Kai was without a doubt the finest Japanese Navy fighter of the war; its only competitor for the title of best Japanese fighter of the war was the Nakajima Ki.84 "Hayate."  It was fast and powerful with an armament of four 20mm cannon, and in the hands of an average pilot was the equal of the P-51 Mustang, the F4U Corsair and the F6f Hellcat.

          The N1K2‑J shared with the Ki.84 the ability to be an "ace‑maker." In June 1945, Warrant Officer Kinsuke Muto ‑ a pilot of exceptional skill ‑ was jumped by 12 F6F Hellcats. He succeeded in shooting down four before the others broke to escape back to their carrier and he successfully landed his damaged Shiden‑Kai back at Yokosuka airfield. Although the airplane was outstanding in fighter vs. fighter combat, it was a disappointment in the one category that was really needed: high altitude interception against the B‑29s, since it suffered poor climb above 22,000 feet due to loss of engine power. 

"The Squadron of Experts": 

          In March 1945, Captain Minoru Genda, one of the outstanding Japanese Naval officers of the war (he was the man who planned the Pearl Harbor attack) formed the 343rd Air Group, the only JNAF organization to be completely mounted on the N1K2‑J Shiden‑Kai. The unit was known as "The Squadron of Experts" because it had the highest concentration of surviving experienced aces of any unit.

          On March 19, 1945, the group experienced their baptism of fire when Task Force 58 struck the Japanese naval base at Kure. Genda scrambled all three squadrons of the 343rd.  First contact came when VBF‑17 F6Fs from the "Bunker Hill" ran into flights from 407th and 701st squadrons. In a vicious dogfight, six Hellcats and six N1K2‑Js went down.  The battles continued, with the 343rd offering the only defense of the base. According to the group's records for that day, the three squadrons claimed 53 Hellcats and Corsairs, and four Helldivers, for a loss of 13. Chief Petty Officer Katsue Kato ‑ one of the greatest Japanese aces of the war ‑ scored nine of this total. Given that at this stage of the war, American pilots did not have the level of training their predecessors who had fought in 1942‑44 had, and were in newly-arrived units that were also experiencing their baptisms of fire, such an outcome against pilots as experienced as those of the 343rd, mounted in an airplane like the Shiden‑Kai, is not really that surprising. Had the Japanese Navy been able to re‑equip with the Shiden‑Kai in the numbers planned, the air battles over Japan in 1945 might have been very different, though the final outcome of the war was no longer in doubt.  There were also not enough experienced pilots left to “seed” such new units had the aircraft been available.

          One of the outstanding pilots of the 343rd was Lt. Naoshi Kanno, the top‑scoring Naval Academy graduate of the war. Kanno first saw combat in the N1K1‑J Shiden with the original 343rd Air Group during the invasion of the Marianas in June 1944. Flying from the island of Yap, he shot down several B‑24 Liberators using the head‑on attack method. He was credited with 30 victories by  the summer of 1944. When the 343rd Group was organized by Genda, Kanno was given command of the 301st  Squadron. In the battle of March 19, the 301st  initially took on Corsairs of VMF‑123.  Kanno was among the 13 shot down when he was hit by a Corsair from VBF‑10, though he parachuted safely. Under his command, the 301st had the highest losses of any unit in the 343rd, though it also had the highest score. Kanno himself was credited with 13 more victories while flying the N1K2‑J, before being killed attacking B‑24s over Yaku Island on August 1, 1945.


           Hasegawa has basically "owned" the N1K2‑J since they introduced a 1/72 kit of the airplane in the early 1970s that advanced the state of the art with razor‑sharp trailing edges and engraved panel detail. This kit is still in production and still the best kit of this airplane in 1/72 scale. In 1981, a 1/48 version was released that again was as far in advance of the competition in this scale as the earlier kit had been ahead of anything else in 1/72 when it was released. In fact, the 1981 release was so good that when Hasegawa announced a new kit of this airplane in 2000, many modelers said "why?" While the earlier model has raised panel lines, it still makes up into a very acceptable model. The new 1/48 offering was as far in advance of other 1/48 models recently released as the earlier ones were in their day, and even surpassed their excellent Ki.84 Hayate.

           This 1/32 kit of the N1K2‑J is essentially the excellent 1/48 kit scaled up, with additional engine and cockpit detail.  It makes up as the early‑production Shiden‑Kai with the larger vertical fin and rudder. Decals are for two aircraft of the 343rd Air Corps, including the aircraft flown by Lt. Kanno on March 19, 1945.


          What can I say? This kit maintains the tradition of the 1/48 kit in being one of the best‑engineered kits released by Hasegawa, and is “Tamiya-like” in being both highly detailed, yet easy to build. All the parts fit.  Assembly of the model other than waiting for paint to dry took about six hours tops. I spent more time painting the details in the cockpit and painting the model overall than I did in assembly. It would take a modeler who was either illiterate, blind, or willfully opposed to following the instructions to create a bad model from this kit.

           I had the good fortune to have Aero Detail No. 26, "The N1K2‑J Shiden‑Kai," as my reference material. This volume has numerous clear, well‑lit, color photos of every part of the N1K2‑Ja Shiden‑Kai restored by the Champlin Fighter Museum for the National Air and Space Museum, plus detailed drawings of most major components. Following these photos, I had no problem creating a very good‑looking cockpit. I decided to position the separate flaps in the raised position.  As with most models with separated control surfaces, these flaps are really designed to be displayed in the lowered position, which they never were when the real airplane was parked.  When I attached the flaps in the raised position, they were not completely flush with the lower wing surface as they should be.  If I was doing this again, I would cut out the area of the lower wing that is exposed by the lowered flaps, which would allow the flaps to be properly positioned.  Should you decide to build this kit with the flaps raised, I suggest you do that before attaching them. This cockpit needs no resin replacement, being well‑detailed in its own right and setting a new standard of what Hasegawa has done previously.  My only addition was making seat belts from lead foil from a wine bottle (thank goodness I saved all those over the years, since you can’t get any like that any more).


          In pre-assembly, I painted the cockpit according to Hasegawa’s instructions to create “Kawanishi cockpit color,” mixing Tamiya “Japanese Cockpit Color,” which is the Mitsubishi light green-gray color, with “Nakajima Cockpit Color,” for which I substituted Tamiya “NATO Green,” which is a close match.  This looked right according to the color photos in the Aero Detail book.

           Once the model was assembled, I first painted the fabrid control surfaces on the underside with Tamiya “JN Gray,” and painted the yellow ID stripes on the leading edge of the wing, then masked off all these areas.  I then painted the rest of the lower surfaces with Alclad “Dural Aluminum.  I then preshaded the upper surfaces with flat black along the panel lines‑shading.  I painted the upper surfaces according to Hasegawa’s mixing instructions, using Tamiya “Mitsubishi Green” and Tamiya “Flat Blue” in a 90/10 mixture.  This color also comported with the colors in the Aero Detail book.  After application of the main coat, I lightened the paint twice, adding in Gunze “Light Gull Grey,” and going over the upper area to “age” the paint.  The prop blades were painted with Tamiya “Red Brown.”  I then gave the upper surfaces a coat of Future.

           I used the kit decals, modifying the tail number to create the surviving Shiden-Kai which is in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.  The decals are all the right shades, but they are thick and it took repeated application of Solvaset to get them settled.

           I gave the model an overall coat of Xtracrylix “Flat” varnish, then  airbrushed Tamiya "Smoke" to create exhaust and gunfire stains.  Looking at photos of N1K2-Js during the war, they were not that weathered, so I used my Prismacolor silver pencil to “ding” the airframe at places where it would have been worked on or stepped on.

           I then attached the landing gear, the prop, and the cockpit canopy, and attached the clear navigation lights.


           If this was a movie review, I would give this model a five‑star rating. It is one of the best examples of the kit makers art currently available, a model that can do for its modelers what its 1:1 original did for its pilots: make the average guy look good, and the good look great. The model provides excellent value for the money and results in something you'll be proud to have on your shelf.  Highly recommended.

Tom Cleaver

 November 2013

Thanks to HobbyLink Japan for the review kit.  Get yours at this link.

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