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early Japanese civil aviation

Japan has a long and distinguished history in commercial aviation. A unique aspect of its development in the early part of the 20th century is the extent of its ties to the military, which were greater than in some other countries. In Japan, both commercial and military aviation grew hand-in-hand, and the government made an extra effort to join the two.

In 1922 and 1923, three small companies launched air transport service in Japan on a modest scale, covering limited routes between domestic cities. Japan Air Transport Institute, a private corporation, was the first. It inaugurated service on November 3, 1922, flying passengers between the cities of Sakai and Tokushima.

Like many European governments, the Japanese government was a strong backer of commercial aviation, though the early companies struggled to maintain their operations through the 1920s. To promote civil aviation in the country, on October 30, 1928, the Japanese government helped set up a national flag carrier known as Japan Air Transport Corporation (JAT), which absorbed the three earlier companies. JAT began its first regular passenger service the following year. The formation of JAT spurred the construction of the first airport in Tokyo, Haneda Airport, which opened in August 1931. JAT was fortunate to receive the equivalent of $1 billion (in today's currency) from the government during its first 11 years of service. In exchange for this huge subsidy, the government had free use of the aircraft and facilities of JAT. Most important, the Japanese military, especially the Japanese army, had a big role in the workings of JAT.

Through the decade of the 1930s, as the Japanese empire began to expand, the Japanese military made full use of JAT's airplanes for various battles. In 1931, for example, during the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the government freely used JAT's civilian aircraft, mostly the Dutch Fokker Super Universal, for a variety of military missions.

In 1936, Japan Air Transport began using new 14-passenger Douglas DC-2s on its more profitable routes between Japan and Manchuria

Since JAT was officially controlled by the government's civilian Ministry of Communications, the Japanese military decided in the early 1930s that it needed its own air service to help with operations in Manchuria in China. So the government orchestrated the creation of Manchurian Airways in 1932. Although Manchurian Airways was technically a civilian air service, it was virtually controlled by the Japanese army. Through the remainder of the decade, the army formed two other similar airlines that helped Japan expand into Asia: Huitong Airways in 1936, to prepare for Japan's invasion of north China, and China Airways in 1938, which later absorbed Huitong. JAT and three puppet governments in China invested heavily in the new China Airways. With the formation of China Airways, Japan finally established a permanent and stable air transport service into the Chinese mainland.

As the Japanese government formed new airlines to support military missions, the original air service, JAT, began to serve primarily as a civilian carrier. In its early years, however, JAT did not fare very well. Because of low traffic, the airline suffered from big losses even though it was heavily propped up by government money. Eventually by the late 1930s, though, things began to improve. In 1936, JAT began using new 14-passenger Douglas DC-2s on new, more commercially profitable routes between Japan and Manchuria. The DC-2 was the first modern passenger airliner the Japanese used. Also, the war between Japan and China that broke out in 1937 further improved JAT's fortunes. With the increase in military passenger traffic, JAT's profits soared. In 1938, JAT carried nearly 70,000 passengers, representing 2.6 percent of the world's passenger traffic. War, it seems, was very profitable for Japanese aviation.

As a result of the close ties between the military and Japan's civil aviation services, different branches of the military began to fight for exclusive rights over JAT and other airlines. To settle these disputes, the Japanese government called for the establishment of a single national monopoly airline known as Greater Japan Airways (GJA) in December 1938. GJA was originally an independent private company, but the Japanese government bought out half of the company's net worth once GJA became a successful commercial operator by the beginning of World War II. GJA was primarily an international operator, and it used a combination of foreign and domestic aircraft for its services. These planes included the eight-passenger Nakajima AT-2 airliner, the 11-passenger Mitsubishi MC-20 transport aircraft, and also domestically built versions of the 21-passenger Douglas DC-3. The Japanese had signed a licensing agreement with the Douglas company in February 1938 to build domestic versions of the DC-3, which they called the L2D or simply "Tabby." At the time, the Douglas company was unaware that the Japanese navy intended to use the Tabby as military transport aircraft. The Japanese, who built nearly 500 DC-3s under license, were the only country apart from the Soviet Union to manufacture this famous plane outside of the United States.

The beginning of the war in the Pacific in December 1941 profoundly affected Japanese commercial aviation: a month after the start of hostilities, the Japanese government suspended all commercial operations of GJA. Instead, the airline's services were now completely geared to support military operations in the Pacific. Thus, in 1941, the first era of Japanese commercial aviation effectively ended, and it would not be until well after the war, in 1951, that Japan would again resume civilian air transport by forming what is today known as Japan Air Lines.