rance, have to say to it? Both written reports and
oral accounts varied quite a bit, ranging from grey,
through white to even silver colors. In fact, sightings of Zero in “mustard”, “clay” or “khaki” colors
were recorded. No particular attention to this seems to have been paid. Of course, there were Zero
relics in US and other countries museums and in
private collections. It seems however that the time
for their detailed examination has not arrived. How
were the things on the other side of the globe, in the
birthplace of the famous Zero, Japan? I confess, in
those years I did not have access to the actual, reliable information. I dare to make a rather wild guess
that the consensus was very similar to that one in
the West - grey, relatively light, maybe slightly bluish color. What leads me to this opinion are the color profiles in the Koku-fan, Aireview or Maru-Mechanic magazines and special issues which I could
rarely put my hands on and which rather invariably
represented Zero in overall grey color. I was particularly impressed by Rikyu Watanabe’s artwork.
As I learned much later, he was one of few very interested in the Japanese WWII aircraft colorarion.
When I arrived in the USA on business in 1991, I had
much improved access to the relevant information
and found out that there was no ground-breaking
change in the perception of Zero color i.e., grey, or
whitish grey, almost white.
“The Great Ame-Iro Wars”
In the beginning of 1990s, the information and opinions started to appear challenging the fact that the
Zero color was just ordinary “neutral” grey i.e., from
black and white pigments only. In 1993 Dai Nippon
Kaiga in their Aero Detail series published the monograph nr.7 on Zero fighter. The author was Shigeru Nohara, another aviation enthusiast and writer
of Japanese aviation books published mostly by
Model Art company. In this book, in the camouflage
and markings section perhaps for the first time
the kariki 117 nomenclature was used (J3 hai-iro
and D1 green) but even more importantly the term
“ame-iro” i.e., caramel color was used which was
supposedly the result of the original J3 grey being
overpainted with clear, slightly brownish varnish
(caramel) for better anticorrosive protection. Since then the theory has been discarded. It doesn’t
make sense. Why put another protective layer over
the already existing, apparently anticorrosive coat
But “the cat was out of the bag”, as we will see later. Sometime in 1994, during the period of internet
and personal computers explosion, a gentleman by
the name Dave Pluth founded the website www.j-aircraft.com. It was a “golden age” of Japanese
aviation studies. It was frequented by personalities
such as James Long, Don Thorpe, Osamu Tagaya,
Ryan Toews, Henry Sakaida and others. I could
not wait to come back home from work to read all
that information I could only dream about for the
past thirty years. Among visiting researchers were
also late James Lansdale, who later acquired the
website, late David Aiken and Nicholas Millman.
Lansdale, an avid Japanese aircraft relics collector,
retired teacher living in Florida, left a strong mark
on the Zero coloration research. After polishing
the surface of one of the Zero skin fragments with
toothpaste the color changed to darker, olive grey,
“ame-iro” which led to the conclusion it had been
the original paint color applied by the manufacturer. The top color of the relict was an “oxidized
ame-iro”, mainly severely ‘chalked’ top layer due
to greater proportion of titanium dioxide pigment.
The underlying colour, protected from UV exposure by the chalked layer is invariably slightly darker
and yellower/browner than the original paint color. Lansdale contacts in Japan included Nohara.
In 1998, in Model Art nr.510 he published that the
original Zero color had been “ame-iro” and supported it with various photographs of the relics. He
also presented a hand-brushed 1/72 Hasegawa
plastic model of A6M2 painted in this color. That
Photo: San Diego Air & Space Museum
“Two Japanese Air Forces” and their color standards
Why was Zero, and other military aircraft for that
matter, painted at all? Well, not because of the nice
looks, that’s for sure, military organizations are not
in that business. The first reason was anticorrosive protection. After large-scale introduction of
the light metal alloys into the aircraft design in the
1930s it was initially believed that they will resist
the elements far better than wood and fabric designs of the recent years. However, the aggressive
salty air on the board of the air carriers, extreme
heat and air moisture in Asia proved it all wrong.
Japan was seeking solutions which took the form
of various special coatings utilizing the experiences of the aeronautical industries of the leading
industrialized countries including Germany. The
second purpose of painting the aircraft is its camouflage i.e., lowering its visibility both in the air
and on the ground. For this purpose, the air forces
of the developed industrial countries developed
a range of preferred colors which, once approved,
had to match the standard (etalon) within certain
tolerances. It was ANA in the USA for example, or
RAL in Germany, Tavola 10 in Italy or even “Albom
Nakrasok” (color catalogue) in the Soviet Union.
In the 1930s Japan already belonged to the group
of industrialized countries and its approach to color standards was no different. It developed color
standards for both of her military air forces. Yes,
both, similar to the USA, Japan created the naval
air force (IJNAF - Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force) and army air force (Imperial Japanese Army Air
Force) as totally independent entities. Since Zero
was ordered, and exclusively used by IJNAF let’s
take a closer look at “Kaigunkōkūkiyo Toryō Shikibetsu Hyōjun, Kariki 117 Bessatsu” i.e., Paint Identification Standard for Naval Aircraft, Supplement
to Provisional Regulation 117, further kariki 117 only.
By the way, IJAAF standard was named Ko-kaku
39 and colors were assigned numbers from 1 to 43.
I may revisit this matter in another article. I hope
for the occasion of the new 1/48 Eduard model of
Nakajima Ki-43! A proposal designated 8609 was
created merging both standards (similar to ANA in
the USA) effective February 1945. How it was actually applied remains uncertain.
Kariki 117 is in fact a catalogue of colors grouped
alphabetically, for example group B are reds, C yellows, D greens, H browns, J greys. How it actually
looks you can see here.
The specific shade has its number therefore the
code for “ash grey” (hai iro) for example is J3. We
will talk more about this color later. If you go back
to the first paragraph I wrote about the “consensus”
that Zero was grey. No mention of any standards.
Why? Nobody knew about them? Well, it depends,
who we are talking about. Several copies had been
found in Japan and some people had access to
them however due to “various reasons” they did not
share the discovery with the “West”. Until the beginning of the 1990s the aviation enthusiast and late
researcher Katsushi Owaki “revealed the secret”
to fellow enthusiasts in America. Because of it he
became an “outcast” in the community of the Japanese researchers. Another big problem with kariki
is that up until now we don't know how exactly the
IJNAF Headquarters chose the particular shades.
No sufficient documentation nor correspondence have been found so far. Or we still don’t know
about it in our hemisphere (see “case kariki 117”).
Our contemporary knowledge has to rely on the reverse approach then - after analyzing the artifacts,
wrecks, secondary correspondence etc. assign the
particular color from catalogue to them.
The first Zero the Allies were able to test, was DI-108 which belonged to Fighter Squadron of aircraft carrier Ryūjō. It was manufactured on February 19, 1942, and its serial number was
4593. Its pilot, Tadayoshi Koga, was killed in crash on June 4, 1942, during the attack on Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. It was a relatively new aircraft carefully maintained and
stored in the lower deck of the aircraft carrier. The American report A.I.2(g) nr. 2103, describing the captured aircraft, states that its color was "glossy grey-green".
INFO Eduard - January 2022