Goonhammer Historicals: Getting Started in Bolt Action: Japanese Army Beginners Guide

Why Play Japanese?

Choosing which army to collect in Bolt Action can be a difficult prospect. There are the Americans with their airstrikes and fire-and-maneuver tactics, the Germans with their MG42’s and bespoke armored behemoths, or the British with their insane array of special rules. 

Why, then, would you ever choose Japan? Simple: they’re the most fun army in Bolt Action. Other armies typically win using things like firepower, logistics, training, and vehicles that aren’t made out of tin foil. Japan doesn’t need any of that malarkey. All Japan needs is a man with a bayonet on his gun, and love for the Emperor in his heart.

Anti-tank Teams Credit: Alexander Smith
Anti-tank Teams Credit: Alexander Smith

Japan is fun to play because your best strategy is sheer aggression. You win by chasing your enemy down and turning them into a shish kabob, or hucking an anti-tank grenade onto their engine deck from point-blank range. With Japan, every victory is a pyrrhic victory. No game will end without a horde of casualties ringing the playspace. This also makes them very fun to play against, with your opponent desperately trying to whittle down the wall of screaming men before they can get into close combat and tear thheir position to shreds.

Secondly, they’re actually a good army. Despite being largely ignored by the campaign books, Japan remains an effective choice for most players, mainly due to their excellent National Rules. Specifically, they have two of the best National Rules in the game: Death Before Dishonour, and Banzai Charge.

Type 88 AA Gun Credit: Studio Grozny
Type 88 AA Gun Credit: Studio Grozny

National Rules

Death Before Dishonour gives every Japanese unit Fanatics – arguably the best special rule in the game. Fanatics means that until a unit is whittled down to two or less models, they won’t run away and cannot be instantly destroyed in close combat. Let’s look at an example of a German and American squad facing off in close combat and then American vs. Japanese. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll say all soldiers are Regulars armed with rifles and both sides are fighting simultaneously. 

Example 1: No units with Fanatics

American Unit (10 men) - rolls 5 hits
German Unit  (10 men) - rolls 4 hits

The German unit took more hits and is destroyed instantly. 
The American unit survives with 6 models.

Now lets swap out Germans for Japanese.

Example 2: Americans vs. Japanese Fanatics

American Unit (10 men) - rolls 5 hits
Japanese Unit (Fanatics - 10 men)- rolls 4 hits

Now, since the Japanese unit has Fanatics, a second round of combat begins. 

American Unit (6 men) - rolls 3 hits
Japanese Unit (Fanatics - 5 men) - rolls 3 hits

Tie, so onto round 3 of combat!

American Unit (3 men) - rolls 2 hits
Japanese Unit (Fanatics - 2 men) - rolls 1 hit

Final result: American unit survives with 2 men. 

So even though Japan lost this encounter, they still took way more enemy models with them by forcing additional rounds of close combat until they were destroyed. Alternatively, if they had won ANY of those three rounds of combat, they would have wiped the Americans out instead.

The second thing that makes Japanese infantry great is the Banzai Charge rule. This allows Japanese units to automatically pass Order tests so long as they issue a Run order towards an enemy unit. Since in many instances you will want to get into close combat anyway, this is an invaluable tool. 

Jungle Fighters Credit: Studio Grozny
Jungle Fighters Credit: Studio Grozny

Usually once a unit has accumulated about 2 pins it will become difficult to activate, but a Japanese player always has an option to Banzai their unit to get them out of whatever jam they’re in. Is your unit pinned down in the middle of an open field? Banzai them forward! 


The strategy I’d recommend for Japanese players is pretty simple – kill all your opponents’ infantry. Without infantry, they can’t claim objectives, and the rest of their force becomes extremely vulnerable. This strategy is so effective for the simple reason that Japanese infantry are badasses.

Despite having both Fanatics and Banzai, there is still more to this strategy than just running blindly forward. Infantry need to be moved forward through cover as far as possible to avoid taking too many casualties on the approach. If the scenario allows it, also consider using outflanking. This will allow your units to come in from the sides of the table and surprise vulnerable enemy units. If possible, get to any objectives before your opponent and force them to shift you off of it. Because of the Fanatics rule, your units will hold out practically to the last man, making getting Japanese troops off of a specific point very difficult. 

Outflanking Credit: Alexander Smith
Outflanking Credit: Alexander Smith

Generally, when building my list, I aim for a combination of large amounts of infantry and high explosives to clear out enemy infantry. A mortar, howitzer, and vehicle with good HE capabilities can really do a ton of damage to enemy infantry, and force them not to simply sit in cover plinking away. It can also put enough pins on units to force them to rally or fail to activate, giving you a chance to charge into action.

Japanese armies tend to have a large amount of Order Dice because they favor infantry and can take many small teams. Typically at 1,000 points you should have 12-15 order dice, which puts you in a good position to get the coveted Last Dice+First Dice. This is when you pull the last dice of the turn and the first dice of the next turn. This can be a huge advantage, because when it happens you can essentially move a unit twice in a row.

Outnumbered Credit: Alexander Smith
Outnumbered Credit: Alexander Smith

For example, say an enemy unit is 24” away from your infantry unit. You get the last order dice of the turn and use it to Run forward 12” towards your enemy. The next turn, the dice are returned to the bag. If you have more order dice than your opponent, statistically you’re likely to get the first dice of the next turn, allowing you to Run forward again into close combat. Alternatively, you could use the last dice to fire a mortar at an enemy unit, and then the first dice to shoot again before they have a chance to move and reset the range.

Many players struggle with how to handle enemy vehicles when your army doesn’t have strong armor or AT choices. For Japan, you have a couple of options. First, they have access to Suicide Anti-Tank teams, which are extremely cheap and effective (more on them later). Another option, which is hard for many players to accept, is to just ignore the enemy tank.

Man vs. Machine Credit: Alexander Smith
Man vs. Machine Credit: Alexander Smith

This seems odd to say, but oftentimes it’s the best strategy. If destroying or neutralizing the tank is unlikely, then just working around it is usually the way to go. A tank is often the most expensive part of any enemy list and by simply issuing a Down order to whoever it targets you’re ensuring that 20-30% of the enemy’s points are accomplishing nothing most turns. 

Now, once most of the enemy infantry have been killed through a generous application of HE shells and bayonets, it is simply a matter of claiming any objectives, or mopping up any remaining enemy teams to claim their Order Dice, and voila – Japan wins!

Unit Selection

Unlike the German army, which has access to literally hundreds of unit options (including every conceivable tank variant) the Japanese options in Bolt Action are much more limited. While this can sometimes be a disadvantage, it does make assembling an army fairly straightforward. In this section, we’ll hop through the categories of a theatre selector and provide some recommendations for unit selection in each category.

Before we begin here, I’d like to quickly address the infamous Bamboo Spear Horde meme list that occasionally pops up. Essentially it’s a Japanese list that relies on taking so many of the 5pt Bamboo Spear Fighters that the enemy cannot kill them all, and then winning by overwhelming the enemy in close combat. If you’re thinking about running this meme list, I’d suggest you not waste your time buying and painting 200 metal models when a regular Japanese army is just as effective and won’t cause everyone you play with to question your sanity.

Onto the units!

750pt Tournament List Credit: Alexander Smith
750pt Tournament List Credit: Alexander Smith

HQ Units

With Japanese special rules being what they are, HQ units are not quite as important as they can be for other armies. Honestly a single 1st or 2nd Lt. is perfectly acceptable as the sole HQ option for a Japanese list. 

The Kempeitai officer ties in with one of Japan’s national rules, but there are not many Green units in Japan’s roster, and the Kempeitai has to stay so close to the Green unit that it’s very tough to get that combo to work.


Japanese infantry are some of the best in the game, due to their Fanatic and Banzai rules. With that being the case, infantry should make up the bulk of your force when building your army. 

Normally, as Japanese, I want to show up with more infantry than my opponent. In a 1,000 point match I’ll generally aim for about 40-50 infantry divided into 5-6 squads. Generally, I go for 2-3 large squads with 8+ men, and a couple smaller squads for claiming objectives and dealing with enemy teams.

Veterans Credit: Warlord Games
Veterans Credit: Warlord Games

Regarding equipping your squads: you’ll generally be seeking to get into close combat with enemy forces so take any SMGs you can. These are fairly limited, with most squads only able to take one. LMGs are controversial in general, and in particular for Japanese. Some say they’re not worth the points. I think they’re perfectly fine, but usually I would only take these on the smaller squads, as your larger units should be moving into close combat and not sitting back and shooting. On the other hand, Japanese LMGs come with bayonets attached, so they may win out on style points alone.

Knee mortars are a unique Japanese equipment choice that allows you to essentially put light mortars in your infantry squads. Personally, I haven’t figured out how to use these effectively, but in theory can be powerful. At 20pts each they are expensive, but if they hit they can really put some pressure on an opponent, forcing them to move or take two casualties and some pins every turn. They can also fire at a different unit than the rest of the squad, potentially allowing you to pin two different squads with one Fire order.

As to whether to opt for Regular or Veteran infantry, I generally lean towards Regular as being a better choice for Japan. The Fanatic/Banzai combination really diminishes morale as a consideration, and you generally want as many bodies as you can. That being said, SNLF are veteran infantry that can take two SMGs, and are pretty hard to kill, so they can be a good option. 

SNLF Credit: Warlord Games
SNLF Credit: Warlord Games


For teams, Japanese have most of the standard options. Medium mortars are always a good choice for shelling enemies in cover, or Fixed teams. Generally, with Japanese I’m a fan of filling the middle of the board with forward deploying units to deny it to the enemy and force them to flush me out, so a sniper fits well into that role. Flamethrower teams are always a viable option as well.

The real star of the Japanese teams list are the Suicide Anti-Tank Teams. You can take three of these in one slot, and each only cost 20pts as Regular. These are essentially lone fanatics with an anti-tank mine attached to the end of a bamboo pole. If they assault an enemy vehicle they resolve a +8 penetration hit – allowing them to destroy practically any tank in the game, if they can get into contact with it.

Suicide AT Team Credit: Alexander Smith
Suicide AT Team Credit: Alexander Smith

I would always recommend taking as many of these as you can. Forward deploy them into cover throughout the middle of the board, then sit back and watch as your opponent agonizes over how to deal with them. Many players will keep their tank way back to avoid them, thus neutering their own expensive vehicle. Others will go out of their way to destroy the Suicide Anti-Tank Teams by shooting at them with everything they can. Anytime they do this, just order them to go Down and they’ll be practically impossible to kill. A small-team that is Down in cover requires a 7+ to hit. Actually destroying vehicles with these guys is fairly rare, but their main use is to distract and dissuade your opponent, and they do that excellently. Also, it’s three order dice for 60 points!


Japanese artillery options are pretty standard, with the exception that their AT and AA options are somewhat limited. At 50 points, a light AT gun isn’t a bad pick. Many players underestimate them, but they can easily destroy transports, armored cars, and even medium tanks if they get a side shot. 

The better option, in my opinion, is a medium or heavy howitzer. If you’re going for an infantry wipe strategy, this can help immensely. Alternatively, it can also be used to rain shells on enemy backline pieces like mortars, artillery, and snipers to force them to move. Likewise, a medium or heavy howitzer can ruin the day of an enemy tank by firing over open sights and putting a bunch of pins on it.

Artillery Credit: Studio Historia
Artillery Credit: Studio Historia

Tanks/Armored Cars

When it comes to selecting an armored vehicle for Japan, your options pretty much begin and end with light tanks. Only a couple Japanese vehicles possess medium armor or guns, and these only appear in a handful of theatre selector lists. Now, this isn’t as much of a disadvantage as it might seem, because in Bolt Action, heavy AT guns and armor are generally overcosted. Many of the best tanks in the game are on the lighter side. 

Most Japanese players will opt for the Chi-Ha, since it’s available in plastic and comes in the Japanese Starter Army. At 135 points it’s a fairly cheap light tank, armed with a light howitzer, rear turret-mounted MMG, and a hull-mounted MMG. It’s not a bad pick, but my main issue with this tank is that light howitzer is useless against armor, and not especially good at clearing out infantry either.

A rare Japanese Tank Kill Credit: Alexander Smith
A rare Japanese tank kill Credit: Alexander Smith

Instead, I’d recommend the Ho-Ro Assault Gun – which is what you get when you take a Chi-Ha, saw the top off, and slap a big-ass howitzer to it. This baby is open-topped and only armor value 7, so it’s vulnerable, but it comes with a heavy howitzer that will allow you to move around, firing over open sights and deleting anything it hits. Heavy howitzers can obliterate an entire infantry squad in a single shot, collapse buildings (killing everyone inside), and even destroy or pin a tank. Because heavy howitzer shots add up to 6 pins per hit, you can essentially stun-lock an enemy vehicle by hitting them every turn, forcing them to rally, then hitting them again. Repeat until the enemy tank is destroyed, or forced to leave the table due to pins.

Ho-Ro will have em going "oh no" Credit: Warlord Games
Ho-Ro will have em going “oh no” Credit: Warlord Games


Consider adding a basic General Purpose Truck to your list. For 41pts this can transport up to 13 men. Load your meanest infantry squad and a flamethrower or engineer team into that bad boy, then outflank. Bring the truck in next to some juicy enemy target, then unload your infantry and flamethrower, for a one-two punch. The next turn you can banzai charge any survivors.

For some reason, many opponents don’t expect Japanese players to do this, and it’s VERY difficult to stop two squads of Japanese infantry that show up in your backline. Usually destroying a Japanese squad takes several turns of concentrated firepower, so pulled off at the right moment, this can be a game-winning move if you use it to wrest control of an objective from your opponent.

Collecting Japanese

Most players coming to Bolt Action will grab the perfectly cromulent Japanese Infantry box from Warlord Games. They also have a SNLF box, which are the same plastic sprues as the Japanese infantry, but with some extra metal bits and a few unique metal figures. Stylistically, I think the SNLF are cooler and really like the customization options that box provides.

For vehicles, the selection from Warlord is limited, with some of the more rare vehicles not available from them. I’d recommend Trenchworx when searching for physical or 3D printable files for obscure Japanese vehicles.

Ha-Go Credit: Trenchworx
Ha-Go Credit: Trenchworx

Speaking of 3D printing, there are also a pretty solid selection of infantry, artillery, and vehicle options for Japanese collectors. Some of my favorite are: Studio Historia, Studio Grozny, and Deweycat.

Japanese Officer Credit: Studio Historia
Japanese Officer Credit: Studio Historia

Hopefully this guide has helped convince you to start collecting Japanese in Bolt Action! They’re a ton of fun and play very differently from the other armies. So, what are you waiting for? Banzai your way down to the FLGS and get started!

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