Every morning at 7:30, the serenity of the Japanese countryside is disturbed by the sound of jet engines advancing to full military power. A pair of aircraft has emerged from an alert hangar and positioned itself at the end of the runway. Lights on, engines screaming, the jets quiver with barely-contained energy, ready to thunder into sky to defend their home country from airborne threats. But after a few moments, the engines spool down and the fighters taxi back to the hangar, noses and stabilizers drooping as if in disappointment that it was only a drill.

Words & Photography: Mark Munzel

Yes, drooping noses and stabilizers. Japan, one of the world’s most highly developed nations, still relies on the F-4 Phantom to help guard its skies.The Japan Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) has more modern fighter aircraft, including the F-15 Eagle and the semi-indigenous F-2 variant of the F-16, but not enough of them to meet its defense needs. Forty years after first entering service in the land of the rising sun, Phantoms stand ready for action at two JASDF bases: Hyakuri, just north of Tokyo, and Nyutabaru, on the mountainous southern island of Kyushu.

Japan’s F-4s were ordered in 1968. Two pattern aircraft built by McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis were followed by 138 production F-4EJs assembled by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. (Completed in May 1981, the last one was also the 5195th and last F-4 built anywhere.) Japan also purchased 14 RF-4E reconnaissance aircraft, which were built in the US.

Because Japan’s constitution prohibits offensive military action, the gun-armed F-4EJs were delivered with no air-to-ground or in-flight refuelling capabilities, although both were later added. The F-4s also underwent a "Kai" upgrade program in 1980s, which replaced the radar and other avionics systems. F-4EJ Kais can be told apart from original Japanese aircraft, and those of other countries, by a large TACAN blade antenna on the fuselage spine.

Before Japan acquired F-15s, the F-4EJ was the mainstay of the nation’s air defence force, equipping five fighter squadrons and a sixth in the maritime strike role. Today, two Phantom-equipped fighter squadrons remain. Nyutabaru’s examples are flown by 301 Hikotai, the ͞Phantom Mother Squadron,͟ which also acts as the F-4 operational training unit (OTU). 301 Hikotai shares its southern base with 23 Hikotai, the JASDF’s F-15 OTU, and the Hiko Kyodotai, the JASDF’s "Aggressor" squadron with camouflaged F-15DJs. At Hyakuri, the resident Phantom fighter squadron is 302 Hikotai, who works alongside F-15J-equipped 305 Hikotai to defend the capital.

Hyakuri is also home to 501 Hikotai, the JASDF’s only tactical reconnaissance squadron. It operates the remaining RF-4Es and several RF-4EJs, "gunfighter" Phantoms converted to carry a camera pod. The two variants can be told apart by their different noses and camouflage schemes: lighter for the unarmed aircraft and darker for converted ones.

Japan’s F-4s are the youngest of any nation’s in calendar years, but not in flight hours. Each squadron launches waves of aircraft throughout the day, with serviceable aircraft flying three or four times. To reduce wear on their primary aircraft, the Phantom Hikotais, like most JASDF squadrons, also operate several Kawasaki T-4 trainers. Wearing squadron markings, the smaller twin-engine jets are used as proficiency trainers, opponents for air combat training, intercept targets, and general "hacks".

And what markings! Beyond their bold red and white national insignia, the Hinomaru, the aircraft of all three F-4 Hikotai wear squadron badges –a frog for 301, stylized eagle for 302, and woodpecker for 501 – in color on their fins. The airframes are covered in stencilling that would drive a model builder crazy. JASDF squadrons often find a reason to paint their aircraft in special paint schemes, as well. The blue-and-gold jet in the accompanying photos commemorates 301 Hikotai’s 40th year of F-4 operations. The sharkmouths and black-and-red tails on other Phantoms are temporary markings applied for the service-wide TAC Meet fighter competition in autumn 2013.

The fighter Phantoms usually fly with blue captive training missiles, either AIM-9 Sidewinders or the indigenous Mitsubishi AAM-3. As a final touch of colour, an orange and white-striped braking parachute is deployed almost as soon as the main wheels touch the runway at the end of each flight.

For how much longer will residents around Hyakuri and Nyutabaru hear the thunder of J -79 engines? The JASDF has already chosen the F-4’s successor: the F-35A. Japan will buy 42 of the new type to replace the approximately 60 F-4EJs still in service. The Phantom’s current out-of-service date is 2016, but it has been extended before and may be again. For now, Mitsubishi continues to overhaul Phantoms at its Nagoya plant, and the JASDF’s test and evaluation squadron, the Hiko Kaihatsu Jikken Dan at Gifu, continues to test systems in support of the operational squadrons.And the alert F-4EJs continue their 7:30 AM scramble drills, as they have for 40 years.