Japan selected the F-4 Phantom II as its new fighter at the end of the 1960s. On 1 November 1968, this choice was made public and Japan became one of the few countries that license-produced this aircraft.
The Nihon Koku Jietai (Japan Air Self-Defense Force, JASDF) received a total of 154 F-4EJ and RF-4Es.
While the F-4EJs were built almost entirely by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the RF-4Es were bought directly from McDonnell-Douglas.
Due to Japanese military limitations prohibiting air-to-ground ordnance, the F-4EJs were delivered without the AN/AJB-7 bombing computer system and also did not have an air-refueling probe or receptacle.
In service F-4EJs replaced the JASDF’s fleet of Lockheed F-104J Starfighters.
McDonnell Douglas built the two prototype F-4EJs (17-8301 and 17-8302), which first flew on 14 January 1971. These prototypes were delivered to Gifu Air Base in March 1971.
The next 11 aircraft were assembled in Japan and the first Japanese-built example flew on 12 May 1972.
Mitsubishi built all the EJs over the next nine years and the production ended with 127th F-4EJ (17-8440), on 20 May 1981. This was the last F-4 built in the world.
Fourteen RF-4Es were delivered between November 1974 and June 1975.
These were similar to the RF-4C, but, as for the F-4EJs, Japanese-built radar warning receivers and other equipment were substituted to replace equipment which was not released for export to Japan.
The F-4EJ entered service with the JASDF in August 1972 with a total of six Hikōtai (“Squadrons”) operating the aircraft: the 301, 302, 303, 304, 305 and 306th.
The RF-4E equipped the 501st, that had previously operated one of the less-well-known Sabre models, the RF-86F.
Japanese procurement involved small, multi-year orders, which made for slow production of small batches ordered every year. As of 2007, Japan has a fleet of 90 F-4s currently in service.
Talks were underway to replace them with Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft, since the sale of the American F-22 Raptor was blocked by U.S. export restrictions.
In June 2007, Lockheed Martin announced that the company has been awarded a contract to equip several F-15 Eagles with synthetic aperture radar pods. These F-15s will be used in a reconnaissance role, allowing the RF-4E and RF-4EJ to be retired; the F-4 having served from the 1970s into the 21st century.
On 9 March 2020, the RF-4 was retired after 45 years in JASDF service.
A four-ship flight of RF-4Es and RF-4EJs from 501st Hikōtai performed a ceremonial flypast, which included aircraft serial 47-6901, the first RF-4E built for Japan and the first to be handed over.
This left 301st Hikōtai flying F-4EJ Kai models as the last remaining squadron equipped with Phantoms in Japan.
301st Hikōtai continued to operate the F-4EJ until 14 December 2020 when the Phantom was withdrawn from front-line service, remaining in use with the Air Development and Test Wing at Gifu.
The final JASDF Phantoms were retired on 17 March 2021.