The Imperial Japanese Battle Fleet (1897 - 1945)

Right-facing battleship silhouetteImperial Japanese chrysanthemum (kiku) emblem supported by dolphins rampant, on a field battleshp greyLeft-facing battleship silhouette

Japan's Pre-Dreadnought Lineup - Scroll down.

Commentary on the Pre-Dreadnought Lineup

Go straight to Japan's Semi-Dreadnoughts

Semi-Dreadnought Battlecruisers

Commentary on Japan's Semi-Dreadnought Ships

The Dreadnought Era: the Kongos

Japan's Dreadnoughts At a Glance

The Treaty Era and Pacific War

Pertinent Links

NAV NOTE: Sprinkled throughout this introductory guide you will find little black battleship icons, miniatures of the silhouettes above. Each of these is a button linking to an in-depth page on the individual ship profiled. Click the battleship icon to bring up detailed specs and schematic drawings of the vessels, together with additional photos and an historic outline on each ship or class of ships.

In the period in question, the first big buildup of the Japanese Navy to first-rate status, the Japanese Admiralty purchased all of its major warships from its mentor and political partner, Great Britain. In a bid to neutralize the Russian steam-roller then tearing up the turf Japan had been coveting, Britain armed Japan by sea, a relationship formalized in the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902 -- Britain's first-ever overseas alliance. This close treaty relationship inflated the IJN's prestige at home and enhanced its political clout. The navy remained the "senior service" through WWI and had such a priority in the allocation of funds that it had imposed a truly burdensome obligation on the country's taxpayers by that time: up to 50% of the national budget was going to support the navy by 1920. In this page we examine the first stages of Japan's vault to Great Power status -- from her first pre-dreadnoughts to her first dreadnoughts. Although a couple of these vessels saw WWII, they had long been converted to targets, tenders, and repair ships by that time. One, the flagship Mikasa, remains as a museum ship, although she was attacked by U.S. planes as a low-level military target in WWII. By contrast, all of Japan's dreadnoughts, starting with the 1913 battlecruiser Kongo, saw action in the Second World War; and all shared a grimly similar fate. Of Japan's numerous battleships, only the Nagato survived the War intact -- only to become a target in the Bikini A-bomb tests in 1946.


Imperial Flagship Mikasa (1902)

Japanese battleship MIKASA at Yokosuka, JapanThough the Mikasa, as the sole surviving pre-dreadnought battleship in the world, has taken the laurels for her generation of ironclad ships, she was but the flagship of a tough force of 6 battleships, supported by Adm. Kamimura's powerful cruiser squadron: 20 ships, six of them heavy armored cruisers which could -- and did -- stand in the line of battle as it was reckoned in 1905. The Japanese fleet under Adm. Togo's command was noted for its taut discipline, high standard of seamanship, and superior gunnery. By contrast, barely an attempt was made to mold the ignorant Russian peasants pressed into service on the Baltic fleet, into proper mariners; there was only one target shoot during their seven-month voyage out -- a journey plagued with incompetence and breakdowns, sabotage and suicide. Japan procured her large, modern fleet abroad -- the battleships custom built in Britain, cruisers in Italy, Germany, France, and England. Japan paid for her puchases largely with the indemnity moneys paid her by China under the Treaty of Shimonoseki which had concluded the Sino-Japanese War in 1895. But Japan was rapidly acquiring the skills and structure to build for herself -- a transformation that occurred during this time, in the decade following the Russo-Japanese War victory.

Large Schematic of the Mikasa

Mikasa, 1:700 model by Tim Watson
Mikasa, 1:700 resin model by Tim Watson. Ship built by Vickers, completed 1902.


A nice stern-quarter view of Mikasa, speeding off on some urgent mission.

    Historic Profile of the Mikasa


The Fuji Class (1897)


Fuji was Japan's first pre-dreadnought battleship, ordered 1893, completed 1897. Built at Thames Iron Works, Blackwall (London).

Yashima, sister to Fuji, was built at the Elswick Works, Newcastle-on-Tyne, by Armstrong Whitworth and delivered in 1897. She was sunk by a Russian mine May 15, 1904. The minelayer Amur claimed the double kill, but Amur later got hers. Commentary

    Class Notes: The Fuji Class


The Shikishima Class (1900)

Japanese battleship HATSUSE at anchor

The 15,000-ton Hatsuse was nearly the equal of Mikasa and Asahi, built by Armstrong's at their famous Elswick Works on the River Tyne in Northumberland. The ship fell victim to 2 Russian mines on May 15, 1904, while serving as flagship of the blockading squadron off Port Arthur. 334 of her crew, including Captain Nakao and Admiral Tokioki, were rescued, but the remaining 496 were lost with the ship.

SHIKISHIMA in port at Nagasaki

Hatsuse's sister-ship, Shikishima proved a reliable fleet unit. Built at Thames Iron Works; completed Dec. 1900. For a fabulous wide hi-res view, click here.

    Historic Profile: The Shikishima Class


HIJMS Asahi (1901)

ASAHI

Asahi, an improved version of the Shikishima class design with 2 funnels, was also a near sister to the Mikasa. When she was built at John Brown & Co., Clydebank (Glasgow), she was the heaviest battleship yet constructed on the River Clyde; ere long the works of John Brown would pound out dreadnoughts such as the Queen Elizabeth, the Renown, and the Hood. After the long voyage out to Japan, Asahi commissioned in 1901. She is seen above at Togo's wartime base at Mesumpho on the Korean mainland.

    Historic Profile of the Asahi


Japan's Battle Fleet of 1904 - 05: Commentary

MIKASA forward 12in turret

Fuji and Yashima were Japan's first two pre-dreadnoughts, begun in 1894 and commissioned in 1897. They were of 12,500 tons and closely followed the Royal Sovereign model except in three particulars: They were 2,000 tons smaller than the British ships; they were faster at 18 kts; and they included armored gunhouse protection for the main armament gun crews. Did I say three? Four . . . four points of difference: Of course, no side-by-side funnels ever in the Japanese fleet! The remaining four battleships ordered by Japan and completed in time for the Russo-Japanese War were larger vessels at 15,000 tons, but held to the 18-kt standard speed. Shikishima and Hatsuse, the three-funnel versions, were sister ships; the other two, one-offs. Closely following the Majestic model, they had 9" Harvey belt armor thinning to 6" on the upper hull and tapering at both ends. The Mikasa, intended from the first as the Imperial flagship, had KC armor throughout. On the other three ships, all the 6" guns were in casemate mountings, but Mikasa retained the casemates only on the four corner guns, the others being in an armored box battery along the main deck (see gunnery plan, below). As Japan struck the first blow in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, her battle fleet was more than equal to Russia's Far East squadron: relatively equal numbers, seven Russian to Japan's six; but Japan had the advantages of modernity and homogeneity. However, Japan's battleship strength was reduced by one-third on May 15, 1904 when first Hatsuse and then Yashima blundered into a Russian minefield and sank from the damage inflicted. Some 500 perished in the Hatsuse's demise, and more than 200 of the Yashima's crew died. Nevertheless, the remaining four battleships, backed by Kamimura's beefy armored cruisers, proved more than a match for the Port Arthur fleet at the Battle of the Yellow Sea in August of '04. In May 1905, after considerable practice and preparation, the Japanese were able to wipe out the incompetent and exhausted Russian Baltic fleet at the Battle of Tsushima. Although Japan had three more battleships abuilding at the time, they were superfluous to winning the war at sea for the Emperor Meiji.

Gunnery plan of MIKASA
Gundeck layout of the Mikasa.


Japan's Semi-Dreadnoughts - 1906-11

Commentary on the 'Semi-Dreadnought Era' in the IJN

The Katori Class (1906)

KASHIMA at anchor, cleaned for review

Kashima and her sister Katori, the replacements for Hatsuse and Yashima, were under construction in 1905, but not completed until May 1906, although construction was rush-ordered at Armstrong's. The two ships were improved Mikasas with elements borrowed from the King Edward VII class. Specifically, they mounted four 10" guns in single turrets at the corners of the superstructure, easily seen in this photo. Kashima was photographed during an inspection while anchored in a cove on the indented coastline of Yokosuka. These two powerful ships both served in WWI. Click here for a terrific enlargement.


    Historic Profile: The Katori Class


The Satsuma Class (1910)

AKI on trials, with lots of black smoke & white spray

Aki, seen here on trials, was Japan's first turbine battleship, and immediately established the soundness of the new engine technology with a 2¼-knot speed advantage over her nearly identical, piston-engined sister Satsuma. These ships were to have been dreadnoughts, but due to the tight supplies of 12" guns, the design was modified to include an arsenal of 10" guns instead. As completed, Aki and Satsuma each mounted four 12"/50 cal. guns in the usual configuration, plus twelve 10" guns in six wing turrets (like France's Danton class, see plan below). Click here for a heart-pounding enlargement of the trials picture above!

Plan of HIJMS SATSUMA of 1910

The later of the two Satsumas, Aki became Japan's first turbine-powered battleship, 2 knots faster than her nearly identical sister. As in navies elsewhere, the outstanding performance of turbines was recognized. All Japan's capital ships would be turbine powered from then onward. Click here for enlarged plan.

    Historic Profile: The Aki


The Kawachi Class (1912)

SETTSU underway, silhouette view w/smoke

Japan finally got her dreadnoughts with the Kawachi and Settsu (above), though even then not with a homogeneous main armament. These two powerful ships settled for four 12"/50 on the centerline and eight 12"/45 in 4 wing turrets, in a "hex" disposition like that of SMS Nassau. Built at the Kure and Yokosuka shipyards, respectively, they were powered by twin 25,000-SHP Brown-Curtis turbines manufactured under license in Japan. These robust engines powered them reliably at up to 20 kts. Commissioned in 1912, Kawachi and Settsu both participated in the Battle of Qingdao in 1914, side-by-side with HMS Triumph and the IJN's new battlecruiser Kongo. Kawachi later blew up from a cordite fire in Tokuyama Bay, Shikoku, in late 1918, with the loss of some 60% of her crew of 1059. Settsu survived to become a target ship, becoming the stand-in for the USS Arizona for torpedo-bomber pilots preparing for the raid on Pearl Harbor. Not inappropriately, Settsu was finally sunk in the Inland Sea by U.S. aircraft, 1945. The wreck was refloated, towed away, and scrapped in 1947.

    Historic Profile: The Settsu


Japan's Semi-Dreadnought Battlecruisers

Japanese battlecruiser IBUKI

Japan produced two generations of semi-dreadnought battlecruiser, the Tsukuba and Ibuki classes (1907 and 1909, respectively). Like pre-dreadnought battleships evolved at the same time, these 15,000-ton cruisers mounted four 12" guns apiece. The Tsukuba carried a dozen each of 6" and twenty 4.7" guns, while the enlarged Ibukis (above) mounted eight 8" guns in twin turrets. Both classes traded armor for speed: they had armor nowhere thicker than 7", but the Ibuki boasted a turbine-driven speed of 22 kts; the earlier pair had reciprocating engines and could manage 20.5 kts. During this transitional period, Japan was beginning to build its own advanced battleships and battlecruisers, generally with good results. All four of these battlecruisers were constructed in Japan; moreover, their big guns were all manufactured in Japan under license from Armstrong Whitworth. The rapidity and apparent skill of construction shocked and dismayed American observers. There could be no doubt at all that they were witnessing the emergence of a powerful rival only nine years after the U.S. had moved into the neighborhood. During this transitional time, Japan's accepted practice was to order a prototype from a British yard and then reverse-engineer it in Japan. These battlecruisers were entirely Japanese productions, however. The Kashima was, in fact, the last foreign-built battleship ordered by the Japanese.


Japan's Semi-Dreadnoughts: Commentary

Japan's semi-dreadnought era came about by chance: The Japanese Admiralty very much wanted to produce dreadnought ships, and in fact designed the vessels shown for a homogeneous all-big-gun armament configured like the German Nassau class with 2 centerline and 4 beam turrets. However, shortages of the 12"/50 cal. guns due to the worldwide Dreadnought arms race handed Japan a stark choice: accept long delays in delivery, or accept lesser guns with ordinary delivery. Japan opted for the latter, settling for ships which had substantially less firepower than a true dreadnought (Aki class) or which lacked homogeneous main armament (Kawachi class).

These were still very powerful ships and helped maintain Japan's pre-eminence in Asian waters during the WWI era; they were never called to stand in the line of battle as at Tsushima so their virtues and flaws were not tested.


The Kongo and Dreadnought Lineage
in the Imperial Japanese Navy

Japanese battlecruiser KONGO on trials, 1912

The Japanese were increasingly self-assured and self-sufficient as shipbuilders as 1910 neared and passed. However, as the dreadnought era reeled toward its giddy prewar zenith, the Japanese ordered one dreadnought battlecruiser from Vickers -- the famous Kongo, seen above on trials. Designed by Vickers' chief engineer, Sir George Thurston, she benefited from release from the Royal Navy's rigid specifications. Commissioned in 1911, Kongo was in every way a superior warship to the ones being built for the "home team." 728 feet long, mounting eight 14" guns, with a dazzling 30-kt trials speed, Kongo was so influential a design that the Royal Navy halted work on its new battlecruiser Tiger and redesigned her to emulate Kongo's layout, with three funnels grouped amidships and Q turret boosted a deck higher in the superstructure than the X, or stern, turret. Reverse engineering the Kongo, Japanese shipyards produced no fewer than seven improved versions by 1919 -- three near-sisters and two improved classes of two, built as full battleships. All of these Kongo-generation ships survived (with later modernization and rebuilding) to fight in WWII -- Kongo and her four sisters rebuilt as fast battleships. Japan has long harbored a fascination with giantism, and many times held the record for world's biggest battleship. Japan's next step -- the 38,000-ton Nagato class (completed 1920) -- led the world by going to a 16" main battery.

Japan's Dreadnoughts at a Glance

Name

Date

Tonnage

Main Armament

Fate

Kawachi Class

       Kawachi, Settsu

1910

21,420

12 x 12" (6x2)

Kawachi blew up 1918
Settsu sunk by air attack

Kongo Class Battlecruisers

       Kongo, Hiei, Haruna, Kirishima
     27-kt Battlecruisers Rebuilt
     as Fast Battleships, 1937-40

1911

27,500

8 x 14" (4x2)

Sunk in WWII
Kirishima in duel w/BB-59
Kongo torpedoed by US sub
Haruna scuttled at Kure 7/28/45

Fuso Class

       Fuso, Yamashiro

1916

29,300

12 x 14" (6x2)

Sunk @ Leyte Gulf

Ise Class
Similar to Fuso, but P and Q
turrets grouped in a superfiring pair.

       Ise, Hyuga

     These two were converted into
     demi-aircraft carriers by removing
     their aft turrets late in the War.

1918

29,900

12 x 14" (6x2)

Ise sunk by US Corsairs @ Kure
Hyuga sunk Niro Bay - both 7/28/45.

Nagato Class

       Nagato, Mutsu
     First 16-in Battleships

1921

32,720

8 x 16" (4x2)

Mutsu mag. exp. 1943
Nagato sunk @
Bikini A-bomb test, 1946

Yamato Class

       Yamato, Musashi
     First 18-in Battleships

1941 (Y),
1942 (M)

68,200 std
73,000 f.l.

9 x 18" (3x3)

Musashi sunk by
aircraft @ Leyte; Yamato
Sunk @ Okinawa

The Treaty Era and the Pacific War

Aerial photo of YAMATO trying to evade air attack
Yamato on her trials, fall 1941, before she joined the Pearl Harbor Task Force. Super enlargement

Thanks to the Washington Treaty of 1922, the Nagatos were also the last battleships built in Japan for 20 years. Between the wars, the IJN fielded a powerful fleet of a dozen dreadnoughts, superbly documented for us in period propaganda films. Unfortunately, the Japanese naval establishment promoted a culture of conformity and orthodoxy, enforced from an officer's first days at the Etajima Naval Academy, near Hiroshima. While both Japanese torpedocraft and aviators excelled between the wars, the Japanese admirals were late to grant their air arm the priority and flexibility of command the new medium demanded. The high command placed its fine ships and men at grave disadvantage in battle by failing to develop radar earlier -- it was just being implemented in 1944, while the opposing U.S. Navy had been benefiting from radar-assisted targeting since 1939. In 1942 Japan's original naval strategist, Adm. Yamamoto, was shot down over Guadalcanal by U.S. fighters, and with him went any tendency to look for solutions outside the box. In important ways, Japan's remaining high command failed to learn from its mistakes. As Hirohito's jerrybuilt empire began to crumble, armchair admirals with no combat experience insisted on fighting the war from Tokyo.

If the Nagato and Mutsu were the last word in 1920 dreadnoughts, they presaged Japan's last battleships: the 70,000-ton mammoths Yamato and Musashi (above), built in deep secrecy beginning in 1937 and commissioned 1941-42: the biggest and most heavily armed battleships ever built anywhere. Each resembled a floating city, with some 4,000 crew; each absorbed an incredible amount of punishment; but each went to the bottom after absorbing scores of torpedo and bomb hits, magazine explosions, etc. Musashi succumbed to Yankee bombing at Leyte Gulf, but ater that defeat, the flagship Yamato escaped back to Japan. Firebrand patriots aboard demanded to be sent on a suicide mission, and were ordered to Okinawa with only enough fuel in their tanks for a one-way journey. The Second Fleet force sent was a pitiful remnant of the once-mighty Japanese Navy: aside from the huge battleship, the squadron consisted of the light cruiser Yahagi and eight destroyers. The patriotic officers certainly got the fiery end they yearned for when they were attacked by 386 U.S. carrier aircraft just SW of Kagoshima, Kyushu. Below, the Yamato maneuvers desperately between near misses at the height of the attack that sent her to the bottom on April 7, 1945. In all, it required nine torpedoes and scores of bombs to destroy Yamato. Even then, there is circumstantial evidence suggesting the crew blew up Yamato's own magazines to finish the job. Of the Japanese task force, only three damaged destroyers escaped. As against ten U.S. planes lost, the Japanese suffered nearly 2,500 killed on Yamato alone, plus 446 from Yahagi and 721 from the sunken destroyers. The massed kamikaze air attack on American forces at Okinawa, for which the Yamato Force's mission was supposed to provide a diversion, succeeded only in damaging three American ships, at the cost of almost 100 aircraft.

Aerial photo of YAMATO trying to evade air attack

The demise of Japan's two behemoths at the hands of American air power dramatized the passing of the armored battleship as a front-line weapon. Of the dozen battleships Japan had mustered in 1942, only one survived on the date of surrender -- the mighty Nagato. She met a suitably ghastly end as a target in the Bikini A-bomb tests of 1946 -- Operation Crossroads. All that remains of Japan's dreadnought fleet is one 16" barbette from her sister Mutsu, on permanent display at the naval academy at Etajima.


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