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The Imperial Japanese Navy

In little more than fifty years Japan has grown from small beginnings into a naval Power of major importance with a fleet which, in efficiency, as well as in numbers, rivals the navies of any part of the world


The Kongo was the last important Japanese warship to be built abroad

LAUNCHED AT BARROW, LANCASHIRE, IN 1913, the Kongo was the last important Japanese warship to be built abroad. Displacing 29,330 tons, the Kongo has an overall length of 704 feet, a beam of 92 feet and a draught of 27 ft. 6 in. This photograph shows the Kongo before her extensive alterations in 1926-30 and 1935-36. She now has the massive tophamper characteristic of modern Japanese battleships.

THE sudden transformation of Japan from an obscure kingdom existing in hermit-like seclusion into one of the Great Powers of the world forms not the least astonishing and dramatic chapter in modern history. Until the middle of the last century Japan was a feudal State whose manners and customs bore no relation to those of Western civilization. Her warriors still took the field in full body armour, and although fire-arms were not unknown in the country, most of the fighting was done with bows and arrows and two-handed swords.

There is no record of an organized navy having existed at that period, but in 1860 an armed wooden steamer was laid down at Nagasaki. This vessel was the first steamship to be built in the country.

During the following ten years a number of warships were bought from America and Europe. These vessels comprised the Imperial squadron which in 1869, during the civil war between the Imperialists and the supporters of the Shogun (dictator), fought an action with the Shogunate fleet at Hakodate and gained a victory. This war not only welded Japan into a united empire, but also gave her rulers their first lesson in the value of sea power — a lesson which they promptly turned to account.

Shipyards were established in many parts of the country, including a Government- dockyard at Yokosuka. The shipbuilding industry developed so rapidly that between 1870 and 1885 more than 250 steamers were put afloat, as well as a great number of sailing vessels.

Ironclad construction, however, was still beyond the national resources, and for many years Japan continued to buy such vessels abroad, the earliest being a small battleship and two armoured corvettes ordered from British firms, in 1876. A few years later she acquired two cruisers, the Naniwa and the Takachiho, which were built in England on the Tyne, and were destined to make history in the Sino-Japanese War (1891-95). The first large modern warship of Japanese make was the Hashidate, a fast cruiser of nearly 4,300 tons, which was launched at Yokosuka in 1891, though the plans and part of the structural material had to be obtained from France. In 1894 the Japanese Navy included seven armoured ships, all of foreign construction, and twenty-six unarmoured vessels, the majority of which had been built in Japan.

Meanwhile the young navy, recognizing the importance of the human factor in naval efficiency, applied to the British Government for the loan of officers to act as advisers and instructors. The first British officer to visit Japan in this capacity was Admiral Tracy, who was succeeded by Admiral Hopkins and then by Captain John Ingles.

Japanese historians warmly acknowledge the services performed by these British advisers. Count Okuma, one of Japan’s leading statesmen, wrote in his memoirs: “We are indebted to Western experts for the inception and subsequent development of our Navy; especially to the British Government for the courteous loan of a number of their capable officers to serve as instructors at the cadets’ college in Tokio. The men of deeds and ability that the Imperial Navy now possesses are the direct consequence of the tuition then granted us by British officers.”

The remarkable growth of Japanese sea power attracted little notice abroad until 1894, when a dispute over Korea led to war between China and Japan. During this campaign the Japanese fleet was handled with a skill that amazed foreign beholders. Steam tactics, gunnery and torpedo work were all carried out with a smartness and precision which would have done credit to any navy in the world. At the battle of the Yalu (September 17, 1894) a Japanese cruiser squadron utterly defeated a Chinese force which included two powerful battleships, sinking several vessels and driving the remainder into a fortified anchorage, where they were later attacked with the utmost gallantry by Japanese torpedo boats.

During the ten years following the successful war with China the Imperial Navy steadily increased in strength and efficiency. First-class battleships, equal to any then afloat, were ordered abroad, as well as armoured and protected cruisers and destroyers, many of these vessels being built in Japanese dockyards. Thus, by 1904 the Japanese Navy, though still of modest size, had become a finely-tempered and formidable war machine, whose prowess was soon to be demonstrated in no uncertain fashion.

In the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 the Japanese fleet, under the command of Admiral Togo, gained a succession of victories culminating in the triumph of Tsushima, where a Russian fleet of approximately equal strength was annihilated, as described in the chapter ”The Battle of Tsushima”. After this war there was no longer any question that there had arisen in the Far East a World Power of the first rank, which must henceforth be a dominating factor in the destinies of the Pacific.

Japan’s resources had, however, been severely taxed by the titanic struggle with Russia, and for the time being she was not in a position to make any large addition to her naval armaments. It is true that her fleet was reinforced by a number of ex-Russian ships which had fallen into her hands at Port Arthur and were salved and repaired with great skill.

Problem of the Pacific

This increment in strength, however, proved to be but temporary, for the advent of the dreadnought type in 1906 had the effect of rendering obsolete all big warships of earlier design. Japan, in common with every other naval Power, was confronted with the gigantic task of rebuilding her battle fleet on a dreadnought basis.

For a nation whose treasury had been sadly depleted by the exactions of war this was a serious problem, and for this reason the development of the Japanese Navy in the ten years following the struggle with Russia was on a relatively much smaller scale than the progress which had been achieved in the previous decade. In the war of 1914-18 the Japanese Navy played but a limited

part, though it co-operated loyally with the Allied naval forces in the Pacific and the Mediterranean. In 1916, when the issue of the war was still uncertain, Japan took stock of her naval position and finally decided on a policy which was to have far-reaching reactions. Determined at all costs to consolidate her supremacy in her own waters, which might be said to include a large sector of the Western Pacific, she proposed to build a new fleet not inferior in magnitude and fighting power to that of any foreign force which could be deployed in that area.

This qualification is important and needs to be briefly explained. Modern warships have a radius of action conditioned first by the quantity of fuel they can carry, and secondly by the base or dockyard facilities at their disposal. It follows, therefore, that a battleship or cruiser of to-day can remain at sea for a limited period only, for as soon as her supply of fuel begins to run low she must return to the nearest friendly base to replenish her bunkers. Moreover, a ship which has spent a considerable time at sea, especially in tropical or subtropical waters, requires to be docked to have her hull cleaned. If this is not done at fairly frequent intervals the speed of the ship will gradually decrease, with a consequent loss of efficiency.

There are few non-Japanese naval bases in the Western Pacific, and those that do exist are obsolete and ill-defended, thanks to the operation of an international agreement, concluded in 1922, which forbade the modernization or further development of such bases for an agreed period of not less than fourteen years.

The Kako is a Japanese cruiser of 7,100 tons displacement

ARMED WITH SIX 8-IN. GUNS, the Kako is a Japanese cruiser of 7,100 tons displacement. Completed in 1926, she has a length of 580 feet, a beam of 50 ft. 9 in and a draught of 14 ft. 9 in. The Kako, which resembles the Kinugasa, illustrated below, has many original and unusual features in her design Her 8-in guns are mounted in single turrets and her bridge works and masts are arranged in unique fashion.

This lack of suitable local bases, coupled with the limited cruising radius of modern warships due to the handicaps mentioned above, would effectively prevent any foreign Power from concentrating the greater part of its naval strength in or near Japanese waters. On the other hand, Japan herself has a number of thoroughly modern and well-equipped dockyards at her disposal, and is therefore able to concentrate her entire fleet in almost any part of the Western Pacific. This means that although her fleet may be smaller on paper than that of a potential enemy, it would in practice be far superior in strength for warlike operations in Far Eastern waters.

These considerations were duly weighed by Japan when she drafted her new naval programme in 1916. It provided for the building and maintenance of eight battleships and eight battle cruisers of the most powerful type, as well as a proportionate number of cruisers, destroyers and submarines.

Behind the sixteen first-line capital ships would be a force of sixteen older but still effective armoured ships, making a total of thirty-two battle units, supported by a strong contingent of cruisers and other light craft, the whole constituting a force which no other Power could hope to match in the Far East.

The cost of this programme would have been enormous, but the Japanese nation did not shrink from paying the price of what it deemed to be the minimum standard of naval strength consistent with security. Many of the new ships would, if completed, have overshadowed in size and armament the largest men-of-war then afloat. There were, for instance, four battle cruisers, each of 43,500 tons, to be armed with eight 16-in. guns and to have a speed of 33 knots, and their immediate successors were reported to be ships of 46,000 tons, armed with eight 18-in. Guns.

The only foreign ships that approached these mastodons were the four British battle cruisers which were begun in 1921, but never completed. They were to have displaced 48,000 tons and to have been armed with nine 16-in. guns.

This colossal Japanese programme did not go unheeded in the United States, which in view of its position in the Philippine Islands and its extensive commercial interests in China, could not remain indifferent to the balance of power in the Far East. Soon, therefore, an American building programme of even larger dimensions than the Japanese was announced, and there began a period of unavowed but obvious rivalry between the naval shipyards of the two countries.

Powerful Battle Fleet

Such was the position when the Washington Naval Conference met in 1921. The outcome of this momentous gathering is well known. The greater part of the Japanese and American building programmes were scrapped, Japan agreeing to restrict her future fleet to sixty per cent of America’s tonnage, on condition that the United States founded no new naval bases in the Western Pacific and suspended all work on those already existing. The treaty embodying this agreement was to end on December 31, 1936, and therefore the future naval situation in the Pacific is obscure.

Although the Philippine Islands have recently been granted their independence by the United States, America still retains responsibility for the defence of the islands and this obligation is to continue for a further ten or twelve years. As the Philippines are 4,800 miles distant from Hawaii, the only first-class insular naval base which the United States have in the Pacific, it is difficult to see how the Philippines could be adequately protected without the creation of strong bases farther to the west.

It is possible, therefore, that the American island of Guam may be converted into a big fleet station, as was contemplated in 1921 before the demilitarization agreement was reached with Japan. A fleet based on Guam would be only 1,500 miles from the Philippines, and therefore excellently placed to cover them from attack.

Under the Washington Treaty, Japan was restricted to a total of ten capital ships with a total tonnage of 301,320. This number was further reduced to nine by the London Treaty of 1930. To make the most of this small battle force each unit has been thoroughly modernized at great expense The two most powerful ships in the fleet of 1936 were the Nagato and the Mutsu, completed in 1920-21, each having a displacement of 32,720 tons and a speed of 23 knots. A powerful armament is carried, consisting of eight 16-in. guns, twenty 5.5-in. quickfirers, eight 5-in. anti-aircraft guns and six torpedo tubes. Armour protection is fairly strong, though inferior to that of the average American battleship.

The Nagato and her sister present a somewhat grotesque appearance, as the forward funnel, having been bent back to keep the smoke away from the navigating bridge and the fire-control positions, resembles a gigantic chemical retort. The greater part of the cost of the Mutsu was defrayed by popular subscription, and Japanese school children contributed a large proportion of the money.

The Japanese cruiser Kinugasa was completed in 1927

AN UNDULATING DECK LINE is not the least unusual feature of the cruiser Kinugasa, which was completed in 1927. Similar to the Kako (illustrated above) in dimensions, she has a speed of 33 knots. Her trunked funnels give her an almost grotesque appearance. Her armament includes six 8-in, four 4.7-in. anti-aircraft guns and twelve torpedo tubes. She also carries two planes and a catapult.

Next in order of age are the battleships Ise and Hyuga, completed in 1917-18. These are vessels of 29,990 tons, with a speed of 23 knots. The armament consists of twelve 14-in. guns in double turrets, eighteen 5.5-in. quickfirers and eight 5-in. anti-aircraft guns, as well as four torpedo tubes.

Amidships there is a 12-in. armour belt, and the gun turrets have armour of similar thickness. The protection of both ships was improved during their recent rebuilding, but it is still inferior to that of later vessels designed in accordance with the lessons of Jutland.

A feature common to all Japanese battleships is the enormous amount of tophamper they carry. Bridges and control stations seem to be indiscriminately piled one upon the other, the result being a towering pagoda-like structure which offers an immense area of target to shell fire. The multiplicity of control stations suggests that the Japanese navy has adopted a system of duplicating or triplicating every important command post throughout the ship, an inference supported by the unusually high proportion of officers to ratings in each ship.

Similar to ships of the Ise class are the Fuso and the Yamashiro, completed respectively in 1915 and 1917. Their displacement is 29,330 tons and their speed 22½ knots. The main armament is identical with that of the Ise, but the secondary battery comprises sixteen 6-in. guns, with eight 5-in. anti-aircraft pieces and two torpedo tubes. Armour up to a thickness of 12 in. protects vital parts, and anti-torpedo bulges were fitted during reconstruction.

The last three units of the battle fleet of 1936 were the Kongo, Haruna and Kirishima, completed in 1913-15. Originally these ships — with a fourth sister, the Hiyei, since demilitarized by international agreement — were rated as battle cruisers, and their design bears a family resemblance to that of H.M.S. Tiger, the British battle cruiser scrapped in 1931.

The Kongo, which was built in England in 1913, is noteworthy as being the last Japanese warship of any importance to be built abroad. Displacing 29,330 tons, the three ships originally had a uniform speed of 26 knots, though this has certainly been reduced by the fitting during reconstruction of extra armour protection and anti-torpedo bulges.

The Japanese battle fleet, therefore, is a small and somewhat mixed force, though its average speed is considerably higher than that of the American battle fleet.

Development of Naval Aviation

Always quick to accept new ideas, Japan has displayed characteristic enterprise in the development of naval aviation, in which respect she has set an example to older and more conservative navies. In 1936 she had seven aircraft carriers built and building, exclusive of two ships which accommodate seaplanes.

Further, all Japanese battleships and cruisers are lavishly equipped with aircraft, and Japan has created a chain of naval aerodromes ashore which extends the whole length of her coast-line from Formosa in the south to the bleak islands of the Kurile group, not more than about 1,000 miles from the Arctic Circle. Japan, in short, rivals the United States as a pioneer in adapting aviation to the needs of sea power.

The two largest Japanese aircraft carriers are the Kaga and the Akagi. The Kaga was laid down in the first instance as a battleship and the Akagi as a battle cruiser. Their speeds are 23 and 28½ knots respectively. Each has an armament of ten 8-in. guns and twelve 4.7-in. anti-aircraft pieces. These ships, each of which can accommodate from thirty to fifty planes, had much the same appearance as H.M.S. Furious, smoke from the furnaces being discharged from the side through horizontal funnels. In 1936 the Kaga was rebuilt with a vertical funnel placed on the extreme starboard side of the deck, as in H.M.S. Courageous.

Other Japanese aircraft carriers are the Ryujo, of 7,100 tons and 25 knots, the Soryu and the Hiryu, of 10,050 tons and 30 knots, and the Hosho, 7,470 tons and 25 knots. According to official figures, the Japanese Navy in the summer of 1936 had over 400 ship-borne aircraft, with 500 machines co-operating with the fleet from shore bases.

Thirty-seven ships figured on the official Japanese list of cruisers (1936), but this total included several vessels which are obsolete. Among the latter are six armoured cruisers which formed part of Admiral Togo’s fleet in the battle of Tsushima, and are probably retained more for sentimental reasons than because of their limited fighting value. Japan’s most powerful cruising ships are eight units of the Myoko and Nachi types, completed between 1928 and 1932. They displace 9,850 and 10,000 tons respectively, and have a uniform speed of 33 knots.

The Japanese destroyer Minadzuki has a displacement of 1,315 tons

THE JAPANESE CHARACTERS painted on this destroyer are transcribed variously as Minadzuki or Minatsuki and signify the month of June. Built in 1927, the Minadzuki has a displacement of 1,315 tons. She has a length of 320 feet, a beam of 30 feet and a maximum draught of 9 ft. 10 in. The Minadzuki has a designed horse-power of 38,500 and her speed is 34 knots.

Each cruiser mounts a main armament of ten 8-in. guns, besides a number of 4.7-in. anti-aircraft weapons, and eight to twelve torpedo tubes. In the same way as the larger ships of the

battle fleet, all these vessels are burdened with a tremendous amount of tophamper, and to foreigners at least, they look overloaded and unstable. It is an open question whether Japanese naval designers, in their ambition to cram the maximum quota of fighting power into a given displacement, have not in some instances overstepped the limits of safety.

In March 1934 a small torpedo boat of a new type, mounting an exceptionally heavy armament, turned turtle in rough weather and drowned most of her crew. Since this disaster the designs of other ships under construction have been modified, and in many instances deck weights have been drastically reduced.

A striking example of what appears to be “overcrowding” is afforded by the twenty-three big destroyers of the Fubuki class, completed in 1928-33. Displacing 1,700 tons, these vessels have a speed of 34 knots and mount an armament of six 5-in. guns, many smaller pieces, and nine torpedo tubes. The guns are twin-mounted in armoured turrets and in several vessels the torpedo tubes have splinter-proof steel hoods, protective features found in no other destroyers yet built. How all this weight has been packed into such a limited displacement is a technical mystery which only the Japanese designers could explain.

Altogether Japan had 116 destroyers in 1936, the great majority being of modern construction. There were also eight new torpedo boats of less than 600 tons, mounting the relatively powerful armament of three 4.7-in. guns and four torpedo tubes. The submarine has always been popular with the Japanese Navy, which in 1936 had fifty-seven of these vessels, including some of the largest and fastest in the world. The most powerful units of the flotilla are six boats of 1,955 tons displacement, with a speed of 17 knots.

Four of these vessels have an armament of two 5.5-in. guns and six torpedo tubes. These boats, which have a large cruising radius, are said to be capable of making a round voyage across the Pacific on one load of fuel.

Next comes a large group of boats displacing about 1,640 tons, with the high surface speed of 19 knots and an armament which includes one 4.7-in. or one 4-in. gun and six or eight torpedo tubes.

Fortified Bases

The latest submarines have a surface speed of 20 knots. Having scrapped all her old boats, Japan now has a submarine fleet entirely of post-war construction, unsurpassed in mobility.

An outstanding feature of the modern Japanese Navy is the symmetry and perfect balance which has been achieved by the pursuit of a wise building policy. The small but compact battle fleet is supported by an ample force of cruisers, heavy and light, and large numbers of destroyers, submarines, minelayers, minesweepers and depot ships, all working in co-operation with a fleet air arm second in strength only to that of the American Navy. Add to these floating and air forces a comprehensive .system of dockyards and fortified bases on the mainland and in the outlying islands, and it will be realized that Japan occupies a naval position which, in the defensive sense at least, is almost certainly superior to that of any other Power in the world.

The fleet is manned by about 90,000 officers and men. Of the men the greater number are long-service volunteers, drawn almost exclusively from the coastal communities, among whom sea service is traditional and instinctive. The percentage of conscripts is relatively small, for the policy of the Government is to make the navy as far as possible a voluntary service.

Japanese naval officers rarely have interests outside their profession, and even their recreations are more often than not some form of military training. When afloat they lead Spartan lives, dispensing with most of the comforts enjoyed by the officers of Western navies. The cabins and ward-rooms in Japanese warships are bare and cheerless.

The bluejackets, too, live the simple life in every sense of the word, but in spite of rations which would excite the derision of a British sailor, and microscopic rates of pay, the Japanese fleetmen are cheerful souls who do their work with marked efficiency.

Discipline is strict, though by no means harsh, the attitude of the average officer to his men being distinctly paternal.

Foreign observers familiar with the Japanese character are inclined to doubt whether the personnel of the navy has fully mastered the complexities of modern naval technique. Be that as it may, all the available evidence suggests that despite their relatively short history the Japanese can handle warships, great or small, no less competently than the seamen of other nations.

The Nagato is a Japanese battleship of 32,720 tons displacement

A JAPANESE BATTLESHIP of 32,720 tons displacement, the Nagato was laid down in 1917 and completed in 1920. Extensive rebuilding was carried out in 1934-36 in the Nagato and her sister ship, the Mutsu. These vessels have a length of 660 ft. 7 in., a beam of 95 feet and a draught of 30 feet. They are armed with eight 16-in., twenty 5.5-in. and eight 5-in. anti-aircraft guns, in addition to six submerged torpedo tubes.

You can read more on ”The Battle of Tsushima”,  “Japanese Shipping” and

“The United States Navy” this website.