The Barometer of Japanese History

If there’s one object that can exemplify the ups and downs of Japanese history over the last century, it is the battleship Mikasa, a grey-hulled vessel that fought with distinction in one of the greatest naval victories of all time, 100 years ago this May, and whose subsequent history has served as a barometer of the spiritual and material condition of the Japanese nation. As such, it is now pleasing to note that the ship is now a revered and well-maintained national icon that can be visited in the port of Yokosuka, near Tokyo.

Ordered in 1898, the Mikasa was completed at the Vickers shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness in England in 1902 and sailed out under a British crew to Japan, where she was handed over to the Imperial Japanese Navy. Although the largest and most advanced battleship of her day, the Mikasa also had many features that would soon be superseded, explains Captain Greg K. Kouta, a retired Japanese Navy captain, who is a member of the Mikasa Conservation Society that maintains the memorial ship.
“The Mikasa actually had a ram,” he points out. “That’s why the anchors are stored a little backward from the bow. They thought ships would fight much more closely than they did.”
The expectation that ships would fight a few hundred meters apart also explains other features of the Mikasa. Most of its guns were set laterally, projecting from the side, like the ships of Nelson’s time. This also explains the armor plating. While the sides of the ship are heavily armored, the decks were less protected and therefore vulnerable to high, incoming shells from long range.

That said, the Mikasa also contained some technological breakthroughs, not least its four 12-inch guns with an effective range of approximately 8,000 meters. These were mounted in two turrets, one fore and one aft, that could be turned in any direction. An additional improvement over older ships with similar turrets was that these turrets didn’t have to return to a central alignment for reloading. In addition to its guns, the Mikasa also had four underwater torpedo tubes, although these proved to be largely superfluous in a ship that could bombard its enemies from several miles away.

Togo’s Flagship

When war broke out between Russia and Japan in 1904, the Mikasa, as the most formidable ship in the Imperial Japanese Navy, was the automatic choice to be the flagship of Admiral Heihachiro Togo, the commander-in-chief. She saw constant service against the Russians, particularly in the Battle of the Yellow Sea in August, 1904, when she suffered 23 hits and was badly damaged in a battle that stopped the Russian Far East Fleet escaping from the besieged port of Port Arthur, where it was later captured when the city fell.

The Battle of the Yellow Sea
But her most famous action came in May, 1905, at the Battle of Tsushima, when she led the Japanese fleet against the Russian Baltic that had sailed 18,000 miles around the world from Europe to continue the war. In what was to prove the decisive battle of the war, a Russian fleet comprising 45 ships, including 8 battleships, faced a Japanese fleet of 66 ships, including only 4 battleships. An interesting historical side note is that Isoroku Yamamoto, who would later go on to plan and execute the daring attack on Pearl Harbour 36 years later, served as young ensign on one of the Japanese cruisers.

After months at sea, the Russians were keen to avoid a battle. Their intention was to elude the Japanese fleet and reach Vladivostok, where, it was hoped, they could refuel, refit, and refresh their crews before challenging the Japanese fleet to battle. Unfortunately for the Russians, they had many older, slower ships, including four of their battleships. This meant that the speed of their fleet was pegged to that of the slowest ship. While the Japanese fleet could travel at 16 knots, the Russian fleet could only manage 8 knots.

The route of the Russian fleet.
Another reason for this disparity in speed was the difference in coal. As allies of Great Britain, the Japanese had been provided with Cardiff Coal, which burned at twice the calorific rate as the German coal that the Russian fleet was using. Not only did the British coal provide more energy, but also it created less smoke, giving the Japanese a further advantage in terms of locating the enemy.

Speed and lower visibility were not the only Japanese advantages, as Kouta is keen to point out.
“Another superiority was gunnery accuracy,” he mentions. “While the Russian fleet was sailing round the World, the Japanese had been perfecting their shooting. They also had different shells, with very sensitive explosive powder, which proved very effective in the battle. Even if the shell hit a steel wire, it exploded and spread shrapnel all over and caused fire. The effect was more like the present day napalm bomb shell.”
The Russian fleet was finally sighted on the evening of 26 May, 1905, in the mist-shrouded waters of the Tsushima Strait between Japan and Korea, when two trailing hospital ships were discovered by Japanese cruisers. The next day the two fleets met almost head to head, going in opposite directions. The main Russian battleships were already slipping past the right side of Japanese fleet so Admiral Togo ordered a complete U-turn to cut the enemy off and issued his famous order, “The fate of the Empire rests upon this one battle; let every man do his utmost,” which self-consciously echoed Nelson’s famous words “England expects every man to do his duty,” 100 years earlier at the start of the Battle of Trafalgar.

In the present day Mikasa, one of the main attractions is a large painting of the bridge of the ship at the start of the battle, showing Togo and his staff officers just as the battle is about to commence.

Admiral Togo on the bridge of the Mikasa at the Battle of Tsushima.

With the Mikasa leading the line, the two fleets now opened fire on each other from around 8,000 meters. The Japanese tactic was to use their new shells, designed to explode on the merest impact, to cause the maximum confusion and casualties on deck, while the Russians stuck to the traditional armor-piercing shells designed to hole enemy ships below the waterline.

In a fast moving battle, Japanese gunnery accuracy paid off as the Russian ships lost equipment and personnel necessary for range finding and aiming their guns. As the battle progressed, the Russian guns became less accurate while the Japanese continued to pour a steady fire into their smoke-enshrouded opponents. At this point, the Japanese now switched to the heavier armor-piercing shells, as well as launching a massed torpedo attack that immediately destroyed a Russian battleship.

The Admiral Ushakov sinking.
Four more Russian battleships were put out of action by concentrated fire and the Russian commander Admiral Rozhdestvensky was knocked unconscious with a shell fragment in his skull. This signaled the disintegration of the Russian fleet, as the battle became a melee that continued into the night.

The next day five more battleships under Admiral Nebagatov were forced to surrender. Of this vast Russian fleet, only two damaged destroyers and a small support vessel finally made it to Vladivostok, although other ships escaped to Manila. While the Japanese lost only 117 dead, including 8 on the Mikasa, over 4,000 Russians had been killed and 6,000 captured. Among the Japanese injured was Ensign Yamamoto, who lost two fingers.

Foreign commentators struggled to explain the remarkable victory of a small Asian nation over the fleet of a great European power. Although the real reasons were technological, Western commentators were unwilling to admit this. The New York Sun exemplified this view:
"The Russians were not so much outgeneraled as they were outfought, and they were outfought because they were lukewarm and not wrought to desperation as they had been in the Crimea and in resistance to Napoleon's invasion; whereas every Japanese soldier and sailor believed, as was indeed the truth, that his country's fate was at stake and that his personal conduct might decide the issue."
The battle effectively ended the Russo-Japanese War, but the national arrogance and hubris that it released was to cause Japan problems in the future. Some indictaion of this was given by events on the Mikasa a few months after the war. On September 11th, while in the port of Sasebo for refitting, a terrific explosion ripped through the ship, killing 339 men, or almost half the crew and causing enormous damage.
“Officially they could not say the real reason for the explosion because it would have been bad for morale,” Kouta comments. “However, it later came out that there had been some kind of illicit drinking party in the rear powder magazine and a fire had been caused by an alcohol lamp being knocked over. The sailors chose to have their party there because they thought they would escape the notice of the duty officers. The cause was a kind of arrogance. When you do great things you think you can’t make any mistakes, you are strong, you have no enemy. Then something goes wrong, always. Despite the long history of the navy, it’s bound to happen again.”
Although the ship was now practically scrap metal, national prestige demanded that she be repaired. She later saw action in the Russian Civil War, when she supported Japanese troops occupying Eastern Siberia. However, here too she encountered bad luck. In 1921 she ran aground near Vladivostok and was stuck for 26 days before being successfully refloated.

The Nelsonian configuration of the guns.
Because of its victorious wars, Japan had now become a major power in Asia and the Pacific, causing anxiety among the Americans and British. This led to the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, where Japan reluctantly agreed to limit the size of its fleet in a ratio of 3:5:5 to those of the United States and Great Britain. This meant that some ships would have to be decommissioned. The Mikasa, as an older vessel, was a prime candidate. However, before this happened, she suffered a further misfortune when the Great Kanto Earthquake struck on September 1st, 1923. In addition to destroying Tokyo, the quake also caused a massive tsunami that beached the Mikasa at Yokosuka. The very same month the Mikasa was removed from the registry of warships and the decision was taken to surround her in concrete and convert her into a memorial ship.

From Icon to Go-Go Bar

The Mikasa continued as a revered national monument until the end of World War Two, when the Americans occupied Japan and took over the Yokosuka naval base.
“The Americans wanted to demilitarize Japan,” Kouta recalls. “The occupation authorities tried to change the Japanese national character because they had been frightened by our kamikaze fighting spirit. They introduced democracy and taught us that the Japanese military were bad.”
In 1948 the Mikasa was returned to the city of Yokosuka, but the city leaders, unwilling to displease the U.S. authorities or to associate themselves with Japanese Imperialism, neglected the ship, which fell into disrepair. During the Korean War, much of the ship’s equipment, including gun barrels were stolen and sold for scrap.

Its location on the sea-front also saw it developed as a leisure site. For a time it even included a dance hall where U.S. servicemen could cavort with Japanese bar girls. Another interesting non-military function was as an aquarium, when a concrete dome was built where the rear gun turret had been. These various changes meant that the Mikasa had now become almost unrecognizable, rather in the same way that postwar Japan had become unrecognizable from the proud country that had fought so bravely in the war.

The Mikasa as a dance hall and aquarium.
Strangely, it took an Englishman and an American to help restore Japanese pride. When John Rubin, a native of Barrow-in-Furness, the town where the Mikasa had been built, saw the ship in the 1950s, he was so shocked by her dilapidated state that he wrote to the Japan Times, helping to spark off a campaign to re-found the Mikasa Conservation Society and save the Mikasa. Admiral Chester Nimitz, the commander of the U.S. Navy in the war, also lent his support, and by 1958 efforts were underway to undo the neglect of the past. Since then the ship has been extensively restored, so that she now looks almost as she might have looked a hundred years ago, when Togo paced her decks and Russian shells flew overhead.

Any nation that forgets its past in today’s fast changing world is probably doomed. It is reassuring therefore to see that the Mikasa is now a cherished part of Japan’s national heritage.

Tokyo Journal
May 2005
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