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Japanese ship naming conventions are different from those in the West. Japanese warships have never been named after people. Prior to World War II, Japanese ship naming conventions underwent several changes before being settled.

Merchant ships

The word maru ( meaning "circle"?) is often attached to Japanese ship names. The first ship known to follow this convention was the Nippon Maru, flagship of daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi's 16th century fleet.

Several theories purport to explain this practice:

  • The most common is that ships were thought of as floating castles, and the word referred to the defensive "circles" or maru that protected the castle.
  • The suffix -maru is often applied to words representing something beloved, and sailors applied this suffix to their ships.
  • The term maru is used in divination and represents perfection or completeness, or the ship as "a small world of its own."
  • The legend of Hakudo Maru, a celestial being that came to earth and taught humans how to build ships. It is said that the name maru is attached to a ship to secure celestial protection for itself as it travels.
  • For the past few centuries, only non-warships bore the -maru ending. Its use was intended as a good hope naming convention that would allow a ship to leave port, travel the world, and return safely to home port: hence the complete circle arriving back at its origin unhurt.
  • Note also that "Hinomaru", or "sun-disc", is a name often applied to the national flag of Japan.

Today commercial and private ships are still named using this convention.

Warships

Early conventions

When the Imperial Japanese Navy was formed the Ministry of the Navy submitted potential ship names to the Emperor for approval. During the early years ships were often donated by the Shogunate or Japanese clans and the original clan names were kept.

In 1891 the procedure was changed due to changes in the government structure. Two ship names were submitted by the Minister of the Navy to the Lord Chamberlain who then presented the choices to the Emperor. The Emperor could either pick one of the suggested names or one of his own devising.

Ships captured during the First Sino-Japanese War kept their original names but with Japanese pronunciation. For example the Chinese battleship Chen Yuan became Chin'en in Japanese service.

In 1876 the Minister of the Navy was given the authority to choose the names of torpedo boats without imperial approval. In 1902 the authority to name destroyers was delegated to the Minister of the Navy as well.

In 1895 a proposal was made by the Minister of the Navy in an attempt to establish some standard. He proposed that battleships and cruisers be named for provinces or shrines dedicated to protecting Japan, that names of other warships be selected from the names for Japan or provinces.

Ships captured during the Russo-Japanese War were renamed with Japanese names. Some of these vessels were given names related to where they were captured or some other aspect of the war, such as the month of capture. Some Russian ships were given Japanese names that were phonetically similar to their original Russian names (example: Angara became Anegawa).

In 1921 the Minister of the Navy was given authority to name all ships except battleships, battlecruisers, and cruisers. In any event the Navy had to report the new name to the Emperor immediately.

And after 1 August 1905

On 23 April 1905, Naval Minister Gonbee Yamamoto reported to the throne about a new ship naming standard. It was decided on 1 August 1905.

  • Battleship; provinces, another name of Japan
  • First class cruiser (and over 7,500 tons displacement); mountains
  • Second class cruiser (and over 3,500 tons displacement — less than 7,500 tons displacement); put the initial Ni (に)
  • Third class cruiser (less than 3,500 tons displacement); put the initial Ha (は)
  • Other ship names; They were named voluntarily by Naval Minister.

However, second class cruiser and third class cruiser used the river name because it became complicated.

It passed through some changes afterwards, the broad categories of names are given here, with examples, however, if the name is the succession to a ship's name, it is excluded from following contents.

  • Aircraft carriers — special names[1] (Many of them, it is an inheritance from the warship name in the Bakumatsu and the Meiji period.)[2]
    • Fleet aircraft carrier; put the initial Ryū (龍, dragon), Tsuru (Kaku) (鶴, crane) or Ōtori (Hō) (鳳, phoenix) before/after her name
    • Converted warship; put the initial Ōtori (Hō) (鳳, phoenix) after her name
      • Zuihō (瑞鳳) fortunate phoenix
      • Chitose (千歳) and Chiyoda (千代田) did not change their name by a vote by the crews.
    • Converted merchant ship; put the initial Taka (Yō) (鷹, falcon/hawk) after her name
    • And after 4 June 1943 — added provinces and mountains
      • Amagi (天城) Mount Amagi
      • Katsuragi (葛城) Mount Yamato-Katsuragi in prefectural boundary Nara prefecture—Osaka Prefecture
  • Battleships, including those converted into aircraft carriers — provinces
    • Nagato (長門) Nagato province
    • Yamato (大和) Yamato Province
    • Kaga (加賀) Kaga Province
    • Fusō (扶桑) Fusang (another name of Japan)
  • Battlecruisers and heavy cruisers, including those converted into aircraft carriers — mountains
    • Kongō (金剛) a mountain in Osaka prefecture
    • Kirishima (霧島) a volcano in Kagoshima prefecture
    • Akagi (赤城) a volcano in the Kantō region
    • Chōkai (鳥海) Mount Chōkai
  • Light cruisers, including those converted into heavy cruisers — river names
    • Tone (利根) a river in the Kantō region
    • Chikuma (筑摩) a river in Nagano prefecture
    • Suzuya (鈴谷) a river in Karafuto prefecture (now Sakhalin)
    • Yūbari (夕張) Yūbari River in Hokkaidō
  • Training cruisers (post-1940) — Shinto shrines
  • Destroyers
    • Until 27 August 1912 — weather, wind, tide, current, wave, moon, season, other natural phenomenon, plants
    • And after 28 August 1912
      • First class destroyers (and over 1,000 tons displacement) — weather, wind, tide, current, wave, moon, season, other natural phenomenon
      • Second class destroyers (and over 600 tons displacement — less than 1,000 tons displacement) — plants
        • Nara (楢) Oak
        • Momi (樅) Abies firma
        • Sanae (早苗) Rice sprouts
    • Between 12 October 1921 — 31 July 1928 under the Eight-eight fleet programme
    • And after 4 June 1943
      • Type 'A' destroyers — rain, tide
        • Akisame (秋雨) Autumn rain
        • Takashio (高潮) High tide
      • Type 'B' destroyers — wind, moon, cloud, season
        • Yamazuki (山月) Moon over a mountain
        • Yukigumo (雪雲) Snow cloud
        • Hae (南風) South wind of dialect word in Okinawa Prefecture, standard Japanese is Minamikaze
        • Hayaharu (早春) Early spring
      • Type 'D' destroyers — plants
        • Matsu (松) pine tree
        • Nashi (梨) Pyrus pyrifolia
        • Wakakusa (若草) Spring grass
  • Torpedo boats
    • Until 15 January 1924
      • First class torpedo boats (and over 120 tons displacement) — birds
        • Hayabusa (隼) peregrine falcon
      • Second class and third class torpedo boats (less than 120 tons displacement) — consecutive number from '1'
        • Torpedo boat No. 21 (第21号水雷艇)
    • And after 30 May 1931 — birds
  • Submarines
    • Until 31 October 1924 — consecutive number from '1'
    • And after 1 November 1924
      • First class submarines (and over 1,000 tons displacement) — 'I' (伊) and consecutive number from '1', 'I' is first letter in the Iroha
        • I-1 (伊号第1潜水艦) I-Gō Dai-1 sensuikan
        • I-51 (伊号第51潜水艦) I-Gō Dai-51 sensuikan
      • Second class submarines (and over 500 tons displacement — less than 1,000 tons displacement) — 'Ro' (呂) and consecutive number from '1', 'Ro' is second letter in the Iroha
        • Ro-1 (呂号第1潜水艦) Ro-Gō Dai-1 sensuikan
        • Ro-51 (呂号第51潜水艦) Ro-Gō Dai-51 sensuikan
      • Third class submarines (less than 500 tons displacement) — 'Ha' (波) and consecutive number from '1', 'Ha' is third letter in the Iroha, third class submarines were unified to second class submarines on 30 May 1931
        • Ha-1 (波号第1潜水艦) Ha-Gō Dai-1 sensuikan
        • Ha-9 (波号第9潜水艦) Ha-Gō Dai-9 sensuikan
  • Gunboats — places of scenic beauty and historic interest
    • Ataka (安宅) Ataka-no-Seki is a barrier station in Kamakura period
    • Suma (須磨) Suma-no-Ura is beauty spot in Hyōgo Prefecture
  • Coast defence ship/Escort ships
  • Submarine tenders — whales
  • Seaplane tenders — abstract noun, idiomatic word, notable achievement vessels in past war
  • Minelayers
    • as warship (fitted imperial seal on bow) — Island, islands, ancient battlefield
    • as mine boat and cable layer — cape, point, island, islet
      • Sokuten (測天) Sokuten Island is one of the islamd of the Penghu
      • Shirakami (白神) Cape Shirakami
    • as auxiliary minelayer — numbered name
      • Auxiliary minelayer No. 1 (第1号敷設特務艇)
  • Netlayers
    • as warship (fitted imperial seal on bow)
      • Until 3 June 1943 — put the initial Taka (鷹, hawk) after her name
      • And after 4 June 1943 — birds
    • as net laying boat — birds
  • Auxiliary ships
    • Collier, oiler, icebreaker, freighter, repair ship, self-propelled target ship, munition ship — cape, point, strait, channel, bay, port
      • Wakamiya (若宮) Cape Wakamiya; her first classification was transport ship. Cape Wakamiya (Wakamiya-zaki) is in Wakamiya Island, Oki Islands
      • Akashi (明石) Akashi Strait is water between the Akashi and Awaji Island
      • Nojima (野島) Cape Nojima in Bōsō Peninsula
      • Hayasui (速吸) Hayasui-no-Seto is former name of the Hōyo Strait
      • Ōtomari (大泊) Port of Ōtomari in southern Sakhalin Island
    • Minesweeper, landing ship, patrol boat, motor torpedo boat, submarine chaser — numbered name
  • Miscellaneous ships
    • Cargo ship, salvage ship — bridge or station on the arterial road
      • Komahashi (駒橋) Komahashi-shuku is station on Kōshū Kaidō
      • Yodohashi (淀橋) Yodohashi bridge on Ōme Kaidō
    • Repair ship — strait, isthmus
      • Hayase (早瀬) Hayase-no-Seto is water between the Kurahashi Island and Higashi-Nōmi Island
      • Hitonose (飛渡瀬) Hitonose is isthmus between the Etajima and Nōmi Island
    • And over 600-ton Salvage ship and tugboat, and after 22 January 1937 — associated name of the naval base (anchorage name, place name, island)
    • Other miscellaneous ships — numbered name

Post–World War II

Prior to the end of World War II Japanese ship names were rendered in kanji; after the end of the war this tradition was abandoned in favor of hiragana to separate the perception of the Maritime Self-Defense Forces from the old navy.

Translated names

The English translations of the Japanese warships provide names; the literal translation of the characters does not necessarily represent how the name is perceived to the Japanese. For example, Akagi is probably perceived as "red castle" by Japanese about as often as Philadelphia is perceived as the "city of brotherly love" by Americans.

There is a tendency for translations of Japanese names to be somewhat fanciful. For example, Shōkaku is often translated as "crane flying in heaven", but "flying crane" or "soaring crane" is a more accurate translation. Another fanciful translation is "land of divine mulberry trees" for Fusōfuso was a Chinese name for a mythical tree supposed to grow to the east, hence an old poetic word for Japan.

In World War II, the composition of the Japanese Navy was a military secret. US Naval Intelligence built up knowledge of enemy ships through photographic reconnaissance, interrogation of prisoners, and signal interception. Inevitably there were mistakes and misinterpretations; some of these have been repeated in post-war accounts that rely on US Navy documents. For example, a prisoner of war after the battle of Midway reported the existence of an aircraft carrier named Hayataka. This was a deliberate misreading of the characters 隼鷹 in kun-yomi, while they in this case are properly read in on-yomi as Junyō. Accordingly, many US documents refer to the carrier as Hayataka or its class as the Hayataka class.

References

  1. JACAR, C13071953800, p. 25, Report to the throne "Nomenclature of aircraft carrier", 18 December 1933, Minister of the Navy of Japan.
  2. Shizuo Fukui (1996), p. 45.

Bibliography

  • Monthly Ships of the World, "Kaijinsha". http://www.ships-net.co.jp/.  (Japan)
    • No. 441, Special issue Vol. 32, "Japanese cruisers", September 1991
    • No. 453, Special issue Vol. 34, "History of Japanese destroyers", July 1992
    • No. 469, Special issue Vol. 37, "History of Japanese submarines", August 1993
    • No. 507, Special issue Vol. 45, "Escort Vessels of the Imperial Japanese Navy", February 1996
    • No. 522, Special issue Vol. 47, "Auxiliary Vessels of the Imperial Japanese Navy", March 1997
  • Daiji Katagiri, Ship Name Chronicles of the Imperial Japanese Navy Combined Fleet (聯合艦隊軍艦銘銘伝, Rengōkantai Gunkan Meimeiden?), Kōjinsha (Japan), June 1988, ISBN 4-7698-0386-9
  • Masahide Asai, Ship name examination of the Japanese Navy (日本海軍 艦船名考, Nihon Kaigun Kansenmeikou?), Tōkyō Suikōsha (fringe organization of the Ministry of the Navy), December 1928
  • Motoyoshi Hori, Destroyer - Technical recollection (駆逐艦 その技術的回顧, Kuchikukan, Sono gijutsuteki-kaiko?), Hara Shobō (Japan), June 1987, ISBN 978-4-562-01873-4
  • Shizuo Fukui, Stories of the Japanese aircraft carriers, Kojinsha, Japan, 1996, ISBN 4-7698-06558.
  • 1/700 Water Line Series Guide book of Imperial Japanese Navy ships, Shizuoka Plastic Model Manufacturers Association (Aoshima Bunka Kyozai/Tamiya Corporation/Hasegawa Corporation), October 2007
  • "Japan Center for Asian Historical Records (JACAR)". http://www.jacar.go.jp/english/index.html. , National Archives of Japan
    • Reference code: C05110830400, [Data in English is under preparation] 官房306号 12.1.22 雑役船の公称番号及船種変更の件.
    • Reference code: C13071953800, [Data in English is under preparation] 第13類 艦船(4).

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