The Japanese Navy, more completely termed the Imperial Japanese Navy (Nihon Kaigun), designates the navy of Japan from the Meiji era to the end of World War II (1868–1945). Since 1945, the Imperial Japanese Navy has been termed Japan Maritime Self Defense Force, which is often abbreviated to SDF by the Japanese and JMSDF by Westerners. When the Shogun era ended and the Meiji restoration re-established the emperor and imperial house to primary position, it was necessary for the various factions of samurai and rival houses such as the Satsuma and Choshu to come together. This included the flotillas of various boats and early steam vessels they had at their disposal. In 1854, Japan was forced to open trade by the American expedition under Commodore Matthew Perry; this was one of the primary catalysts of the restoration. Both humiliated and alarmed, the Japanese leaders set about an extraordinary crash program of industrialization and modernization of national capability and standing, of which the creation and construction of a modern navy was a major part. As a result, the Imperial Japanese Navy was established in July 1869. Within two years it had absorbed all the various faction units and become centralized, and major naval arsenals and yards at Sasebo, Kure, and Yokosuka were built. From the onset it was decreed its model would be the Royal Navy of Britain, though the French would play a major role as well. Although the Japanese Army occupied precedence in emphasis and politics, the Imperial Navy went on to become the third largest navy in the world by the time of the Washington Naval Conference of 1922 (less than fifty years). The proud Imperial Navy presided over many great successes over more powerful rivals, scoring memorable victories in the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War that expanded the Japanese Empire’s influence and stature. However, the 1930s brought the ruinous war with China, and the demand for resources to fuel its ambitions would plunge Japan into the Greater East Asia War, the war in the Pacific in World War II. Despite a truly spectacular beginning with the attack on Pearl Harbor and at one time conquering most of the Central and South Pacific, the Pacific War ended with the Imperial Navy’s nearly complete destruction. In its short but memorable life of less than a century, the Imperial Navy would see the employment of the full range of modern warfare at sea—from masterful organization and operations of an oceans-roaming carrier task force, to the logistics of ambitious amphibious operations, island battles, and deployments far from base, to finally the blunt grim pragmatism of kamikaze suicide attacks.
The War in the Pacific, to a far greater degree than that in Europe, was also a clash of cultures and worldviews. There are some key sources for the Western reader to understand the Japanese perspective and mindset. The Axis History Forum—Japan at War 1895–1945 regularly presents discussion using contemporary or translated accounts on military and cultural subjects. Combined Fleet delivers regularly updated and valuable Japanese ship operations and histories. Cressman 2000 includes Imperial Japanese Navy events in a chronology that is very up to date in sources. Dull 1978 provides one of the most accessible distillations of Senshi Sosho and Japanese microfilm information in English. The Japan Center for Asian Historical Records is the online historical repository for Japanese military documents that are being scanned and placed online for public access. Morison 2001 remains an essential reference. US Naval Technical Mission to Japan 1983 contains priceless contemporary studies of surviving Japanese equipment. Evans 1986 in anthology form lays out the myriad experiences of Japanese naval officers in their own words. Military History Section, Special Staff, Far East Command 1952 presents a host of information in forms resembling modern spreadsheets. Finally, Toland 1961 stands as one of those special literary classics in history, and is indispensable for understanding the Japanese culture and experience before and during the Pacific War.
Comprehensive discussion website that takes an apolitical approach to the Axis powers. The Japan at War Section contains many unusual translations and source reference postings.
Combined Fleet [Nihon Kaigun]. Imperial Japanese Navy Page.
This website is hosted by and contributed to by a group of recognized IJN historians. It is regularly updated as new information becomes available. Every ship type and operation is chronicled with detailed stories and movement records.
Cressman, Robert J. The Official Chronology of the U.S. Navy in World War II. Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 2000.
Set down as an episodic, day-by-day, chronological account of the US Navy in World War II. Because it makes extensive use of the latest Japanese research, it also serves as a chronological account of the Japanese Navy. (This pattern holds for other comprehensive sources cited.)
Dull, Paul S. A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy 1941–1945. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1978.
Tells the story of the IJN by almost sole use of Japanese microfilm reels and BKS (Boeicho Kenshujo Senshishitsu—War History Section) volumes. Though faulted for notable editing errors, in many cases it is simply the result of how faithful it is to Dull’s sources. Dull rarely attempts any critical review or check of the reels and BKS records. More often than not, this is an advantage to its reference value.
Evans, David C. The Japanese Navy in World War II: In the Words of Former Japanese Naval Officers. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1986.
A collection of high quality essays by top-ranking former Japanese Navy officers that give a unique and valuable perspective on the Pacific War as seen by participants. Strategy as well as personalities involved are examined.
Important website that is currently engaged in scanning and placing the majority of Japanese military and other historical records online. Some of these are the same as IJN War Diaries and Action Report copies on microfilm held at the US Naval Historical Center. The Japanese counterpart of the Fold3.com online archive.
Military History Section, Special Staff, Far East Command. The Imperial Japanese Navy in World War II: A Graphic Presentation of the Japanese Naval Organization and List of Combatant and Non-Combatant Vessels Lost or Damaged in the War. General Headquarters, Far East Command: Military History Section, February 1952.
A document closely related to the work of JANAC, this English-language presentation shows the date and location of every known vessel lost or damaged, even damage to Japanese shipping. It also includes a breakdown of the organizational command rosters.
Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. (Reprint) Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2001.
Morison’s histories utilized extensive translated Japanese records and chart material available postwar. In addition, he checked many of his facts with cooperative Japanese by correspondence. For this reason, though often dated or erring on US Navy matters, Morison’s volumes remain quite relevant and useful for the Japanese Navy.
Toland, John. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936–1945. New York: Random House, 1961.
A seminal and monumental overview and narrative of the entire arc of the Japanese military venture from a personal and anecdotal point of view of participants. A rich compendium of insights and facts alike. The Japanese Navy’s story is integrated deeply throughout.
US Naval Technical Mission to Japan. Reports of the U.S. Naval Technical Mission to Japan, 1945–1946. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1983.
Often referred to or abbreviated as “NavTech” for short, these reports and surveys are of unique value. They were made at the end of the war, and compiled from interrogations and direct inspections of vessels and equipment. A treasure trove of understanding accessible in English is found in these reports.
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