Naming Convention of Japanese Navy Ships

Contributor: C. Peter Chen

Pre-WW2

In the early days of Japanese naval forces, the Minister of the Navy determined the name of every major naval vessel built for naval service, which was submitted to the Emperor for approval. For the ships given to the Japanese Navy by the local Shogun, the original names were retained. Two names were usually given to the Emperor, and the Emperor chose the one that appealed to him more. Starting on 23 Mar 1867, the task of naming torpedo boats was entrusted to the Minister of the Navy. In 1891, the system was altered slightly so that the suggested names were submitted to the Lord Chamberlain first, who in turn passed them on to the Emperor. On 23 Apr 1895, Minister of the Navy Gonbei Yamamoto proposed a system in which battleships and heavy cruisers were to be named as provinces and national shrines. On 16 May 1902, the naming of destroyers was similarly given to the minister. On 16 Jan 1921, all ships except for battleships, battlecruisers, and cruisers were named by the Minister of the Navy without the need for Emperor's approval.

During the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, captured Chinese ships in many cases retained their names, although the pronunciations of the ships' names were changed from their original Chinese pronunciations to the Japanese kanji pronunciations. For example, the Chinese battleship Chen Yuan became Chin'en when she was put into Japanese Navy service. Captured Russian ships during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 were renamed to Japanese names. There was no strict convention for the naming of the captured Russian ships. Some were phonetically renamed, while others were renamed based on the location or date of the battles in which the ships were captured. Some captured Chinese ships were renamed similarly.

Beginning in 1904, the Japanese Navy began adopting an official naming convention that was based on Yamamoto's proposal of 1895. Names of provinces, mountains, rivers, etc. began to appear.

WW2

By the time of WW2, the Japanese Navy had standardized the convention of ship naming to the following, based on ship type:

Ship TypeNaming ConventionExample
Battleships Places in Japan or various names of Japan Yamato, mythical name of Japan
Nagato, a province in southwestern Honshu
Aircraft carriers Birds or mythical creatures Hiryu, flying dragon
Battlecruisers and heavy cruisers Mountains Takao, a mountain outside of Kyoto
Cruisers Rivers or shrines Tone, a river in the Kanto region
Destroyers Meteorological/oceanic phenomena or plants Yukikaze, snowy wind
Matsu, pine
Submarines Number sequence Ha-19
Submarine tenders Whales
Smaller warships Islands Itsukushima, an island in the Inland Sea
Torpedo boats Birds

In regards to the various names of Japan noted for battleships above, they were typically elegant or mythical names of the country. For example, Yamato referred to the Yamato Period of ancient Japan (250-710 AD).

Foreign ships captured were sometimes pressed into Japanese service. Much like earlier practices, captured ships were renamed into Japanese names. The Chinese cruiser Ning Hai, for example, was sunk in Sep 1937, towed back to Japan, and recommissioned as the light cruiser Ioshima.

Japanese civilian ships of the era, even those commandeered for military use, did not follow a strict naming convention. However, most civilian ships had the suffix Maru. Meaning "circle", Maru was often attached to Japanese ships, with the first being 16th century Daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi's ship Nippon Maru. The origin of this name is unknown today, though it is popularly believed that it originated from the concept of the circle of defenses (moats, castle walls, etc.) that were often found around important cities, with ships often regarded as floating cities, a notion shared by western mariners as well. Other theories for the suffix also exist, some mythical in origin and others philosophical. Today, most Japanese civilian ships still follow this naming convention. The diesel-powered freighter Kinai Maru was an example of a ship having the suffix.

Post-WW2

While WW2-era ship names were often written in kanji, which was the Japanese adaptation of Chinese characters, the post-war Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force uses hiragana characters to write the ship names. This change displeased many older naval personnel, but the change was considered a critical symbolism reflecting the change of philosophy from the aggressive WW2-era navy to that of the defensively-minded post-war one. Many of the WW2-era ship names were re-used for the ships of the post-WW2 naval force, although there was no naming convention in terms of ship type, unlike the system used during WW2.

Romanization and Pronunciation

Romanization of Japanese ship names was done only to aid non-Japanese speakers; Romanized names carry no legal or official validity in the Japanese Navy. Most English printed material used the Hepburn system to Romanize the names.

With the Hepburn system, the pronunciation is typically close to what is perceived by English speakers. A common pitfall for English speakers is the failure to differentiate "e" and "i" in Romanized Japanese words. For example, the "e" and "i" in the word kamikaze are often both mistakenly pronounced with the "i" sound; it should be read as "kah-mee-kah-zeh". The battleship Hiei also causes some frustration; in this specific case, it is pronounced "hee-eh-ee". One additional item to keep in mind with pronunciation is that the Japanese language does not place stress in the same way as English. It is tempting to stress the second-to-last syllable, such as in Musashi where the "sa" syllable is incorrectly accented, when in actuality all four syllables should be pronounced with the same weight. One thing that may help is to slightly stress the first syllable of a word, and then read the remaining syllables with equal weight. With this technique, Musashi may be read as "MU-sa-shi".

The pronunciation of Romanized Japanese words is beyond the scope of this article. Below are several guides of the Japanese language, with particular focus on pronunciation, should there be further interest:

Misconceptions

The British Royal Navy and the United States Navy place prefixes before ship names, with the prefixes being HMS for "His/Her Majesty's Ship" and USS for "United States Ship", respectively. Sometimes Western authors extend this practice when referring to WW2-era Japanese ships, with IJN (Imperial Japanese Navy) and HIJMS (His Imperial Japanese Majesty's Ship) being the most popular prefixes used. This practice is entirely western and has no equivalent in the WW2-era Japanese Navy.

Since most Japanese heavy capital ships in the WW2 period were named after names of provinces, mountains, rivers, etc., the origins of these names were proper names in nature. However, in western publications, they are sometimes translated by the meanings of the words when they were meant to be understood only by the locations they refer to. William Lise posed a good example in his article "Naming of Warships in the Imperial Japanese Navy":

The cruiser Aoba might be glossed as "green leaf" but the Japanese wouldn't think of doing so, because Aoba is treated as a unit, without regard to the individual meanings of the constituent characters.... With noted exceptions, this is similar to many city names in the US, for example. Upon encountering the name Indianapolis, few people need to think of this as an "Indian city" to understand the city being referred to.

Note of Interest

Unlike other contemporary navies, the WW2-era Japanese Navy did not have any ships named after people.

Sources: Naming of Warships in the Imperial Japanese Navy, Wikipedia.



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Visitor Submitted Comments

  1. Anonymous says:
    12 Feb 2008 06:52:24 PM

    "Note of Interest

    Unlike other contemporary navies, the WW2-era Japanese Navy did not have any ships named after people."

    So what about the Musashi? :S
  2. C. Peter Chen says:
    13 Feb 2008 05:01:38 AM

    Battleship Musashi was named after the Musashi Province.
  3. Anonymous says:
    13 Jul 2008 04:43:11 PM

    what about japanese frieghters during ww2?
  4. Anonymous says:
    20 Oct 2008 01:10:57 PM

    what kind of japanese ships are there in ww2

  5. Tom Warm says:
    12 Nov 2011 12:24:08 PM

    Hi! Nice site!!
    I am looking for information about a 2nd class Japanese destroyer.
    As I understand it, it was commissioned in 1924 as Guardship Kikyo, and renamed in 1928 as Destroyer Wakatake. It was sunk in 1944 near Palau. I don't find Kikyo nor Wakatake in your list of destroyers.
    I have 1943 US Navy binoculars with Guardship Kikyo (in Japanese) painted on the waterproof case. My brother-in-law confiscated the binoculars from a Japanese marine in 1946 in Tokyo.
    I am trying to find out how the Japanese got hold of the binoculars, and why they painted Guardship Kikyo on it.
    Anything you can suggest would be appreciated.
    Thanx,
    Tom
  6. Wryter says:
    9 Sep 2012 04:57:32 AM


    Great informative site and nice to see.thanks.
  7. David L says:
    28 Jan 2013 04:39:03 PM

    Why do some IJN WWII ships appear to have a western style hull number on the bow, and most do not. Thank you!

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