Imperial Japanese Navy Ship Naming Conventions

Note: This post is only covering the naming conventions of the major combatant vessels of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Aircraft Carriers

Named after birds, dragons, and mythical flying creatures

Example: Shokaku (翔鶴)

Meaning: “Soaring Crane”

Shokaku in 1941 shortly after completion.

Battleships

Named after old poetic names for Japan or old names of Japanese provinces

*Even though the Kongo-class were upgraded to battleships later in their careers, they retained their names in-line with originally being battlecruisers.

Example: Yamato (大和)

Meaning: Literally “Great Harmony,” but Yamato is both an old Japanese province and an ancient Japanese name for Japan itself.

Yamato in 1941 undergoing sea trials.

Heavy Cruisers & Battlecruisers

Named after mountains

*The Mogami-class cruisers were originally laid down as light cruisers, so they received the names of rivers.

Example: Takao (高雄)

Meaning: Named after Mt. Takao outside of Kyoto. Not to be confused with Mt. Takao near Tokyo or Mt. Takao in Taiwan (Formosa).

Takao in 1932 on sea trials.

Light Cruisers

Named after rivers & streams

Example: Kitakami (北上)

Meaning: Named after the Kitakami River in Iwate Prefecture, Japan.

Colorized photo of Kitakami in 1945 after conversion to a kaiten carrier.

Destroyers

First-class destroyers

Named after meteorological phenomenon in poetic style

Example: Shimakaze (島風)

Meaning: “Island Wind”

The only known photo of Shimakaze on sea trials.

Second-class destroyers

Named after plants/trees

Example: Momo-class destoyer, “Hinoki” (檜)

Meaning: “Japanese cypress”

Hinoki patrolling off the coast of China in 1923.

Submarines

Given a number sequence

Example: I-400 class submarine, I-401 (イ401)

I-401 at an unknown date.

Smaller Warships/Coastal Defense Vessels

Named after islands

Example: Shimushu (占守)

Meaning: Named after Shimushu (AKA Shumshu) island in the Kurile Islands.

Shimushu in 1940 on sea trials.

Torpedo Boats

Named after birds

Example: Chidori (千鳥)

Meaning: “Plover”

Chidori in 1934 on sea trials.

Other Notes

No Japanese naval ships were named after people.

While western navies use prefixes, such as USS (United States Ship) or HMS (His/Her Majesty’s Ship), there is no similar prefix usage in the Imperial Japanese Navy for their vessels. Some works may prefix IJN (Imperial Japanese Navy) or HIJMS (His Imperial Japanese Majesty’s Ship) to Japanese naval vessels, but this is purely a western convention (Chen, 2007).

Furthermore, while many Japanese ships were given poetic or traditional names, it’s unlikely that a Japanese person would interpret those names in a literal sense any more than an American would interpret the literal meaning of a U.S. Navy ship’s name (Chen, 2007).

References

Chen, C.P. (2007, Sept.). Naming Convention of Japanese Navy Ships. Retrieved from https://ww2db.com/other.php?other_id=26.

Hara, T. (1967). Japanese Destroyer Captain: Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, Midway – The Great Naval Battles as Seen Through Japanese Eyes (F. Saito & R. Pineau, Trans.). Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.

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