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IJN Ship Naming Conventions

Very little has been written in English about the naming of Japanese ships. English readers encounter the Romanized versions of IJN ship names in reading about the IJN and WW2, but will not find a comprehensive monograph on the topic accessible to English readers, and certainly will not find much information on names of IJN ships before the WW2 period.

Additionally, currently available lists of the meanings and derivations of IJN ship names on the Internet are laden with all varieties of errors, apparently brought about by an attempt to generate a list of Japanese names without sufficient knowledge of the Japanese language or access to Japanese-language sources.

Another fault of the available IJN ship name literature is that it often describes the names in terms that mask the actual perception of the names to the Japanese who viewed the names in their native language. This brief monograph will seek to fill in these gaping holes in the literature. It was written by a professional Japanese-English translator resident in Japan for more than three decades. Ultimately, and time permitting, a definitive directory of IJN ship names will be presented.

Early Practices

The conventions and rules for naming Imperial Japanese Navy ships went through a number of phases before settling on the system used during WW2.

When the IJN was first established, the practice of naming ships involved the Minister of the Navy submitting proposals to the Emperor for approval. For ships given to the IJN by the Shogunate or various clans, the original names were retained.

After the establishment of the cabinet form of government (December 12, 1885), the Minister of the Navy submitted proposed ship names to the Emperor. This procedure remained in effect until 1891, after which the proposals were submitted to the Emperor via the Lord Chamberlain. The usual practice was to submit two names for each ship, from which the Emperor selected the name to be used. The Emperor is said to have made his own choice of name in some cases.

Starting on March 23, 1867, the task of naming torpedo boats was entrusted to the Minister of the Navy, with no requirement approval from the Emperor. Destroyers naming was done this way after May 16, 1902, and from January 16, 1921 all ships other than battleships, battlecruisers, and cruisers were named by the Minister of the Navy. The new simplified system merely required the Minister of the Navy to name a ship and report the name immediately to the Emperor.

Captured Ships

Ships captured in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) retained their names, however with pronunciations adjusted to the Japanese pronunciations of the original Chinese characters [Note 1].

Ships captured during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) presented a different problem, since they lacked convenient kanji characters. Japanese ship names were applied in accordance with normal practice at the time, with consideration occasionally given to other factors.

For example, the battleship Imperator Nicolai I was renamed the Iki and the Russian coastal defense ship General-Admiral Apraxin was renamed the Okinoshima, both of these names being related to the location of naval battles.

The destroyer Bedovy was renamed Satsuki, a name taken from the old name of the month of May, in which the Battle of the Sea of Japan took place.

Some names were selected for the similarity in pronunciation to the original Russian name. The transport Angara was renamed Anegawa for this reason.

The Beginnings of Order

Until about 1904 there were no particular official naming conventions, names of mountains and the like being used, in addition to names of provinces, islands, rivers, famous locations, and normal words. A rough listing of the categories of names looks something like the following.

CategoryExamples
Mountain namesChokai, Akagi, Maya
Province/country namesYamato, Musashi, Izumo
Island namesChishima, Yaejima
River namesTenryu, Tone
Famous LocationsAkashi, Hashidate
Elegant names for JapanFuso, Akitsushima
WordsNisshin, Yakumo, Chihaya
Meteorological phenomenaHarusame, Fubuki
Bird namesSokaku, Kari

Because at the beginning of the Meiji Period (1868-1911) so many ships relinquished to the IJN by the Shogunate and regional clans, many early IJN ships had words rendered in Sino-Japanese readings ("Japanese-style Chinese pronunciation" or Sino-Japanese readings) as names.

Yamamoto Naming Proposal

On April 23, 1895, the then Minister of the Navy, Yamamoto Gonbei (no relationshp to Yamamoto Isoroku), wrote and sent to the Emperor a proposed system for naming IJN ships.

Original Yamamoto Proposal

1In general, names of battleships and first class cruisers shall be selected from names of provinces within the Empire or from names of shrines traditionally dedicated to the protection of the nation.
2Names of other warships shall be selected from names of country and provinces within the Empire.
3In addition, names can be selected as appropriate in accordance with previous practice, such as the names Shikishima, Asahi, Akitsushima, Yashima, and Fuso, without regard to ship type.

After some refinements, involving such details as how long after a ship is stricken is its name usable for a new ship, the basic guidelines that would basically remain in tact until the demise of the IJN were established.

The WW2 Period

The system used through the end of WW2 is as follows.

Ship TypeSource(s) of Names
BattleshipsCountry/province names
BattlecruisersMountain names
First class cruisersMountain names
Second class cruisersRiver names
Coast defense shipsOld names retained (no new construction)
DestroyersFirst class: meteorological phenomena
Second Class: plant names
Torpedo boatsBird names
SubmarinesNumbers

At the time of the appearance of such ship types as aircraft carriers, submarine tenders, and minelayers, since many ships were conversions from other ship types, no particular naming standard was established at first.

Subsequently the following naming practices were adopted to accommodate new ship types.

Ship TypeSource(s) of Names
Aircraft carriersMythical animal/bird names (Chinese style pronunciation)
Country/mountain names (after 1943)
Submarine tendersWhale-related names (Chinese style pronunciation)
Minelayers, seaplane tenders, etc.Words or retention of previously used names
Training cruisersShinto shrine names (such as Katori) after 1940
New escorts (kaibokan)Island names (such as Shumushu after 1940)
Type A (Ko) destroyers after June, 1943Names related to rain and tides/currents
Type B (Otsu) destroyers after June, 1943Names related to the moon, wind, clouds, and seasons
Type A (Tei) destroyers after June, 1943Plant names

Categories of Ship Names: An Overview

The entire universe of IJN ship names can be placed into ten major categories (Katagiri 1993)

CategoryRemarks
Country/province namesMost of these names are either old names of various provinces of Japan (in use before the Meiji period) or alternate (and usually elegant) names for Japan as a whole.
Mountain names 
River names 
Chinese style wordsThese names are Japanese words written usually with two Chinese characters and pronounced using a pronunciation borrowed from Chinese when kanji characters were introduced into Japan.
Native Japanese words; names of cities and famous spots in Japan 
Meteorological phenomenaFurther classifiable into subcategories of names related, for example, to the moon, clouds, tides, wind, and the like.
Plant names 
Bird namesThis class contains existing birds, in contrast to the names of mythical birds used for some aircraft carriers.
Island names 
Other geographic features (e.g., capes, peninsulas, straits) 

Romanized Name Rendering

Since no Romanization of Japanese has any legal or official validity in Japan, Romanization is more an issue for non-Japanese reading and writing about the IJN than for the Japanese themselves. Of the three systems [Note 2] of Romanization available, most publications in English use the Hepburn system of Romanization, which is purported to be the easiest for English speakers to use in ascertaining the approximate pronunciation of Japanese words.

A number of problems arise when dealing with IJN ship names via the medium of their Romanized renderings. For example, there were two distinct ship names rendered as Fuji in Roman letters, but written entirely differently in Japanese orthography. One (written with two kanji characters) is named for Mount Fuji, the other (written with an entirely different single kanji) is named for the wisteria tree. There are other examples of two different ship names being indistinguishable from their Romanized orthography.

Fuji
(Mount Fuji)
Fuji
(Wisteria tree)

The names are pronounced exactly the same in spoken Japanese, but the orthography provides an instant distinction between the two names when written in Japanese.

Meanings of IJN Ship Names

We sometimes see lists of IJN ship names with glosses provided for the overall names or for the individual ideographs (kanji) used to write the name in Japanese orthography. These glosses, while of some interest in describing the way a non-Japanese might view IJN ship names, provide little insight into how they are perceived and understood by the Japanese themselves.

A good example are the names of rivers and mountains when used as ship names. 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. The Japanese do not go through the meanings of the individual characters in perceiving this name. Although much attention is paid by non-Japanese to the fact that the individual kanji characters themselves have meanings (i.e., are ideographic), in the sense of proper names of geographic features often used as IJN ship names, the characters are basically logographic (indicating words--in this case proper names) independent of and not relying on the meanings of the characters.

With noted exceptions, this is similar to many city names in the US, for example. Upon encountering the name Indianopolis, few people need to think of this as an "Indian city" to understand the city being referred to. Similarly, New York does not often conjure up images of a new version of the town York in England.

Another good example of misunderstanding the meaning of an IJN ship is the Akagi, the misunderstanding of which is widely propagated on the Internet.

Notes

  1. The Japanese language writing system consists of the combination of borrowed Chinese characters (kanji, often mischaracterized as being ideographs; they are better described as logographs) and phonetic characters devised by the Japanese. Kanji characters generally have a number of readings. Some (called on-yomi) are imitations of Chinese readings, and some purely native Japanese readings (called kun-yomi).

  2. The three systems (Hepburn, Kunreishiki, and Nihonshiki) have some fine differences in the manner in which they render certain sounds, notably the sounds that are rendered as sha, shi, shu and sho, and several other commonly occurring sounds. The result of using Kunreishiki would be serious mispronunciations of Japanese words by English speakers.

References

Katagiri, Daiji Rengo Kantai Gunkan Kanmei Meiden (Story of the naming of Combined Fleet Warships). Kaijinsha 1993.