Japanese Battleships 1905–1940. Vol. I

JapPancV1   zdj 5After Kōmei’s death Japan was flooded with cheap foreign products, which resulted in a local manufacturing and craftsmanship crises, before leading to a wholesale collapse of the feudal system of power. Numerous riots erupted in various areas of the country which eventually escalated into a civil war (Boshin) that raged between 1867 and 1868. The civil war brought a definitive end to Tokugawa’s rule. The drive to remove Tokugawa Shogunate from power united even the life-long enemies – Satsuma and Chōshū – who were persuaded to support the Emperor by samurai Rioma Sakamoto. Having defeated the Shogun’s forces the samurais managed to restore the Emperor’s rule. As a result shogunate was abolished and the Emperor regained direct control over the country. That period of Japanese history became to be known as Meiji Restoration. Japan’s capital was moved to Edo and the city’s name was changed to Tokyo. The next step was a gradual change of the Empire’s political system which began in 1868. The existing feudal structures were abolished and the samurais received compensation for their lost revenues. Soon a public education system was established, complete with grants and scholarships available to those who wished to study abroad. Reforms were also introduced to modernize the country’s healthcare system, public administration and judicial institutions and the monetary system. The army was completely overhauled using the Prussian model and a mandatory military service was introduced. The Japanese made extensive use of foreign know-how, technology and inventions to lay foundations for modern industry, banking system and higher education. This modernization and rapid progress was largely due to the new ruling class that came into power in the early days of Meiji Restoration. Among the most influential people of that time were the members of the so called Tomomi Iwakura Expedition, who had visited Western Europe, America and the Middle East between 1871 and 1873. After their return to Japan members of the group were appointed to some of the highest posts in the country and became the greatest champions of change. However, not everybody was thrilled to see the swift transformation that Japan was undergoing at that time. Some of the samurais deeply resented the changes as they felt cheated by the system that took away their feudal privileges and marginalized their importance as a social class. The government’s decision to discontinue the payout of samurai pensions resulted in the Satsuma rebellion of 1877 led by Saigō Takamori, former commander of Imperial forces during Meiji Restoration. Takamori’s story was used in a Hollywood production “The Last Samurai”. Saigō was killed in the battle of Saratoyama which brought the rebellion to an end and removed the threat for the ongoing reforms.

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For generations the Satsuma family owned vast areas of seaside property, including land in southern part of Kyushu with a port city of Kagoshima. It was the members of Satsuma family that first contacted the Emperor’s court after Perry’s arrival. In the letter to the Emperor they promised to build a fleet capable of defeating the enemy at sea in return for future privileges granted by the court. Having received a positive reply the Satsuma clan went on to establish what might be called today a naval warfare center in Kagoshima where the samurais would train to become future naval officers. However, Kagoshima’s poor defenses against sea borne attack meant that the city was ill suited for a role of a major naval base. After Japan had established diplomatic relations with the United States and agreed to open her borders to foreign trade, the British and other Western nations soon followed and signed bilateral agreements with the Japanese government. In spite of that, the Japanese strongly opposed any sign of foreign intervention which inevitably led to international tensions. The turning point proved to be the Namamugi incident which caused the direct intervention of the British fleet on September 14, 1863. On that day a squadron of British ships sailed into Kagoshima Bay, shelled the city and port installations and, just hours later, safely put to the sea. The city center burnt to the ground as a result of the British assault, despite the heroic attempts of the local population to put out the fires. The British attack, followed over the next several years by more raids against Japanese ports performed by joint British and French forces, led to a serious internal crisis within the Empire and highlighted the need for a strong, modern naval force. From that moment on the country’s top priority would be to create a strong shipbuilding industry and a solid base for future navy.

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Japanese shipbuilding industry was born in December 1853 (January 1854)1 when the construction of the first shipyard (Zosenjo) began in a small town of Ishikawajima located in the delta of the Sumida River, not far from Edo (today’s Tokyo). Soon to follow was a shipyard at Nagasaki, founded in August 1875 and completed on December 1, 1860 (January 11, 1861). In those days the Nagasaki plant had really nothing to do with design and construction of large warships, therefore it was officially known as the Nagasaki Iron Works (Seitetsujo Nagasaki). Five years later (on August 24, 1865) an almost identical plant was opened in Yokohama. The fourth shipyard was to be established at Yokosuka and its history dates back to the Japanese-French treaty signed in Edo on October 9, 1858. The treaty, signed by Jean-Baptiste Louis Gros paved the way for the French participation in the Empire’s modernization. The design and construction of the Yokosuka plant was supervised by naval engineer Leonce Verney. However, in 1865, before the shipyard’s construction began, Takenaka Shibata paid a visit to France to discuss the organizational details and the scope of work to be performed by members of the French mission to Yokosuka. Initially the new installation was referred to as “iron works” (Seitetsujo), but the character of the new facility differed significantly from the previous projects: the new plant was designed to be a naval arsenal. The construction work began on September 27 (December 15) 1865. The work progressed very swiftly and the construction was completed less than a year later. The shipyard’s first dock was ready by 1868.


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