Japanese ship naming conventions

Japanese ship naming conventions

Japanese ship naming conventions are different from those in the West. Japanese warships have never been named after people. Prior to World War II, Japanese ship naming conventions underwent several changes before being settled.


The word "maru" (丸, meaning "circle") is often attached to Japanese ship names. There are several theories associated with this practice.
*(The most common): That ships were thought of as floating castles, and the word referred to the defensive "circles" or "maru" that protected the castle.
*That the suffix "-maru" is often applied to words representing something that is beloved, and sailors applied this suffix to their ships.
*That the term "maru" is used in divination and represents perfection or completeness, or the ship as a small world of its own.
*A legend of "Hakudo Maru", a celestial being that came to earth and taught humans how to build ships. It is said that the name "maru" is attached to a ship to secure celestial protection for it as it travels.
*For the past few centuries, only non-warships bore the maru ending. It was intended to be used as a good hope naming convention that would allow the ship to leave port, travel the world, and return safely to home port--hence the complete circle arriving back to its origin unhurt.

Today commercial and private ships are still named with this convention.

The first ship known to follow this convention was the Nippon Maru, flagship of daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi's 16th century fleet.

Early conventions

When the Imperial Japanese Navy was formed the Ministry of the Navy submitted potential ship names to the Emperor for approval. During the early years ships were often donated by the Shogunate or Japanese clans and the original clan names were kept.

In 1891 the procedure was changed due to changes in the government structure. Two ship names were submitted by the Minister of the Navy to the Lord Chamberlain who then presented the choices to the Emperor. The Emperor could either pick one of the suggested names or one of his own devising.

Ships captured during the First Sino-Japanese War kept their original names but with Japanese pronunciation. For example the Chinese battleship "Chen Yuan" became "Chin'en" in Japanese service.

In 1867 the Minister of the Navy was given the authority to choose the names of torpedo boats without imperial approval. In 1902 the authority to name destroyers was delegated to the Minister of the Navy as well.

In 1895 a proposal was made by the Minister of the Navy in an attempt to establish some standard. He proposed that battleships and cruisers be named for provinces or shrines dedicated to protecting Japan, that names of other warships be selected from the names for Japan or provinces.

Ships captured during the Russo-Japanese War were renamed with Japanese names. Some of these vessels were given names related to where they were captured or some other aspect of the war, such as the month of capture. Some Russian ships were given Japanese names that were phonetically similar to their original Russian names (example: "Angara" became "Anegawa").

In 1921 the Minister of the Navy was given authority to name all ships except battleships, battlecruisers, and cruisers. In any event the Navy had to report the new name to the Emperor immediately.

World War II

By World War II a fairly complete system was put in place for the naming of ships. The broad categories of names are given here, with examples:

*Aircraft carriers — birds or mythical flying animals
**"Hiryū" (飛龍) flying dragon
**"Jun'yō" (隼鷹) peregrine falcon
*Battleships, including those converted into aircraft carriers — provinces
**"Nagato" (長門) Nagato province
**"Yamato" (大和) Yamato Province
**"Kaga" (加賀) Kaga Province
*Battlecruisers and heavy cruisers, including those converted into aircraft carriers — mountains
**"Kongō" (金剛) a mountain in Osaka prefecture
**"Kirishima" (霧島) a volcano in Kagoshima prefecture
**"Akagi" (赤城) a volcano in the Kantō region
*Light cruisers, including those converted into heavy cruisers — river names
**"Tone" (利根) a river in the Kantō region
**"Chikuma" (筑摩) a river in Nagano prefecture
**"Suzuya" (鈴谷) a river in Karafuto prefecture (now Sakhalin)
*Training cruisers (post-1940) — Shinto shrines
*Heavy and light destroyers — weather
**"Ikazuchi" (雷) thunder
**"Yukikaze" (雪風) snowy wind
*Light destroyers — plants, weather
*Torpedo boats — birds
*Submarines — not named
*Submarine tenders — whales
*Escorts (post-1940) — islands
*Destroyers Type A (post-1943) — water, plants
**"Matsu" (松) pine tree
**"Takanami" (高波) high wave
*Destroyers Type B (post-1943) — moon, wind, clouds, seasons
**"Akizuki" (秋月) Autumn moon
**"Yūgumo" (夕雲) evening cloud

Post-World War II names

Prior to the end of World War II Japanese ship names were rendered in kanji; after the end of the war this tradition was abandoned in favor of hiragana to separate the perception of the Maritime Self-Defense Forces from the old navy.

Since the war, the self-defense forces have reused the names of many of the World War II ships but have not assigned them in any systematic way.

Translated names

The English translations of the Japanese warships provide names; the literal translation of the characters does not necessarily represent how the name is perceived to the Japanese. For example, "Akagi" is probably perceived as "red castle" by Japanese about as often as Philadelphia is perceived as the "city of brotherly love" by Americans.

There is a tendency for translations of Japanese names to be somewhat fanciful. For example, "Shōkaku" is often translated as "crane flying in heaven", but "flying crane" or "soaring crane" is a more accurate translation. Another fanciful translation is "land of divine mulberry trees" for "Fusō" — "fuso" was a Chinese name for a mythical tree supposed to grow to the east, hence an old poetic word for Japan.

In World War II, the composition of the Japanese Navy was a military secret. US Naval Intelligence built up knowledge of enemy ships through photographic reconnaissance, interrogation of prisoners, and signal interception. Inevitably there were mistakes and misinterpretations; some of these have been repeated in post-war accounts that rely on US Navy documents. For example, a prisoner of war after the battle of Midway reported the existence of an aircraft carrier named "Hayataka". This was a misreading of the characters 隼鷹 which are properly read "Junyō". Accordingly, many US documents refer to the carrier as "Hayataka" or its class as the "Hayataka" class.


* [http://www.history.navy.mil/docs/wwii/mid2.htm Interrogation of Japanese Prisoners taken after Midway Action]

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