By William Lise
Updated 09 April 2009
It is republished here with the kind permission of of the author, William Lise.
All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the author.
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.
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.
|Mountain names||Chokai, Akagi, Maya|
|Province/country names||Yamato, Musashi, Izumo|
|Island names||Chishima, Yaejima|
|River names||Tenryu, Tone|
|Famous Locations||Akashi, Hashidate|
|Elegant names for Japan||Fuso, Akitsushima|
|Words||Nisshin, Yakumo, Chihaya|
|Meteorological phenomena||Harusame, Fubuki|
|Bird names||Sokaku, Kari|
Because 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 "Japanese-style Chinese pronunciation" as names.
|Ship Type||Source(s) of Names|
|First class cruisers||Mountain names|
|Second class cruisers||River names|
|Coast defense ships||Old names retained (no new construction)|
|First class destroyers||Meteorological phenomena|
|Second class destroyers||Plant names|
|Torpedo boats||Bird names|
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 Type||Source(s) of Names|
|Aircraft carriers||Mythical animal/bird names (Chinese style pronunciation)
Country/mountain names (after 1943)
|Submarine tenders||Whale-related names (Chinese style pronunciation)|
|Minelayers, seaplane tenders, etc.||Words or retention of previously used names|
|Training cruisers||Shinto shrine names (such as Katori) after 1940|
|New escorts (kaibokan)||Island names (such as Shumushu) after 1940|
|Type A (Ko) destroyers after June 1943||Names related to rain and tides/currents|
|Type B (Otsu) destroyers after June 1943||Names related to the moon, wind, clouds, and seasons|
|Type C (Hei) destroyers after June 1943||Names related to wind
Only one destroyer of this type was completed, Shimakaze (Island Wind)
|Type D (Tei) destroyers after June 1943||Plant names|
|Country/province names||Most 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.|
|Chinese style words||These 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 phenomena||Further classifiable into sub-categories of names related, for example, to the moon, clouds, tides, wind, and the like.|
|Bird names||This class contains existing birds, in contrast to the names of mythical birds used for some aircraft carriers.|
|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 minor 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.
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.
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 Indianapolis, 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.
13 February 2005 - Benchmark
09 April 2009 - Corrected typographical errors