The modern-day Japan Maritime Self Defense Force has its roots sown during the (1868-1945) when the naval forces were known as the Imperial Japanese Navy (Nihon Kaigun). The Imperial Japanese Navy, however, was dissolved after 1945 as Japan surrendered after the Second World War. The Naval Forces were formed after the surrender between 1952-1954. The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) was the third largest navy until 1920 tailing the Royal Navy and the United States Navy. The Navy was also assisted by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service for aircraft and airstrike operations from the fleet.

Origin and History

The origins of the Imperial Japanese Navy go back to the Age of Discovery from the 15th Century to the 18th Century when trade between European Nations within Asian Continent began and started expanding. However, the country’s extreme seclusion policy inhibited by its traditions and cultures resolved into more stagnant and static militaria progress. Hence, Japan’s military, especially the navy remained comparatively backward when the country was compelled to open for trade by American intervention in 1854. The said compulsion eventually led Japan back to the Meiji Restoration. The re-throning of the emperor Meji turned out to be a boon in disguise as the period which followed after, showed tremendous exponential success in Navy and Maritime wars even against much more powerful enemies. The Japanese Navy came out victorious in the Sino-Japenese War and the Russo-Japanese War before the horrors of World War II which came down crashing down onto the IJN.

Naval Forces after the end of Seclusion

For more than 2 centuries, Japan was a modern-day Bhutan keeping its affairs to itself. Japanese policy of seclusion prohibited contact from the outside world. The seclusion was however not as stringent on the ground as it was on paper as piecemeal contacts were maintained with the Dutch through the port of Nagasaki following the same straits as that of China. The open channel from the Dutch made Japan aware of the improved technological aspects and also transferred Western knowledge concerning Scientific Revolution resulting in better naval sciences such as cartography, optics, and mechanical sciences. This, however, rightly or wrongly so, led to the loss of any naval and maritime traditions the nation possessed.

Barring the Dutch trade ships, no other ships were allowed to enter or had access to Japanese ports, an exception however was witnessed during the Napoleonic wars when neutral non-allegiant ships hoisted the Dutch flag. The friction between foreign ships soon started in the 19th century, post the Nagasaki Harbour incident and other subsequent attacks. As a result, the presence of foreign trade ships especially the Western ships around the Japanese ports increased due to whaling trade with China. The seclusion policy soon appeared to be a distant and diminishing star. The pivotal Morrison Incident in 1837 and China’s defeat in the Opium War led the shogunate (Military Dictatorship of Japan) to repeal the law to execute foreigners and instead govern them by the Order for the Provision of Firewood and Water. The shogunate also promoted leaving the traditional ways of handling the naval forces as the older methods would not be sufficient to repel further western intrusions. Consequently, western knowledge was utilized by the Dutch resulting in reinforcement of Japan’s capability to restrict foreigners. Field guns, mortars, and firearms were obtained in furtherance of establishing coastal defenses.

Japan was finally forcefully opened for global trade when American warships in 1854 under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry entered Edo Bay and compelled Japan to trade negotiations. The seclusion policy, therefore, was formally abrogated after two long centuries of preservation and the convention of Kanagawa in 1854 led to international trade and interaction. Subsequent treaties in fore coming years also solidified the globalization of Japan like the Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1858 etc.

Creation of the Imperial Japanese Navy (1868-72)

Post the overthrow of the shogunate, the newly formed Meiji government entailed and devised plans to continue with reforms to centralize and modernize Japan. However, the liberalization of Japan was soon put to a snooze as the tension between the former ruler and Meiji reformers eventually led to the Boshin War from January 1868 to June 1869. The early part of the war largely involved land battles with naval agencies playing a very minimal and passive role which largely involved ferrying troops from western to eastern Japan. The first naval showdown happened on 26 March 1868 at Osaka Bay where six Japanese ships from the private domain navies of Saga, Choshu, Satsuma, Kurume, Kumamoto, and Hiroshima participated. Although the ships collectively were not as capable as that of a single foreign vessel from the French Navy, nevertheless were the first step that led to the establishment of the Imperial Japanese Navy in the following year i.e., 1869, just two months after the last combat of the Boshin War.

Consolidation of Naval Resources post reinstation of Meiji Government

The imperial government captured and consolidated all the shogunate vessels under the Navy Affairs section by 1868. The military forces then came under the control of several organizations until the Ministry of War and Ministry of the Navy of Japan were established in 1872. It was a historic moment for Japan as it was the first time, though for only two years (1868-1870) when the navy was not controlled by National or Central agencies. The navy at that stage mirrored Japan’s political atmosphere as the domains retained their political as well as military independence from the imperial government. The Meiji government upon allocating financial resources and political and military force, later boasted a centrally controlled navy by 1871. Katsu Kaishu, a former Tokugawa navy leader was appointed as the Vice Minister of Navy in 1872 and became the first Minister of Navy (1873-1878). Katsu Kaishu was meritorious and extremely efficient in his past naval experience and his ability to control the navy men who belonged to the Tokugawa domain itself. Upon assuming office, it was he who recommended and rather pressed onto the centralization of all naval forces – government and domain under one agency which finally led to the institutionalized structure of the Japanese Navy seeing the light of the day.

British support and influence and further modernization  

Even the mightiest of the countries in today’s time had to have a reference picture in the form of a different influential nation. Similar was the course with Japan wherein 1870 an imperial decree w determined that Britain’s Royal Navy would be serving as the role model for the development of the Japanese Navy. After this decree, a thirty-four-man British naval mission headed by Lt. Comdr. Archibald Douglas arrived in Japan in 1873 where he instructed and trained the trainees at the Naval Academy at Tsukiji for several years. The multi-lateral pieces of training and guidance led to the advancing of development of the navy and firmly established British traditions with the Japanese Navy from seamanship discipline to the extent of the style of uniforms and even attitudes of the officers. Japan had also previously graced the presence of English Lieutenant Horse in 1870, a former gunnery instructor who was put in charge of gunnery practice. Many naval trainees were also sent abroad for training in naval sciences in Great Britain and even to the United States.

Along with Naval training and individual influence from foreign agencies, the foreign nations also contributed to maintaining and establishing a more improved and efficient infrastructure and machinery. The naval ships such as the Fuso. Kongo and Hiei were the first warships built abroad in British shipyards specifically for the Imperial Japanese Navy. The increased demand for domestic production also scaled during this timeline when private companies such as Ishikawajima and Kawasaki also emerged.

Japan drew its major source of inspiration from the British during the initial stages but soon was also enticed by the ‘Jeune Ecole’ (young school) doctrine from France in the 1880s. The doctrine focused on favoring small, fast warships, especially cruisers and torpedo boats against bigger and mammoth-y units. Japan shared a bitter relationship with China and therefore, when Great Britain started getting close to China, Japan looked for another shoulder to burden its military requirements on. Furthermore, the then Minister of Navy, Enomoto Takeaki (1880-1885) who was a former ally of France during the Boshin War, provided an invariable motivation to furnishing the comradery with France.


After its horrendous defeat and subsequent occupation by the Allies after World War II, the Imperial Navy was dissolved and a new constitution was drafted and drawn up in 1947. Article 9 of the said constitution allows military forces to be kept for self-defense. It was in this furtherance that the Coastal Safety Force was formed within the Maritime Safety Agency, incorporating the minesweeping fleet and other military vessels given by the United States. The Coastal Safety Force was separated in 1954 and was replaced by the naval branch of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces which is the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.  The JMSDF currently has a fleet of 154 ships, 346 aircraft, and 50,800 personnel in the nation’s service.