Japan’s new helicopter destroyer, the imperial navy legacy and the power of a name

August 22, 2013

Alessio Patalano

Lecturer at King's College London

Alessio Patalano is a lecturer in war studies and specializes in East Asian security and Japanese naval history at the Department of War Studies, King's College London.

About two weeks ago, the naming ceremony of the new helicopter destroyer of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force drew criticisms from the international media.

These criticisms focused on two main points: the name itself—Izumo—referred to the flagship of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s 3rd fleet involved in the Japanese expansion in China in the 1930s, and the fact that what the Japanese call a “helicopter destroyer” is an “aircraft carrier in all but the name.”

Japan's new helicopter destroyer Izumo is launched in Yokohama's Isogo Ward on Aug. 6. (Yusaku Kanagawa)

By comparison, relatively little media attention was directed at the launching a few days later of the Indian aircraft carrier Vikrant and the appearance of photographic evidence suggesting that a second Chinese aircraft carrier is under construction.

Why is the Japanese case different?

The difference relates to increasing concerns in the region about the revisionist innuendos of senior Japanese politicians, the government’s attitude toward the wartime past, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s political agenda on constitutional reforms.

These concerns are important because of their implications for Japanese public diplomacy and foreign perceptions as well as for regional security and stability. Yet, the use of the Izumo as evidence of militarist ambitions or historical revisionism misses the point about the significance of the name and the nature of this new ship.

So, what is in a name? For warships, names do matter. They are not just a means to differentiate one ship from another. Hull numbers suffice for that. A ship’s name is a statement of what it represents for the organization. It enables a ship to say something about a country’s military power, its national heritage, and its international aspirations.

How so? A warship is no ordinary piece of military equipment. A naval vessel is first and foremost a reproduction in scale of a society. It encompasses all functions of life; it is a home and a working environment; it is a floating showcase of customs, culture and history. When visitors board a warship, they are visiting the country of its flag.

As a combat platform, the balance of a ship’s design is an indicator of its military roles and missions. The way it is manned says something about the competence of the crew and the navy. In this respect, a warship is an expression of technological sophistication, professionalism and of a specific national strategy.

In the past, warships like the Sovereign of the Seas, HMS Victory or HMS Dreadnought contributed to define Britain, its navy and the country’s place in the world. They were major military assets; their existence was a political statement. Life onboard showcased what it meant to be ‘British,’ while the ships’ actions shaped diplomatic, foreign and security policies.

Contemporaries associated the names of these ships with the events they contributed to shape. Today, these names remind us of the significance of those events.

For all these reasons, the name of a warship matters. This is particularly true for navies with an established tradition and history. For this type of navy, the naming of a new vessel, especially capital ships, is a business of no secondary importance, and one that can be controversial. The name connects the past to the present; it embraces a legacy and it suggests how the organization intends to carry it forward.

Japan is a country with one such naval tradition. In Japan, warships defined key moments in its history as a modern state. In May 1905, the battleship Mikasa led the Japanese triumph against the Baltic fleet in the waters off Tsushima, becoming an emblem of the achievements of the Meiji Restoration. This legacy is still preserved today, and the Mikasa is now a memorial ship in a fashion similar to HMS Victory and USS Constitution.

Warships defined controversial moments in Japanese history, too. In April 1945, the sinking of the gargantuan battleship Yamato marked the demise of Japan’s pursuit of military autarchy and imperial expansion. The history of the battleship Nagato, sunk in July 1946 as part of the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll, was later used by novelist Hiroyuki Agawa as a metaphor of Japan’s rise and fall during the first half of the 20th century.

Indeed, some warships had such a service record that it would be hard to associate them with one single event. This is the case of Izumo. The original cruiser was named after an ancient province of Japan (today’s Shimane Prefecture), as was the practice in the Imperial Japanese Navy. It was commissioned in 1900 and was scrapped in 1947, seeing action in four major conflicts from the Sea of Japan to the Mediterranean Sea.

Izumo was one of the longest serving ships in the navy.

The Izumo performed admirably in war and peace. It served as the flagship of Adm. Kamimura’s 2nd fleet in the Russo-Japanese War; it fulfilled the requirements of the Anglo-Japanese alliance leading the squadron escorting convoys during World War I; it conducted numerous diplomatic and training missions from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, to South America. Its size and endurance made it a particularly suitable asset for overseas deployments.

What is important to stress is that at the peak of its performance during the first two decades of the 20th century, the Izumo was the embodiment of Japan’s integration in the international community, and its crews showcased the country’s naval professionalism, values and traditions across the globe. The Izumo worked in national and international contexts.

Equally important to emphasize is that by the time the Izumo was deployed in Shanghai, its heyday had long gone. The ship was antiquated, and was, in fact, recalled from its service as a training vessel to act as a command ship in Chinese waters.

What about the new Izumo then? In the MSDF, the principles for the selection of names have always followed the imperial practice of naming destroyers, cruisers and battleships after ancient Japanese provinces. This was originally intended to create a link between the navy and country’s history and heritage. The new helicopter destroyer is in line with these guidelines.

The history of the cruiser Izumo could not be more relevant. The new Izumo will be at the forefront of national defense for many years, and its crews will be called upon to perform military and diplomatic tasks, in national and international contexts.

The new destroyer Izumo conforms to the postwar notion of an exclusively defense-oriented posture that puts a premium on anti-submarine warfare capabilities to protect vital sea lanes. In fact, the new helicopter destroyer is first and foremost a sea control ship designed to provide cutting-edge anti-submarine capabilities to a fleet operating in a fast evolving regional maritime landscape.

The Izumo is not an aircraft carrier in all but name. With important modifications, it is conceivable that it could operate aircraft like the F-35B or even maritime drones. Yet, structural limits on the number of embarked assets and on air operations strongly suggest that if such modifications were carried out, it would be to the benefit of the fleet’s air defense. The offensive capabilities of an aircraft carrier would still remain out of its reach.

The main difference with the previous generation of MSDF helicopter destroyers rests with the intention to maximize the Izumo’s operational flexibility and versatility so that it can be used in the defense of offshore islands, to rescue nationals overseas and as a command ship in expeditionary or relief missions.

In relief operations after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, for example, the helicopter destroyer Hyuga was deployed precisely in that type of function.

In all, the cruiser Izumo stood as a symbol of Japan’s ancient history, of the country’s profile as an international actor, and of the professionalism of its navy. In selecting this name, the MSDF is highlighting similar expectations and aspirations for the new destroyer. This name should not be regarded as a synonym for militarist ambitions or the sign of camouflaged attempts to procure offensive capabilities to rewrite history by the use of force.

Rather, it is a decision from a professional navy with an important tradition to mobilize the power of a name to enable its next flagship to meet the expanding security challenges of the contemporary world.

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