Early Practices

The conventions and rules for naming Imperial Japanese Navy ships went through a number of phases before settling on the system used during World War 2.

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.

Captured Ships

Ships captured in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) retained their names, however with pronunciations adjusted to the Japanese pronunciations of the original Chinese characters1.

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.

The Beginnings of Order

Until about 1904 there were no particular official naming conventions, names of mountains and the like being used, in addition to names of provinces, islands, rivers, famous locations, and normal words. A rough listing of the categories of names looks something like the following.

Category Examples
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.

Yamamoto Naming Proposal

On April 23, 1895, the then Minister of the Navy, Yamamoto Gonbei, wrote and sent to the Emperor a proposed system for naming IJN ships.

  1. In general, names of battleships and first class cruisers shall be selected from names of provinces within the Empire or from names of shrines traditionally dedicated to the protection of the nation.
  2. Names of other warships shall be selected from names of country and provinces within the Empire.
  3. In addition, names can be selected as appropriate in accordance with previous practice, such as the names Shikishima, Asahi, Akitsushima, Yashima, and Fuso, without regard to ship type.

After some refinements, involving such details such as how long after a ship is stricken is its name usable for a new ship, the guidelines that would basically remain intact until the demise of the IJN were established.

The World War 2 Period

The system used through the end of World War 2 is as follows.

Ship Type Source(s) of Names
Battleships Country/province names
Battlecruisers Mountain 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
Submarines Numbers

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

Categories of Ship Names: An Overview

The entire universe of IJN ship names can be placed into the following ten major categories2.

Category Remarks
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.
Mountain names
River names
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.
Plant names
Bird names This class contains existing birds, in contrast to the names of mythical birds used for some aircraft carriers.
Island names
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 systems3 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.

Fuji (Mount Fuji)
Fuji (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.

Meanings of IJN Ship Names

We sometimes see lists of IJN ship names with glosses provided for the overall names or for the individual ideographs (kanji) used to write the name in Japanese orthography. These glosses, while of some interest in describing the way a non-Japanese might view IJN ship names, provide little insight into how they were perceived and understood by the Japanese themselves.

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.


  • ^The Japanese language writing system consists of the combination of borrowed Chinese ideographs - kanji - and phonetic characters devised by the Japanese. Kanji characters generally have a number of readings, some imitations of Chinese readings and some purely native Japanese readings.
  • ^The three systems (Hepburn, Kunreishiki, and Nihonshiki) have some fine differences in the manner in which they render certain sounds, notably the sounds that are rendered as sha, shi, shu and sho, and several other commonly occurring sounds. The result of using Kunreishiki would be serious mispronunciations of Japanese words by English speakers.


  • Katagiri, Daiji Rengo Kantai Gunkan Kanmei Meiden (Story of the Naming of Combined Fleet Warships). Kaijinsha 1993.


This article originally appeared on the New-Tech, Ltd. Website. 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.

Page History

13 February 2005
9 April 2009
Corrected typographical errors