The World's Oldest Battleship
For more than 50 years, the battleship was regarded as the capital ship of the world's navies. Hundreds were built between 1880 and the end of World War II, yet only a handful survive as museum ships. The Royal Navy, which commissioned more than 100 battleships, has astonishingly not preserved a single one. Even HMS Dreadnought, whose design was so revolutionary that her name became synonymous with the type, could not escape the scrap yard. The United States has done somewhat better in this regard, having preserved seven World War II battleships and the USS Texas, the lone extant battleship to have seen combat in both World Wars. Only one other battleship—the sole pre-Dreadnought—is left in the world, the oldest and arguably the most significant for naval history: the Mikasa, located in Yokosuka, Japan.
The Imperial Japanese Navy ordered the Mikasa in 1898 as part of a major naval buildup following the First Sino-Japanese War. Built at Vickers in the United Kingdom in 1900 and commissioned in 1902, the Mikasa represented the state of the art in battleship design at the time. Displacing 15,140 tons, she was slightly heavier than the Royal Navy's Majestic class, from which she was evolved, was faster at 18 knots compared to 17, had stronger armor, and mounted two additional 6-inch guns. With four 12-inch guns split between fore and aft turrets and 14 6-inch guns, in her time she was one of the most heavily armed vessels afloat. Yet her historical significance is based not on her design characteristics but on her having served as the Japanese flagship in the Battle of Tsushima Strait.
Although used extensively during the World Wars and subsequent conflicts for naval gunfire support, battleships were designed for the type of ship-on-ship combat sought by every fleet commander—the elusive "decisive fleet action." Yet in the history of battleships, there has been only one of these. On 27 May 1905, Admiral Heihachiro Togo, on board the Mikasa, led his fleet of four battleships in an attack on the Russian 2nd Pacific Squadron under Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky. The Russians had twice as many battleships, but Togo crossed their T twice, and the Japanese had the advantage in gunnery training, rangefinding, and speed. Of the Russian Baltic Fleet's 38 ships, 19 were sunk and 16 captured; only a cruiser and two destroyers escaped to Vladivostok. Togo did not lose a single ship to enemy action.
The significance of the battle transcends the conflict with Russia. The victory at Tsushima led directly to the recognition of Japan as a major naval power, and to the feeling among the Japanese that their country had come of age as a major industrialized nation and could defeat even the great "colonial" powers in combat. It also contributed to overconfidence by a generation of Japanese naval planners, the ultimate consequence of which was the decision to go to war with America and Britain in 1941.
Widespread public support in the 1920s led to her preservation as a museum ship. She was bombed by U.S. forces during World War II but restored a decade later with the support of public donations, the Japanese government, the U.S. Navy, and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who referred to Admiral Togo as Japan's greatest admiral of whom he himself was "a great admirer and disciple."
The exterior of the ship and several of her spaces have been restored to look as they did when the Mikasa was Togo's flagship. Above deck these include the chartroom, wheelhouse, conning tower, 12-pounder broadside batteries, and the radio room. The latter is particularly significant, since Tsushima was the first naval battle in which radio was employed—Togo learned the whereabouts of the Russian fleet by radio.
Below deck, the wardroom and Admiral Togo's and the officers' quarters have been preserved, along with the 6-inch gun casements. A large part of the interior of the ship is occupied by exhibits not only on the Mikasa and her role in the Russo-Japanese War, but on the battles on land, the personalities involved, and the early history of the Imperial Japanese Navy. These include extensive maps, narrative descriptions in Japanese and English, a large model of the battle complete with moving ships, and historical artifacts. In addition, there are extensive and informative displays about the missions and equipment of the modern Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force.
The battleship is permanently docked at Mikasa Park (next to the U.S. Navy installation at Yokosuka), only an hour by train from Tokyo or 25 minutes from Yokohama. It is open every day from 0900 to 1630, except 28-31 December, when it is closed. With an admission charge of 500 yen (about $5.60), a visit is more than worth the price.