The Bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by the Shogun—also the military leader) was in near total control from 1608 until 1867. Dissent grew through the years, largely among samurai in western Japan, farthest from the national capital of Edo (present-day Tokyo). They started and won a civil war, resulting in a movement later called the Meiji Restoration, Meiji being the formal reign name of the Emperor.
As new government leaders were appointed, they realized they were financially, technically, and militarily very far behind Western powers. Indeed, the British Royal Navy had humbled Imperial China in the First Opium War (1839–42) and taken control of Hong Kong, a natural harbor. In 1853, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry arrived in Edo Bay with four U.S. Navy ships, hulls painted black. Sent by President Millard Fillmore with a letter to the Japanese Emperor, Perry sought permission to establish trade relations, coaling stations for the rapidly mechanizing Navy, diplomatic relations, and the return of shipwrecked sailors. Perry delivered the letter to a court official, not understanding real power lay with the Shogun. The Japanese were awed by and scared of the massive technical power and firepower of the U.S. ships.
Perry returned to Japan in 1854 and concluded the Treaty of Kanagawa (an area west of Tokyo). Return of shipwrecked sailors was granted, U.S. ships were permitted to receive fuel and supplies at two ports, a U.S. consulate was permitted at Shimoda, and some trade relations were begun. The Japanese were pressured to issue similar permission to other Western countries. The Bakufu lost support and fell. Japanese government leaders decided to try to stall for time and learn from the West. The new government dispatched political missions to Great Britain, France, Prussia, Eastern Europe, Russia, and the United States. The goal was to learn from the Western industrial, economic, diplomatic, political, and military powerhouses.
One result was Japan’s decision to use Britain’s Royal Navy as a role model for the new Imperial Japanese Navy. A Royal Navy delegation arrived in Japan in 1873 and stayed until 1879, establishing a firm bond and respect between the navies of the two nations. As Japanese naval shipyards and technology were near nonexistent at the time, a further decision was made to purchase the first modern Japanese warships from British shipyards, paying for them with the massive indemnity from the Chinese following their defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–95).
The Japanese 1896–97 plan for four battleships was based on, but improved on, the Royal Navy’s Majestic. The final ship of this order was the Mikasa, meaning “young grass” and named after Mount Mikasa in Nara, Japan. The pre-dreadnought battleship’s keel was laid down at Vickers’ Barrow-in-Furness shipyard on 24 January 1899, and she was launched in 1900 and commissioned in 1902.
The Mikasa’s armament consisted of four 12-inch cannon in two turrets, one each fore and aft. Powered by electricity or hydraulics, they also could be operated by hand. Fourteen quick-firing 6-inch Elswick guns, 20 3-inch guns, 8 47-millimeter guns, and 4 18-inch torpedo tubes added to her firepower. Krupp cemented armor, a blend of nickel steel, manganese, and chromium, provided the main armor belt.
Her overall length was 423 feet, while the beam was 76 feet and the draft 27 feet, 2 inches. Two propellers were each driven by steam engines, from a total of 25 Belleville boilers, producing 15,000 indicated horsepower. Maximum speed was 18 knots, and the range was 5,300 nautical miles at 10 knots. Normal ship’s complement was 830.
During the Russo-Japanese War, the Mikasa was hit twice while bombarding Russian shore installations. Later, in the August 1904 Battle of the Yellow Sea, the Mikasa led a column of ships and was hit some 20 times, sustaining serious damage and some 125 casualties. Repaired, she served as the Japanese flagship of the First Fleet at the Battle of Tsushima on 27 May 1905. Admiral Heihachirō Tōgō was fleet commander, having served in the First Sino-Japanese War. At Tsushima, as the Mikasa again led the way, Tōgō hoisted the soon-famous “Z” flag, echoing Nelson: “The fate of the empire rests upon this one battle; let every man do his utmost.”
Despite fog and some confusion on the Japanese side, Tōgō’s fleet fought well. There is disagreement as to whether the Japanese fleet actually did cross the Russian “T.” Many writers stated they succeeded. Yet, David C. Evans and Mark R. Peattie, in their Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Nayv 1187–1941 (Naval Institute Press, 1997) disagree. According to the authors, Tōgō “maneuvered so as to cross the T,” but the Russians changed course, so they fought the Russians twice on parallel courses. (Yet, to this day, Admiral Tōgō is regarded as “the Japanese Nelson.”) Of some 38 Russian warships and other vessels, an astounding 34 were sunk, captured, or scuttled; 4,830 Russian sailors were killed, with some 5,917 captured. The Japanese lost three torpedo boats, 11 ships somewhat damaged, and 110 Japanese sailors dead. The Mikasa suffered 32 hits (another account lists more than 40) but little serious damage, and 113 crew members were killed or wounded.
While moored in Sasebo Harbor on 12 September 1905, a fire detonated gunpowder in the Mikasa’s magazine. In the explosion, 251 crewmen were killed and the ship sank. Refloated in 1906, she finally reentered active service in 1908. In World War I, she served in coastal defense, then supported Japanese troop landings in Siberia in 1921. She ended her active service again in coastal defense.
When the ship was decommissioned in 1923, the government decided to preserve her as a memorial ship. The Mikasa was neglected following World War II. Surprisingly, a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, businessman and former resident of Barrow, England, John Rubin, submitted a letter to a Japanese newspaper, calling for restoration of the ship. The Japanese public responded enthusiastically, as did U.S. Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. The memorial opened to the public in 1961.
Years later, U.S. Navy sailors applied a fresh coat of paint. Very famous in Japan, the ship is also remembered in Barrow-in-Furness, England, with Mikasa Street. According to The Military Times, the Mikasa is the only remaining British-built battleship in the world. At Tsushima, imperial Russia’s power and prestige in the Pacific sank—literally. With the Mikasa leading the way, Japan assumed its place as the ascendant Pacific naval power, at the dawn of a new age.