The Hubris of Empire: The Japanese Battleships Yamato and Musashi

Emperor Hirohito on Musashi in 1943

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

This is an old post of my series on Battleships. Previous post on different battleship classes were about the Battleships constructed under conditions of the London Naval Conference.  These have dealt with the British King George V Class, French Dunkerque and Richelieu Classes, ItalianVittorio Vento Class and the American North Carolina and South Dakota ClassesI then wrote an introduction to the Post Treaty Super-Battleships. This article is the first in that series which will include articles on the German Bismarck and Tirpitz, British Vanguard and American Iowa Class. I do hope to take my mind off present events by writing about other battleship types and classes as well as other types of ships. That being said I expect to be doing a new installment of by COVID 19 articles, which I have pretty much avoided for sanity’s sake the past week.

Until tomorrow,


Padre Steve+

They were the largest and most heavily armed battleships ever built. Shrouded in secrecy by the Imperial Japanese Navy and Government the ships were designed to offset projected American numerical superiority. Their names were symbolic of Japan’s history. Yamato was named after Yamato Province, the ancestral home of the Yamato People, the dominant native ethnic group in Japan. Musashi was named after Musashi Province in which lays Tokyo Prefecture.  A third ship of the class, Shinano, was named after Shinano Province in central Japan which was the home of the prestigious Taketa Shingen family during the Senguku period.

The Conning Tower and Bridge of Musashi

The secrecy surrounding their design and construction was unprecedented. Those charged with their deign and construction were thoroughly checked out by Japan’s secret police and sworn to an oath of secrecy. The oath sworn by builders of Musashi at the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries  Nagasaki Shipyard were sworn to the oath shown below:

I am aware that all work work involving the construction of the No. 2 Battleship is vital to national security. I will make utmost effort to maintain the  secrecy of the project, and swear that I will leak no information relating to the said battleship, even to relatives and close friends. In the event I violate this oath,  I will submit to the punishment determined by the company and the Navy.  

Yamato during Consrtuction

Security measures around the shipyards where Yamato and Musashi were constructed  were immense. At Nagasaki where there was a large foreign business and missionary population where the shipyard was visible from most of the city at hemp screen of 75,000 square meters was constructed to shield the ship from prying eyes and spies.

Musashi under Construction

When actual preparations for construction were taken in 1937 secret police swept the areas of foreign, especially Chinese workers. Security was increased inside and outside the shipyard, all blueprints accounted for and placed under strict guard while all shipyard workers were photographed with any having knowledge of the plans or supervising the construction sworn to the secrecy oath.

When a top secret blueprint went missing in 1938 at Nagasaki an intense investigation that included the torture of numerous suspects and the jailing of a blueprinter who accidentally swept the document into the trash was sentenced to 3 years in prison.

Armor and Protection of Yamato Class

Few pictures exist of the ships and Japanese Naval Officers destroyed many of the records of the ships design and construction just prior to the end of the Second World War. Throughout their existence they were a mystery to the American Navy. During the war the U.S. Navy estimated them to carry nine 16” guns and displace between 40,000-57,000 tons. Even the highly regarded Jane’s Fighting ships listed them at just 45,000 tons.

Yamato and Musashi together in 1943

Preliminary design work began in 1934 and progressed rapidly following Japan’s withdraw from the League of Nations and renunciation of the Washington and London Naval Treaties and withdraw from the 1936 naval talks in London. The early designs varied in the caliber of guns, size and armor, propulsion systems and endurance. Gun calibers ranged from 16” to 18.1” and a combined diesel-turbine system was considered but rejected in favor of traditional steam turbines.

The final design was for a class of five ships. Each would displace 64,000 tons standard displacement and 72,000 tons at full load. They were 862 feet long with a beam of 127 feet.  They were so large that the docks they were built needed to be expanded and special extra large launch platforms had to be built.  At Nagasaki the dock at to be expanded by cutting into the hill adjacent to it.

They were armed with nine 18.1 inch guns in triple turrets which could fire a projectile weighing over a ton. The secondary armament consisted of 12 6.1 inch guns mounted in triple turrets formerly mounted on the Mogami Class cruisers when those ships were equipped with 8” guns. Anti-aircraft defense included twelve 5” guns and twenty-four 25mm anti-aircraft guns. During the war two of the 6.1 inch turrets were removed and replaced with twelve more 5” guns and the 25mm battery was raised to 162 guns. Fire control systems were designed in such a way that the ships could engage multiple surface targets at the same time.

The ships were protected by a massive armored belt ranging from 16 inches to 8 inches with 26 inch armor on the face plates of the main gun turrets. The armor was advanced with excellent sloping but had a flaw where the upper and lower belts connected just below the waterline which exposed them to damage from torpedoes.

Yamato and Musashi viewed beside Battleship Nagato (foreground) just before the Battle of Leyte Gulf

They were powered by 12 Kampon boilers which powered 4 steam turbines and four three bladed propellers. These developed 150,000 shp and could drive the ship at a top speed of 27 knots.


Construction of Yamato began on November 4th 1937 at Kure Naval Shipyard. Musashi on March 28th 1938. Traditionally such events were large public ceremonies but these were limited to just a few Naval Staff and Shipyard executives.  Yamato was Launched on August 8th 1940 and commissioned on December 16th 1941, just 9 days after Pearl Harbor. Musashi was launched on November 8th 1940 and commissioned on August 5th 1942 just two days before the U.S. Marines invaded Guadalcanal and two months after the disaster at the Battle of Midway.

Yamato served as Admiral Yamamoto’s flagship at Midway where she saw no action. The next two years she was and Musashi alternated as fleet flagship and conducted operations with Battleship Division One in operations between Mainland Japan and the major Japanese base at Truk. On December 25th 1943 while escorting a convoy she was torpedoed by the submarine USS Skate and suffered heavy damage which flooded a magazine.  On March 29th while underway Musashi was struck near the bow by a torpedo from the USS Tunny.

Musashi Under Attack at the Battle of Sibuyan Sea

Both ships participated in the Battle of the Philippine Sea and were part of Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s Central Force in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Musashi was sunk by U.S. Navy Carrier aircraft from the Third Fleet on October 24th 1944 during the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea. Hit by 17 bombs and 19 torpedoes she sank with the loss of nearly 1100 of her crew of almost 2400 men. The survivors were rescued by destroyers and disembarked at Corregidor. Some were sent by troop transport to Japan but one of the ships was torpedoed and sunk leaving her survivors adrift for 19 hours before rescue. Those who reached Japan were isolated from the population while about half of the survivors remained in the Philippines where 117 of 146 of those assigned to the defense of Manila were killed in action.

Yamato or Musashi under air Attack

Yamato saw action in the surface engagement on October 25th against the Escort Carriers and Destroyers of Taffy-3 during the Battle off Samar. Her guns helped sink the Escort Carrier USS Gambier Bay but was forced away from the action by torpedo attacks from the valiant destroyers of Taffy-3.

Yamato under Attack April 7th 1945

By April 1945 Japan’s Navy was decimated and holed up in Japanese controlled ports without fuel to conduct all but minor operations. U.S. Naval Forces were raiding Mainland Japan, inflicting heavy casualties among remaining naval, merchant marine, and air units, as well as bases and industrial facilities.

When the United States landed on Okinawa the Japanese Navy and air force launched wave after wave of Kamikaze attacks on the ships in the waters around the island. Yamato, along with Light Cruiser Yahagi and eight destroyers were designated the Surface Special Attack Force and loaded with a full load of ammunition but only enough fuel for a one way trip. They got underway on April 6th. The mission was for Yamato to reach Okinawa, beach herself and serve as an “unsinkable” gun battery until she was destroyed. The force was spotted by U.S. Navy flying boats hours after their departure and on April 7th over 400 aircraft launched from Task Groups 58.1 and 58.3 found the Yamato strike group. Devoid of fighter cover the force was doomed. The first wave of attacking aircraft began its attack at 1230. More followed, and by 1400 Yamato was mortally wounded. She had been hit by at least 8 torpedoes and 11 bombs in an hour and a half. Now she was dead in the water and began to capsize at 1405. At 1420 she turned turtle, and at 1423 she exploded when her forward blew up sending up a mushroom cloud nearly 20,000 feet.  Under 300 of her crew of nearly 2400 were rescued.

The End: Yamato Explodes

The Yamato and Musashi  were the largest battleships ever built. But they were  designed when naval experts who planned for a war where the battleship would rule and aircraft carriers played a supporting role. But the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made the Aircraft Carrier the new Queen of the seas. Neither ship ever  faced enemy battleships in combat and both were destroyed by the weapon that the battleship admirals had discounted, carrier based aircraft.

Thus, is somewhat fitting that each ship was commissioned shortly after the triumphs of Japanese and American Naval air power at Pearl Harbor and Midway. However, they have attained an almost mythic status in naval lore. Likewise they are both are symbols to many Japanese of the sacrifice and futility of the war. Their legend lives on in Japanese science fiction. However, both of the cities where the ships were constructed were destroyed by Atomic bombs. They are tragic reminders of the cost of war in human lives, suffering, economic cost and destruction.

In a sense their poetic names and the myths ascribed to them are a tragic requiem to the Japanese Empire and the cost of war. They and their brave sailors were sacrificed when the war was already for all intents and purposes lost. They, especially the Yamato were sacrificed for no military purpose save a convoluted sense of honor, and a nation that waged unjust and criminal wars in China before before it ever dreamed of attacking Pearl Harbor. Many Japanese Navy units, including surface ships, submarines, and Special Naval Units (Marines) engaged in war crimes at sea and ashore.

Of course the vast majority of the crew members of these ships never took part in these crimes because they seldom engaged in combat action until each was destroyed. Both spent most of the war flagships as part of a fleet in readiness. Unlike the German High Seas Fleet of the First World War, or the German Battleship Bismarck, the battleships of the Italian Regina Marina, or the battleships of Vichy France, none ever faced an enemy battleship in combat.

The only Japanese battleships to engage American battleships were the elderly fast battleship Kirishima which was destroyed by the gunfire of USS Washington during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, and the even more elderly and obsolete Fuso and Yamishiro which were destroyed by the combined firepower of the survivors of Pearl Harbor, the USS West Virginia, USS California, USS Tennessee, USS Maryland, USS Pennsylvania, and the USS Mississippi which was not at Pearl Harbor, as well as many cruisers, destroyers, and PT Boats at the Battle of Surigao Strait during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Kirishima was lost on the verge of victory to USS Washington and Rear Admiral Willis Lee who used their advantage in radar to singlehandedly destroy Kirishima and her supporting ships even as her destroyer screen was decimated, and the battleship USS South Dakota lost electric power and was heavily damaged.

Yamato  and Musashi were a waste of industrial capacity, manpower, and resources for Japan. Their sister, Shinano, which had been converted to an aircraft carrier, was lost on her maiden voyage to a spread of torpedoes fired from the submarine USS Archerfish, with a huge life of life simply because she was rushed into commission without vital watertight compartments being ready. They were expensive failures in every sense of the word, showing that bigger isn’t always better, and that investment in such expensive ships must take into account the technology that could defeat them. For the moment most nations including the United States, China, Great Britain, France, Russia, and India seem to be placing their bets on the aircraft carrier retaining its dominance, but that could easily be the same mistake of the powers of the Second World War who built battleships, even when it was clear that their dominance was at an end.

Let us pray that it never happens again. I can only imagine the shock if an American Nuclear Carrier was sunk by a submarine, a saturation cruise missile attack, or one of the maneuverable Chinese nuclear ballistic missiles. Such a loss would shock the nation and send the Navy into a panic as it scrambled to find a way to recover from such a sinking without losing more carriers. Such an event would be as transformational to naval warfare as were the introduction of the Dreadnaught, and the perfection of the submarine as a tactical and strategic weapon.

Until tomorrow,


Padre Steve+


Filed under History, imperial japan, Military, Navy Ships, Political Commentary, US Navy, war crimes, World War II at Sea, world war two in the pacific

12 responses to “The Hubris of Empire: The Japanese Battleships Yamato and Musashi

  1. Steve, another fascinating and informative post. From the blueprint image, it appears that the Yamato class had its belt armor mounted internally in an arrangement similar to the U.S. Iowa class. I wasn’t aware of that.

    Military technology has always intrigued me, especially battleships and tanks. Because Yamato and Musashi never engaged other battleships, and never did the Iowas either, people have long wondered about how such engagements might have resulted. The Japanese giants had the advantage of firepower, protection, and probably gun range. The American Iowas had the advantage of speed, maneuverability, and possibly gunnery (accuracy). There are many what-ifs to ponder. Had the U.S. Montana class entered service, they would’ve likely fared better against the Yamatos.

    • padresteve

      Musashi took a hell of a pounding before going down, Yamato only about half of what her sister took. Same kind of bombs and torpedoes hit them. I wonder what the difference was. Likewise it would have been interesting to see how well they would have matched up against the Iowa class in a fair fight. At Samar the gunnery of the Japanese battleships was not terribly effective, it was the heavy cruisers that did the most damage. I think that the American six knot advantage in speed and superior radar and fire control systems would have done a lot of damage before the Japanese landed a shot. But when I really think that the most magnificent ship in engaging enemy battleships while crippled has the be the Bismarck. The large number of 16”, 14”, and 8” shells fired at point blank range that hit her had to be massive, but they and torpedoes didn’t sink her, it was the scuttling charge. Fascinating to think about the Iowa class against the Yamato class. I wonder if someone has ever done a unbiased computer simulation.

      • I wonder about that too. An unbiased computer simulation would be fascinating!

      • Steve, I forgot yesterday to recommend Robert Ballard’s book “The Discovery of the Bismarck” which details his team’s exploration of the wreck-site. The illustrations in the book are excellent which reveal the tremendous damage inflicted upon the ship in its final battle. Most notably, a huge hole amidships (near the catapult) which probably resulted from one or more 16″ shells from HMS Rodney. Also, there were several penetrations of Bismarck’s belt armor and turret barbettes.

        The book also discusses the ship’s scuttling. Whether Bismarck would have sunk regardless is a matter of speculation, but it did prevent the ship from imploding (due to trapped air pockets) as it descended into the depths. Aside from its severed stern (which was damaged in the Swordfish torpedo attacks), Bismarck rests majestically upright on the ocean floor in good condition.

  2. Steven

    The answer to your question about the difference in weight-of-damage taken by Yamato vs Musashi is an old, old problem in gaming naval battles. While there are a number of good rules for assessing the strength of a ship or its battery, none of them are any good at modeling how any one ship stands up in any one engagement.

    Also, you are all overly enamoured of bouyancy. Bismarck was defeated in the Battle of the Denmark Straight, albeit at considerable cost to the RN. From the moment she aborted her raiding mission—for which she was completely unsuited in any event—due to battle damage, Bismarck was a mission kill. From the moment the RN landed a carrier torpedo into her steering gear, she was a total kill. While it is extremely important to the men who fought the ships whether or not the scuttling charges or the torpedoes finished Bismarck, it is also irrelevant. Bismarck ceased to be an effective fighting platform from the moment her steering gear was jammed. The damage was severe enough in the operational conditions of the time and place that she had no reasonable hope of survival—only a colossal blunder by the British C-in-C, Admiral Tovey, gave her any chance at all of slipping the noose for even a little while. Even then, it is probable Force H would have caught her. In the end, Bismarck proved incapable of landing even one hit on the RN ships detailed to sink her.

    As for the Japanese battleships…

    In large measure, the question of a BB vs BB engagement in the Pacific by 1944 is academic. The only possibility of such a combat taking place required an egregious mistake on the part of the American.

    Of course, they—in the form of the impetuous and arrogant Halsey—made exactly that mistake. They even compounded it by leaving the invasion forces to open to defeat in detail. Only an equally egregious failure by the Japanese commander on the spot saved the US Navy from devastating losses off Leyte. To what end the Japanese believed such losses were working is something only the Japanese of the time and place knew.

    The US is justly famous for making the numbers work out the way it wants them to—the US Army wargamed with rules that equated the British 17-Pdr gun to the American 76.2mm Gun, which is patently absurd. So when assessing the US Navy claim that the Japanese 18″ rifle was equal to the US 16-Inch rifle, one must not accept it as true on its face.

    The Iowas were considered by the American Navy to be under-armoured, and despite insisting that the 18-Inch rifle was no better than the 16-Inch rifle, the fact was the Iowa-Class were not proof against their own 16-Inch rifles, either. Without air intervention, the odds are that the Iowas would have fared poorly against the Yamtos. On the other hand, American sailors were the best sailors in the world—their damage control skills were in a class of their own, and by 1944 they had the tactical doctrine to match their weapons.

    The Japanese, on the other hand, failed to eliminate a handful of Escort Carriers defended by light surface combatants. The Admiral responsible for such a performance in 1942 would have been executed.

    The other thing to bear in mind is that the Iowas would not have been alone. The surface combat element supporting Willis Lee’s Battleline was more than a match for the Japanese Centre Force.

    So yes, probably, a pair of Iowas would have been badly handled by a pair of Yamatos, and Halsey certainly did all he was expected to do to make that happen—he just blundered more than even the Japanese thought he would.

    • padresteve

      You are correct in all you said. In regard to Bismarck I was isolating her final battle from the hit by Prince of Wales that severed her forward fuel tanks, and the torpedo hit that jammed her rudders which made her a certain kill. Likewise, I don’t think that the armor of the Iowa’s would have been proof against 18” shells as you note it was not proof against 16” shells. But like you said the experience of the American sailors, as well as their efficiency in damage control skills, their six knot advantage in speed and their radar would have given them a fair chance. With very few exceptions the Japanese were pretty ineffective at damage control, even when odds were even or in their favor. I think the one shining example of heroic damage control in the IJN was aboard Mogami at Midway.

  3. ajc

    The people on those ships must have been very afraid and their families too. Just looking at those pictures makes me sad. What a terrible time..

  4. David W.Harris

    Well done Padre a good article full of interest. I look forward to other similar articles. When I was nine years old I had a Frog model of the USS North Carolina a ship which is preserved and which I would very much like to visit. An article about this my favourite battleship would be welcome. Frog also offered models of a destroyer USS King and a modified Essex class carrier named USS Shangri La both of which I had. Although I had three of the four Revell kits of the Iowa class the North Carolina always seemed the outstanding ship in my view. To not pick a little in respect of comments made about KMS Bismark…..she was sunk in the Atlantic on her way to Brest so she was not sunk anywhere near the Denmark Straight, sadly she won that fight. The mention of point blank shelling is that the shells struck at a flat trajectory so were less likely to be fatal than longer range plunging hellfire such as that which destroyed HMS Hood. In respect of Yamato versus Iowa no one has made the point that the rate of fire of the 18 inch guns was probably slower than the Iowa 16 inch battery I would expect the American radar assisted gunnery and probable higher rate of fire would win the day. Nor need there have been a fair fight in respect of even numbers, if I were an admiral with four Iowas against two Yamatos I would say great we have the out numbered letsgetum ! However we shall never know.
    Regards DWH.

    • Steven

      Mr. Harris,

      You need to up your reading game a little bit. Specifically, you need to refine your understanding of the word “defeated”—reading the whole note would probably help, as well.

      Amateurs—people who are not Professional military officers—are fond of doing their sums improperly when it comes to land, sea, or air battles.

      Bismarck’s sortie was not a series of moments, each with individual significance and a winner and a loser. Bismarck’s sortie was an Operation planned and executed by the German Armed Forces against the sea lanes supporting Great Britain’s war effort in the North Atlantic.

      That operation ended, in failure, at the Denmark Straight. In some ways it ended at the Denmark Straight **because** of failures in Norway; the Operational Commander elected to proceed without refueling Bismarck, over the objections of her Commanding Officer—not the first or last time such a mistake was to be made.

      In a larger sense, the Operation was defeated by the commitment of massive resources to stop it by Great Britain, and the abject failure to provide it with the resources needed to succeed by Nazi Germany. And then there is the fact that Bismarck was completely unsuited to Commerce Raiding.

      Your point about plunging shell fires and ranges mixes apples and oranges—not an uncommon confusion in amateur analysis.

      The loss of Hood was due to her engagement with an enemy then flying, in the finest traditions of HM Naval Service. The specific mechanics of her loss are still debated, but the DNC had a convincing narrative to explain it. Where she should have been relative to Prince of Wales, how Holland should have negotiated the interception, and etc…, are all issues that remain contentious. But the sailors who died aboard Hood ensured their enemy failed. By doing their duty they carried the day, though at grievous cost.

      As to your rather flippant treatment of Yamato and Musashi, where to start? No one in command of thousands of sailors and four irreplaceable Capital Ships is ever so cavalier. If the circumstances warranted it, in his opinion, a US Navy Admiral would undoubtedly have engaged the Japanese Battleships with one Iowa—I believe the historical record makes it clear that in defence of invasion forces, a US Admiral was willing to commit Escort Carriers, Destroyers, and Destroyer Escorts, to such a fight.

      You would do well to read some of the many excellent books written about Sea Battles in the Great War and in WWII. Not just general histories, but actual close analysis.

  5. David W.Harris

    You are quite right Padre my reading game was probably played about thirty years ago, except for a book by Robert Ballard about his discovery of the wreck of the Hood and Battleship Arizona by Paul Stillwell. Memory fades and is generally unreliable but interest often endure. Ships and books about ships used to be vibrant in Britain but now it seems to be a dieing interest and I am aware of only one specialist bookshop in London now. The shop I used to visit allowed entry by appointment only. I had not thought my remarks about Iowa v Yamato would seem flippant as I intended comparison of the ships of two belligerent navies. To return to the Bismark story I doubt if anyone would disagree with you that Bismark or any battle ship is no suitable for commerce raiding. I think the original plan was for Bismark to join with Scharnhorst and Gniesanau with cruisers to cause real mayhem in the Atlantic. This could not be done due to damage and other ship problems preventing the intended fleet from forming. The German naval high command required Bismark to sortie. The British capital ships sent to the Denmark Straight were unfit for the job, Hood was old and worn out having been kept in commission when she desperately needed refit and her reconstruction could not be taken in hand until 1941. PofW was too new and her main battery was weak in comparison with the newest battleships of the other great navies of the world. The quadruple gun turrets were unreliable and there had been numerous problems with KG5 so this was known, the A turret was not even waterproof, PofW was only able to fire three gun salvos against Bismark before Y turret jammed and it took half a day to get it into service again. I quite understand your point about this not being about one fight we still have to recognise that when Bismark sank Hood and left PofW in an unbattleworthy state she most certainly won the battle of the Denmark Straight she did not continue on her intended raid she sought safety in a French Atlantic port. So I can agree with you

  6. David W.Harris

    Wretched ipad, the text just disappeared! cont. about the overall result but the Denmark Straight battle was the opening round of Operation Rheinubung whichthen had to be abandoned. Neither this nor my last reply is intended to be irksome to you, it is in the nature of conversation of an interesting topic, I had hoped that you might reply that you have or intend to write an article about USSNorth Carolina and her sister. The model I had of her was bought sixty years ago when the real ship was still a teenager.
    PS. Looking forward to reading your latest about the aircraft carriers, I visited the Hornet ten years ago.

    • padresteve

      Was it the Renwal Kit? If so I had the same one, the detail was amazing. I actually do plan on writing about them, as well as a number of other classes of post treaty battleships. Believe me I don’t consider your replies irksome by any means.

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