Only search Kamikaze Images

Explosion of battleship Yamato with three escort destroyers to left (April 7, 1945)

Battleship Yamato's Contradictions

Great Yamato, of all lands most supreme,
Enclosed by ranks of verdant banks
on surrounding hills
Great Yamato—unmatched for beauty![1]

This poem about Yamato, attributed to legendary Prince Yamato Takeru who in the 4th century CE won a series of great victories against the Emperor's enemies but died in defeat at the age of thirty, describes the place considered to be the birthplace of Japanese civilization [2]. The province of Yamato, where Nara Prefecture is located currently, became the strongest political entity in Japan during the 4th century and grew steadily in size and power over the next two centuries [3]. The name Yamato since that time has referred poetically and nationalistically to all of Japan.

On August 8, 1940, the Imperial Japanese Navy gave the name of Yamato to the world's largest and most powerful battleship that was being built at Kure Naval Arsenal in Hiroshima Prefecture. A few days after the outbreak of the Pacific War, Yamato was commissioned into service on December 16, 1941. The huge battleship became flagship of the Japanese Combined Fleet the following February, but Yamato saw very little action during the Pacific War and met her end when sunk by torpedoes and bombs dropped by American warplanes on April 7, 1945.

The Japanese people knew nothing about battleship Yamato during the war since her existence and military capabilities were considered top secret [4]. Mitsuru Yoshida, a Yamato junior officer who survived the sinking, completed in 1946 his story of the giant battleship's final mission, but his work was prohibited from publication by a General Headquarters censor of the Allied occupation who wrote that it "cannot fail to arouse in the mind of the readers something like deep regret for the lost great battleship, and who can be sure that the warlike portion of the Japanese do not yearn after another war in which they may give another Yamato a better chance? [5]" Yoshida's memoir, entitled Requiem for Battleship Yamato, was published finally in 1952 at the end of the Allied occupation, and this triggered great interest by the Japanese public in the legendary warship that has continued until today. Movies, books, documentaries, manga comic books, models, a TV animation series, and a museum reflect the public's fascination with Yamato, which serves as a symbol of Japanese nationalism although with different meanings and interpretations depending on personal political and philosophical persuasion. This essay examines four contradictions that surround battleship Yamato in history and in Japanese popular perception.

1. Powerful or Weak?

By whatever measurement, Yamato was number one in the world or top class among warships with total length of 263 meters, maximum width of 36.9 meters, standard displacement of 65,000 tons, and three turrets with three 46 cm guns each that could fire a shell weighing 1,460 kilograms a distance of 42 kilometers [6]. However, this seemingly super battleship entered service during the same month when the Japanese Navy itself demonstrated clear superiority of aircraft over huge battleships with eight U.S. battleships sunk or damaged at Pearl Harbor and the British Royal Navy's battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse sunk off the eastern coast of Malaya. During meetings to decide whether to go forward with construction of super battleships, Isoroku Yamamoto, head of the Navy's Aeronautics Department in the mid-1930s, argued strongly but unsuccessfully that attacking power of aircraft would increase tremendously so that warships could be sunk before they could even fire their guns at each other [7].

During the Battle of Midway in early June 1942, battleship Yamato remained 300 miles behind the four aircraft carriers that sank from attacks by American carrier-based aircraft and "achieved nothing but retirement at full speed once Japanese carrier forces were given a fatal blow. [8]" From August 1942 to May 1943, Yamato remained safely at Truk anchorage as Navy leaders were reluctant to commit the ship to battle due to vulnerability to air attacks. As the Battle of Guadalcanal raged on, crewmen on warships headed to the frontlines sarcastically referred to the huge battleship at anchorage as Hotel Yamato with its amenities such as air conditioning, fine food, and individual beds rather than hammocks for crewmen [9]. Yamato contributed almost nothing to Japan's war effort, so there was a joke in the Navy that Yamato along with China's Great Wall and Egypt's pyramids were the world's three most useless things [10].

Yamato shot her main guns against the enemy for the first time ever during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944. The Japanese Navy suffered a great defeat, and Yamato's sister ship Musashi was sunk by numerous torpedoes and bombs dropped by American warplanes. In April 1945, Yamato led a ten-ship fleet toward Okinawa and was sunk after being hit by 12 torpedoes and 5 bombs dropped by American aircraft [11]. Yamato lost 2,740 men, and only 269 men survived [12]. Yamato's sinking was the end of Japan's surface fleet.

2. Heroic or Tragic?

Histories and fictional works about battleship Yamato focus on the ship's final suicidal mission. The order from the Commander in Chief at Combined Fleet headquarters read that the 2nd Fleet of ten ships would be led by Yamato in a tokkō (special attack) operation against enemy ships around Okinawa, and fuel would be provided for only one way with no cover by Japanese aircraft. On April 5, 1945, commanding officers of ships in the Second Fleet vehemently objected to the senseless operation from which the fleet was not expected to return [13]. Vice Admiral Seiichi Ito, Second Fleet Commander, finally ended the objections with the following words: "I think that we are being given the appropriate chance to die. A samurai lives so that he is always prepared to die. [14]" Ryunosuke Kusaka, Chief of Staff of the Combined Fleet, had made clear earlier to Ito, "You are being requested to die gloriously, heralding the deaths of 100,000,000 Japanese who prefer death to surrender. [15]"

Otokotachi no Yamato
(Men's Yamato)
released in 2005


The three major Japanese popular films about battleship Yamato (Otokotachi no Yamato (Men's Yamato), 2005; Rengō Kantai (Combined Fleet), 1981; Senkan Yamato (Battleship Yamato), 1953, based on Mitsuru Yoshida's memoir published in 1952) depict how crewmen fought courageously to the death against attacking aircraft. Each movie shows how the top two officers bravely went down with the sinking ship as Vice Admiral Ito entered his private room after giving an order to stop the operation and turn back after rescuing men and Yamato Captain Kosaku Ariga bound himself by rope to the ship's binnacle. After the ship sank, several men who got off prior to the sinking were hit by bullets when American warplanes strafed the water where survivors were floating.

The heroism of the legendary Yamato officers and crewmen exemplifies the behavior of a type of hero in Japanese tradition who fights courageously but ends in tragic defeat. Morris explains this kind of hero, "Faced with defeat, the hero will typically take his own life in order to . . . vindicate his honour, and make a final assertion of his sincerity. His death is no temporary setback which will be redeemed by his followers, but represents an irrevocable collapse of the cause he has championed: in practical terms the struggle has been useless and, in many instances, counter-productive. [16]" Prince Yamato Takeru, who fought and lost in the 4th century CE, is the archetype of this type of hero, and during World War II the kamikaze pilots and the men of Yamato followed his example as they carried out suicidal tokkō (special attack) operations [17].

3. Remembered or Imagined?

Japan remembers battleship Yamato and the men who died in typical ways such as monuments near the former Kure Naval Arsenal where the ship was constructed, in the former naval cemetery in Kure City, at the tip of southern mainland Japan in Makurazaki City facing the East China Sea where the ship sank, and on the island of Tokunoshima near the site of the sinking. Japanese people became especially interested in the historical Yamato when in 1985 articles and programs appeared about an underwater exploration team that had discovered the sunken battleship and photographed the wreck at the bottom of the sea. In 1999, the same dive team that had explored the wreck of the Titanic investigated the Yamato remains with two advanced submersibles. Interest in Yamato soared in April 2005 with the opening of the Yamato Museum in Kure City and in December 2005 with the opening of the film Otokotachi no Yamato (Men's Yamato), the sixth most popular film of 2006 based on box office receipts [18]. Yamato Museum has averaged 1 million visitors per year from its opening to March 2013, which puts it close to the popularity of nearby Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which had 1.4 million visitors in the fiscal year ending March 2013 [19].

Battleship Yamato also lives in the imagination of the Japanese public through the popular science fiction TV animation series, films, and manga stories about Uchū Senkan Yamato (Space Battleship Yamato). The original TV series, which started in 1974, showed the Earth in 2199 under attack by an alien race called Gamilas who tried to kill humans with radiation poisoning by meteor bombs. Earth's inhabitants retreated underground to escape radiation and discovered the sunken battleship Yamato, which they rebuilt into a huge spaceship that looked similar to the original WWII warship. Mitsuru Yoshida, who survived Yamato's sinking, wrote in the late 1970s that for many young Japanese people Yamato is first the name of the cartoon's spaceship with little knowledge of the real battleship [20]. The live-action film Uchū Senkan Yamato (Space Battleship Yamato) opened in December 2010 and became the fourth most popular film of 2011 [21]. The spaceship Yamato, which represents Japan with the ancient poetic name for the country and an all Japanese crew, fought heroically to save Earth against the Gamilas. In the final action scene of the 2010 movie, Yamato's captain ordered the crew from the ship and made a suicide attack against an enemy spaceship from planet Gamilas that resulted in the destruction of both ships.

4. Militaristic or Pacifistic?

Far East Asians outside of Japan consider battleship Yamato as a symbol of Japan's aggressive militarism during the Pacific War. Even though Yamato had almost no military success, they regard the giant battleship to be symbolic of their countries' former enemy, Japan, which committed numerous wartime atrocities. In contrast, many Japanese people in the postwar period do not associate Yamato with militarism at all but instead with the ship's courageous but ultimately calamitous defense of the homeland while the enemy regularly dropped firebombs on Japan's cities and finally atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan and Yamato are portrayed as victims rather than aggressors.

First feature film of Space
Battleship Yamato


The movies Otokotachi no Yamato (Men's Yamato) and Rengō Kantai (Combined Fleet) both emphasize the mission, although hopeless, to defend family members and friends from the attacking enemy. Otokotachi no Yamato depicts the enemy's mercilessness when helpless Yamato crewmen get strafed in the water and when a surviving Yamato sailor visited a Hiroshima hospital where his girlfriend, who had been severely wounded by the atomic bomb, soon died. Yamato Museum has promotion of the importance of peace as one of its basic objectives despite its main hall with a 1/10-scale model of the warship [22]. The TV series and movie Uchū Senkan Yamato (Space Battleship Yamato) transformed the battleship "from the emblem of prewar Japanese militarism to a global (literally) emissary of peace and love to the universe. [23]" Yamato bravely defended the entire Earth and only fought when attacked [24].

Final Thoughts

The contradictions and differing attributes of battleship Yamato allow Japanese people, no matter where on the political spectrum, to consider the ship in their own ways as a national symbol. This flexibility as a symbol contributes to Yamato's continuing popularity in Japan almost 70 years after torpedoes and bombs from American warplanes sank the ship while on a hopeless mission.


1. Carter 1991, 19-20.

2. Morris 1975, 2, 9, 13.

3. Meyer 1993, 23-4.

4. Taiheiyō sensō kenkyū kai 2009, 240.

5. Yoshida, Mitsuru 1985, xxix-xxx.

6. Nagasawa 2007, 82-3.

7. Agawa 1979,  90-4.

8. Yokoi 1986, 513.

9.  NHK shuzai han 2013, 42-4; Yamato 2007, 89-90.

10. Taiheiyō sensō kenkyū kai 2009, 238.

11. Yoshida and Hara 2005,  260. This essay's numbers are confirmed torpedo and bomb hits from Yoshida's Senkan Yamato no saigo (The last of Battleship Yamato). A table provides different numbers of torpedo and bomb hits from nine other sources.

12. Yoshida, Toshio 1972, 176. Other sources provide different numbers for the number of men who died in the sinking of Yamato.

13. Ito 1956, 158-9.

14. Hara 1961, 278.

15. Yoshida, Mitsuru 1985, 38.

16. Morris 1975, xxi-ii.

17. Ibid., 276-334. Yamato's suicide mission is described on p. 304.

18. Nihon eiga seisakusha renmei 2007.

19. Todaka 2013; Hiroshima City 2013.

20. Yoshida, Mitsuru 1985, xxix.

21. Nihon eiga seisakusha renmei 2012.

22. Yamato Myūjiamu 2014.

23. Napier 2005.

24. Takekawa 2013.

Sources Cited

Agawa, Hiroyuki. 1979. The Reluctant Admiral: Yamamoto and the Imperial Navy, translated by John Bester. Tokyo: Kodansha International.

Carter, Steven D., trans. 1991. Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Hara, Tameichi, Fred Saito, and Roger Pineau. 1961. Japanese Destroyer Captain. New York: Ballantine Books.

Hiroshima City. 2013. "Hiroshima heiwa ki'nen shiryōkan no nyūkansha nado no gaikyō ni tsuite" (Overview of Visitors to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum), April 17. <http://www.city.hiroshima.lg.jp/www/contents/0000000000000/1366269060684/index.html> (June 23, 2014).

Ito, Masanori, with Roger Pineau. 1956. The End of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Translated by Andrew Y. Kuroda and Roger Pineau. New York: Macfadden-Bartell.

Meyer, Milton W. 1993. Japan: A Concise History, third edition. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Morris, Ivan. 1975. The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan. New York: New American Library.

Nagasawa, Michio. 2007. Senkan Yamato to nihonjin (Battleship Yamato and the Japanese people). Tokyo: Kojinsha.

Napier, Susan J. 2005. "World War II as Trauma, Memory and Fantasy in Japanese Animation," The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, posted May 31. <http://www.japanfocus.org/-Susan_J_-Napier/1972> (June 23, 2014).

NHK shuzai han (NHK News Crew). 2013. Kyodai senkan Yamato: Norikumitachi ga mitsumeta sei to shi (Huge battleship Yamato: Life and death seen by crewmen). Tokyo: NHK Publishing.

Nihon eiga seisakusha renmei (Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan). [2007]. "2006 nen kōgyō shūnyū 10 oku en ijō bangumi" (2006 programs with box office receipts more than 1 billion yen). <http://www.eiren.org/toukei/img/eiren_kosyu/data_2006.pdf> (June 23, 2014).

________. [2012]. "2011 nen kōgyō shūnyū 10 oku en ijō bangumi" (2011 programs with box office receipts more than 1 billion yen). <http://www.eiren.org/toukei/img/eiren_kosyu/data_2011.pdf> (June 23, 2014).

Otokotachi no Yamato (Men's Yamato). 2005. Directed by Junya Sato. 143 min. Toei Video. DVD.

Rengo Kantai (Combined Fleet). 1981. Directed by Shue Matsubayashi. 145 min. Toho. DVD.

Senkan Yamato (Battleship Yamato). 1953. Directed by Yutaka Abe. 104 min. Shintoho. DVD.

Taiheiyō sensō kenkyū kai (Pacific War Research Society). 2009. Senkan Yamato no 100 nazo (100 mysteries of Battleship Yamato). Tokyo: Sekai Bunka Publishing.

Takekawa, Shunichi. 2013. "Fusing Nationalisms in Postwar Japan: The Battleship Yamato and Popular Culture," electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies 12, Issue 3. <http://www.japanesestudies.org.uk/ejcjs/vol12/iss3/takekawa.html> (June 23, 2014).

[Todaka, Kazushige]. 2013. "Yamato Myūjiamu kanchō nōto vol. 38, Raikansha 800 mannin o mukaete" (Yamato Museum Director notes, vol. 38, Welcoming 8 million visitors), March 17. <http://www.yamato-museum.com/concept/note/2013/03/vol38.html> (June 23, 2014).

Yamato, Hideo. 2007. "Yamato hoteru" (Hotel Yamato) in Komikku senkan Yamato: Hachi hachi kantai keikaku kara Okinawa tokkō made (Comic Battleship Yamato: From Fleet 88 plan to Okinawa special attack). Yokohama: Koei.

Yamato Myūjiamu (Yamato Museum). 2014. "Shushi, kihon hōshin, hōkōsei" (Purpose, core policies, direction). <http://www.yamato-museum.com/concept/policy.html> (June 23, 2014).

Yokoi, Toshiyuki. 1986. "Thoughts on Japan's Naval Defeat" in The Japanese Navy in World War II: In the Words of Former Japanese Naval Officers, second edition, edited and translated by David C. Evans. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press.

Yoshida, Mitsuru. 1985. Requiem for Battleship Yamato. Translation and Introduction by Richard H. Minear. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Yoshida, Mitsuru, and Katsuhiro Hara. 2005. Dokyumento senkan Yamato (Battleship Yamato documents). Tokyo: Bungeishunju.

Yoshida, Toshio. 1972. Yamato to Musashi (Yamato and Musashi). Edited by Kengo Tominaga. Tokyo: Akita Shoten.