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Rise of the Dragon:
Japan’s Lost Ships

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
January 2016

Our Great War at Sea: Rise of the Dragon a limited-edition supplement available only to the Gold Club, is focused on Chinese plans to build (well, actually purchase) a fleet of dreadnought battleships during the years before the First World War, and how these new ships might have been used to repel Japanese aggression.

That the Japanese were aggressive toward China is beyond doubt, but their treasury was also nearly broke after the end of the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War. China’s fleet program would have demanded a Japanese response, and that would have required some re-allocation of resources. Japan captured and rebuilt five Russian battleships, and also re-constructed the battleship Mikasa after a massive explosion sank her in September 1905. The former Russian armored cruiser Aso also received a complete rebuilding.

The Japanese government considered those projects absolutely necessary for political purposes, to assure the Japanese people of their great triumph by symbolically adding the Russians’ naval strength to their own. In reality the rebuilding projects diverted scarce resources (not only money, but hard-to-obtain modern 12-inch guns) and added nothing to Japanese naval strength. Thanks to their brand-new (and highly efficient) Japanese-made power plants the rebuilt ships saw more service during the First World War than the Imperial Navy’s original British-built battleships, but they were in no way front-line units and represented enormous waste from a practical perspective.

Japan could afford to tout her victory by rebuilding the Navy’s prizes, or prepare to win another by putting those guns and money toward new, modern battleships. The Empire’s political leaders chose the former, and the ruling Rikken Seiyukai party won a resounding victory in the 1908 elections, picking up 54 seats in the Diet, so the program may have been successful as a political stunt. Faced with a new challenge in their own backyard, we’ve posited in Rise of the Dragon that Japanese leaders would have chosen the latter course instead.

That begins with the Katori-class pre-dreadnought battleships laid down in 1904 in British shipyards, the last battleships Japan built overseas. Japan ordered two, which did not complete until after the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War. Some foreign observers thought she might order two more units, and that’s what we’ve given her here.

Katori and her sister carried four 12-inch guns and four more 10-inch guns, but are not usually considered semi-dreadnoughts. They were very similar to the contemporary British King Edward VII class, with the lower speed typical of pre-dreadnoughts and large array of medium-caliber and light guns. Kashii and Kashiwara are depicted as true sisters to the first pair, and probably would have been built in British private yards like the two actual ships.

Following their victory over Russia, the Japanese admirals had their eyes on bigger and more capable ships. The next battleship, named Satsuma, would be built in a Japanese yard though much of the material to build her had to be imported. As designed, she would have carried a dozen 12-inch guns: four in dual turrets sited fore and aft, four more in dual turrets placed in either “wing” position, and finally four in single turrets at the “corner” positions.

The two ships projected would require 24 12-inch guns between them, but the rebuilding of the Russian prizes and the shattered Mikasa used up 16 of them. So Satsuma and her semi-sister, Aki, were completed with four 12-inch guns each and a dozen 10-inch guns, which were cheap and plentiful on the world market thanks to Brazil’s cancellation of her pre-dreadnought program in favor of bigger ships. We covered the building of these two ships in an earlier Daily Content installment.

For Rise of the Dragon, we’ve included the Satsuma class as originally envisioned: with their full armament of 12-inch guns, and turbine propulsion to raise their speed to 20 or 21 knots (as was done with Aki). And we’ve given them two additional sisters. The Imperial Japanese Navy did not yet entrust its heavy warships to private builders, but Kawasaki Heavy Industries had built ships of that size (and lobbied heavily for Chinese battleship business) and in 1906 its rival Mitsubishi completed the slipway where the super-dreadnought Hyuga would later be built.

The next Japanese battleships, the Settsu class, did have a dozen 12-inch guns, though of two different calibers. They were laid down in 1909 on the slipways vacated by Satsuma and Aki, and in Rise of the Dragon the Imperial Japanese Navy lays down another pair at Kawasaki and Mitsubishi at the same time. Tajima and Sanuki are repeats of the Settsu design, bearing names from the typical sequence of Japanese ship-naming conventions (names of Japan’s ancient provinces, typically those where the Rikken Seiyukai polled well).

That gives the Japanese eight dreadnoughts to match the Chinese battle line, at great cost to the Japanese people and economy. But Japan also had an ongoing program of armored cruiser construction in keeping with its 8-8 fleet program. Experience gained in the Russo-Japanese War only confirmed the concept of a “fast wing” for the battle fleet, ships with the speed to match enemy cruisers and the armament to damage enemy battleships if became necessary to fight in the battle line.

As we’ve detailed in a previous Daily Content piece, the Japanese chose to build less-capable ships in this program – the Tsukuba and Ibuki classes – rather than accept a more expensive but far more powerful design proposed by the British firm Vickers. In Rise of the Dragon the Japanese receive all six of the proposed cruisers, built to the smallest of the Vickers proposals with six 12-inch guns and turbine propulsion to yield true cruiser speed. They have a new drawing in place of the one we used in the Daily Content piece, a rendering closer to the Vickers design draft (and much more attractive as well).

After several years of compromise designs like the actually-constructed versions of Satsuma and Tsukuba, the Japanese went to Vickers in 1911 with an order to design and build the most advanced battle cruiser of the time. Kongo, the ship that resulted, has appeared in Great War at Sea games before, but all those iterations are currently out of print, so she gets a piece in Rise of the Dragon. She’s rendered with a new drawing, simply for aesthetic purposes.

Don’t miss your opportunity to put Rise of the Dragon on your game table! Join the Gold Club and find out how to get it before it's gone forever!

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold is a good dog.