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Japan Maritime Self Defence Force Ship Names

Navies of the world have various schemes for naming their ships, and Japan's traditional ship names have a few twists that are not found in other navies. One is that, in contrast to navies like those of the US or the UK, Japan never named its warships after famous persons.

The basic scheme for naming major Japanese combatants by the Imperial Japanse Navy [IJN] which was employed for decades before the end of WW2 was as follows.

  • Battleships -- Ancient names of regions in Japan or names for Japan itself
  • Aircraft Carriers -- Names of mythical birds and animals
  • First Class Cruisers -- Names of mountains
  • Second Class Cruisers -- Names of rivers
  • First Class Destroyers -- Names of meteorological phenomena
  • Second/Third Class Destroyers -- Names of trees or flowers
  • Torpedo Boats -- Birds

Perhaps the most striking thing about the Imperial Japanse Navy's destroyers were their names. They were named after phenomena of weather, sea, and sky, with several groups based on wind (kaze), snow (yuki), rain (ame), clouds (kumo), waves (nami), mist (kiri), frost (shimo), tides (shio), and moons (tsuki).

While lists sometimes appear given the "meanings" of IJN ship names, the awareness level of, and interest level in, these names is not so high among Japanese themselves. For example, confronted with the light cruiser name Kiso, a Japanese would think of the river or area, without ever stopping to think of the meaning of the individual characters, just as an American confronted with the cruiser name Indianapolis would very likely think of the city, rather than recall the origin or meaning of that name.

Until the end of World War II, Japanse warships were prefixed by HIJMS, which stands for "His Imperial Japanese Majesty's Ship". Following the end of the War, ships were prefixed by JDS (JMSDF Defense Ship).

To make the establishment of their naval power a bit more palatable, the Japanese took to coining new names and using existing non-naval names and new conventions for the names of ships, ship types, and ranks in the JMSDF.

Although IJN ship names were painted onto ships in phonetic syllabary characters, all IJN ships had names which were more properly written in Chinese ideographs. Perhaps as a message that the JMSDF ship names have nothing to do with IJN ship names, these Chinese ideographs have been totally abolished, much to the displeasure of older Japanese naval personnel.

The ship names themselves are almost all taken from IJN ships. The twist comes, however, because the systematic assignment of certain types of names has virtually disappeared. Although it could be argued that the Japanese, in their desire to preserve famous warship names were forced to assign heavy cruiser and battleship names to what they call escorts (but which are really missile destroyers or frigates), one wonders why they have not applied a bit more organization to the scheme of naming their JMSDF ships.

One interesting feature is that nobody ever expects the name Yamato to be assigned to a JMSDF ship, perhaps in the belief that the name has been retired, much as a uniform number would be retired in US sports.

Although the JMSDF admits to having destroyers in most of their English-language materials, one might be surprised to learn that they used a term which means escort to refer to their 8000-ton Aegis missile destroyers in Japanese.


Type Class Sign No. Category Specific
Combatant Combatant
Destroyer DD 101~ Natural phenomena/ Weather,
moons (tsuki), sun (hi), rain (ame), snow (yuki), mist (kiri), frost (shimo), clouds (kumo), wind (kaze), waves (nami), and season,
mountain, river, region
DE 201~
Submarine SS 501~ Sea phenomena,
Sea animals
tide (shio)
Mineweeper Ocean MSO 301~ Islands,
Minesweeper Coastal MSC 601~ Island
Minesweeping Controller MCL 721~ (same name as before class change)
Minesweeper Tender MST 461~ strait
Patrol Guided Missile Boat PG 821~ Birds, trees, grass bird, tree, grass
Landing Ship LST 4001~ Peninsulas peninsula
LSU 4171~
Landing Craft Utility LCU 2001~ numeral
Auxiliary Auxiliary
Training Vessel TV 3501~ Noted places,
Historic spots
beautiful scenic place
Training Support Ship ATS 4201~ gorge
Multi Purpose Support Ship AMS 4301~ open sea
Oceanographic Research Ship AGS 5101~ beach
Ocean Surveillance Ship AOS 5201~ bay
Ice Breaker AGB 5001~ mountain or glacier
Cable Repairing Ship ARC 481~ cape
Submarine Rescue Vessel ASR 401~ castle
Submarine Rescue Tender AS 405~
Experimental Ship ASE 6101~ places of civilization / culture
Underway Replenishment Ship AOE 421~ lake
Service Craft ASY 91~ scenic spot

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:23:42 ZULU