An hour train ride south of Tokyo is the town of Yokosuka, located on a peninsula sticking out into the southern entrance of Tokyo Bay. A short ten-minute walk from the train station is Mikasa Park. Located on the waterfront overlooking Tokyo Bay the unique feature of the park is the world’s only example of a pre-dreadnought battleship in existence incased in concrete. Overlooking port facilities providing axillary support for America’s 7th Fleet rests the battleship Mikasa. Beyond being a dynamic example of a ship museum offering fresh perspectives of naval history (such as virtual reality), the Mikasa represents nearly a century of effort by preservationists to save this vessel. Surmounting the limitations imposed by the Washington Naval Treaty (1922) and thepostwar occupation by American forces, preservationists have labored for nearly one century and subsequently produced a must see for any lover of naval history on any visit to Japan.
In 1905 this vessel served as the flagship of the Japanese Navy’s stunning victory at the Battle of Tsushima. The defeated Russian Navy lost almost its entire fleet and suffered 4,500 dead and 6,100 captured sailors. The dramatic end of the Russo-Japanese War claimed only 116 Japanese dead producing an amazing casualty rate of 48:1. Beyond making a bold statement of achieving victory over a western power, for Japanese society this success functioned as a right of passage in her amazing military modernization commencing in 1868 with the Meiji period. National identity is seen throughout the exhibition space onboard. Opposed to World War II, the Russo-Japanese War and the Mikasa offers Japan space for commemorating victory and canonization of not only a ship but also a military leader into Japanese identity. As seen repeatedly in walking the vessel in paintings, exhibition texts, and statutes is the Admiral of the Japanese fleet Togo Heihachiro.
While Mikasa led a national triumph, the time of peace immediately after the war was not so kind. Just after the battle in September 1905 a massive internal explosion in the magazine compartment sank her. Despite the loss of life of over 200 sailors, she was refloated and placed in the reserve fleet. At the close of World War I the Washington Naval Conference of 1922 reduced the floating tonnage of Japanese war vessels, thus the outdated pre-dreadnought battleship was slated for the scrapyard. However, Japan applied for a special exemption in an effort to save her as a platform commemorating the 1905 Japanese victory. In 1924 the HIJMS Mikasa Preservation Society formed and successfully completed the required stipulations of the agreement of exemption, including placing her hull in cement. Her bow points north toward the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.
The history of Mikasa as commemorative space is ironic in that she survived World War II relatively unscathed in comparison to the nearby industrial areas south of Tokyo leveled by Allied bombing. In the immediate postwar peace cutting torches ravaged the fifty-year old battleship by removing her bridge, guns, and masts as the war-weary American occupation forces deemed her a threat to re-militarization. By the mid 1950s the perceived militaristic threat of the immediate aftermath of the war had vanished, and with the support of U.S. Navy Fleet Commander Chester Nimitz, the Japanese government started her restoration. In 1961, the Memorial Ship Mikasa opened to mark a Japanese military experience that in stark contrast to World War II could be publicly embraced and celebrated.
Entering Mikasa Park the masts of the battleship stand out against the view of Tokyo Bay. Visitors are greeted by a large statue of Admiral Togo standing on a pedestal surrounded by an array of flowering plants. The museum utilizes a unique feature of payment found in Japan, that of not paying an employee for food or drink but rather using a machine to make your selection, and upon inserting the correct amount of money the machine prints up and spits out a paper receipt. With receipt in hand I walked up the stairs and onto the deck of the battleship. After presenting my proof of payment an employee gives me a brochure printed in English with a number of suggested routes to tour of the ship depending on amount of time and amount of detail the visitor wishes to experience.
Knocking my hand on one of the forward turrets confirms what I have read about this preserved ship. The hollow echo produced by my action points to the fact these turrets of cosmetic as the actions of preservation taken in the 1950s only wished to give the appearance of the guns that won victory rather than a full and costly restoration. Another interesting aspect in walking the vessel is the unique mixture of metal and wood found on board. Wood seen on the decks and the interior spaces for officers seem out of place on a ship mostly composed of metal. This combination of wood and metal highlight the true uniqueness of this vessel in terms of naval evolution taking place in the final decade of the 19th Century that produced the Makasa.
Another striking feature of this pre-dreadnought battleship is taking the stairs toward the bridge of the vessel, which is completely open to the elements and even lacks any enclosure above those standing here. During the battle sandbags were places around the perimeter at waist height. Around the vessel this fact is represented in numerous paintings of the battle with Admiral Togoand his staff standing in environs of smoke and incoming shells with eyes set on the Russian fleet firing at them. The bridge today offers an excellent view of the U.S. Navy installation just to the north of the park.
However, the most unique feature interpreting the battle is located within the vessel. Three computer terminals with padded seats allow visitors to experience the battle in virtual reality. This was my first experience with this medium. At the start of the experience I feel like I am flying over the ocean, in looking around my surroundings I realize I am standing on the forward portion of the bridge. Below me I see the deck and guns of the battleship as we plow forward. I then hear voices in Japanese in my headset. Looking behind me I find I am not alone as a digital version of Admiral Togo is calmly giving orders in Japanese to his nearby staff.
In looking completely behind the Mikasa I see the long line of the Japanese fleet. In short order incoming and outgoing shells take over most of the sensational experience. Loud explosions from our guns produce clouds of smoke obscuring the Russian fleet on the horizon. Incoming shells are heard and accompanied with visually seeing billows of seawater showering our vessel. Overall the experience blurs the lines between education and entertainment. However, nearly all digital medium is capable of this feat to some degree, thus this is a question public historians will have to address for the foreseeable future.
This museum is well worth the visit. Nearly all majority signage is bilingual (Japanese and English). However, all narration in digital and video forms was in Japanese, as it should be. As the world’s only example of a pre-dreadnought battleship all lovers of maritime history should visit on any trip to the Tokyo area. Insights into the rapid speed of technological advances taking shape in the 1890s particularly stand out. In addition, the site sheds light onto the process of how vessels can take on greater meaning for the nation-state that constructed them.