In the First Sino-Japanese War (1894 - 1895), Japan clashed with China over the domination of Manchuria and Korea. The principle areas in question were Southern Manchuria around the Liaodong Peninsula (containing Port Arthur and Mukden), the seas around Korea and Japan and the Yellow Sea. Japan's victory over China established her as a great regional power and projected her onto the world's stage, on equal terms with the West concerning its influence in Asia - Western and European powers were impressed but surprised with the Japanese victory. However, Russia was threatened with Japan's rise to power and helped craft the "Triple Intervention of April 1895" with Germany and France. This pressured the Japanese to relinquish the Liaodong Peninsula (including Port Arthur) in exchange for financial reparation. This assisted the Russian Empire with its ambitions along her eastern shores.
Japan, realizing the true Russian intent in Asia, began to build up its military strength with an increased naval program at the end of 1890. She constructed six battleships and six heavy armored cruisers. The last of these battleships was the Mikasa ordered by the IJN (Imperial Japanese Navy) and built at the Vickers shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness, United Kingdom. Mikasa was modeled from the Royal Navy's Majestic-class design and delivered to Japan in 1902 at a then-record cost of 8.8 million yen. The Japan of the 1800's did not possess the indigenous heavy industry building facilities nor the technology to construct modern big gun warships and, thusly, all of her battleships and heavy armed corvettes from the era were primarily built in England - the nation that had developed the 12-inch (305mm) naval gun, and possessed the required shipbuilding facilities with their highly trained shipwrights. The battleship Mikasa was designed with a displacement of 15,140 tons, a maximum speed of 18 knots in ideal conditions and the heaviest main armament of the day - 4 x 12-inch (305 mm) 40-calibres Mk III guns. When commissioned in 1902, the Mikasa was one of the most advanced battleships of her time.
The Mikasa left British waters after her requisite sea trials and steamed with her new IJN crew on her maiden voyage to her home port in Japan. She became a ship of great national pride to the Japanese people and served as the flagship of Admiral Togo Heihachiro. By 1903, negotiations between Russia and Japan proved useless and war began on February 4th, 1905. Japan trapped the Imperial Russian Navy's First Pacific Squadron in Port Arthur and, in late July, the Imperial Japanese Army laid siege to the port. This required Russia to mount a counter strike against Japanese naval forces or withdraw from Asia altogether.
On February 9th, 1904, five days after war had been declared, naval history's first major confrontation between modern steel battleships fleets occurred when Admiral Togo's fleet engaged in a 20-minute duel with Russian Admiral Stark's battleships in Port Arthur. The "Battle of the Yellow Sea" on August 10th, 1904, was an attempt by the Russian fleet at Port Arthur to break out and form up with Russian warships from the port of Vladivostok. The Russians had six battleships, four protected cruisers and fourteen destroyers on hand. Admiral Togo Heihachiro was on board the flagship Mikasa with three other battleships, two armored cruisers, eight protected cruisers, eighteen destroyers and thrity torpedo boats on call.
The Yellow Sea engagement lasted seven hours and of this roughly four hours were taken up by actual combat between the forces. The fleets reported 7,382 rounds being fired and Mikasa was hit 20 times with her aft main turret knocked out of action. Togo's fleet suffered two battleships severely damaged, one battleship marginally damaged, one protected cruiser slightly damaged and 226 killed and wounded. The Russian fleet reported one battleship as severely damaged, five battleships slightly damaged and 48 killed and a further 292 wounded. Despite the fighting, the outcome of the battle was a deemed a tactical draw for both sides - nothing gained, nothing lost.
The Russians understood that they would lose Port Arthur and, eventually, their entire foothold in Asia unless they defeated the Japanese Navy. With the no resolution in the Battle of the Yellow Sea, it was decided to send part the Baltic fleet steaming over 18,000 miles to Japanese waters and link up with Russian ships from Port Arthur and possibly Vladivostok in a combined forces maneuver designed to destroy the bulk of the Japanese fleet. The formation of the Second Pacific Squadron consisted of twenty-eight vessels, or five divisions, of the Baltic Fleet including eleven of its thirteen battleships. The squadron departed Russian waters for Japan under the command of Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky on October 15th, 1904. Due to a lack of friendly coaling bases en route, the Russian ships carried surplus coal stacked on their decks.
The Russian Second Pacific Squadron sailed through the North Sea and fired upon British fishing trawlers, causing the Royal Navy to shadow the Russian fleet and bar their request to sail through the Suez Canal. This forced the Russians to sail around Africa and anchor at Cam Ranh Bay in French Indochina in May of 1905. The voyage was long and the crew was naturally fatigued, starting to look with disfavor upon their overseeing Russian officers. News reached Rozhestvensky that the city of Port Arthur had fallen so linking up with the Russian ships in the port of Vladivostok now became the primary objective of the fleet.
The Russians chose to sail through the strait of Tsushima to reach Vladivostok. Admiral Rozhestvensky chose Tsushima in an effort to shorten his cruise. The Second Pacific Squadron consisted of 28 vessels made up of 8 battleships, 3 coastal battleships, 8 cruisers and 9 destroyers. Admiral Togo, based at Pusan, Korea, believed the Russian course would be Tsushima and amassed a fleet of 89 vessels to counter the Russian fleet. The Japanese flotilla encompassed the Mikasa and three other battleships, 27 cruisers, 21 destroyers, and 37 torpedo boats plus gunboats as well as additional auxiliary vessels. On paper, the Russian fleet had the advantage of battleships but many were older and in need of repair. However, they did possess a numerical superiority of heavy guns. Conversely, the IJN had the knowledge of the waterways and held numerical superiority in ships. Additionally, the Japanese Navy used high explosive shells that inflicted greater damage on surface vessels than the armor piercing rounds being used by the Russians. The Russian sailors were also tired after their long voyage while the Japanese were in home waters and expertly drilled.
The Russian squadron attempted to navigate the strait on the night of May 26th, 1905. Togo had placed a number of picket boats in the strait; the picket cruiser Shinano Maru radioed Togo the Russian position, heading and speed around 4:55 AM. The Japanese radio technology was superior to the ones used by the Russians and Togo ordered his fleet towards the Russian formation, engaging them at 1:40 PM. The Russians sailed as two columns towards the Japanese Fleet who made a u-turn, blocking the Russian route to Vladivostok. The fleets opened up and the Japanese ships hit the Russian ships with greater numbers and better accuracy.
Firing from 6,200 meters out, the Japanese battleships made many direct hits on the Russian Flagship Knyaz Suvorov. Admiral Rozhestvensky was mortally wounded as his flagship sank. As the battle continued, the new Russian battleships Borodino and Imperator Alexander III were also sunk. By early evening, the nucleus of the Russian fleet had been destroyed while, in comparison, little influential damage had been inflicted upon the Japanese.
On the night of the 27th, Togo launched the largest night attack of modern warships to date, involving 37 torpedo boats and 21 destroyers. Sailing into, and between, the Russian ships, they attacked with torpedoes and exploding shells for approximately three hours. The battleship Navarin was sunk and the battleship Sisoy Veliki was put out of action. Two Russian armored cruisers were crippled and then scuttled after dawn. All 21 Japanese destroyers returned while 3 of the 37 torpedo boats were sunk in the attack. At dawn, Togo moved in with his fleet to engage the remaining fragments of the Russian fleet. With only six ships left, Admiral Nebogatov hoisted the white flag of surrender at 10:34 AM. Some Russian ships chose not to surrender, requiring Togo's fleet to hunt them down.
The Battle of Tsushima was the only decisive fleet action fought by steel battleships. The Russian fleet was utterly destroyed with 21 ships sunk, 6 captured, 3 having escaped to Vladivostok and 6 others interned when they escaped to neutral ports. Russian crews lost 4,380 killed and 5,917 captured. Japanese losses were relatively light with 3 torpedo boats sunk, 117 killed and 583 wounded. In the wake of Tsushima, Russia was forced to sue for peace. Combined with the defeat in China, the defeat of the Russians at the battle Tsushima propelled Japan as a world naval power and, in turn, diminished Russia as an international naval power. Japan's presence as such would continue until the end of World War 2 in 1945.
Mikasa had her main guns mounted across armored turrets in centralized positions allowing for the rest of the ship to be evenly protected with heavy, thick German Krupp armor steel plates. This arrangement allowed Mikasa to withstand twenty direct hits during the Battle of the Yellow Sea and around thirty hits during the Battle of Tsushima with only minimal damage recorded on both occasions. The firepower and the longer range of the 12-inch (305mm) guns of the Mikasa were manned by highly-trained and motivated Japanese sailors. The accurate gunfire was primarily due to the modern British-built rangefinders developed by Barr and Stroud of Glasgow coupled with expert training. The modern radio equipment used on the Japanese ships also proved superior to the radios on the Russian fleet and made for excellent communications between involved ships during the heat of battle.
In September of 1905, the war with Russia was over and, while anchored in Sasebo Harbor, a fire broke out near a powder magazine on the Mikasa, causing an explosion killing 339 crewmen and injuring another 300 men - the ship sank in 36 feet of water. While severely damaged, the Mikasa was floated on August 8th, 1906 and towed to Maizuru Naval Arsenal for repair. The decision was made to restore the Mikasa - an expensive venture taking two years and requiring the replacement of her corroded 12-inch x 40-calibre main guns for newer, more powerful 12-inch x 45-calibre guns. Some felt the decision a poor one with the ground-breaking development in Britain of the battleship HMS Dreadnought in 1906. HMS Dreadnought instantly made all previous steel warship designs obsolete with her balance of speed, armor and firepower. Mikasa was restored to active service in 1908 and, as she left the yard, she was derated to a second class battleship. By the time of World War 1 in 1914, she was further demoted to a third class battleship. During the conflict, Mikasa's mission turned to patrol and coastal defense of home waters near the naval yard of Maizuru from 1914-18.
Rated as a First Class Coast Defense Vessel, she took part in the Japanese intervention in Siberia in 1921. Mikasa was ordered to patrol near Vladivostok by western forces, as part of a larger force, to support the White Russian forces against the Bolshevik Red Army during the Russian Civil War. While on patrol off Vladivostok, she ran aground near Askold Island on September 17th, 1921. She was refloated when the IJN Fuji, IJN Kasuga, and the IJN Yodo arrived and assisted her to the port of Vladivostok for repair. Once repairs were completed she was ordered to return to her home port of Maizuru. Once there, the Japanese Navy decided her active service was at an end and she was placed in the inactive fleet. Mikasa was preserved as a memorial ship due to her participation in major Japanese battles, anchored put Yokosuka. The museum officially opened to the public on November 12th, 1926.
During World War 2, as the American Navy closed in on the Japanese islands, Mikasa was bombed during air raids. After Japan's surrender in 1945, American occupation forces took charge of all military ships, aircraft and equipment. Even though Mikasa was a bombed museum ship, her guns were dismantled due to the order of the surrender agreement.
For years Mikasa lay in her disgraced state, unworthy of a brave ship who had won glory for the Empire. The ship deteriorated and her condition no longer permitted her to operate as a museum ship after the war. The ship now operated as "Cafe Togo", a cheap booze-dive providing female "entertainment" to US servicemen. The club failed and the ship was abandoned by the Japanese people due to the national feeling after the war and, in 1958, the government considered cutting her up for scrap.
Some Japanese ex-military and historical persons started a preservation movement in 1958. American Admiral Chester Nimitz was contacted by the preservation committee to help with finances and to use his name to help the movement. Nimitz saw the importance of the project and, with United States participation (including financial help) along with The Japan Times, collected money for the restoration of the Mikasa. The work was completed on May 27th, 1961, at a cost of 180 million Yen. As luck would have it, the English-built Chilean Navy Super-Dreadnought Battleship Almirante Latorre, which was being scrapped in Japan at the time, provided a majority of the parts for the restoration of the Mikasa . The US returned the parts of the ship that it had held in storage after 1945, allowing the superstructure to be rebuilt. By 1962, the ship was restored to the Japanese naval tradition and forwarded US and Japanese relations.
Today the Mikasa is again a museum ship for public consumption and the last remaining example of a pre-dreadnought battleship anywhere in the world. Anchored at Yokoshuka harbor, she was named after Mount Mikasa in Nara, Japan. Ironically, the bow 12-inch gun turret points at the US Navy Base.