One hundred and fifty years ago the Imperial Japanese Navy was just beginning to find its footing. It was the period of the rise of Japan as a serious power. While the country was working to become much more centralized than it had been, it still had a long way to go in terms of modernization when compared to the European powers. The Japanese were naturally weak in material, training and discipline. Therefore, just a few years after they had begun to open themselves up to the world, they realized that changes needed to be made.

When looking to modernize their navy the Japanese turned to the most superior navy in the world, the British. As early as November 1867, Britain, guided by Tracey and Wilson had established a naval school at Edo in order to train new cadets and officers. While the restoration stunted and paused the initial mission, the school was relocated to Yokohama four months later where it was soon suspended.1 The new government of Japan hadn’t wanted to maintain the agreement with the British which the Tokugawa forces had created, however, the early involvement of the British with the Japanese would allow the British to obtain the first toehold into the long-secluded empire.

The Fusō Ironclad
Public Domain, Unknown Author

While the French had also had ample support in Japan, those loyalties lied mainly with the Shogunate. French technicians were able to maintain their positions working in the Yokosuka Shipyard2 but in a land where honor and prestige reigned, the French would lose virtually all of it. First the Shogunate had been overthrown which harmed much of France’s political power but France would then go on to lose in the Franco-Prussian War which propelled the British even higher in the esteem of the Japanese.

Even though Japan had become a fresh, new country in spite of its age, it was woefully technologically behind. However, as Perry notes, “Probably [the] most important [aid in modernizing the Japanese navy] was the lack of the cloak of secrecy which everywhere today shrouds military information from the gaze of outsiders. In the nineteenth century there were few military secrets. The Japanese could therefore learn almost anything they needed to know.”3 We must also note that technology during this period on land as well as on the sea was advancing rapidly. As soon as one vessel was built, it would seemingly become outdated by new design and a new ship under construction. These radical advances in technology coincided with Japan’s growth and ironically aided Japan’s rise since new technology was being shuffled around the world every decade. It was a perfect era for a new navy to be birthed.

By January 1870 the British seem to have resumed their watch over the Japanese. Lieutenant Albert G. S. Hawes of the royal marines noted that the Japanese had much to learn. His initial troubles were discipline with the Japanese, odd as Japan is typically known for its strict adherence to discipline in the oncoming decades. He noted that the Japanese didn’t want to sit at the table, they wanted to use stra tatami mats and use charcoal pots to cook their own meals on the ships.4 Aside from discipline Hawes also had Frank Brinkely, a lieutenant in the British Army who taught gunnery, mathematics , and foreign languages. Frustrated with interpreters, he even learned Japanese to fluidly explain his meaning to the Japanese, noting that the Japanese translators would assume words they didn’t know which would naturally cause confusion and error.5 And since the Japanese were being taught by the British, it would be only natural that they would purchase their first major warships from the same country.

The first major ships the Japanese bought from Britain were the Fusō, the Hiei, and the Kongō. Even though the Japanese had bought the ships, they didn’t yet feel comfortable to man them. Therefore, when the ships were delivered in Yokohama in 1878, British crews were hired to initially bring in the ships with only nine Japanese naval officers who had studied in England.6 One of these young Japanese officers was Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō. While the Japanese weren’t yet manning their entire ships, the designer had noted that “even in those days… the Japanese were smart enough… to have something better than the British ship of the same class.”7

The Fusō in this instance is not meant to be confused by the more modern patrol boat nor the later Battleship Fusō class which was commissioned in 1915. This Fusō is merely an ironclad constructed early in the Imperial Japanese Navy’s career.

But the British had a profound effect on the Japanese. By 1872 the Japanese had used an English-style uniform, English terminology, naturally due to their training, and provided textbooks. This is in addition to the many young Japanese naval officers who were taught, trained and studied in England. This comradery grew stronger, principally on the British side, as the construction of such ships provided jobs, along with the training. In addition, Britain began to see Japan as a possible ally in an effort to contain Russia.8 We would also see British and American influences on the study of naval combat in the oncoming decades, particularly Mahan’s philosophy shown at the Battle of Tsushima against Russia and other minor, yet important battles against the Chinese between 1894-95.

Focusing on the Fusō, it didn’t see real action until nearly twenty years after its construction in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. At this point it was the Japanese, who felt strong enough to take on their neighbor, China, on land and sea. While the Japanese came attached with a largely British built navy, the Chinese Navy had twice as many ships with many of them being inferior excepting two German-built battleships which, on paper, Japan couldn’t counter.9 While there had been a previous battle of Pingyang before the important Battle of the Yalu River, Yalu had set up a pivotal moment for both nations.

17 September 1894 began the Battle of the Yalu River. Within the main squadron included the ships, the Matsushima, Itsukushima, Hashidate, Fusō, Chiyoda, and Hiyei.10 The Japanese also carried a First Flying Squadron.

The first shot, which missed at 12.30, was fired by the Ting Yuen. There was a slight breeze going against the Chinese ships but the sea was notably calm; the wind being important as the Japanese firings would raise black smoke which would frustrate Chinese spotters. The Japanese showed their superiority and training in every way. They were able to pass directly across the Chinese front line, opening fire at 3000 yards. While notably risky, since it could’ve allowed the Chinese to break through the Japanese line, the Japanese held strong, fending off the Chinese.11 To make this effort, the Japanese passed dangerously close in some areas and many of their bought ships were put at risk. Notably the Fusō was badly hit although her armor wasn’t penetrated. At the same time, the Hi Yei had nearly been rammed which forced it to alter course between the two Chinese battleships at short range. The Saikio was one of the few which remained unharmed.12

While the Chinese did have a few moments where they may have been able to turn the tide of the battle, these efforts were not followed up upon. The Japanese Flying Squadron quickly rectified minor errors and circled to the main front while the previously mentioned main squadron began to assault the Chinese backside. The Chinese were quickly distracted, focusing nearly all their fire on the single ship of the Akagi; for this, the Chinese lost both the King Yuen and Chih Yuen.13

Other Chinese vessels were also faring poorly. The two Chinese torpedo boats were largely ineffective, missing a target against the Saikio-maru. The Chinese vessels Lai Yuen, Ching Yuen and both of their German-bought battleships were on fire.14 While the battleships would eventually put out their fires by 13.30, the rest of the Chinese fleet was in poor condition which allowed the Japanese fleet to focus much of its attention on the dangerous ships.

Roughly five hours after the battle began, it ended with the Chinese steaming away. While some claim it had been a draw, the Japanese had lost zero ships to the many Chinese ships which were sitting near the bottom of the Yalu. Likewise, the most damaged ship on the Japanese side was, indeed, the Fusō. While records, as Jane notes, have remained confidential, it was the most battered ship with “…the Japanese opinion of the result of the fire on this ship was that armour under the peculiar circumstances of the Yalu tended to aggravate hits rather than the reverse, and it is certainly interesting that this ship, with an armoured battery, completely armoured belt, and fairly thick armour which could not be penetrated by any of the Chinese 6-in. shell, should have been one of the most damaged ship of any.”15

The failures of the battle though, largely lay upon the Chinese. Some of the Japanese ships had been decades old and were little more than coastal ships, although there were notable cruisers in the mix as well. However, the Chinese communication in the battle was poor, and there hadn’t been any gunnery practice by the Chinese ships for several months.16 What had further solidified the Japanese victory, and not a draw, was that the Chinese had retreated from the banks which allowed the Japanese to advance in northern Korea, no longer having to worry about their flanks. In the ensuing months, Japan sent units across the Yalu and more divisions had moved into the Liaotung peninsula and Port Arthur.

The excuses on behalf of the Chinese were legion but the Chinese had set the blame upon their commanders, principally Ting ju-Ch’ang. It should be noted that early in the battle he did receive a concussion when his flagship’s first shells were fired. But the Chinese had many more faults than a concussed commander. The Chinese didn’t have the training, the quality of vessel and had a history of like-defeats; against both French and British at various points in 1839, 1860 and the French near Foochow in 1884.17 Japan had modernized over time. The Chinese merely upgraded a few ships but little else had changed and this fault lies not with Ting principally, but the soul of the nation as a whole.

While another battle had been fought after Yalu, the Battle of the Yalu River had been the pivotal one. The Chinese themselves were stunned. The battle was reconstructed in the “Poem on the Yellow Sea” and the poem’s author wrote later that, “We have been told that we had a superior fleet and not to worry; actually, we had the ships but not the men to fight in them.”18 Point-blank, Chinese leadership knew about the lack of training and at least they, if not their people, should have known better than to so directly confront the Japanese in the way that they had.

The battle, of which the Fusō was noteworthy, was also commented around the world. Within America there was a stern warning immediately after the battle by Hilary A. Herbert in The North American Review in 1894 who wrote, “But, however much or little the naval architect may get from Yalu, that battle carries one lesson our country must heed, viz.: that unless either China or Japan is to be wiped off the map as an independent nation, the United States are to have west of them two nations each steadily increasing its naval power, while our trade relations with both are rapidly becoming more intricate and more complicated.”19 Nations had become rightfully aware.

The Japanese would often repeat their tactics; surprise attack, certain battle formations and the like over time with some refinements. The battle after Yalu, the Battle of Weihaiwei used both the Army and the Navy in a united assault; this same sort of coordination would be seen in the following decade in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. The beginning of the Russian War was a mission meant to trap Port Arthur and dismantle the Russian Imperial Navy’s 1st Pacific Squadron.20 However, between the war against China and that against Russia, the Fusō had been repaired only to sink after a collision in 1897. By the time of the Russian War the Fusō had long outlasted its purpose and was relegated to less important duties.

The Japanese sneak attacked the Russians at Port Arthur in 1904 which decimated the Russian navy in the Pacific and again at the Battle of Tsushima, which would remove the remaining naval threat. The real damage though occurred on land where the Russians lost roughly 60,000 men and the Japanese 41,000.21 The Fusō was insignificant in the war as by the time of the Russian war it had been re-armed and redesignated as a coastal defense ship. Its life was short lived afterward having been decommissioned in 1907.22

While the Fusō‘s existence and importance had waned from its inception, where it was one of the more advanced ships that the British could produce, it was important for what it represents in this brief article. The Fusō details the advancement of the technology at the time. When it was delivered in the late 1870s it was part of a naval reformation for the Japanese. When it entered its first real battle at the Battle of the Yalu River, it had suffered disastrously but managed to stay afloat and contribute to the battle. But just ten years afterward it had been demoted in status and by 1907 had become irrelevant. Within thirty years, not only had the imperial navy moved beyond the technological advances of the late 1870s, but so had the world.

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Works Cited

1 Great Britain and the Emergence of Japan as a Naval Power p 309

2 ibid. p 309

3 ibid. 310

4 ibid. p 311

5 ibid. p 311

6 ibid. 320

7 ibid. 320

8 ibid. 313

9 The Imperial Japanese Navy of the Russo-Japanese War p 5

10 Note On the Wounded p 966

11 The Imperial Japanese Navy p 123

12 ibid. p 123

13 ibid. p 124

14 ibid. p 124

15 ibid. p 132

16 The Last Century of Sea Power p 23

17 ibid. p 24

18 The Sino-Japanese War p 192

19 The Fight Off the Yalu River p 528

20 Lessons Learnt? p 51

21 The Treaty of Portsmouth and the Russo-Japanese War

22 The Imperial Japanese Navy of the Russo-Japanese War p 19


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Jane, Frederick Thomas. “The Imperial Japanese Navy.” Google Books, Google,

Kamachi, Noriko. “The Sino-Japanese War and the Post-War Reform Movement.” Brill, Harvard University Asia Center, 18 Oct. 1981,

Perry, John Curtis. “Great Britain and the Emergence of Japan as a Naval Power.” Monumenta Nipponica, vol. 21, no. 3/4, 1966, pp. 305–21. JSTOR, Accessed 5 Aug. 2022.

Stille, Mark. “The Imperial Japanese Navy of the Russo-Japanese War.” Google Books, Google,

Suzuki, S. “Note On the Wounded in the Naval Battles Between Japan and China During 1894-95, With Some Considerations of Sanitary Conditions Prevailing During the War.” US Archive, US Archive, 16 Oct. 1897,

“The Treaty of Portsmouth and the Russo-Japanese War, 1904–1905.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State,

Willmott, H. P. “The Last Century of Sea Power, Volume 1: From Port Arthur to Chanak 1894-1922.” Google Books, Google,