Combat experience in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95 convinced the IJN that the Jeune Ecole doctrine was untenable. Therefore, Japan promulgated a ten-year naval build-up in early 1896, to modernize and expand its fleet in preparation for further conflicts, with the construction of a total of six battleships and six armored cruisers at its core. These ships were provided for from the £30,000,000 indemnity paid by China after losing the First Sino-Japanese War and the four remaining battleships of the program were also built in the UK.
Rising tensions between the Japanese and the Russian Empire over control of Korea and Manchuria in the early 1900s caused the former to begin the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5 with a surprise attack on the Russian base at Port Arthur. The Imperial Japanese Army captured the port, and the surviving ships of the Pacific Squadron by the end of the year, but the Russians had dispatched the bulk of their Baltic Fleet to relieve Port Arthur before then. It did not reach the Korea Strait until May 1905 and was virtually annihilated by the IJN in the Battle of Tsushima despite significantly outnumbering the Japanese. During the war, Japan captured a total of six Russian pre-dreadnoughts. These were all repaired and commissioned into the Japanese fleet; of these, three were later returned to Russia during World War I, as the two countries were by then allies. The magnitude of the victory at Tsushima caused the leadership of the IJN to believe that a surface engagement between the main fleets was the only decisive battle in modern warfare and would be decided by battleships armed with the largest guns. The corollary to this was that Japanese ships had to be qualitatively superior to those of their opponents to ensure victory.
After the war, the Japanese Empire immediately turned its focus to the two remaining rivals for imperial dominance in the Pacific Ocean: Britain and the United States.Satō Tetsutarō, an IJN admiral and military theorist, speculated that conflict would inevitably arise between Japan and at least one of its two main rivals. To that end, he called for the IJN to maintain a fleet with at least 70% as many capital ships as the US Navy. This ratio, Satō theorized, would enable the Imperial Japanese Navy to defeat the US Navy in one major battle in Japanese waters in any eventual conflict. Accordingly, the 1907 Imperial Defense Policy called for the construction of a battle fleet of eight modern battleships, 20,000 long tons (20,321 t) each, and eight modern armored cruisers, 18,000 long tons (18,289 t) each. This was the genesis of the Eight-Eight Fleet Program, the development of a cohesive battle line of sixteen capital ships.
The launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906 by the Royal Navy raised the stakes, and complicated Japan's plans as she rendered all existing battleships obsolete. The launch of the battlecruiserHMS Invincible the following year was a further setback for Japan's quest for parity. When the two new Satsuma-class battleships and two Tsukuba-class armored cruisers, launched by 1911, were outclassed by their British counterparts, the Eight-Eight Fleet Program was restarted.
The first battleships built for the renewed Eight-Eight Fleet Program were the two dreadnoughts of the Kawachi class, ordered in 1907 and laid down in 1908. In 1910, the Navy put forward a request to the Diet (parliament) to secure funding for the entirety of the program at once. Because of economic constraints, the proposal was cut first by the Navy Ministry to seven battleships and three battlecruisers, then by the cabinet to four armored cruisers and a single battleship. The Diet amended this by authorizing the construction of four battlecruisers (the Kongō class) and one battleship, later named Fusō, in what became the Naval Emergency Expansion bill.
The Fuji-class ships were the first battleships in the IJN, and were ordered in response to the Chinese acquisition of two ironclad battleships. The design for Fuji was based on the Royal Sovereign-class battleships being built for the Royal Navy at that time, albeit slightly smaller and faster with improved armor and guns.
The ships participated in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, including the Battle of Port Arthur in February 1904 and two bombardments of Port Arthur during the following month. Yashima struck a mine off the city in May and capsized while under tow several hours later. Fuji fought in the Battles of the Yellow Sea and Tsushima and was lightly damaged in the latter action. She was reclassified as a coastal defence ship in 1910 and served as a training ship for the rest of her active career. The ship was hulked in 1922 and converted into a barracks ship fitted with classrooms. Fuji was finally broken up for scrap in 1948.
The design of the Shikishima class was a modified and improved version of the Majestic-class battleships of the Royal Navy. They had the same armament and similar machinery as the Fuji class which was intended to allow them to work together as a homogenous group. The ships participated in the Russo-Japanese War, including the Battle of Port Arthur on the second day of the war. Hatsuse sank after striking two mines off Port Arthur in May 1904. Shikishima fought in the Battles of the Yellow Sea and Tsushima and was lightly damaged in the latter action, although shells prematurely exploded in the barrels of her main guns in each battle. The ship was reclassified as a coastal defence ship in 1921 and served as a training ship for the rest of her career. She was disarmed and hulked in 1923 and finally broken up for scrap in 1948.
Asahi's design was a modified version of the Formidable-class battleships of the Royal Navy, with two additional 6-inch (152 mm) guns. Shortly after her arrival in Japan, she became flagship of the Standing Fleet, the IJN's primary combat fleet. She participated in every major naval battle of the Russo-Japanese War and was lightly damaged during the Battles of the Yellow Sea and Tsushima. Asahi saw no combat during World War I, although the ship participated in the Siberian Intervention in 1918.
Reclassified as a coastal defence ship in 1921, Asahi was disarmed two years later to meet the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty, after which she served as a training and submarine depot ship. She was modified into a submarine salvage and rescue ship before being placed in reserve in 1928. Asahi was recommissioned in late 1937, after the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War, and used to transport Japanese troops. In 1938, she was converted into a repair ship and based first at Japanese-occupied Shanghai, China, and then Camranh Bay, French Indochina, from late 1938 to 1941. The ship was transferred to occupied Singapore in early 1942 to repair a damaged light cruiser and ordered to return home in May. She was sunk en route by the American submarine USS Salmon, although most of her crew survived.
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