The Biggest Battleship Of All Time: The Mighty Yamato

Military forces all over the world are constantly trying to think of the next great weapon, the one device that will help them turn the tides of battle in their favor and crush the enemy.

In World War 2, the Japanese thought that weapon would be a new battleship, bigger and greater than anything that had been seen before. They called it, the crown jewel of the Japanese navy, the Yamato.

Right from the get-go, you could tell that the Yamato was a pretty big deal. Just the name “Yamato” invokes a lot of imagery in the Japanese psyche.

As Koichi wrote about, Yamato is a name that’s tied to lots of different things that are dear to the Japanese; not only does it refer to an early ethnic group, but also a language, and a time period in Japanese history.

But aside from the name, the ship itself was an impressive feat. It towered over 100 feet, was as long as the Eiffel Tower is tall, and could hold a crew of over 2,000.

Its firepower was a force to be reckoned with. The Yamato carried the largest guns ever mounted on a war ship and could, in theory, blow any opposition to shreds.

But as important as it was, the Yamato never saw much action; it briefly served as the Japanese navy’s flaghip, but because it was such an obvious target, it spend a lot of time in Japanese ports avoiding Allied bombers.

The only time it ever saw substantial usage was in its last, desperate mission.

Operation Ten-Go

Towards the end of WW2, Japanese forces were dwindling and the US military was steadily advancing from the south. Faced with a desperate situation, the Japanese decided to make one last stand, deemed “Operation Ten-Go.”

The plan was to gather the small remains of the Japanese navy and blaze a trail with the Yamato to Okinawa, then beach the ship and use it as a stationary gun mount. With its thick hide and massive firepower, it seemed like a pretty good idea.

Unfortunately for the Japanese, warfare had evolved. The Yamato was built between WW1 and WW2, during which the introduction of the airplane changed how navies fought.

Before, sea battles were basically giant battleships lobbing shell after shell at each other, and whoever had the better range and stronger guns won.

But airplanes were mobile, fast, and effective, and could take down a ship easier than a ship could shoot down an airplane. Fighters, bombers, and aircraft carriers were the new face of naval warfare.

The Yamato was big, clumsy, and slow, making it an obvious and easy target for airplanes to bomb and shoot down.

In short, Operation Ten-Go was over before it even began. A swarm of American planes was able to take out the Yamato with minimal losses. The Yamato exploded and sunk before it ever got to its planned destination, taking down most of its crew with it. In terms of lives lost, it’s the biggest naval disaster in all of history.

The Yamato explodes

Ever since, the Yamato has lay at the bottom of the South China Sea. There are a few memorials in Japan for the Yamato, and a couple of expeditions have made it out to the Yamato’s wreckage.

Living On In Anime, Video Games, And Movies

In some ways, the Yamato lives on. The anime series Space Battleship Yamato (A.K.A. Star Blazers) was in part inspired by the giant WW2 battleship; and in turn, the Yamato cannon in the Starcraft video game series was named after the anime.

There have been at least three movies about the Yamato too, including 2005′s “The Men’s Yamato” (Otokotachi no Yamato).

By most metrics, the Yamato was a colossal failure. It was an expensive, outdated ship that was too little, too late. It failed to protect Japan from its eventual defeat in WW2, and brought thousands of men down with it. In a lot of ways, it was an allegory for the failure of Japan and its imperial ambitions.

But clearly, the Yamato left its mark. It’s hard to ignore such colossal project that once was the pride of a nation.

  • Anonymous

    Deep, brilliant article. 

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

     Thank you.

  • RPMcEntire

    Good article, nice summary of the ship and its life.  However, the title might be more correct as  “The Biggest Battleship Of All Time: The Mighty Yamato Class” as the Yamato did have 2 sister ships, the Musashi and the Shinano.  The Musashi was nearly identical to the Yamato, and did see action, she was sunk during the battle of Leyte Gulf.  The Shinano was converted to an aircraft carrier while still under construction, and was sunk in November 1944 only ten days after being comissioned.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Whoops. I was under the impression that the Shinano was somewhat smaller than the Yamato, but  it looks like you’re right.

  • http://hanlonsrzr.blogspot.com/ Antisthenes

    It is also, sadly, a perfect metaphor for Japanese conflict management: suicidal and useless.

  • Empathyart

    One of the best post yet. I need to fit Space Battleship Yamato into my schedule soon…

  • Anonymous

    That was a very interesting article. Too bad my history teacher never really talked about battleships :p

  • ヽ(´ー`)ノ

    I told ‘em to stop using kamikazes, but no one ever listens.

  • http://profiles.google.com/jonadab.theunsightlyone Jonadab the Unsightly One

    The Yamato is also a twenty-fourth-century starship (Galaxy class, like Picard’s Enterprise).  Unfortunately, it was destroyed by a warp core breach, taking its entire crew with it.  (It was not in battle at the time, though.  IIRC, the problem was caused by incompatibility with ancient alien software, or something like that.)

  • Deanthompson88

    interesting article, makes me wish i listened better in my school history lessons. I was probably arguing with my friends who would win in a fight between Yamato and Godzilla instead of listening to the teacher lol

  • Gekkounodaichi

    Don’t forget the 大和ミュージアム in Kure (Hiroshima Pref.) which was the birthplace of the ship!

  • PRO400

    I’d say that the Yamato had little chanced against several fleets. If you took out the carriers, aircraft and evened the odds, you would clearly see that Yamato was the symbol of naval supremacy, put aircraft in the picture and you got one mighty battleship at the bottom of the pacific. The US relied mostly on material, numbers and brute strength, Operation Ten-Go is a sign of bravery and honor for the Japanese, while the victory achieved by the US should be considered “overkill”