Photo: Vicki L Beyer

In Admiral Togo’s wake: Meeting a military genius

By Vicki L Beyer

Harajuku is widely regarded as one of the centers of Tokyo’s fashionable youth culture with Takeshita-dori at its heart. As one strolls Takeshita-dori there is one intersection with a laneway where two crepe shops stand across the lane from each other and behind them a heavily wooded hillside beckons. Mount the steps toward the trees and the hustle and bustle of Takeshita-dori fades away. This is the side entrance to Togo Shrine, honoring Admiral Heihachiro Togo (1848-1934), hero of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05).

Photo: Vicki L Beyer

The presence of this quiet, dignified shrine seems, at first glance, incongruous with its trendy surroundings. Yet it has managed to stay relevant and even gain popularity among the young demographic who frequent Harajuku. It seems a bit of a mystery, until one learns more about the activities of the shrine and about Admiral Togo himself.

Let’s start with the great man and return to the shrine shortly.

Togo, like many of the significant personalities of the Meiji Period (1868-1912), was born in Satsuma Domain (modern day Kagoshima Prefecture). He joined Japan’s newly formed Navy in 1866 and later went to the UK to study, graduating second in his class at the Royal Naval College.

After his return to Japan in 1878, Togo steadily rose through the ranks, receiving command of his first ship in 1883 and becoming commandant of the Naval War College in Tokyo in 1896. In 1899 he became Admiral of the Japanese fleet and in 1903 was appointed Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy, by this time consisting of over 100 vessels. All in all, a stellar career. Depictions of several scenes from Togo’s career are displayed around the cloisters of Togo Shrine.

Yet it is Togo’s achievements in the Russo-Japanese War for which he is best remembered. These, too, are depicted at Togo Shrine, but to really appreciate them, make a visit to Togo’s wartime flagship, the Mikasa, in Yokosuka, about an hour south of Tokyo on the western shores of Tokyo Bay.

Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Now known as “Memorial Ship MIKASA” and included in the designation of Yokosuka’s naval port as a Japan Heritage site, the Mikasa was built at the Vickers Shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness in the UK. Her keel was laid in 1899 and she was commissioned in 1902, making her the newest battleship in the Japanese fleet at the time of the Russo-Japanese War. Today she is the last known example of a British-built battleship.

Although the Russian fleet at the time had slightly superior force, Togo’s command of the Japanese Imperial Navy enabled it to defeat the Russians in each of three engagements: the Battle of the Yellow Sea (Aug 10, 1904), the Battle of Ulsan (Aug 14, 1904) and the Battle of the Japan Sea (aka the Battle of Tsushima; May 27-28, 1905). In this last engagement, the Russian fleet was effectively destroyed, as a result of which peace talks commenced.

Photo: Vicki L Beyer

After the war, the Mikasa had a further career before being decommissioned under the conditions of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. Under the treaty, Japan was permitted to keep the Mikasa as a memorial ship, provided that her hull was encased in concrete. Thus she was given a home in Yokosuka and opened as a museum in 1926. Admiral Togo and Emperor Hirohito (1901-1989), grandson of the emperor Togo served so well, were both present for the Mikasa’s opening.

Unfortunately, due to the shortage of war materiel during World War II, the Mikasa was stripped to her gunwales and recycled. During the post-war occupation, weaponry was banned in Japan with the result that the occupation forces removed most of what remained of the Mikasa. Restoration finally began in the late 1950s, largely by former sailors of the Japanese Imperial Navy volunteering their time, and she was re-opened as a museum in 1961.

Visitors can wander the Mikasa’s decks to admire her guns and even the bridge. A helpful brochure lays out a short (30-minute) and long (60-minute) self-guided course. There are bilingual signboards at various locations that provide explanations.

Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Below decks, the aft section of the ship has been converted to museum displays about the functioning of the Mikasa and especially her role in the Battle of the Japan Sea, when Admiral Togo ordered a “cross the T” maneuver that allowed his ships to fire all their guns at once on the enemy’s fleet. The success of the strategy earned Togo the monicker “the Nelson of the East”. Indeed, the admiral once wrote in his diary that he believed himself to be the reincarnation of Horatio Nelson, the British admiral who defeated Napoleon’s fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Virtual reality terminals allow visitors to put themselves in the middle of the battle and experience the heavy fire and damage the two enemies inflicted on each other, as well as other aspects of shipboard life.

In the forward section, Togo’s cabins as well as officer’s quarters, mess hall, and even a galley, have been restored to their appearance a century ago. While his bunk may have been a bit cramped, the admiral otherwise had fairly comfortable accommodation.

Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Togo finished his public service career in Tokyo, including overseeing the education of then-Crown Prince Hirohito from 1914 to 1921. He made his home in Sanbancho, not far from Ichigaya Station. This site was originally considered for the location of Togo Shrine, but then a larger piece of land in Harajuku became available and its size and proximity to Meiji Shrine made it seem more suitable. The Sanbancho site is now a public park known as Admiral Togo Memorial Park, largely a children’s playground with a new community hall currently under construction.

This brings us back to Harajuku’s Togo Shrine. The shrine was established in 1940 and the current buildings date to 1964. Togo himself apparently had no desire to be enshrined, but some say the shrine was established due to a perceived need for a shrine to a Navy hero, to counterbalance Akasaka's Nogi Shrine, where an Army hero was enshrined. Could it be because of its proximity to Takeshita-dori?

At the shrine, Togo is regarded as a god of sincerity, victory, fortune and relationships. Perhaps because all of these things could be said to add up to marriage, Togo Shrine is a popular wedding venue, too, with traditional weddings held in the main shrine while receptions take place in a modern facility next door, overlooking a pretty little pond and garden.

Photo: Vicki L Beyer

The shrine is also home to a separate small shrine to the “god of the sea” as well as a small museum of Togo memorabilia, such as his dress uniform and samples of his calligraphy

Stopping by to honor Togo when in the Harajuku neighborhood now makes a bit more sense, doesn’t it? Better yet, make the trip to Yokosuka to see the splendidly restored battleship that Togo commanded to victory for Japan.

Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at

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This is an amazing story. I was going to go snowboarding this morning however when I saw this story I immediately put down my ski equipment and spent the day reading re-reading this article. How I would love to visit this old ship and think about the historic significance of it all. But hence forth, I will go to Yokosuka this weekend with my date and have fun filled frolicking day of it all. Wonders to see!

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It's a nice quiet spot to take a breather away from the madness of Takeshita-dori area.

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Thank you for this series, JT. Each piece is fascinating.

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Several thoughts come to mind.

Japan has had at least two outstanding naval leaders, Togo and Yamamoto.

I would love to go on a tour of the battleship Mikasa.

Japan's success against the Russians was due not only to Togo and the efficiency of the Japanese navy, but to the incompetence of the Russian naval leaders. Tsarist Russia rewarded those with a noble birth with high military ranks, rather than promoting those who had demonstrated competency.

Imperial Japan was forced into war with the rest of the world not by its naval leaders, but by its army leaders, who never demonstrated the competency of the country's best naval leaders. Yamamoto famously argued against war with the West, before bending to the will of those he could not convince.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Japan has had at least two outstanding naval leaders, Togo and Yamamoto.

Yamamoto only won one naval battle against the US and that was Pearl Harbor. He lost all the rest and eventually lost his life to the US Army Air Corps and superior US intel that had broken Japan's codes. Japan had no anti-submarine doctrine for their surface force and misused their submarine force as part of their surface force concentrating on trying to sink enemy capital ships instead of using them as an independent long range merchant raiding force like the German and US Navy's did. They also kept their most experienced combat pilots on the front lines where most perished. US practice was to bring their combat pilots home after one combat tour and have them teach new pilots. As a result, Japan's new naval aviators were poorly trained and proved no match for better trained US aviators. Japan lost all of their hard won combat knowledge and never brought it back to Japan to train their new pilots.

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Japan's success against the Russians was due not only to Togo and the efficiency of the Japanese navy, but to the incompetence of the Russian naval leaders. Tsarist Russia rewarded those with a noble birth with high military ranks, rather than promoting those who had demonstrated competency.

He was born into a noble family from Kagoshima by the way.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

The IJN won many naval battles during the first year of the war. A few that come to mind are the Battle of the Java Sea, the naval battles around Ceylon, the battle with HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse during the invasion of the Malay Peninsula, and the Battle of Savo Island, the most lopsided defeat of an American naval force at sea in history. The Battle of Midway was prevented from being a defeat for the American Navy by its superior intelligence unit.

Admiral Yamamoto had rightly predicted that the IJN would only be able to have victories during the first year of the war. Even if the IJN had been able to win the battle at Midway, their goal was to break the American spirit for war, not to destroy the American capacity to conduct war. Yamamoto understood that the IJN could not win in a protracted war against the industrial might of the USA.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

The IJN won many naval battles during the first year of the war. A few that come to mind are the Battle of the Java Sea, the naval battles around Ceylon, the battle with HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse during the invasion of the Malay Peninsula, and the Battle of Savo Island, the most lopsided defeat of an American naval force at sea in history. 

The IJN fought vastly inferior RN, Dutch and Australian forces before the attack at Pearl Harbor. Much like Pearl Harbor, the battle of Savo Island was a tactical victory for Japan but they failed to follow up and ultimately lost. At Pearl Harbor the Japanese failed to launch a second strike and as a result Pearl Harbors shipyard and fueling facilities were left untouched and thus were there to support the US fleet, something that would be critical for the US at Midway. Had not Pearl Harbor been able to patch up USS Yorktown from damage suffered at Coral Sea the outcome of the Battle of Midway would have been very different. Yorktown still had yard workers on board repairing damage suffered at Coral Sea as she fought the Battle of Midway (the US Navy would repeat this when USS Enterprise fought nearly the entire Guadalcanal campaign with workers on board repairing internal damage from two bomb hits and two near misses suffered at the Battle of Santa Cruz after being rapidly repaired at Pearl Harbor after suffering worse damage at the Battle of Eastern Solomons). Great examples of how Yamamoto's failure to hit important facilities at Pearl Harbor on Dec 7th allowed the US Navy to prevail in latere battles.

At Savo Island while the Japanese inflicted more losses on US cruisers than the Japanese force suffered, the Japanese commander withdrew after the naval engagement rather than attack the US landing force bogged down on the beach Guadalcanal. Had the Japanese commander pressed his attack on the US Marine landing force is likely they could have turned the landing back. By the next morning the US was able to consolidate their hold on their Guadalcanal beachhead and the Japanese never seriously threated to defeat the US force again.

The IJN lost Midway due as much to their own poor operational art as to superior US intelligence. It was Admiral Nagumo's indecision at a critical time in the battle and very poor Japanese operational art that left four aircraft carriers with fully fueled and armed airplanes inside their hangers along with ammunition stacked on the sides of those hanger decks instead of being stowed in magazines. It is arguable that the hits those carriers took were not in and of themselves likely to sink them but poor procedures on the part of the Japanese left the ships incredibly vulnerable to hits. Yorktown, even with damage from Coral Sea absorbed more bomb and torpedo hits at Midway and continued to fight. The Japanese thought they had sunk her with a bomb down the stack that left her on fire and dead in the water on their first attack. When they attacked her a second time the Japanese were convinced Yorktown must be another US carrier because the fires were out and she was steaming at 18 knots. The US learned a hard lesson losing the Lexington and from then on fuel systems were purged and filled with CO2 to prevent explosions. Armed aircraft are never stored in the hanger deck of a USN carrier, only on the flight deck and US carrier design was unique in that the hanger was built as superstructure above the hull, not as a part of the hull. Fires in the hanger deck did not threaten the rest of the ship. Yamamoto also split his force up with a diversionary attack on the Aleutian Islands rather than concentrating his forces on Midway. His battle plan was exceedingly complex and optimistic. He assumed Yorktown was sunk. Probably his worst mistake was misjudging US morale, assuming the US demoralized and would not fight hard. He got a very rude surprise at Midway and the IJN never recovered.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Japanese lethal sneak attack that Russia has not forgotten.

Not something Japan should be proud of.

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