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Phoenixes, Dragons and Cranes…Oh, My!

February 16, 2010

Posted on February 16, 2010

At the start of the battle, the crew of an American ship killed the Deep Blue Dragon. Enraged, the Flying Dragon destroyed the ship that had killed her sister. But the crew of another American ship, plus survivors from the first, returned and slew the Flying Dragon. The Battle of Midway was over. Many people know the Japanese names of the aircraft carriers we faced in World War II, but few know the translations of these names. This is sad because, in the case of aircraft carriers, a lot is gained in translation. The Imperial Japanese Navy generally gave their flattops poetic names of flying creatures, including real birds such as cranes and the falcons and mythical birds such as phoenixes and dragons. The Romanized “ho” is a phoenix. Japan’s first carrier was the Hosho (Flying Phoenix). Another phoenix was the small Shokaku (Happy Phoenix), which was sunk at midway. Her sister ship was the Zuiho (Fortunate Phoenix). Later in the war, Japan built the carrier Taisho (Great Phoenix). Taisho had an armored deck to prevent bomb penetration. However, on its way to its first battle, it was sunk by a submarine. “Kaku” is a crane. Arguably, Japan’s two best carriers were the Shokaku and the Zuikaku. Shokaku meant Flying Crane. Zuikaku meant Fortunate Crane or Glorious Crane.


“Ryu” is a dragon. Japan’s fourth carrier was the small Ryujo (Heavenly Dragon). After the war began, the Japanese built to Unryu—the Heaven-Bound Dragon Riding the Clouds. Ryuho even combined the names of two mythical flying creatures. It was the Dragon Phoenix. “Yo” is a falcon. Hiyo was the Flying Falcon, while Junyo was the Peregrine Falcon.


Not all carriers were named after flying creatures. When carriers were modifications of existing ships, the first ship name was preserved. For battleships, Japan used the names of its ancient provinces. This is how the massive Kaga got its name. In addition, near the end of the war, Japan converted the sister ship of the massive Yamato and Musashi super battleships into the largest carrier the world would see for many years, the Shinano. However, on its way to be fitted with damage control equipment, the massive Shinano was sunk by a single torpedo from a submarine. Battle cruisers, which had battleship-class guns but light armor, were named after mountains. This is how the Pearl Harbor and Midway flagship Akagi got its name. Akagi (Red Mountain) was the carrier sunk by Richard Best at Midway.

Akagi from plane

Biography Mark Stille with illustrations by Tony Bryan (2005). Imperial Japanese Naval Aircraft Carriers 1921-45, Osprey Publishing: Botley, Oxford, UK. Post by Ray Panko

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