Imperial Japanese Navy

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Imperial Japanese Navy
(Dai-Nippon Teikoku Kaigun)
Naval ensign of the Empire of Japan.svg
Active 1868–1945
Country  Empire of Japan
Allegiance Imperial General Headquarters
Ministry of the Navy
Navy General Staff
Branch Combined Fleet
Navy Air Service
Navy Land Forces
Type Navy
Engagements Invasion of Taiwan
First Sino-Japanese War
Russo-Japanese War
World War I
Second Sino-Japanese War
World War II
Ceremonial chief Emperor of Japan
Isoroku Yamamoto
Tōgō Heihachirō
Itoh Sukeyuki
Prince Fushimi Hiroyasu
and many others

The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN; Kyūjitai: 大日本帝國海軍 Shinjitai: 大日本帝国海軍 About this sound Dai-Nippon Teikoku Kaigun  or 日本海軍 Nippon Kaigun, "Navy of the Greater Japanese Empire") was the navy of the Empire of Japan from 1868 until 1945, when it was dissolved following Japan's defeat and surrender in World War II. It was controlled by the Imperial Japanese Navy General Staff and the Ministry of the Navy, both of which were nominally subordinate to the Emperor of Japan as supreme commander of the army and the navy. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) was formed after the dissolution of the IJN.[1]

The Japanese Navy was the third largest navy in the world by 1920, behind the Royal Navy and the United States Navy (USN).[2] It was supported by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service for aircraft and airstrike operation from the fleet. It was the primary opponent of the Western Allies in the Pacific War.

The origins of the Imperial Japanese Navy go back to early interactions with nations on the Asian continent, beginning in the early medieval period and reaching a peak of activity during the 16th and 17th centuries at a time of cultural exchange with European powers during the Age of Discovery. After two centuries of stagnation during the country's ensuing seclusion policy under the shoguns of the Edo period, Japan's navy was comparatively backward when the country was forced open to trade by American intervention in 1854. This eventually led to the Meiji Restoration. Accompanying the re-ascendance of the Emperor came a period of frantic modernization and industrialization. The navy's history of successes, sometimes against much more powerful foes as in the Sino-Japanese war and the Russo-Japanese War, ended in almost complete annihilation during the concluding days of World War II, largely by the USN.

Armed men on small ships, fighting each other.
Naval battle of Dan-no-ura in 1185
Replica of the Japanese-built 1613 galleon San Juan Bautista, in Ishinomaki, Japan


Japan has a long history of naval interaction with the Asian continent, involving transportation of troops between Korea and Japan, starting at least with the beginning of the Kofun period in the 3rd century.[3]

Following the attempts at Mongol invasions of Japan by Kubilai Khan in 1274 and 1281, Japanese wakō became very active in plundering the coast of China.[4][5]

Woodblock print of a ship in sideview with sails raised.
A Japanese Red seal ship, combining eastern and western naval technologies

Japan undertook major naval building efforts in the 16th century, during the Warring States period, when feudal rulers vying for supremacy built vast coastal navies of several hundred ships. Around that time Japan may have developed one of the first ironclad warships when Oda Nobunaga, a daimyō, had six iron-covered Oatakebune made in 1576.[6] In 1588 Toyotomi Hideyoshi issued a ban on Wakō piracy; the pirates then became vassals of Hideyoshi, and comprised the naval force used in the Japanese invasion of Korea (1592–1598).[5]

Japan built her first large ocean-going warships in the beginning of the 17th century, following contacts with the Western nations during the Nanban trade period. In 1613, the daimyō of Sendai, in agreement with the Tokugawa Bakufu, built Date Maru, a 500-ton galleon-type ship that transported the Japanese embassy of Hasekura Tsunenaga to the Americas, which then continued to Europe.[7] From 1604 the Bakufu also commissioned about 350 Red seal ships, usually armed and incorporating some Western technologies, mainly for Southeast Asian trade.[8][9]

Western studies and the end of Seclusion[edit]

Colored drawing of a three-masted warship.
Shōhei Maru (1854) was built from Dutch technical drawings.

For more than 200 years, beginning in the 1640s, the Japanese policy of seclusion ("sakoku") forbade contacts with the outside world and prohibited the construction of ocean-going ships on pain of death.[10] Contacts were maintained, however, with the Dutch through the port of Nagasaki, the Chinese also through Nagasaki and the Ryukyus and Korea through intermediaries with Tsushima. The study of Western sciences, called "rangaku" through the Dutch enclave of Dejima in Nagasaki led to the transfer of knowledge related to the Western technological and scientific revolution which allowed Japan to remain aware of naval sciences, such as cartography, optics and mechanical sciences, seclusion however, led to loss of any naval and maritime traditions the nation possessed.[5]

Apart from Dutch trade ships no other Western vessels were allowed to enter Japanese ports, a notable exception was during the Napoleonic wars, when neutral ships flew the Dutch flag. However frictions with foreign ships started from the beginning of the 19th century. The Nagasaki Harbour Incident involving the HMS Phaeton in 1808 and other subsequent incidents in the following decades led to the Shogunate to enact an edict to repel foreign vessels. Western ships which were increasing their presence around Japan due to whaling and the trade with China began to challenge the seclusion policy.

The Morrison Incident in 1837 and news of China's defeat during the Opium War, however, led to the Shogunate to repeal the law to execute foreigners and instead to adopt the Order for the Provision of Firewood and Water. The shogunate also began to strengthen the nation's coastal defenses. Many Japanese realized that traditional ways would not be sufficient to repel further intrusions and western knowledge was utilized through the Dutch at Dejima to reinforce Japan's capability to repel the foreigners; field guns, mortars and firearms were obtained and coastal defenses reinforced. Numerous attempts to open Japan ended in failure in part to Japanese resistance, this was until the early 1850s.

During 1853 and 1854, American warships under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry entered Edo Bay and made demonstrations of force requesting trade negotiations. After two hundred years of seclusion the 1854 Convention of Kanagawa led to the opening of Japan to international trade and interaction. This was soon followed by the 1858 Treaty of Amity and Commerce and treaties with other powers.

Development of Shogunal and Domain naval forces[edit]

Side view of a three-masted ship with a smokestack on a flat sea.
Kanrin Maru, Japan's first screw-driven steam warship, 1857
Small warship on flat sea, with smokestacks bent backwards.
Japan's first domestically built steam warship completed in May 1866 Chiyoda.[11]
Large warship, seen from the prow, with protuding ram.
The French-built Kōtetsu (ex-CSS Stonewall), Japan's first modern ironclad, 1869

As soon as Japan opened up to foreign influences, the Tokugawa shogunate recognized the vulnerability of the country from the sea and initiated an active policy of assimilation and adoption of Western naval technologies.[12] In 1855, with Dutch assistance, the Shogunate acquired its first steam warship, Kankō Maru, and began using it for training, establishing a Naval Training Center at Nagasaki.[12]

Samurai such as the future Admiral Enomoto Takeaki (1836–1908) were sent by the Shogunate to study in the Netherlands for several years.[12] In 1859 the Naval Training Center relocated to Tsukiji in Tokyo. In 1857 the Shogunate acquired its first screw-driven steam warship Kanrin Maru and used it as an escort for the 1860 Japanese delegation to the United States. In 1865 the French naval engineer Léonce Verny was hired to build Japan's first modern naval arsenals, at Yokosuka and Nagasaki.[13] In 1867–1868 a British Naval mission headed by Commander Richard Tracey[14] went to Japan to assist the development of the Japanese Navy and to organize the naval school of Tsukiji.[15]

The Shogunate also allowed and then ordered various domains to purchase warships and to develop naval fleets,[16] Satsuma, especially, had petitioned the Shogunate to build modern naval vessels.[12] A naval center had been set up by the Satsuma domain in Kagoshima, students were sent abroad for training and a number of ships were acquired.[12] The domains of Choshu, Hizen, Tosa and Kaga joined Satsuma in acquiring ships.[16] This was not enough to prevent the British from bombarding Kagoshima in 1863 or the Allied bombardments of Shimonoseki in 1863–64.[12]

By the mid 1860s the Shogunate had a fleet of eight warships and thirty-six auxiliaries.[16] Satsuma (which had the largest domain fleet) had nine steamships,[17] Choshu had five ships plus numerous auxiliary craft, Kaga had ten ships and Chikuzen eight.[17] Numerous smaller domains also had acquired a number of ships. However these fleets resembled maritime organizations rather than actual navies with ships functioning as transports as well as combat vessels,[12] they were also manned by personnel who lacked experienced seamanship except for coastal sailing and who had virtually no combat training.[12]

Creation of the Imperial Japanese Navy (1868–72)[edit]

Three-masted warship at anchor in a bay.
The British-built Ryūjō was the flagship of the Imperial Japanese Navy until 1881.

The Meiji Restoration in 1868 led to the overthrow of the Shogunate. From 1868, the newly formed Meiji government continued with reforms to centralize and modernize Japan.[18]

Boshin war[edit]

Naval battle of Hakodate

Although the Meiji reformers had overthrown the Tokugawa shogunate, tensions between the former ruler and the restoration leaders led to the Boshin War (January 1868 to June 1869). The early part of the conflict largely involved land battles, with naval forces playing a minimal role transporting troops from western to eastern Japan.[19] Only the Battle of Awa (28 January 1868) was significant; this also proved one of the few Tokugawa successes in the war. Tokugawa Yoshinobu eventually surrendered after the fall of Edo in July 1868, and as a result most of Japan accepted the emperor's rule, however resistance continued in the North.

On 26 March 1868 the first naval review in Japan took place in Osaka Bay, with six ships from the private domain navies of Saga, Chōshū, Satsuma, Kurume, Kumamoto and Hiroshima participating. The total tonnage of these ships was 2,252 tons, which was far smaller than the tonnage of the single foreign vessel (from the French Navy) that also participated. The following year, in July 1869, the Imperial Japanese Navy was formally established, two months after the last combat of the Boshin War.

Enomoto Takeaki, the admiral of the Shogun's navy, refused to surrender all his ships, remitting just four vessels, and escaped to northern Honshū with the remnants of the Shogun's navy: eight steam warships and 2,000 men. Following the defeat of pro-shogunate resistance on Honshū, Admiral Enomoto Takeaki fled to Hokkaidō, where he established the breakaway Republic of Ezo (27 January 1869). The new Meiji government dispatched a military force to defeat the rebels, culminating with the Naval Battle of Hakodate in May 1869.[20] The Imperial side took delivery (February 1869) of the French-built ironclad Kotetsu (originally ordered by the Tokugawa shogunate) and used it decisively towards the end of the conflict.[21]


In February 1868 the government had placed all captured Shogunate naval vessels under the Navy Army affairs section.[19] In the following months, military forces of the government were put under several organizations which were created and then disbanded until the creation of the establishment of Ministry of Military Affairs (Hyōbushō). For the first two years of the Meiji state no national, centrally controlled navy existed,[22] the Meiji government only administered those Tokugawa vessels captured from the early phase of the Boshin war.[22] All other naval vessels remained under the control of the various domains which had been acquired during the bakumatsu period. The naval forces mirrored that of the political environment of Japan at the time in which the domains retained their political as well as military independence from the imperial government. Katsu Kaishū a former Tokugawa navy leader was brought into the government because of his naval experience and his ability to control Tokugawa personnel who retained positions in the government naval forces. Upon assuming office Katsu Kaishu recommended the rapid centralization of all naval forces government and domain under one agency.[22] However, the nascent Meiji government at the time did not have the necessary political and military force to implement it and so like much of the government the naval forces retained a decentralized structure in most of 1869 through 1870.

The incident involving Enomoto Takeakis' refusal to surrender and his escape to Hokkaidō with a large part of former Tokugawa Navy's best warships embarrassed the Meiji government politically. The imperial side had to rely on considerable naval assistance from the most powerful domains as the government did not have enough naval power to put down the rebellion on its own.[22] Although the rebel forces in Hokkaidō surrendered, the government's response to the rebellion demonstrated the need for a strong centralized naval force.[18] Even before the rebellion the restoration leaders had realized the need for greater political, economic and military centralization and by August 1869 most of the domains had returned their lands and population registers to the government.[18] In 1871 the domains were abolished altogether and as with the political context the centralization of the navy began with the domains donating their forces to the central government.[18] As a result, in 1871 Japan could finally boast a centrally controlled navy, this was also the institutional beginning of the Imperial Japanese Navy.[18]

In February 1872, the Ministry of Military Affairs was replaced by a separate Army Ministry and Navy Ministry. In October 1873, Katsu Kaishū became Navy Minister.[23]

Secondary Service (1872–1880)[edit]

After the consolidation of the government the new Meiji state set about to build up national strength, in the early period from 1868 many members of the Meiji coalition advocated preference of maritime forces over the army and saw naval strength as paramount.[20] The Meiji government honored the treaties with the Western powers signed during the bakumatsu period with the ultimate goal of revising them, leading to a subsided threat from the sea. This however led to conflict with disgruntled samurai who wanted to expel the westerners and groups which were opposed to the Meiji reforms, internal dissent including peasant uprisings become a greater concern for the government and as a result plans for naval expansion were curtailed.

In 1870, the new government drafted an ambitious plan to create a navy with 200 ships organized into ten fleets. It was abandoned within a year due to lack of resources.[20] Financial considerations was also a major factor which restricted the growth of the navy during the 1870s.[24] Japan at the time was not a wealthy state. Soon, however domestic rebellions, the Saga Rebellion (1874) and especially the Satsuma Rebellion (1877), forced the government to focus on land warfare and the army gained prominence.[20] Naval policy, expressed by the slogan Shusei Kokubō (lit. "Static Defense"), focused on coastal defenses,[20] and a standing army (established with the assistance of the second French Military Mission to Japan), and a coastal navy, leading to a military organization under the Rikushu Kaijū (Army first, Navy second) principle.[20] The army gained the bulk of the military expenditures.[25] During the 1870s and 1880s, the Imperial Japanese Navy remained an essentially coastal defense force, although the Meiji government continued to modernize it. Jo Sho Maru (soon renamed Ryūjō Maru) commissioned by Thomas Glover was launched at Aberdeen, Scotland on 27 March 1869.

British support and Influence[edit]

In 1870, an Imperial decree determined that Britain's Royal Navy should be the model for development, instead of the Netherlands.[26] In 1873, a thirty-four-man British naval mission, headed by Lt. Comdr. Archibald Douglas, arrived in Japan. Douglas directed instruction at the Naval Academy at Tsukiji for several years, the mission remained in Japan until 1879, substantially advancing the development of the navy and firmly establishing British traditions within the Japanese navy from matters of seamanship to the style of its uniforms and the attitudes of its officers.[26]

From September 1870, the English Lieutenant Horse, a former gunnery instructor for the Saga fief during the Bakumatsu period, was put in charge of gunnery practice on board the Ryūjō. In 1871, the ministry resolved to send 16 trainees abroad for training in naval sciences (14 to Great Britain, two to the United States), among which was Heihachirō Tōgō. A 34-member British naval mission visited Japan in 1873 for two years, headed by Commander Archibald Douglas. Later, Commander L.P. Willan was hired in 1879 to train naval cadets.[26]

First interventions abroad (Taiwan 1874, Korea 1875–76)[edit]

Soldiers landing on the shore from a ship and regrouping at the bottom of a wall.
The landing of the Japanese marines from the Un'yō at Ganghwa Island, Korea, in the 1875 Ganghwa Island incident.

During 1873, a plan to invade the Korean Peninsula, the Seikanron proposal made by Saigō Takamori, was narrowly abandoned by decision of the central government in Tokyo.[27] In 1874, the Taiwan expedition was the first foray abroad of the new Imperial Japanese Navy and Army after the Mudan Incident of 1871, however the navy served largely as a transport force.[25]

Various interventions in the Korean peninsula continued in 1875–1876, starting with the Ganghwa Island incident provoked by the Japanese gunboat Un'yō, leading to the dispatch of a large force of the Imperial Japanese Navy. As a result, the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1876 was signed, marking the official opening of Korea to foreign trade, and Japan's first example of Western-style interventionism and adoption of "unequal treaties" tactics.[28]

In 1878, the Japanese cruiser Seiki sailed to Europe with an entirely Japanese crew.[14]

Naval expansion (1880–1893)[edit]

Further modernization (1870s)[edit]

Ships such as the Fusō, Kongō and Hiei were built in British shipyards, they were first warships built abroad specifically for the Imperial Japanese Navy.[24][29] Private construction companies such as Ishikawajima and Kawasaki also emerged around this time.

Three-masted armoured warship.
Armoured corvette Kongō.

In 1883, two large warships were ordered from British shipyards. The Naniwa and Takachiho were 3,650 ton ships. They were capable of speeds up to 18 kn (33 km/h; 21 mph) and were armed with 54 to 76 mm (2 to 3 in) deck armor and two 260 mm (10 in) Krupp guns. The naval architect Sasō Sachū designed these on the line of the Elswick class of protected cruisers but with superior specifications.[30] An arms race was taking place with China however, who equipped herself with two 7,335 ton German-built battleships (Ting Yüan and Chen-Yüan). Unable to confront the Chinese fleet with only two modern cruisers, Japan resorted to French assistance to build a large, modern fleet which could prevail in the upcoming conflict.[30]

Influence of the French "Jeune École" (1880s)[edit]

Drawing of a large warship seen from the prow, racing forward through the sea.
The French-built Matsushima, flagship of the Imperial Japanese Navy at the Battle of the Yalu River (1894)

During the 1880s, France took the lead in influence, due to its "Jeune École" ("young school") doctrine, favoring small, fast warships, especially cruisers and torpedo boats, against bigger units.[30] The choice of France may also have been influenced by the Minister of the Navy, who happened to be Enomoto Takeaki at that time (Navy Minister 1880–1885), a former ally of the French during the Boshin War. Also, Japan was uneasy with being dependent on Great Britain, at a time when Great Britain was very close to China.[31]

The Meiji government issued its First Naval Expansion bill in 1882, requiring the construction of 48 warships, of which 22 were to be torpedo boats.[30] The naval successes of the French Navy against China in the Sino-French War of 1883–85 seemed to validate the potential of torpedo boats, an approach which was also attractive to the limited resources of Japan.[30] In 1885, the new Navy slogan became Kaikoku Nippon (Jp:海国日本, "Maritime Japan").[32]

In 1885, the leading French Navy engineer Émile Bertin was hired for four years to reinforce the Japanese Navy and to direct the construction of the arsenals of Kure and Sasebo.[30] He developed the Sankeikan class of cruisers; three units featuring a single powerful main gun, the 320 mm (13 in) Canet gun.[30] Altogether, Bertin supervised the building of more than 20 units. They helped establish the first true modern naval force of Japan. It allowed Japan to achieve mastery in the building of large units, since some of the ships were imported, and some others were built domestically at the arsenal of Yokosuka:

Large naval gun aboard a warship, with officier sitting on the deck under and above the gun.
The 320 mm (13 in) Canet gun aboard Matsushima

This period also allowed Japan "to embrace the revolutionary new technologies embodied in torpedoes, torpedo-boats and mines, of which the French at the time were probably the world's best exponents".[34] Japan acquired its first torpedoes in 1884, and established a "Torpedo Training Center" at Yokosuka in 1886.[30]

These ships, ordered during the fiscal years 1885 and 1886, were the last major orders placed with France. The unexplained sinking of Unebi en route from France to Japan in December 1886, created embarrassment however.[31][35]

British shipbuilding[edit]

Small warship seen from the side.
The torpedo boat Kotaka (1887)

Japan turned again to Britain, with the order of a revolutionary torpedo boat, Kotaka which was considered the first effective design of a destroyer,[30] in 1887 and with the purchase of Yoshino, built at the Armstrong works in Elswick, Newcastle upon Tyne, the fastest cruiser in the world at the time of her launch in 1892.[30] In 1889, she ordered the Clyde-built Chiyoda, which defined the type for armored cruisers.[36]

Between 1882 and 1918, ending with the visit of the French Military Mission to Japan, the Imperial Japanese Navy stopped relying on foreign instructors altogether. In 1886, she manufactured her own prismatic powder, and in 1892 one of her officers invented a powerful explosive, the Shimose powder.[14]

Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895)[edit]

Video footage of a naval battle during the first Sino-Japanese war[37]

Japan continued the modernization of its navy, especially as China was also building a powerful modern fleet with foreign, especially German, assistance, and as a result tensions were building between the two countries over Korea. Japan's main strategy was to gain command of the sea as this was critical to the operations on land. An early victory over the Beiyang fleet would allow Japan to transport troops and material to the Korean peninsula, however any prolongation of the war would increase the risk of intervention by the European powers with interests in East Asia.[38] The army's Fifth Division would land at Chemulpo on the western coast of Korea, both to engage and push Chinese forces northwest up the peninsula and to draw the Beiyang Fleet into the Yellow Sea, where it would be engaged in decisive battle. Depending upon the outcome of this engagement, Japan would make one of three choices; If the Combined Fleet were to win decisively, the larger part of the Japanese army would undertake immediate landings on the coast between Shan-hai-kuan and Tientsin in order to defeat the Chinese army and bring the war to a swift conclusion. If the engagement were to be a draw and neither side gained control of the sea, the army would concentrate on the occupation of Korea. Lastly, if the Combined Fleet was defeated and consequently lost command of the sea, the bulk of the army would remain in Japan and prepare to repel a Chinese invasion, while the Fifth Division in Korea would be ordered to hang on and fight a rearguard action.[39]

The Sino-Japanese war was officially declared on 1 August 1894, though some naval fighting had already taken place.[39] A Japanese squadron had intercepted and defeated a Chinese force near Korea weeks before.[38] The Japanese Navy devastated Qing's Beiyang Fleet off the mouth of the Yalu River during the Battle of Yalu River on 17 September 1894, in which the Chinese fleet lost eight out of 12 warships.[40][41] Although Japan turned out victorious, the two large German-made battleships of the Chinese Navy remained almost impervious to Japanese guns, highlighting the need for bigger capital ships in the Japanese Navy (Ting Yuan was finally sunk by torpedoes, and Chen Yuan was captured with little damage). The next step of the Imperial Japanese Navy's expansion would thus involve a combination of heavily armed large warships, with smaller and innovative offensive units permitting aggressive tactics.[42]

As a result of the conflict, under the Treaty of Shimonoseki (April 17, 1895), Taiwan and the Pescadores Islands were transferred to Japan.[43] The Imperial Japanese Navy took possession of the island and quelled opposition movements between March to October 1895, and the islands continued to be a Japanese colony until 1945. Japan also obtained the Liaodong Peninsula, although she was forced by Russia, Germany and France to return it to China (Triple Intervention), only to see Russia take possession of it soon after.

Suppression of the Boxer rebellion (1900)[edit]

The Imperial Japanese Navy further intervened in China in 1900 by participating, together with Western Powers, in the suppression of the Chinese Boxer Rebellion. The Navy supplied the largest number of warships (18 out of a total of 50) and delivered the largest contingent of troops among the intervening nations (20,840 Imperial Japanese Army and Navy soldiers, out of a total of 54,000).[44][45]

The conflict allowed Japan to enter combat together with Western nations and to acquire first-hand understanding of their fighting methods.

Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905)[edit]

Following the Sino-Japanese War, and the humiliation of the forced return of the Liaotung peninsula to China under Russian pressure (the "Triple Intervention"), Japan began to build up its military strength in preparation for further confrontations.[46] Japan promulgated a ¥215 million 10-year naval build-up program,[47] under the slogan "Perseverance and determination" (臥薪嘗胆, Gashinshōtan), in which the Japanese commissioned 109 warships, for a total of 200,000 tons, and increased its Navy personnel from 15,100 to 40,800.[48] The new fleet consisted of:[49]

Large warship with smoke rising from the smokestack.
Mikasa, among the most powerful battleships of her time, in 1905.

One of these battleships, Mikasa, among the most powerful warships afloat when completed,[50] was ordered from the Vickers shipyard in the United Kingdom at the end of 1898, for delivery to Japan in 1902. Commercial shipbuilding in Japan was exhibited by construction of the twin screw steamer Aki-Maru, built for Nippon Yusen Kaisha by the Mitsubishi Dockyard & Engine Works, Nagasaki. The Imperial Japanese cruiser Chitose was built at the Union Iron Works in San Francisco, California.

These dispositions culminated with the Russo-Japanese War. At the Battle of Tsushima, Admiral Togo (flag in Mikasa) led the Japanese Combined Fleet into the decisive engagement of the war.[51][52] The Russian fleet was almost completely annihilated: out of 38 Russian ships, 21 were sunk, seven captured, six disarmed, 4,545 Russian servicemen died and 6,106 were taken prisoner. On the other hand, the Japanese only lost 116 men and three torpedo boats.