Photo/Illutration (Photo by Lisa Vogt)

  • Photo/Illustraion

What are the three most famous memorial ships in the world?

According to the Michelin Green Guide, Japan, they are the HMS Victory in Portsmouth, in Britain; the USS Constitution in Boston, in the United States; and the Mikasa in Yokosuka. A visit to the ship in Mikasa Park was a refresher course in world history.

When I first heard the name Mikasa, I thought of a confectionery--that small pancake sandwich stuffed with azuki beans.

Legend has it that mystical rituals were performed at Kasuga Taisha, which was founded by the Fujiwara clan, to protect the capital of that time, Heijokyo, by bringing the gods to Mount Mikasa. So, the ship’s name is apt as its existence is to protect the motherland.

The Mikasa was commissioned into service on March 1, 1902, and was decommissioned in 1923. In the late 19th century, Japan actively sought to modernize its naval warships to catch up with modern navies, but did not have the shipyards nor technology to do so itself.

Japan outsourced the building of the ship half a world away to Britain and paid for it with the indemnity it received from China after winning the Sino-Japanese War.

Upon completion of the ship, the Mikasa visited several ports and made its way to Japan just in time as tensions between Japan and Russia were flaring. The Mikasa became the flagship of Admiral Heihachiro Togo (who spent most of his 20s studying in England), commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN).

Under his command, the Mikasa took part in several battles, and at the decisive Battle of Tsushima Strait in 1905, the IJN sank the Russian Baltic Fleet, ushering Japan onto the world stage as a military power.

Inside the battleship are interactive displays, a virtual reality experience commanding the warship, a section where you can wear uniforms, and lots of models and documents for those interested in military history to scrutinize.

Oh, if the ship could talk, no doubt it would have a lot to say!

I wonder how it feels about the big auxiliary guns on deck pointing straight at an elementary school today. Or, about the decades following the end of World War II when its parts were sold off, and the deck was made into a dance hall and aquarium.

Finally, it lay crumbling through neglect, stripped of all its dignity, until voices were raised in the 1960s for its restoration and return to glory.

When I visited, a little girl who looked to be about 4 years old was at a make-believe helm steering the virtual battleship.

Naval enthusiast or not, the Mikasa is a fascinating visit.

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This article by Lisa Vogt, a Washington-born and Tokyo-based photographer, originally appeared in the April 21 issue of Asahi Weekly. It is part of the series "Lisa’s In and Around Tokyo," which depicts the capital and its surroundings through the perspective of the author, a professor at Meiji University.