This past week, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) commissioned the lead vessel of its new class of helicopter carrier at a ceremony at the Yokusuka naval base less than 10 miles south of Yokohama, Japan’s second largest city.
The Izumo (DDH-183) is the island nation’s largest vessel superseding the Hyūga class, Japan’s first helicopter carrier post World War II. To get a clear sense of size, satellite imagery from March 2014 shows both vessels at the IHI Marine United shipyard. At the time, the 248 meter-long Izumo was still in the fitting out process while the 197 meter-long Hyūga (DDH-181) was located in a nearby drydock undergoing routine maintenance.
At 24,000 tons, the fully loaded Izumo is noticeably larger than its 19,000 ton predecessor and more capable. Manned by approximately 470 sailors, the vessel can support up to 14 helicopters — broken up into seven Mitsubishi-built SH-60k ASW helicopters and seven Agusta Westland MCM-101 mine countermeasure helicopters.
According to Jane’s, the carrier is equipped with an OQQ-22 bow-mounted sonar for submarine detection, two Raytheon RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile SeaRAM launchers and two Phalanx close-in weapon systems for air defense.
“This [vessel] heightens our ability to deal with Chinese submarines that have become more difficult to detect,” an JMSDF officer told the Asahi Shimbum in late March. Downplaying grander ambitions, JMSDF officials have often focused media attention on the ship’s role in undertaking border surveillance and humanitarian assistance missions.
Beyond the ship’s standard load, the vessel can also support the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and some have even suggested the vertical landing Lockheed Martin F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter. Although the latter has caused much controversy, putting F-35s on the Izumo seems unlikely given Japan’s Air Force acquired the advanced fighter and not its naval arm (to say nothing of the additional retrofit costs that would be required of the vessel).
But that hasn’t stopped Chinese assertions and general concerns throughout East Asia of Japanese intent. “The Izumo proves that Japan has the technical capabilities and demand to develop aircraft carriers. It’s also possible that Japan may explore the possibility during the Izumo’s service,” Li Jie, a Beijing-based military commentator, told the Chinese Global Times newspaper. Beyond China, South Korea has also voiced concern.
While no one’s exactly sure how Japan will use the new carrier, it’s potential for power projection is undeniable. As geopolitical tensions increase, especially with disputed island territories and areas like the South China Sea, it’s not surprising to see Japan push to bolster her navy. With the election of officials like Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, defense spending has gone up and bans on arms exports have been lifted—suggesting Japan is preparing to reinterpret her role on the world stage. What this will ultimately mean for the service is still too early to say.
In the meantime, the USD 1.2 billion Izumo will join JMSDF’s Escort Flotilla 1, based at the Yokosuka naval base, also home of the U.S. Navy Seventh Fleet. The vessel was initially laid down on 27 January 2012 and launched on 06 August 2013. It will later be joined in 2017 by the second vessel in the series, the DDH-184, currently under construction at IHI Marine United Shipyard.
 Both measurements refer to the vessels at full load.
 In 2013, Japan said it detected Chinese submarines navigating near territorial waters of Okinawa and Kagoshima prefectures.
 Japan has in recent years participated in amphibious warfare training utilizing the Hyuga class helicopter carrier in concert the US. For Example Dawn Blitz 2013.
 Japan has 4 Escort Flotillas with a mix of 7-8 warships each. Bases are located at Yokosuka, Kure, Sasebo, Maizuru, and Moinato. SSKs are organized into 2 Flotillas with bases at Kure and Yokosuka. Remaining Units assigned to 5 regional districts.