The victorious war against China in 1895 had a bittersweet taste for Japan.
The intervention of three world powers (Russia, Germany and France) deprived it of territorial gains. At the same time, Japan realized the maritime weakness of the Land of the Rising Sun in relation to the West. The Japanese did not accept the status of a poor relative and decided to join the rivalry in the field of naval armaments. In the second half of 1895, a 10-year fleet expansion programme was passed in parliament. Its implementation was to bring Japan into the first league of maritime powers. The construction of six battleships and four armored cruisers has become a priority. After some analyzing, the Japanese concluded that six battleships might not be enough to defeat the main enemy they thought Russia was. As the budget was insufficient to build additional battleships, in 1897 the number of armored cruisers was increased to six. The latter built at that time were well armored and heavily armed. This new type of cruiser was superior to many of the older battleships. The fleet command found these ships a valuable addition to the line fleet. Thus, the 6 + 6 Programme was born.
“Asama” was one of the six armored cruisers built under the programme. Four of them were built by the British Armstrong shipyard, but “Asama” was ordered in France, and its sister vessel, the “Yakumo”, in Germany. Both cruisers were to carry British guns, making them compatible with units built in hazy Albion. The contract for the construction of “Asama” was signed on 12th of October, 1897, with Ateliers et Chantiers de la Loire. On 1st of February, 1898, the keel was laid at the concern’s shipyard in St. Nazaire. The launch took place on 24th of June, 1899. The construction was completed on 28th of July, 1900. The next day, the cruiser left St. Nazaire and went to Japan, reaching Yokosuka on 29th of October 29 of that year.
The prototype for the Japanese cruisers was the “O’Higgins” cruiser, built at that time by the English for the Chilean fleet. The basic design of all six Programme’s cruisers was essentially the same: 8 inch main caliber artillery, side armor along the entire length of the hull, and a speed of 20–21 knots. Due to the weakness of their own shipbuilding industry, the construction of cruisers was commissioned to foreign shipyards (four in England, one in France and one in Germany). Each shipyard had a certain freedom to modify the details of the design. In the case of “Asama”, the famous French designer Amable Lagane used a long narrow hull with a not too high freeboard and two main artillery turrets, one at the bow and stern. The attempt to combine two different philosophies of building cruisers: the English and the French, turned out to be unsuccessful. Instead of a super cruiser, “Asama” became the worst of the six. The ship’s power plant, equipped with Belleville boilers (considered technically advanced), were quite unreliable.
The main innovation was the use of a forced draft device on the chimneys, which allowed simultaneous air intake and smoke extraction. Modern British and German ships used a separate air intake, which turned out to be a problem during combat, as these devices, along with the air, also drew smoke and debris into the engine room.
The smooth-deck hull, with a slight saddle of the upper deck and a slight collapse of the side in the amidships area, was made of mild steel in a mixed system. The bow (similar to the stern) was made of steel with a slightly forward underwater part (ram type).
The cruiser’s hull was separated by 12 transverse bulkheads into 13 watertight compartments. A long hull with a length to width ratio of 7.3:1, combined with a traditional rudder (instead of a semi-balanced one) made maneuvering quite difficult. At the same time, it was a problem for the Imperial Navy due to the lack of a dry dock of the appropriate length. Moving the bow artillery turret maximally towards the bow, together with the lack of a typical half-shell, made the ship “wet”, i.e. exposed to frequent flooding of the fore deck. The cruiser had a characteristic three-funnel silhouette, and it differed from a similar “Yakumo” by a larger gap between the second and third funnels. This was due to the fact that the bow and stern groups of boilers were separated by an intermediate compartment. In line with British tradition, the machine compartments were placed aft, which allowed for a rational arrangement of medium-caliber artillery ammunition chambers.
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