Exploring the naval history outside Sasebo’s gates

Sasebo Citizens Cultural Hall, Photos by David Krigbaum
Sasebo Citizens Cultural Hall, Photos by David Krigbaum

Exploring the naval history outside Sasebo’s gates

by David Krigbaum

One of the things I like the most about living in Sasebo is that its naval history surrounds me and is accessible as well as on a scale I haven’t seen at the other former Imperial Japanese Navy port cities. Ten minutes from my home in the city I can walk a park where recruits used to drill, see an anti-aircraft gun pit and even get married in a historic naval hall.

The beauty of it all is that this history is all outside the current navy station’s gates. Why? Because the gates used to be a lot further out than where they are today.

Sasebo was one of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s four primary naval ports along with Yokosuka, Kure and Maizuru. Headquarters of the Third Naval District (later Sasebo Naval District); it began operations on July 1, 1889.

At its height in World War II, Sasebo Chinjufu (Naval Station) was a sprawling series of facilities spread across the area. At its heart was a naval station with warships and administrative duties along with a shipyard that produced hundreds of destroyers, cruisers and submarines, fuel depots, ammunition depots, an air group composed of flying boats and training centers for everyone from boot camp recruits to non-commissioned officers.

Just in case some confusion is needed, Sasebo Naval Arsenal, which is under the Sasebo Naval District which owns the Sasebo Naval Station, had munitions and aircraft factories up and down the coast from Sasebo to Omura. This led to facilities with Sasebo in the name in many non-Sasebo places, all of which answered back to this base.

After Sasebo was occupied by the U.S. in 1945 the base began to shrink. Portions of the former chinjufu were split between the U.S., Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and Sasebo City as the once great amounts of space needed to be a fleet concentration area for one of the world’s largest navies was no longer required. 

The base once stretched from the current Commander, U.S. Fleet Activities Sasebo main gate all the way to the Sasebo River. Kaigunbashi (Navy Bridge) was the boundary line between military and civilian. As land was divested, this led to former military facilities becoming public property and turning into civic ones. Sadly many beautiful old naval buildings that survived the air raids where later razed but the ones that have remained have been recognized for their worth and preserved.

JMSDF Sasebo History Museum’s ‘Sail Tower’

The best place to start a chinjufu tour is at the JMSDF Sasebo History Museum or “Sail Tower.” This is located near the edge of what used to be Navy property and is a short walk to a cluster of other historic properties and markers.

A lone skyscraper situated on a hill, the Sail Tower is actually the combination of two buildings. The base is the old Imperial Japanese Navy’s officer club that was first built in 1893. A tower was added and it was converted into a museum in 1997.

Before entering its worth stopping to appreciate the detail work on the façade, it’s not as fancy as the Cultural Hall but still worth the time. Most of the detail work is above the entrance awning so you need to step back to see it well.

Also there’s a Type 91 aerial torpedo around back. These were built in Nagasaki and Kawatana, so they’re kind of a local specialty. Hiroshima has okonomiyaki, Kagoshima has kurobuto and Nagasaki has aerial torpedoes. These were the kind of torpedoes used at Pearl Harbor and throughout the war. Once common, these torpedoes are actually kind of hard to come by in museums. If I hadn’t found this I may have had to travel to Eta Jima to see one so it saved me the trip.

On a personal note, when I saw it I immediate took a picture and sent it to my wife with the message, “Just like grandma used to make!” (Her grandmother built these during the war.)

This is the only JMSDF Museum I know of that details the history of the Imperial Japanese Navy in depth and about half its space covers the century that spanned Commodore Perry’s opening of Japan to Douglas MacArthur’s.

The narrative explains the birth and origins of the Navy in the bakamatsu (end of the Edo period), hitting all of its milestones and introducing the major players and follows how it developed and grew and fought. It’s like a big history book that visitors on a tight schedule may need to take an extra visit later just to take the time to absorb all of this information.

This place provides a Japanese perspective to world events at the time and can help understand the nation’s mind sight for certain… “Incidents” that happened along the way. You may not necessarily agree with justifications or reasoning but they are what they were and they drove history.

If you can’t read good, lack time or lack the patience there’s still a lot to enjoy here.

The museum has a very large collection of Japanese military uniforms, especially from the World War II period, along with medals, rating badges and other personal items on a scale not found outside of Japan. Or even in it.

An artifact of interest to point out is the Russian figurehead on display from an unnamed ship captured during the Russo-Japanese War. At least three vessels were brought back to Sasebo after the Battle of Tsushima, though none of them had a single-headed eagle figurehead like the one on display so I’m not sure where it came from. They do have the Russian commanding general’s desk from Port Arthur though, so there’s that.

The museum has a wonderful collection of scale model ships from the steam and sail vessels of the Meiji era to today’s JMSDF. Of course there’s the obligatory World War II battleship Yamato model, though Kure’s is much, much bigger. (There’s also a model of the steam-powered Yamato as well.)

The JMSDF floors aren’t as comprehensive, but compensate with a mockup of Shirane-class destroyer JS Kurama’s (DDH-144) bridge. Kurama was a fixture in Sasebo for years and was decommissioned after nearly four decades of service in 2017 so there are a few artifacts from her around. Besides the bridge here, JMSDF Sasebo District headquarters has even rebuilt her wardroom as a base café complete with fixtures from the ship.

The Imperial Japanese Navy portion of the museum is almost entirely bilingual. This peters out drastically on the JMSDF floors. Videos are shown throughout the museum but these are Japanese only.

A final point of interest is the library which has Osaka Mainichi Shimbun (Osaka Daily Newspaper) newspapers from the attack on Pearl Harbor, Battle of Coral Sea and the sinking of HMS Repulse & HMS Prince of Wales.

Across the street is a Japanese take on western style in a beautiful and ornate hall of pink and beige. This is the former Imperial Japanese Navy Triumphal Memorial Hall, now the Sasebo Citizens Cultural Hall.

Sasebo Citizens’ Cultural Hall

World War I set the stage for Japan as it was during this war that it captured all of Germany’s Asian possessions and posing them to strike further in 1941, though in 1923 that wasn’t on anyone’s mind. A new treaty, which the navy wasn’t thrilled about, had limited the size of all major powers’ naval forces, curtailed new naval construction and made Japan break off its alliance with Great Britain to maintain a world-wide status quo to keep the peace and prevent another arms race. At the same time nations were beginning to mourn their war dead and commemorate the Great War. Tombs for unknown soldiers or warriors sprang up around Europe and the U.S. A victorious allied power, the Imperial Japanese Navy Sasebo District built this Gaisen Kenin-kan (Triumphal Memorial Hall) to celebrate Japan’s participation and wartime success.

During World War II it was primarily used for funerals and memorials and after its turn over to the U.S. Navy it became the original Showboat Theatre, complete with bland whitewash exterior and a big, gaudy neon sign on the awning they put up over the entrance.

Thankfully the city took the time and money to restore the hall as much as possible to its original state with some concessions for safety and practicality.

The exterior needs to be given an once or twice over to take it all in, from the green laurels to the anchors and faux Greco-Roman detailing, a lot of attention was paid to making this a place to celebrate triumph and commemorate the dead.

The hall keeps the sense of grandeur and the latest style of the early 1920s. The main stage with its stylish back wall embellishments topped with a flourish and the surrounding columns make it feel like a clash of ancient temple and 1920s chic-aesthetics where Gatsby-esque soiree could be thrown or comrades mourned with equal ease.

Another personal note, I was married in this hall. Despite its naval roots, I was the first Sailor ever to be married there and we were the second couple ever. Sasebo City has been working to show off the hall’s versatility for a variety occasions. If you ever need to toss a grand party, it can be done here for a very reasonable sum.  (No, I wasn’t paid to say that. I just really love this building.)

About the columns, the metal sakura look flat and detail-less compared to the rest of the building. They’re actually very detailed… and installed face-first into the columns, you’re looking at the backside. No one knows why or when this was done but it has been left as is.

The ceiling above you is also a false ceiling to conceal the framework holding up the lights. Hopefully some day they can find a way to light this place and remove it so the rotunda and roof detailing can be viewed once again.

Also, if you didn’t get enough models at the JMSDF museum there’s a giant one of Kagero-class destroyer Yukikaze, which was built in Sasebo. Yukikaze was obscenely lucky throughout the war, surviving unharmed in multiple battles that killed fleets.  Post-war she was turned over to the Republic of China as war reparations. Today her anchor is on display at the Eta Jima Naval Academy.


The hall is near the edge of the former chinjufu, which was marked by a bridge, Kaigunbashi. The current bridge replaced it, but an end piece of the former bridge is displayed in a park on the other side of the bridge from the hall.

Kaiheidan Memorial and Sasebo Park

Beside the two remaining buildings, the area around them and in Sasebo Park has signs and pictures that show what the area was like and what used to be here when it was still part of the base. As they’ve all been leveled only their pictures remain except for a memorial in an odd corner of the park. The memorial is flanked a ball and flanked by a mine and anchor. Most sailors see it from behind the chain link fence separating the two parks and visiting it from Sasebo Park means walking an unpaved path around the base of the hill so it’s out of the way.

This is the Kaiheidan Memorial. These parks once held broad drilling fields, athletics facilities (to an extent, Nimitz Park still is), barracks and training facilities. Kaiheidan were navy’s boot camps and “A” schools (or technical schools) and here sailors were taught skills such as port security and gunnery. More than a million sailors from Kyushu, Okinawa and Shikoku trained here over its 56 years of service.

Japanese boot camp was brutal and desensitizing in a way that would be illegal now. According to famed Zero ace Saburo Sakai in his autobiography, enlisting was the “beginning of a new life of monstrously harsh discipline, of severity beyond my wildest nightmares.”

Like a captain administering the cat o’nine tails during the age of sail, if a petty officer felt a recruit came up short they were required to bend over and drop their pants for a beating. Sakai said that he could be beaten with forty full-force strikes in a sitting by the petty officer. Acknowledging the pain was unauthorized and if a recruit passed out during the beating he’d be doused with cold water and they’d pick up where they left off.

Also, if you got a beating then the rest of your 50-man group got hit as well.

After six months of this Sakai said that it had turned them into human cattle incapable of questioning orders, doubt authority or do anything but carry out all tasks immediately without question.

Now we could stop here and eat a Sasebo Burger - that local classic which is what happens when a new idea is introduced to a place, sight unseen and a cook prepares said idea based on its description. It came by way of Sailors so it keeps with the navy theme, or if its summer you can skip the burger and eat in a munitions cave!

Kujukushima Seaside Terrace Hotel

Near the end of World War II the navy had begun digging tunnels for the construction of an underground munitions factory near what’s now the Pearl Sea Center. They finished 20 of these 26 meter tunnels before the war ended, though construction was incomplete and the factory never made operational. After the war they were used to temporarily hold battleship and submarine munitions.

Today those caves are on the property of the Kujukushima Seaside Terrace Hotel, which uses some for non-munitions storage and another is opened in the summer months as a somen restaurant.

Even in the humid, mid-summer heat the caves are excellent places to relax and eat as they’re perpetually cool no matter how bad it is outside. The chilled tarai somen, made of thin white wheat noodles, is pleasant but a little over-priced. That didn’t matter to me because I didn’t really come for the somen anyway and if you’re reading this I doubt you are either.

The somen cave is on the hotel property beside the little traditional Japanese house-looking restaurant.

Tono-cho Air Raid Shelters

If you must eat a Sasebo Burger then go to Tono-cho and enjoy one in air raid shelter. A number of air raid shelters were dug by Korean “conscript” laborers at the base of the hill upon which the former Tono Elementary (now community center and Air Raid Museum Reference Room) sits. After the war people set up shop in them and it turned into an unusual marketplace. The Tono-cho market is just beyond the Yonkacho arcade exit and on the other side of the road.

For more navy and cultural significant ruins and place around Sasebo ask for a Sasebo photobook or history book at the Citizens’ Cultural Hall. The photobook is 1300 yen, but marks the location of far more sites than I could recommend in a single article.

I hope this has been useful, some of the information I’ve included here came from Japanese language references and personal tours with a translator, so occasionally I’ve gone out of my way to maybe over explain something just because if I don’t then you may not hear or learn of that information when you go. This is just the tip of the underground bunker complex (I hate the iceberg cliché) when it comes to Sasebo naval history. (Fun fact: Sasebo has a miles-spanning underground wartime bunker complex and tunnel system that’s full extent still isn’t fully known.)


JMSDF Sasebo History Museum

8-1 Uwamachi, Sasebo-shi, Nagasaki-ken 857-0058

Sasebo Citizens Cultural Hall

2 Hirasemachi, Sasebo-shi, Nagasaki-ken 857-0056

Kujukushima Seaside Terrace Hotel

1129 Kashimaechō, Sasebo-shi, Nagasaki-ken 858-0922

Tono-cho Market

857-0875 Nagasaki-ken, Sasebo-shi, Shimokyomachi, 5, Unnamed Road, 10

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