When the Yamato and her sister ship the Musashi were built they were and still are the biggest battleships to have been constructed. Japanese naval architects were able to deduce correctly that most American battleships would be limited in size by the Panama Canal which the two ocean US Navy depended upon. Keep in mind as most of their strategic mobility hinged on having the Panama Canal, as a voyage to round Cape Horn or through the Straits of Magellan would mean the loss of time and compromise secrecy of movement as ships making a long voyage would have to put into port at some point during this journey. Also, while Argentina was not involved in the war they were the most Axis friendly country in the region while the US maintained a presence in the Panama Canal. Thus due to size limitations the largest American battleships could only sport 16 inch naval rifles whereas the Japanese were only concerned with the Pacific and got to go as big as they wished, hence the Yamato and the ships of her class would have the capability to have 18 inch naval rifles as their main armament. On paper at least the Yamato and Musashi could out shoot any battleship in existence, thus both ships and their planned sisters were to be the nucleus of a Japanese battleline.
As symbols of naval might the Yamato represented a whole lot: she was the lead ship of a class that had few equals as most ships of her time sported 14 inch or smaller guns for their main batteries, represented the pinnacle of Japanese naval engineering, and was the flagship for the Imperial Japanese Navy as the Combined Fleet was the primary formation of the IJN’s striking power. In many ways the Yamato was the pride of the fleet and very physical manifestation of their naval might. Such was the importance of the Yamato and her class the Japanese expended a lot of effort in hiding their construction and towards the end of the war destroyed most of the documents surrounding her design and construction. As such while there are plenty of model kits for the ship itself the schematics for these reconstructions seem lost in the mists of time.
Given the the weight of her broadside and the smaller guns that festooned her deck the Yamato seemed like she could take on a lot by herself, and in Space Battleship Yamato she did take on a whole lot. The real ship, however, did not really get into the thick of it until Operation Ten-Go which was intended to be her final mission. Ten-Go is probably what the Japanese most remember her for since the crew was already doomed and as a potent symbol of empire and the ambition of a people even when she was sunk her legend remained. However despite the romanticism and affection I find it to be an odd cultural touchstone given the Yamato’s service record and as a symbol she also was the embodiment of a naval doctrine that was refuted but continues to influence anime. While Zeon would like to think themselves as Jerry’s inheritors, they only managed to copy his style. But as for substance every Zeke at his core is an adherent of the Kantai Kessen or decisive battle. It’s kind of a delicious irony that a Yank by the name of Alfred Mahan had introduced a naval doctrine that almost every Japanese naval officer since “The Influence of Sea Power on History” was published seem to hold that book as the be-all-end-all of naval doctrine. In the end it would be other Yanks that were to prove Mahan wrong and put an end to the Japanse Empire. To be fair Mahan’s theories were usable in the years before World War I. The stunning victory at Tsushima during the Russo-Japanese War seemed to be a total vindication of Mahan’s theories for the Japanese, but because Jerry was busy making U-boats to negate the British Royal Navy bottling them up in the North Sea, technology would soon render Mahan’s theories moot and turn the Japanese pursuit of a decisive showdown into a Quixotic Quest.
The IJN valued the Yamato and Musashi so much that both ships did not see major action during the early years of the war. The Japanese plan was pretty much to smash the American battleships at Pearl Harbor at which point the US Navy would have to mount a desperate sortie to relieve their Pacific territories. The IJN would then lure the US ships deep into Japanese held territory while harassing them along the way with submarines, and aircraft both carrier and land based. The IJN would then sortie out with the Yamato to lead the Japanese battleships to sink the weakened American battleline and achieve undisputed mastery of the Pacific and a huge empire. It sounded fine on paper but while the Yamato was big and bad she was also the equivalent to a gas guzzling SUV and very high maintenance. The cost of building her and her sisters was so expensive that other naval arms suffered as a result. The Japanese submarine fleet, while in possession of a few cool toys, lagged behind in doctrine and were bent on seeking glory by sinking warships rather than merchantmen like Jerry did. Admiral Yamamoto and a few of his men lobbied hard for more carriers and more aircraft but lost that fight, though they did manage to get more than the submariners. Still, most of the Japanese Naval Command were head over heels for the Yamato and her sisters and did not wish to put their beloved ships in unnecessary danger.
The result was that the Yamato and Musashi were not active participants at crucial battles such as Coral Sea and Midway. The first time they did see heavy action was during the Leyte Gulf campaign when the future American Overseer MacArthur was making good his promise to return to the Philippines after the Japanese had kicked him out in in the early years of the war. The Musashi got a small flesh wound from an American submarine and when a bunch of American aircraft noticed the band aid the Japanese had put on the Musashi they kept pounding the weakspot for massive damage. As for the Yamato, she was the flagship for a battle group that would enter a Legendary BIG FIGHT. However this BIG FIGHT was not to be the decisive battle the Japanese had been looking for. Instead they had hoped to sink MacArthur’s invasion fleet while their carriers, already badly mauled by Spruance, the Second Smartest Man in the US Navy, lured “Bull” Halsey away from the San Bernardino Straight. This would have given the Yamato and the rest of her squadron a clear path to those vulnerable transports and the chance to give Dugout Doug what for when they got into their base to sink their ships and kill their dudes.
It was to be a BIG FIGHT that the Yamato wasn’t looking for but she ran into a bunch of destroyers, destroyer escorts, and some CVE (Combustible, Vulnerable, and Expendable as known to their crews) escort carriers of task force Taffy 3. Considering the Yamato had a posse of 3 other battleships, 6 Heavy Cruisers, 2 Light Cruisers, and 11 Destroyers she had plenty of help against Taffy 3 which had 6 lightly armed and armored escort carriers, 3 destroyers, 4 destroyer escorts, and 400 aircraft. Better yet the Yamato had caught those Americans with their pants down and none of their 400 aircraft were initially armed with anti-ship weapons, only high explosive bombs and depth charges for the most part that were pretty much useless against armored cruisers and battleships. If you were a betting person your money would probably have gone to the the Yamato and her posse; the Yamato alone displaced more tonnage than all of Taffy 3 ships combined.
Whether it was the gumption and recklessness of the crews of Taffy 3, God, Zeus, dumb luck, or all of the above, in the end Taffy 3 made history by blunting an overwhelmingly superior force from wrecking the Leyte campaign for the Americans. The destroyers and destroyer escorts of Taffy 3 laid smoke to cover the CVE’s retreat while their pilots scrambled with whatever weapons they had and started to harass the Japanese ships. After the smoke was laid the Americans then charged the Yamato and the rest of her heavily armed squadron. The biggest guns the Americans had were only 5 inch guns, and their primary anti-ship weapons were the much maligned Mk 15 torpedoes which meant they had to get close to use the things. Still it was these torpedoes that disrupted the Japanese formation creating tactical havoc, and two of these inferior American torpedoes on a parallel course also caused the Yamato to disengage and play a much less active role in the fight. In fact her presence after the initial shock was hardly felt after, though with the sheer numbers of Japanese capital ships made it a very cold comfort. In the end the older battleship Kongo had claimed the honors for having the best gunnery in the Japanese flotilla.
In the end the Yamato was too far away to do her thing, and because the Japanese did not have good up to date ID charts they mistook the CVEs for full sized fleet carriers. Having sunk what they thought were two fleet carriers the Japanese withdrew instead of pressing their advantage, as despite their numbers and heavier guns the American had managed to sink 3 heavy cruisers and seriously maul 3 other cruisers, sink a destroyer and damage another. Once again the Yamato was saved for the decisive battle but that had come and gone during the battles of the Leyte Gulf Campaign. To the south some of the (raised and repaired) battleships that the Japanese had sunk at Pearl Harbor got their revenge when they annihilated a Japanese fleet in the last surface action in naval history. The last mission the Yamato embarked on was the much romanticized Ten-Go where the Yamato was to beach herself on Okinawa and fight on as a shore battery against the Allied Invasion of Okinawa. However Allied aircraft found her first and succeeded in sink her before she could accomplish her suicide mission.
The Yamato is a much more interesting symbol than for the reasons the Japanese look so nostalgically at it. It was a symbol of military might and of the empire they lost but looking at it as an outsider it is a much stronger allegory than the fiction that the Japanese created around her legend. It was a technological marvel when she was first launched, but in the end like a loser harem animu male she too failed to do much of anything. She was charging her lazors but in the end her beams did not hit much and two torpedoes made her make a fateful decision to not damn the torpedoes and go full speed ahead. Her combat record stands as a damning testament to Japan’s military incompetence when it came to doctrine. None of their prepared scenarios turned out to be true and thus while the Allies turned the tide, the Japanese were still waiting for the final battle that never came. Instead they conserved two of their most powerful battleships so lovingly that they were little more than heavily armed cruise ships while the rest of the IJN was mauled in smaller engagements that were considered too insignificant to risk their illustrious Yamato and Musashi. Still, love will never die and even when the war was raging the IJN wanted more Yamato-class ships, and only after losses at Midway did they start to reassess their priorities. I suppose there is still a desire to resurrect the Yamato as a symbol of a new more independent Japan, but that is but a pipe dream. The Yamato lost her chance just as the Japanese Empire lost it’s chance. Even if the Yamato was raised not even 18 inch naval rifles will do much against the resurgent, missile heavy, SU-27 loving PRC that their invasion helped bring to power.
The Yamato’s story and clash with Taffy 3 is like a life lesson: don’t go looking for your time to shine because it may come and go before you know it. Better to do your best everyday and expend effort towards a goal than to expect to achieve your dreams in one fell swoop. You can be blessed with all the tools to achieve greatness but it will always hinge on the decisions you make. Even the least well equipped person can achieve what is deemed impossible if they dare. When it seems like you are doomed don’t despair, better to go out fighting because once in a while you get lucky, just don’t make a habit of it or demand a miracle to save your ass.