Historical Trivia Friday: Not Just Any Battleship

Let me begin with a confession: I have not watched any of The Legend of Korra. In fact, I haven’t even finished Book Two of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

But today I did come across the trailer for Book Two of Korra that was released at the San Diego Comic Con. At about 1:27 into the video, I glimpsed something that tickled my inner history geek: a fleet of warships. They appear for just a second in the trailer, but I immediately recognized them as drawing inspiration from not just any early 20th Century warships but specifically 1930s era Japanese battleships. Here’s why:

In 1922, the winners of World War I signed a naval arms limitation treaty with the aim of preventing another runaway arms race like the one between Britain and Germany that had contributed to the outbreak of the last war. Among other things, the treaty placed strict limits on the construction of new battleships by the signatory nations, while grandfathering in many existing dreadnoughts.

The Empire of Japan was a signatory to the treaty, but the country’s increasingly militaristic leaders soon regretted it and sought ways around the restrictions. So in the 1930s, Japan began aggressively upgrading its aging battleships rather than retiring them as had been expected. This would allow the Imperial Japanese Navy to field a larger number of modern battleships than technically allowed under the treaty.

Because most of the battleships had been built before the development of aircraft carriers, a major focus of the upgrades was air defenses, including searchlights to spot enemy aircraft during night operations. But there wasn’t exactly a lot of room on the main deck to place these new additions–so the Japanese naval architects simply built upwards.

IJN Nagato

The IJN Nagato with pagoda mast, circa 1939. Public domain image.

They created large, multi-tiered superstructures that came to be know as pagoda masts which housed the additions above the main hull of the ship. European and American naval planners who were modernizing their own warships thought this design was too top-heavy, so it remained a uniquely Japanese feature that created a distinct profile for their vessels.

That’s how I was able to recognize the ships in the video at a glance. And it is another sign of the show runners’ strong commitment to drawing on specifically East Asian visual references for every aspect of their imagined cultures. So, kudos to them for applying it to something as minor as this. As I’ve said before, getting the little details right can make a huge difference in crafting a believable world.


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