Japan has a long history of naval interaction with the Asian continent, involving transportation of troops between
Korea and Japan, starting at least with the beginning of the
Kofun period in the 3rd century.
Following the attempts at
Mongol invasions of Japan by
Kubilai Khan in 1274 and 1281, Japanese
wakō became very active in
plundering the coast of
Red seal ship
, combining eastern and western naval technologies
Japan undertook major naval building efforts in the 16th century, during the
Warring States period, when feudal rulers vying for supremacy built vast coastal navies of several hundred ships. Around that time Japan may have developed one of the first
ironclad warships when
Oda Nobunaga, a
daimyō, had six iron-covered
Oatakebune made in 1576.
 In 1588
Toyotomi Hideyoshi issued a ban on Wakō piracy; the pirates then became vassals of Hideyoshi, and comprised the naval force used in the
Japanese invasion of Korea (1592–1598).
Japan built her first large ocean-going warships in the beginning of the 17th century, following contacts with the Western nations during the
Nanban trade period. In 1613, the daimyō of
Sendai, in agreement with the
Date Maru, a 500-ton
galleon-type ship that transported the Japanese embassy of
Hasekura Tsunenaga to the Americas, which then continued to Europe.
 From 1604 the Bakufu also commissioned about 350
Red seal ships, usually armed and incorporating some Western technologies, mainly for
Southeast Asian trade.
Western studies and the end of Seclusion
(1854) was built from Dutch technical drawings.
For more than 200 years, beginning in the 1640s, the Japanese policy of seclusion ("
sakoku") forbade contacts with the outside world and prohibited the construction of ocean-going ships on pain of death.
 Contacts were maintained, however, with the Dutch through the port of
Nagasaki, the Chinese also through Nagasaki and the Ryukyus and Korea through intermediaries with Tsushima. The study of Western sciences, called "
rangaku" through the Dutch enclave of
Dejima in Nagasaki led to the transfer of knowledge related to the Western technological and
scientific revolution which allowed Japan to remain aware of naval sciences, such as
optics and mechanical sciences, seclusion however, led to loss of any naval and maritime traditions the nation possessed.
Apart from Dutch trade ships no other Western vessels were allowed to enter Japanese ports, a notable exception was during the
Napoleonic wars, when neutral ships flew the Dutch flag. However frictions with foreign ships started from the beginning of the 19th century. The
Nagasaki Harbour Incident involving the
HMS Phaeton in 1808 and other subsequent incidents in the following decades led to the Shogunate to enact an
edict to repel foreign vessels. Western ships which were increasing their presence around Japan due to whaling and the trade with China began to challenge the seclusion policy.
Morrison Incident in 1837 and news of China's defeat during the
Opium War, however, led to the Shogunate to repeal the law to execute foreigners and instead to adopt the Order for the Provision of Firewood and Water. The shogunate also began to strengthen the nation's coastal defenses. Many Japanese realized that traditional ways would not be sufficient to repel further intrusions and western knowledge was utilized through the Dutch at Dejima to reinforce Japan's capability to repel the foreigners; field guns, mortars and firearms were obtained and coastal defenses reinforced.
Numerous attempts to open Japan ended in failure in part to Japanese resistance, this was until the early 1850s.
During 1853 and 1854,
American warships under the command of
Commodore Matthew Perry entered
Edo Bay and made demonstrations of force requesting trade negotiations. After two hundred years of seclusion the 1854
Convention of Kanagawa led to the
opening of Japan to international trade and interaction. This was soon followed by the 1858
Treaty of Amity and Commerce and
treaties with other powers.
, Japan's first screw-driven steam warship, 1857
Japan's first domestically built steam warship completed in May 1866
), Japan's first modern
As soon as Japan opened up to foreign influences, the Tokugawa shogunate recognized the vulnerability of the country from the sea and initiated an active policy of assimilation and adoption of Western naval technologies. In 1855, with Dutch assistance, the Shogunate acquired its first steam warship, Kankō Maru, and began using it for training, establishing a
Naval Training Center at Nagasaki.
Samurai such as the future Admiral
Enomoto Takeaki (1836–1908) were sent by the Shogunate to study in the
Netherlands for several years. In 1859 the Naval Training Center relocated to
Tokyo. In 1857 the Shogunate acquired its first screw-driven steam warship
Kanrin Maru and used it as an escort for the
1860 Japanese delegation to the United States. In 1865 the French naval engineer
Léonce Verny was hired to build Japan's first modern naval arsenals, at
Nagasaki. In 1867–1868 a British Naval mission headed by
Commander Richard Tracey
 went to Japan to assist the development of the Japanese Navy and to organize the naval school of Tsukiji.
The Shogunate also allowed and then ordered various
domains to purchase warships and to develop naval fleets,
Satsuma, especially, had petitioned the Shogunate to build modern naval vessels. A naval center had been set up by the Satsuma domain in Kagoshima, students were sent abroad for training and a number of ships were acquired. The domains of
Kaga joined Satsuma in acquiring ships. This was not enough to prevent the
British from bombarding Kagoshima in 1863 or the
Allied bombardments of Shimonoseki in 1863–64.
By the mid 1860s the Shogunate had a fleet of eight warships and thirty-six auxiliaries. Satsuma (which had the largest domain fleet) had nine steamships, Choshu had five ships plus numerous auxiliary craft, Kaga had ten ships and Chikuzen eight. Numerous smaller domains also had acquired a number of ships. However these fleets resembled maritime organizations rather than actual navies with ships functioning as transports as well as combat vessels, they were also manned by personnel who lacked experienced seamanship except for coastal sailing and who had virtually no combat training.