Maya was one of four Takao-class heavy cruisers, designed to be an improvement over the previous Myōkō-class design. These ships were fast, powerful and heavily armed, with enough firepower to hold their own against any cruiser in any other navy in the world. The Takao-class ships were approved under the 1927 fiscal year budget as part of the Imperial Japanese Navy's strategy of the Decisive Battle, and forming the backbone of a multipurpose long range strike force. Maya was built by the Kawasaki shipyards in Kobe. It shares its name with the early Japanese gunboat Maya, and per Japanese naval naming conventions, is named after a mountain, specifically Mount Maya outside of Kobe.
At the start of the Pacific War, Maya was assigned to support the invasion of the Philippine Islands. From January through March 1942, the Maya was involved in operations to seize the oil-rich Dutch East Indies. On March 3, 1942 the Maya was present at the sinking of the US gunboat USS Asheville (PG-21), south of Java.
Returning to Japan in April 1942, Maya was assigned to the unsuccessful pursuit of Admiral William F. Halsey's Task Force 16.2 after the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, which had damaged the aircraft carrier Ryuho during her conversion. In May–June 1942, she participated in the successful invasion of the Aleutian Islands.