Takao was the first of four Takao-class heavy cruisers, designed to be an improvement over the previous Myōkō-class design. The Myōkō had proved to be unstable and required modifications, which were incorporated into the Takao design.
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. Takao was built by the Yokosuka Naval shipyards, and like her sister ships, was named after a mountain. Mount Takao is located outside of Kyoto and is not to be confused with the similar Mount Takao located outside of Tokyo, or the city of Takao, which uses the same characters, on what was then Japanese territory of Taiwan.
Takao was launched on 12 May 1930 at the Yokosuka Navy Yard and commissioned on 31 May 1932, and was the lead ship of her class.
At the start of World War II, Takao was commanded by Captain Asakura Bunji and assigned to Vice Admiral Kondo Nobutake's Cruiser Division 4 together with her sister ships Atago and Maya. In late December 1941, she provided gunfire support for the landings at Lingayen Gulf on Luzon in the Philippines.
In early 1942, Takao operated in the Java Sea in operations culminating in the Battle of the Java Sea in early March. On 1 March, one of Takao's floatplanes bombed the Dutch merchant ship Enggano. The next night, Takao and Atago overtook the old United States Navy destroyer Pillsbury and sank her with no survivors. Early on 4 March, Takao, Atago, Maya and two destroyers of Destroyer Division 4, Arashi and Nowaki attacked a convoy near Tjilatjap. The Royal Australian Navy sloop HMAS Yarra defended the convoy for an hour and half, but was sunk with 34 survivors of her crew of 151. (Of these 34 survivors, only 13 were alive to be picked up a week later by the Dutch submarine K-XI and taken to Ceylon.)