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  ICBTT2004 Technology & Society Division, JSME

Ferry Business of the Inland Sea and the Lake Biwa: In the Rise of the Modern Shipbuilding in Japan


When people discuss on the topic of technology transfer in Meiji Japan, it is customary for them to put their emphasis on the role of the leadership of the Government. However, as many western business hunters came to Japan as soon as the opening of ports, they also brought Western technology and applied it directly to their private business. Therefore, we must emphasize these hunters' role is more significant. Here, we focus on the development of small steamer ferry business, initiated by them, and its role to the rise of the Japanese modern shipbuilding industry.

Key Words: technology transfer, failure, political reason, Kamaishi iron mill

In 1898, Japan's first ocean going steel ship, Hitachi-maru (6,172 GT, two shafts, 3,847 Hps triple expansion engine, 14.2 knots), launched at the Mitsubishi Nagasaki Shipyard. It was a landmark of the history of the Japanese modern shipbuilding industry. How Mitsubishi had been built their technical capability to construct such large ship has usually been explained as follows:
At first, the Shogunate constructed the Nagasaki Iron Works, with the technical assistance from the Dutch government. And from 1861, the Dutch naval engineers trained samurais and craftsmen mainly for mechanical works and ship repair. By the time of the Meiji Restoration, it had grown up to excellent engineering works. After the Restoration, the new Meiji government established K busho, the Ministry of Industry. To promote the modern shipbuilding industry, K busho established two shipyards. One is the K busho Nagasaki Shipyard, which integrated a small dock, bought from a British merchant, to the former Nagasaki Iron Works; and another is the K busho Hyogo Shipyard at Kobe.1
K busho invested much into the Nagasaki Shipyards. They hired ten foreign technical advisors for this yard, and constructed a new dock, presumably the largest one in Asia. Though iron or steel ship was never built at this yard, in 1883, a large wooden steamer Kosuge-maru (1,416 GT, 642 Hps, double expansion engine) was built at here. This event proved a high technical capability attained by this yard. Nevertheless, in 1887 the Nagasaki Shipyard was sold to Mitsubishi, a famous zaibatsu, with its skilled workers. Although Mitsubishi had already had their own Iron Works at Yokohama, served for the maintenance and repair works of ships, they decided to send several foreign engineers and skilled workers, along with the equipment of the works, to the Nagasaki Shipyard for enforcing its technical cap ability.
The above explanation formed the general and prevailed assumption on the technical accumulation of the Mitsubishi Nagasaki Shipyard. However, there are at least two missing points in this assumption. Firstly, it failed to explain when and where did Mitsubishi acquired the capability for iron shipbuilding. Neither the K busho Nagasaki Shipyards nor the Mitsubishi iron Works had any experience of building iron steamers. Secondly, such explanation only focused on the role of the Shogunate and the Meiji government, and neglects the role of local private shipping and shipbuilding firms. Their development prepared the market demands for iron and steel steamers in Japan. Therefore, our paper will aim to concern on these two missing points.

The Rise of Coastal Steamer Shipping and the Growth of Local Shipbuilders
It is necessary to emphasize the fact that the marine engine use to consume large amount of coal before the advent of the double expansion engine. At least until around 1880, steamers with double expansion engine were extremely rare in Japan. Consequently, traditional shipping network, developed during the Tokugawa era, had a great competitive advantage to steamer shipping, especially in cargo shipping.
However, as far as passenger transportation was concerned, under some specific conditions, steamers were more competitive than traditional ships. For instance, in the line between Yokohama and Kobe, which routed on a rough sea of the Pacific coast, traditional ships were totally inappropriate for the passenger transportation. During the period when the ailway between Tokyo and Kobe had been being constructed, the Mitsubishi Company monopolized the passenger transportation of this line, by utilizing relatively large and speedy iron steamers bought from the second hand ship market.
Another example was the ferry business of a calm sea and a lake. After the opening of ports, many Western colonial business hunters in Shanghai, Hong Kong and other East Asian regions, moved to Japan. And as early as 1868, American trading house at Osaka recognized that ferry business of the Inland Sea was very prospective, and started a line linking Osaka and Kobe with a small wooden steamer. The steamer daily departed Kobe at Sam and arrived at Osaka in one and half hour. And on return trip, it left Osaka at 5pm. This type of service was impossible for the traditional ships. Thus, people enthusiastically welcome this new service, and within the next year, another 4 companies, 3 American and 1 German, entered in this service.2
After the completion of railway from Kobe to Osaka, there was a rapid decline of the passengers of this line. However, as a whole, the Inland Sea steamer ferry business continued to develop rapidly. The government gave over all priority to the railway construction between Kobe and Tokyo. As a consequence, the railway did not extend further to the west from Kobe. Until the end of the century, small wooden steamers were the most competitive tool for the passenger transportation in West Japan. Around 1880, a hundred or more wooden steamers of 100-300GT were in service of Inland Sea lines.
Steamer shipping on the Lake Biwa also inaugurated as early as 1869. Since the Tokugawa era, the shipping on Lake Biwa had been significant to transport rice and other products from the Japan Sea coast to Kyoto and Osaka. In 1869, a wooden paddle ship was entered in the service of this line. Its success triggered the development of the steamer shipping on the lake. Traditional ship owners began to compete by putting small steamers (about 10-20 GT) in the service. According to the document of Shiga Prefecture, there were 25 steamers in service on the Lake Biwa in 1880.3
The most important aspect of the development was that almost all of steamers were built locally. Although the earliest five or so were probably brought from Shanghai, it was followed by the local construction by either foreign shipbuilders or by Japanese builders under the guidance of foreign advisors. As times goes on, number of foreign builders decreased and instead the number of Japanese builders increased. Table 1 shows the main shipyards existed in Osaka and Hyogo prefectures in 1884. From the table, we can see the growth of two large shipyards.

Table 1 Shipyards and Number of Steamers They Built For the Ship Owners of Inland Sea Ferry (between 1878 and 1884).
ShipyardsPlaceOwner's NationalitySteamers Constructed
Kobusho Hyogo S.Y.KobeJapanese Government
Sangen EitaroKobeJapanese Private
Suzuki SeijiroKobeJapanese Private
Kono KametaroKobeJapanese Private
Kobe Iron WorksKobeBritish Private
Nagata SanjuroOsakaJapanese Private
Yagi ShinzoOsakaJapanese Private
Hosoya UshimatsuOsakaJapanese Private
Kawasaki GenjiroOsakaJapanese Private
Osaka Iron WorksOsakaJapanese Private*
*Owner's father was British.
Source: Suzuki, Jun Meiji no Kikaikogyo, 1996, p.60

One of the two was the K busho Hyogo Shipyard, built 12 steamers for owners of the Inland Sea Ferry. Furthermore, this shipyard had developed an excellent capability for engine manufacture and succeeded in 1880 to complete two double expansion engines for the first time in West Japan. It had also provided marine engines to local shipbuilders. Most of private and small shipbuilders in Table 1 were specialized in the wooden hull building. With regard to marine engines, these builders depended on the supply from the K busho Shipyard.4
Another large shipyard was the Kobe Iron works owned by a British merchant E. C. Kirby. This shipyard built 11 steamers. These ships were relatively large and their performance was far better from those built by the K busho Shipyard. During the 1870s, foreigners' workers in Kobe were gradually shut down their business. From closed works, engineers who were still motivated for shipbuilding, found their works at the Kobe Iron Works and built excellent wooden steamers under the support of Kirby, who was previously a Western food supplier and an estate agent in the Yokohama settlement, and was extending his business to the Kobe settlement. While Kirby had no background on shipbuilding, he succeeded in the business of the Kobe Iron Works. After this success, he seems to have been becoming more ambitious to engage in the iron shipbuilding.5
And it was Lake Biwa ferry that offered Kirby an opportunity of building two iron steamers of 500GT. As already said, the most appropriate steamers for the Lake Biwa were very small steamers of 10-20GT and therefore, this seem to be very curious. Abundant traditional ship carpenters in Shiga prefecture, relatively easily mastered the construction techniques of Western style wooden hull of this size. A small marine engine bought from Osaka or Kobe was installed in the hull. The ship owners of the Lake Biwa had been content with such steamers. The answer to why they abruptly demanded the far larger steamers is laid on the proceeding of railway construction.

Otsu-Nagahama Ferry and Taiko-maru
In 1880, the railway construction from Kobe to eastward, reached Otsu, a port on the south coast of the Lake Biwa The eastward construction was stopped here for a while. And K busho began to start the construction of the new line from Tsuruga -an important port on the Japan Sea- to Nagahama, a port on the northeast coast of tha lake. This line was supposed to be completed by 1884.6 This indicates that the ferry line linking Nagahama and Otsu would offer a big business chance to those ship owners of the Lake Biwa They started to plan for introducing new large steamers competitively, to gain an advantage over other competitors in this line. Shiga prefecture was really afraid that, if they left the thing as it was, all the owners would go under together. And the prefecture intervened to force ship owners to merge and form a large ferry company. On the other hand, Shiga prefecture negotiated with K busho to give the forthcoming new company the license of ferry, linking Nagahama station and Otsu station. In this negotiation, K busho requested that:

  1. The ferry boat should have enough speed to ply between Nagahama and Otsu once for every two or two and half hour.
  2. It should transport passengers of two trains.7
Thus Taiko Kisen Company was formed 1882. The first and second Taiko-maru (500GT, iron construction, double expansion engine) were designed to meet this criteria. However, even for the Kobe Iron Works, to build these two ships was a venture. Nevertheless, it was given Kirby for the first step in the way to become a big shipbuilder in the East.
In order to build the two iron steamers, Kirby remodeled his shipyard by introducing new machine tools, derricks, etc. and enlarging slips and the foundry. He hired another 6 Western engineers including, James Ellerton, former advisor of marine engineering of the government. In his renewed shipyard, number of workers accounted for 480, including 30 Chinese. It is plausible that these Chinese might be recruited from Shanghai or Hong Kong. All iron materials were imported. Also a double expansion engine was imported from Britain. It was installed in the first Taiko-maru. After that, they copied this engine and manufactured another double expansion engine for the second Taiko -maru.8
The perfection of two iron steamers in 1883 provoked a great sensation among those who concerned on maritime affairs in Japan. However, just at this time, Kirby was confronting a serious crisis. He failed to secure the following order of iron ship. The latest equipment, as well as 480 workers of his shipyard, was about to be idle. He started to build the third ship of Taiko-maru type for the time being, with no expectation of customer, and made every effort to approach the Navy, expecting it as the most prospective customer. Consequently, he barely received a contract for building Yamato (1500wt., 1071Hps double expansion engine) on February 1884. However, the financial condition of Kirby was already plunged at this time. Although the construction of Yamato started from November 1884, the next month the K6be Iron Works went into bankruptcy. Kirby committed suicide, leaving a debt of $250,000 to the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank. The Navy paid his debt to the bank, and assumed the Works along with its workers. Finally the Works changed its name to Onohama Naval Shipyard, and completed Yamato along with the third ship (Asahi-maru). By 1891, this shipyard had been built further 3 irons and 1 steel steamer.9 Onohama Naval Shipyard was the first Japanese shipyard in which the assimilation of iron shipbuilding technology was achieved.

Concluding remarks: technological leap and market
The tragedy of the Kobe Iron Works highlights the importance of market demands in a technological leap in a less developed country. To leap from a lower technical level (wooden shipbuilding) to a higher technical level (iron shipbuilding), was not a mere problem of technology acquisition. Preparing for the building of iron ships, Kirby necessarily changed his shipyard into a larger and more capital intensive yard with far more workers and engineers. In order to sustain business with the enlarged shipyard, Kirby would have been required to secure orders of preferably two iron ships of Taiko-maru class per annum. However, it was impossible for the market of a less developed country to raise such demands. The demand for Taiko-maru was but an exceptional one, which caused incidentally by the railway construction.
Ironically, it was Kirby's venture that pushed the Japanese market toward the demand for iron steamers. The development of the Inland Sea Ferry Business was always accompanied by the threat of excessive competition. Many trials to avoid a crash finally resulted in amalgamation of ship owners to organize a large shipping company, Osaka Shosen (Osaka Merchant Vessel) in 1884. However, a few large owners refused to join the company and maintained competitors' position of it. Preparing for forthcoming keen competition with them, Osaka Shosen planned to construct 6 iron steamers and asked the government to support the construction. This plan was largely influenced by the high performance of two Taiko-maru and Asahi-maru.
The government decided to remodel the K busho Hyogo Shipyard into an iron shipbuilding yard for the construction of steamers to be sold to Osaka Shosen by annually installments. This decision too, was influenced by Kirby's three iron steamers. The first iron ship for Osaka Shosen was built in Onohama. It was a same type as Asahi-maru. The following iron steamers started to be built in the remodeled K busho Hyogo Shipyard, perhaps with a help of workers and engineers from Onohama. However, while the construction work was proceeding, K busho was abolished according to the government policy. Kawasaki Shozo, a builder of Western sailing ships, assumed the Shipyard and the proceeding construction works from the government. Consequently, this Kawasaki Shipyard acquired technological capability for Iron shipbuilding as if it were a gift from Kirby.
Around the same time, the K busho Nagasaki Shipyard was sold to Mitsubishi. Mitsubishi Nagasaki Shipyard accumulated the capability for building Hitachi-maru through three steps of technical leap. The first technical leap was the construction of three steamers (about 600GT, steel construction, triple expansion engine) to the order of Osaka Shosen in 1890 and 1891. Based on this experience Mitsubishi leaped to the construction of Suma-maru (1,593GT, 853Hps triple expansion engine) in 1895. And this experience constituted the step board for the third leap towards Hitachi-manu.
In this first leap, for the construction of steel hulls, Mitsubishi had been indebted heavily on workers recruited from Onohama Naval Shipyard.10 And Osaka Shosen ordered three steel steamers from Mitsubishi for keeping its advantage in the Inland Sea. Therefore, the rise of modern shipbuilding industry in Japan owed much to the development of steamer ferry business in the Inland Sea and the Lake Biwa and to its initiators, i.e. Western engineers and merchants coming from East Asia.

References (all in Japanese)

  1. Officially, both shipyards changed their name for four times. However, in this paper, we adopt their popular name to avoid any complication, caused by name changes.
  2. Hyogoken-shi (A History of Hyogo Prefecture) vol.6 (Kobe, 1980), pp.851-2.
  3. Shiga prefecture, Schedule of Boiler Test for Each Steamer (1880).
  4. Suzuki, Jun; Meiji no Kikaikogyo (Mechanical Engineering in the Meiji Period), (Tokyo, 1996), p.60.
  5. Ibid, pp.61-2.
  6. Ministry of Finance, Kobusho Enkakuhokoku (A Report on the History of Kobusho), 1889, pp.196-8.
  7. Meiji 14nen Kdbunroku Kdbusho 9-10gatsu, National Archive, 1881.
  8. Suzuki, Jun; op.cit., p.63.
  9. Zosen Kyokai, Nippon Kinsei Zosen-shi (A History of Shipbuilding in Modern Japan), (1911), pp.280-1.
  10. Shiota, Taisuke; Shioia Taisuke Jijoden (Autobiography of Shiota Taisuke: preserved in Mitsubishi Nagasaki Shipyard), (1938), pp.105-6.