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Japanese Shipbuilding - Early Developments

Japan aimed to be the leader of a revived Asia. She advanced along three lines territorial expansion, increased fighting power, and an aggressive commercial campaign. Two main objects in the commercial campaign were the acquisition of a great shipbuilding industry and the exclusive control of the coasting trade of the Western Pacific. For years the policy of Japan has been directed with the view of building up a strong navy and merchant marine. Her position in the East was, in many respects, analogous to Great Britain in the West, and her aspirations and opportunities both pointed to the sea as furnishing her best defence in case of war, and a profitable vocation for her sons in time of peace. With this object the Government planned regular and systematic additions to the strength of the navy, and sought the best means for the encouragement of shipbuilding. High ship subsidies had long been paid, and any plan which promises to promote the establishment of iron manufacturing plant, and other industries necessary to shipbuilding, received careful consideration.

The growth of Japanese shipbuilding was amazing. When the ancient junk had to make way for vessels of modern type, Japan at first found it necessary to import nearly all its ships. The skill of Japanese carpenters soon mastered the construction of wooden vessels, and Japan has for some time built all the sailing ships she wants. Progress in the construction of iron and steel steamers was more slow. To help it on, the Government offered a bounty varying from 1.4 to 2 per ton of the body of the ship, for suitable iron or steel steamers of 700 tons upwards in size, with an additional bounty of ten shillings per horse power of the engine.

All the principal yards were equipped in the western style, and they were importing every new machine from both Europe and America. Being later in the field than other nations, Japan had many advantages in avoiding experimental stages, and there is always less trouble in adopting the best of the kind. Thus, good inventions or improvements are much more easily and quickly applied in Japan than in places where everyone has been accustomed to older methods for years and years. All the principal yards have been sending their engineers and constructors to Europe and America, one after another, to look around the different works and yards, to enquire into the methods they are adopting and to study the machines they are using. In that way the latest improvements are quickly imported. For example, the use of electricity in shipyards is very prevalent, and most of the principal naval and private yards are adopting or are about to adopt electric power in driving their machines in the different shops.

The progress of the shipbuilding industry was very rapid, and very successful, and nothing was more apparent in this respect than the reduction in the time required to do similar kinds of work. According to practical experience in one of the private yards, a small steamer of 400 gross tons, built in 1894, took 9 months and 14 days from the commencement to the date of launching, while in 1906, a ship of similar type, a little larger in size, was launched after being in hand only 4 months and 14 days.

The want of iron and steel was the greatest drawback to the development of Japanese shipbuilding; it also caused great inconvenience in prolonging the time of completion, as the delivery of material involves a delay of at least five or six months. To remedy this defect, the importance of inaugurating the iron and steel industry in Japan had been recognised for a long time, and the Imperial Government, having decided to start on this industry, has made very elaborate and exhaustive investigations with regard to the quantity and nature of iron ore obtainable in Japan, the manufacture of pig iron and steel, and also the organization of the works. Being satisfied with these preliminary investigations, the scheme of the steel works was submitted to the Diet in 1896-97, and passed unanimously, and the steel works were commenced in 1897 at Yawatamura, near Moji.

There were three leading shipyards in Japan, the Mitsubishi at Nagasaki, the Kawasaki at Kobe, and the Osaka ironworks. These three yards employed altogether about 25,000 men, and are well equipped with modern machinery. They have been for some time quite unable to meet the orders pouring into them, and they are enlarging their accommodation as quickly as they can. The largest dock belongs to the Mitsubishi and measures 728 ft. The heads of these establishments and many of their principal assistants have been trained in British and American yards. It has sometimes been said that all that is done is to piece together material already made abroad, in order to earn the Japanese subsidy. However true this may have been a few years ago, it is certainly not so now. The construction work, to the smallest details, is done in the yards themselves. Japanese mechanics have not yet acquired great facility in handling machinery, and the foreign visitor cannot but be struck by the very large number of men necessary in the yards, probably quite three times as many as would be employed in England for similar work.

It was thought almost incredible when the Hitachi-maru, a ship of 6,000 tons, was built in Japan. In 1906 the Satsuma, 19,200 tons, the largest battleship in the world, was successfully floated at Nagasaki. Merchant vessels of 13,000 tons are now on the stocks, submarines are being completed, and the Japanese shipbuilders are proving themselves especially successful with torpedo-boat destroyers. In spite of the fact that they are hampered by the lack of cheap iron and steel, they are already competing with English yards for foreign orders. Last June I myself saw five boats on the keel in the Kawasaki yards for the Chinese Government; Siam is giving orders to Japan, and merchant vessels are being made even for India. Government assistance to the leading shipyards has extended far beyond the mere payment of official subsidies. There were a hundred ways in which the Japanese authorities can quietly and unostentatiously help the great shipping companies, and they did so, for they realised that ship-building is an essential part of national defence.

During the Great War the Japanese shipbuilders rose to the occasion in a splendid manner and added to registry more than 600,000 tons of modern carriers besides furnishing substantial tonnages to the allied nations. Japanese shipbuilders were faced with innumerable handicaps and difficulties, the chief among them being the steel problem, the insufficient development of related industries, and the lack of technical experience and skilled labor.

Remarkable as has been the shipbuilding achievements of Japan during the war, the very large majority of the ships constructed have been built with imported materials. To what extent the Japanese yards during the past few years have been dependent upon foreign materials may be seen from the fact that the embargo on exportation of steel from the United States compelled practically all of the yards to curtail their operations, and some of the yards had even to discontinue their work altogether.

Among the articles whose exportation from the United States was placed under license control by the President's proclamation of July 9, 1917, were ship plates and structural shapes. The steel conservation program adopted by the Exports Council and the restrictions placed on the exportation of these commodities on August 2, 1917, stopped the exportation of over 300,000 tons of ship plates and shapes which had been purchased by the Japanese. Japanese shipping had prospered greatly as a result of the withdrawal of German and British shipping from the Pacific, and some 270 steel vessels of more than 1.000 tons each, aggregating over 1,000,000 tons in all, were in the course of construction or about to be built. To complete this program Japan had to secure ship plates, shapes, and other ship material from the United States. The Japanese Government therefore immediately entered into correspondence with the Government of the United States for the purpose of securing as much as possible of these materials.

On March 26, 1918, an agreement was reached whereby the Japanese shipbuilders agreed to sell to the United States 12 ships whose dead weight totaled approximately 100,000 tons. The United States agreed, for each deadweight ton of ships delivered, to license the exportation of 1 ton of steel for which contracts had previously been made.

Considerable tonnages of iron and steel had been produced in Japan, and the ship plates and other materials turned out at the mills under government operation had been found most satisfactory. The greatest portion of these materials, however, was required by the Navy and the remainder available for private shipyards is far from being adequate to meet their requirements. The bitter experiences encountered during the Great War have led to the realization that if the Japanese shipbuilding industry was to become really an accountable factor, it must be supported by abundant domestic production of steel materials.

Before the Great War, the development of the iron and steel industries in Japan was considered hopeless on account of the high cost of production. The only undertakings of the character, therefore, were conducted by the government for the purpose mainly of supplying military and naval requirements. For ordinary commercial and industrial uses, iron and steel could be imported more cheaply and quite readily from foreign countries, and there was no special inducement for private capital to undertake such an enterprise. But under the stimulus of the war, many foundries, rolling mills and other works of like nature were started. With the restoration of peace and the return of normal conditions, these enterprises will be forced to meet in an unequal competition the steel and iron industries of America and England. Under these conditions, iron and steel products could be imported much more cheaply than they could be produced in Japan.

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Page last modified: 04-08-2012 19:03:24 ZULU