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Shipbuilding - Edo Period Early History

The shipbuilding industry in Japan may be said to have originated in prehistoric ages, and the importance of encouraging shipbuilding in this Island Empire had been felt as early as nearly 2 000 years ago, the first Imperial edict in relation, thereto having been issued in 80 BC by the tenth Emperor, "Sujin-Tenno." Most of the ships in those days were undoubtedly of canoe-build, cut from solid blocks of timber, but their form and construction underwent gradual improvement, and they were increased in number and size. It seems quite certain that many of them were engaged in ocean navigation since the latter part of the first century between the home and Korean ports; it is also recorded that as far back as 200 AD a large fleet under the command of the Empress "Jingo" invaded Korea.

At the end of the third century, Korean methods of ship construction were introduced, causing a radical change in Japanese shipbuilding, and more seaworthy ships began to be constructed. Communication with the coast of China was established in the early part of the fourth century, and her modes of shipbuilding were also gradually introduced during the seventh century. Another epoch in the history of Japanese shipping was thus formed, and Japanese ships underwent changes in their construction, becoming a mixture of native, Korean and Chinese systems. The junks had been gradually increased in size, and those greater than 100 ft. in length were not uncommon in the eighth century. Marked differences between war and merchant ships, however, do not seem to have existed in those days.

Japanese ocean shipping was once interrupted in the tenth century, a natural check was given to the growth of shipbuilding, and ships were built only for pleasure purposes. But after the invasion of the Mongolian fleet in 1274 and 1281, in which Japan won glorious victories and the whole Mongolian fleet was destroyed or sunk, the shipping and shipbuilding trades again began to assume great activity. From this period, ships underwent different stages of improvement, mostly Chinese in idea, becoming gradually larger and more seaworthy. Ocean trade was greatly developed during the middle of the sixteenth century.

Restricted to China and Korea in the older days, the foreign trade was gradually extended to Europe and Australasia, and, in the early part of the seventeenth century, the Shogun's government (of the Tokugawa Dynasty) began to give special licenses to ships trading to these countries. In 1617 there were 108 vessels with licenses for ocean trade, including Annam, the Philippines, Siam, Cochin-China and other places. These licensed ships were the best sea boats at that period, from 90 to 120 ft. in length, mostly constructed after the Chinese or western style. Such is a general statement of the growth of Japanese junk building up to the early years of the seventeenth century.

First Ships of Western Type

Ships of western style began to be built in Japan early in the seventeenth century, by the first Shogun, Tyeyasu, of the Tokugawa family, under the supervision of William Adams, who was an English pilot, the survivor from a Dutch ship. Though imprisoned for a time, Adams eventually gained his liberty and settled in Japan in 1599. Two ships, one of 80 and the other of 120 tons, were the first built under the direction of this interesting intruder. In one of these ships some Spaniards who had been wrecked on the east coast of Japan were sent to Acapulco in 1610.

At about that time, being alarmed at the progress of Christianity, a strict law limiting the size of ships was passed, which was followed by laws prohibiting foreign trade; and in 1639 communication with other countries was entirely stopped; no foreign ships, except those of China, Corea and Holland, were allowed to enter Japanese port under any pretence whatever. This completely checked the progress of Japanese shipbuilding for the second time, and for nearly 220 years, small and not very seaworthy ships were built for the coasting trade only. During this period Japanese shipping remained quite in obscurity.

After the treaty with the United States was signed, in 1853, the necessity for developing the war and merchant navies was strongly felt, and the laws prohibiting foreign trade and limiting the size of ships were abolished at once, and ships of western type again: began to be built; but, owing to the absence of intercourse with the western civilized nations for nearly two centuries, Japanese shipbuilders were quite destitute of sufficient technical knowledge, and ships constructed according to the so-called "western type" only resembled them in their outward appearance, being in reality nothing but reproductions of old-fashioned junks.

The beginning of the Japanese shipbuilding industry was obtained from the Russians. A Russian war vessel, the Diana, lying at anchor at the Port of Shimoda, and demanding a treaty with Japan, was washed ashore and sunk by tidal waves following the great earthquake of November 4th, 1854. Captain Putiatin, commanding the expedition, having decided to build new ships to take his men home, selected a place on Heda Bay, in the Province of Kimisawa, in Idzu, not very far from Shimoda, and started the construction of two wooden schooners with timber grown in that district. He employed many Japanese ship carpenters to assist his crew in the building of these ships. Thus they became acquainted with the construction of ships of the western type, and, after the completion of the Russian schooners, they built many of similar type, in different places throughout Japan. These vessels were known for some time as the "Kimisawa type," after the place where the first schooners were built. Proper methods of western shipbuilding were thus introduced and spread over Japan. They have had a rapid and striking development in the last forty years.

In 1855 a war vessel was presented to the Shogun by the Dutch Government, being the first war steamer afloat in Japanese waters. In 1857 another war vessel, fitted with a screw propeller, was purchased from the Dutch Navy, and was followed by a few more. These, with a steam yacht presented to the Shogun by the late Queen Victoria in 1858, formed the nucleus of the present Japanese Navy. Warships were also bought by the heads of the different clans.

The Government of the Shogun, being supplied with naval vessels, had formed an idea of having shipyards for building and repairing these vessels. The first shipyard in Japan was started in Akunoura, in Nagasaki Harbour, in 1857. Dutch engineers and shipwrights were employed, and necessary machinery and gear for commencing the works were imported from Holland. Many apprentices were sent to Nagasaki by the Shogun's Government and also from different clans, to learn ship and engine construction. In consequence, it is noticeable that Dutch terms are still often used by old hands in many shipyards and engine works, all over Japan.

Engine works were started in Yokohama in 1865, and also in Yokosuka in the same year. The latter had been planned by a French engineer, M. Verny, and it took nearly four years to construct a dry dock and fit out the dockyard. When completed, the whole establishment had to be handed over to the present Government, owing to the final overthrow of the Shogunate in 1868.

In 1861 permission was given to the general public to own large vessels of western construction. Many ships, both sailing and steam, were built and bought, and at the time of the restoration of the Emperor to power, in 1868, there were forty-six merchant vessels of western type, having an aggregate tonnage of 17 000 tons.

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Page last modified: 04-08-2012 19:03:23 ZULU