The foundations of shipbuilding industry and structure of the navy
The turning point of Japanese shipbuilding industry was July 8, 1853 when a squadron of US Navy “black ships”, led by Commodore Matthew Perry anchored in Edo Bay (known today as Tokyo Bay).
The ruling Shogun Iesada Tokugawa was much surprised to hear the news of foreign warships entering Japanese waters, but what came as an even greater surprise was the ships themselves: the Shogun, or anyone else in Japan, had never seen anything of that kind. One has to remember that in those days Japan had been completely cut off from the outside world for over 250 years. In the meantime, European nations were already building sail ships equipped with steam engines and two-bladed propellers. A rapid development of steel industry was giving rise to vast advancements in shipbuilding technology. Then a technological leap forward in the design of ship-borne artillery took place in the mid 50’s of the 19th century. New, more powerful naval guns required new, much larger vessels to accommodate them. The wooden hulls of tall ships in service at that time were simply too narrow and had inadequate displacement to carry the big guns. The existing ships, powered by bulky steam engines and loaded with huge amounts of coal, did not offer enough space for installation of the newly designed guns. It was at that point that the western navies began toiling with an idea of a completely new warship design. It was now only a matter of time before the concept of an “iron hull design” would crystallize. France and Great Britain, the perennial Old World rivals, were among the staunchest supporters of the new concept.
The Japanese were completely stunned by Perry’s fleet entering their home waters. Before the USS Mississippi, Plymouth, Saratoga and Susquehanna sailed into Edo Bay nobody in Japan had seen a foreign naval vessel. Shogun lesada understood that the arrival of American ships would have great consequences for the defense of the Empire and her territorial waters. He quickly realized that without a potent and modern navy it would soon become impossible to rule the Empire and to protect the country against internal and external threats. The Shogun and his aides decided that it was of crucial importance to replace the sail and oar powered fleet with much more powerful and better armed vessels similar to the Western ships. Japan clearly lagged behind the West in terms of shipbuilding technology, weapons design and naval warfare tactics. It became Shogun Iesada’s top priority to close that gap as quickly as possible. Iesada’s first step was to establish a naval training center in Nagasaki. With extensive help from Dutch advisors the center was opened in mid 1850. At the same time a group of samurais from various clans set off for a long overseas journey. Their destination was the Netherlands and Great Britain where they would learn the art of shipbuilding and naval warfare. For some of the samurais these would be the first encounters with steam powered warships and naval artillery.
It is perhaps worthwhile at this point to touch upon some issues related to Japan’s political and social situation in those days. In order to fully appreciate it let us go back in time some 250 years. In 1603 Ieyasu Tokugawa was granted the title of Shogun by the ruling emperor Go-Yozei. In the early days the title was equivalent to a military rank denoting commanders in charge of the imperial army. In time it evolved to become a hereditary title of Japanese warlords ruling the country. Through a series of intrigues the Tokugawa Shogunate seized absolute power which gave rise to a long period of the Tokugawa clan rule. In 1640 Ieyasu Tokugawa closed the country’s borders to all foreigners, except limited contacts with the Chinese and the Dutch. During Tokugawa’s rule the Japanese society assumed a highly hierarchic structure with privileged Daimyō cast and samurais at the top, followed by farmers, craftsmen and merchants. The Emperor’s rule was reduced to a purely ceremonial function and Tokugawa clan reigned supreme in the entire country. That status quo proved to be beneficial, since the Empire enjoyed a period of relative stability and peace, due mainly to its isolation from the rest of the world. But, over time, Tokugawa’s power began to weaken. A quick rise in the rural population meant that more farm workers were needed. Additionally, ever increasing numbers of peasants began to move into the booming cities in search of work. The numbers of migrant workers increased significantly in the winter months: more and more people sought work in crafts and trade. Suddenly there was a surplus of labor gravitating towards the cities and not enough skilled farm laborers, which made control of rural population increasingly more difficult. The samurais were also beginning to show dissatisfaction with the Shogunate and more and more openly demanded the restoration of imperial rule. They believed that the country’s further development in total isolation from the world would be all but impossible.
Before Perry’s ships arrived in Japan the country had been ruled by Emperor Osahito who adopted the name Kōmei (“glorious obedience”) after his succession, following the death of his father on February 21, 1846. His reign witnessed a gradual decline of shogun’s power and an inevitable end of Tokugawa Shogunate’s rule. It was then, in the seventh year of Kōmei’s reign, that Commodore Perry arrived demanding an audience with the ruling head of state. Instead Perry negotiated with a representative of the Shogun, who, despite his power, was not the actual head of state. Even if Perry had known that (and he did not) an audience with the Emperor was at that time completely unattainable for a foreigner. Despite those procedural difficulties the negotiations were successful and led to a treaty between the United States and Japan which was signed on March 31, 1854 in Kanagawa (a section of today’s Yokohama). The main purpose of the Kagawa Convention was to open two of the Japanese ports – Shimoda and Hakodate – to trade with the United States. Based on the treaty Japan was obliged to guarantee the safety of shipwrecked U.S. sailors and to allow the Americans to set up coal depots on Japanese soil. The convention also established the office of a U.S. consul to Japan.
Let us go back to the relations between the Shogunate and the supporters of the Emperor’s court. In an effort to improve the relations with the Shogunate Emperor Kōmei arranged a marriage between his younger sister, Princess Chikako and the Shogun. The marriage was part of a larger unification and stabilization plan for the country, which was brought to a sudden end when Iemochi died on August 29, 1866. Iemochi’s death was an ideal opportunity for the Emperor’s court to introduce some radical changes in the country. Yoshinobu Tokugawa, Iemochi’s successor, realized that his power and influence was in grave danger and swiftly ordered the Emperor to be poisoned and his immediate family slaughtered. Tokugawa was granted his wish to eliminate the Emperor and his family when the 35 year old Kōmei died of smallpox on January 30, 1867. Kōmei’s successor was his second oldest son, Mutsuhito, the only surviving child of the late Emperor.
After Kōmei’s death Japan was flooded with cheap foreign products, which resulted in a local manufacturing and craftsmanship crises, before leading to a wholesale collapse of the feudal system of power. Numerous riots erupted in various areas of the country which eventually escalated into a civil war (Boshin) that raged between 1867 and 1868. The civil war brought a definitive end to Tokugawa’s rule. The drive to remove Tokugawa Shogunate from power united even the life-long enemies – Satsuma and Chōshū – who were persuaded to support the Emperor by samurai Rioma Sakamoto. Having defeated the Shogun’s forces the samurais managed to restore the Emperor’s rule. As a result shogunate was abolished and the Emperor regained direct control over the country. That period of Japanese history became to be known as Meiji Restoration. Japan’s capital was moved to Edo and the city’s name was changed to Tokyo. The next step was a gradual change of the Empire’s political system which began in 1868. The existing feudal structures were abolished and the samurais received compensation for their lost revenues. Soon a public education system was established, complete with grants and scholarships available to those who wished to study abroad. Reforms were also introduced to modernize the country’s healthcare system, public administration and judicial institutions and the monetary system. The army was completely overhauled using the Prussian model and a mandatory military service was introduced. The Japanese made extensive use of foreign know-how, technology and inventions to lay foundations for modern industry, banking system and higher education. This modernization and rapid progress was largely due to the new ruling class that came into power in the early days of Meiji Restoration. Among the most influential people of that time were the members of the so called Tomomi Iwakura Expedition, who had visited Western Europe, America and the Middle East between 1871 and 1873. After their return to Japan members of the group were appointed to some of the highest posts in the country and became the greatest champions of change. However, not everybody was thrilled to see the swift transformation that Japan was undergoing at that time. Some of the samurais deeply resented the changes as they felt cheated by the system that took away their feudal privileges and marginalized their importance as a social class. The government’s decision to discontinue the payout of samurai pensions resulted in the Satsuma rebellion of 1877 led by Saigō Takamori, former commander of Imperial forces during Meiji Restoration. Takamori’s story was used in a Hollywood production “The Last Samurai”. Saigō was killed in the battle of Saratoyama which brought the rebellion to an end and removed the threat for the ongoing reforms.
For generations the Satsuma family owned vast areas of seaside property, including land in southern part of Kyushu with a port city of Kagoshima. It was the members of Satsuma family that first contacted the Emperor’s court after Perry’s arrival. In the letter to the Emperor they promised to build a fleet capable of defeating the enemy at sea in return for future privileges granted by the court. Having received a positive reply the Satsuma clan went on to establish what might be called today a naval warfare center in Kagoshima where the samurais would train to become future naval officers. However, Kagoshima’s poor defenses against sea borne attack meant that the city was ill suited for a role of a major naval base. After Japan had established diplomatic relations with the United States and agreed to open her borders to foreign trade, the British and other Western nations soon followed and signed bilateral agreements with the Japanese government. In spite of that, the Japanese strongly opposed any sign of foreign intervention which inevitably led to international tensions. The turning point proved to be the Namamugi incident which caused the direct intervention of the British fleet on September 14, 1863. On that day a squadron of British ships sailed into Kagoshima Bay, shelled the city and port installations and, just hours later, safely put to the sea. The city center burnt to the ground as a result of the British assault, despite the heroic attempts of the local population to put out the fires. The British attack, followed over the next several years by more raids against Japanese ports performed by joint British and French forces, led to a serious internal crisis within the Empire and highlighted the need for a strong, modern naval force. From that moment on the country’s top priority would be to create a strong shipbuilding industry and a solid base for future navy.
Japanese shipbuilding industry was born in December 1853 (January 1854)1 when the construction of the first shipyard (Zosenjo) began in a small town of Ishikawajima located in the delta of the Sumida River, not far from Edo (today’s Tokyo). Soon to follow was a shipyard at Nagasaki, founded in August 1875 and completed on December 1, 1860 (January 11, 1861). In those days the Nagasaki plant had really nothing to do with design and construction of large warships, therefore it was officially known as the Nagasaki Iron Works (Seitetsujo Nagasaki). Five years later (on August 24, 1865) an almost identical plant was opened in Yokohama. The fourth shipyard was to be established at Yokosuka and its history dates back to the Japanese-French treaty signed in Edo on October 9, 1858. The treaty, signed by Jean-Baptiste Louis Gros paved the way for the French participation in the Empire’s modernization. The design and construction of the Yokosuka plant was supervised by naval engineer Leonce Verney. However, in 1865, before the shipyard’s construction began, Takenaka Shibata paid a visit to France to discuss the organizational details and the scope of work to be performed by members of the French mission to Yokosuka. Initially the new installation was referred to as “iron works” (Seitetsujo), but the character of the new facility differed significantly from the previous projects: the new plant was designed to be a naval arsenal. The construction work began on September 27 (December 15) 1865. The work progressed very swiftly and the construction was completed less than a year later. The shipyard’s first dock was ready by 1868.
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