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Technology and Industrial Development in Pre-War Japan: Mitsubishi Nagasaki Shipyard, 1884-1934.

Reviewed by Peter N. Davis

This latest addition to the Nissan Institute/Routledge Japanese Studies Series utilizes the archives of Mitsubishi's Nagasaki shipyard to provide a ease study of the transfer of technology in the shipbuilding industry.

Yukiko Fukasaku's work is essentially an examination of the ways in which the tiny, technically backward Japanese shipbuilding sector was rapidly transformed in the period after 1884. It begins by describing the difficulties faced by the new Maeiji regime in the 1870s and then examines the "changing perspectives - to international technical transfer." Having considered the theoretical background the author goes on to analyze the vast technological strides which were necessary to establish and develop Japanese shipbuilding on a viable basis.

The construction of large, iron, steam-driven vessels was so different from that of the traditional Wasen - small, wooden sailing ships - and so expensive, that at first only a few yards could be established. Perhaps the most advanced of these was the naval yard at Yokosuka but Mitsubishi's facility at Nagasaki was always the largest and most important of the civilian builders. As such it attracted the lion's share of government aid but in return it did much to offset the lack of a substantial iron and steel industry or of a fully developed engineering sector.

The study concentrates upon the ways in which the necessary knowledge and experience was acquired from overseas, mainly from Britain and Germany, and then how it was subsequently adopted, modified and - in many cases - improved. The role of Governments, the Imperial Japanese Navy, employment of foreign specialists, overseas missions, imports of advanced machinery and licensing arrangements are all given careful consideration. These are followed by a description and analysis of education and training and by an account of the growth of research activities which were eventually to lead to a scientifically based industry which could begin to compete in the international arena.

Specific technologies which are used to illustrate the overall thesis include the steam turbine, electric welding and the diesel engine. In each ease the author first provides the general background, examines the role of Mitsubishi, and then discusses the final impact of the transfer. Thus by moving from the general to the particular the author presents a clear idea of what was accomplished. And this was indeed impressive. Progress was so rapid that as early as 1914 output had risen to 86,000 gross tons and thus Japan was already the world's sixth largest producer. This expansion was further accelerated by demands of the First World War, when the costs of production were unimportant and output rose ten-fold. The depression of the Twenties saw output fall back to pre-war levels but by 1934 the industry was well able to provide for all of the country's domestic needs as well as cater for the ever growing demands for naval vessels. By then the best of the Japanese shipbuilding industry, including Mitsubishi's Nagasaki yard, was technically as good as the best elsewhere. However it still could not compete with its international rivals in terms of cost and there are no reports of any commercial exports of ships during the entire inter-war period. This is a point which might well have been made clearer in the text. Dr. Fukasaku's book is certainly successful in achieving its aim of demonstrating how Mitsubishi was able to encourage and benefit from the transfer of shipbuilding technology at a time when the indigenous industry was very backward. The ways in which this was accomplished are carefully identified and discussed but there is little attempt to place the findings into a comparative context. Given the major difficulties evident in the industrial structure of Japan and the stage of its economic development this would have been a difficult task which may have taken the author too far from her original remit. Nevertheless, while this omission may not be significant for those already conversant with the development of world shipbuilding, it will lessen its value for the more general reader. On the other hand the study is based on sources not easily available to Western scholars and as it contains a comprehensive series of tables and appendices it will repay the most careful scrutiny.

In addition, while not providing a complete answer the work does go some way towards explaining the background to Japan's economic success and thus helps us to understand the ways in which Japan has been able to dominate world shipbuilding in the post-war era.

Peter N. Davies is emeritus professor of the Department of Economic and Social History at the University of Liverpool. He is the author of numerous books and articles on maritime affairs including (with Professor T. Chida) The Japanese Shipping and Shipbuilding Industries: A History of their Modern Growth, (Athlone Press, London and New Jersey, 1990, xi + 240). He is currently President of the International Maritime Economic History Association and Vice President of the International Commission on Maritime History. At present he is completing a history of the British fruit trade and is working on the correspondence of Cornes and Company (London-Yokohama: 1864-1912).
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Author:Davies, Peter N.
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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