In July 2015 UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee approved the inscription of “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution” on the World Heritage List. In this third article of a series introducing the twenty-three component parts of the inscription, we take a look at the early industrial heritage of Nirayama in Izunokuni, present-day Shizuoka Prefecture.

Sato wa mada / yobukashi Fuji no / asahi kage
The village is still / in darkness, Fuji / at the break of dawn
This haiku (TJJ trans.) and calligraphy by Egawa Hidetatsu captures the magistrate’s heartfelt concerns for his nation at a watershed in its history as new ideas competed with entrenched opinion in the face of western threats. 

Unlike the first two industrial heritage sites introduced in this series, Hagi and Kagoshima, indeed unlike all the other sites listed under UNESCO’s Meiji Industrial Revolution inscription, Nirayama is situated somewhat close to what was the ruling Tokugawa shogunate’s base in Edo, present-day Tokyo.

Covering a wide area to the west of the capital that by the end of the Edo period (1603–1867) would include Izu, Suruga, Sagami, Kai and Musashi Provinces, much of the territory of the “illusory prefecture” of Nirayama was critical to naval control of Edo Bay.

Nirayama was governed for the duration of the Edo period by the Egawa family from their home in the castle town of Nirayama itself in present-day Izunokuni, Shizuoka Prefecture. Serving in the daikansho governor’s office at the time of Japan’s mid-nineteenth century foreign affairs crisis was the 36th Egawa patriarch, Egawa Hidetatsu (1801–1855), also known as Tannan.

Egawa was “a true man of culture,” a student of swordsmanship, equestrianism and gunnery, in addition to painting, calligraphy, poetry and the Chinese classics. Importantly, he was a close acquaintance of such intellectuals and scholars of Rangaku (Dutch learning) as Takashima Shuhan (1798–1866), an artillery advisor to the shogunate; the artist and government official Watanabe Kazan (1793–1841), an outspoken critic of the shogunate’s defense of Edo Bay; and Takano Choei (1804–1850), author of Fundamentals of Western Medicine and another who was critical of the shogunate’s hardline stance on the passage of Western ships in the waning days of its policy of national seclusion.

Self-portrait by Egawa Hidetatsu

Governor, Shipbuilder, Bread Maker, Artist

As the Nirayama governor, Egawa Hidetatsu adopted a policy of simplicity and frugality and was successful in improving local finances. In 1850, Egawa introduced the systematic vaccination against smallpox of all local citizens, a first for Japan and an initiative that would be institutionalized by the shogunate in the Edo capital soon afterwards. Local residents referred to Egawa as the “Social Reforming Guardian.”

Among the many significant achievements of Egawa Hidetatsu not outlined in the main story was his leadership in the construction of Japan’s first Western-style ship. In 1854, Russian vessel the Diana sank in Suruga Bay off Heda. The Russian crew stayed in the port village and worked with local carpenters under the supervision of Egawa to build a new ship, a two-masted schooner they named Heda that would transport the sailors back to Russia. This work would inform the construction of many more western-style ships in Japan immediately afterwards.

Egawa is also considered the “father of Japanese bread,” having experimented in his home with the baking of kanpan hardtack, a biscuit-like comestible with a long life that soldiers could take into the field.

A talented artist, Egawa left a large number paintings (many of these encyclopedically detailed depictions of local plants and wildlife), works of calligraphy, poetry and crafts. Some of Egawa’s works are on display at the Nirayama Municipal Museum of Regional Heritage.

Strongly influenced and informed by Watanabe in particular, Egawa proposed a national coastal defense strategy to the shogunate that included the introduction of Western-style gunnery and production of Western-style iron cannon, construction of coastal batteries, the foundation of a navy with Western-style ships, and an army system to include farmers trained in Western methods.

In 1841, following a demonstration of mortars and gunnery by the aforementioned Takashima, who advocated the adoption of Western military technology so as to “control the barbarians with their own methods,” the shogunate arranged for Takashima to pass on his knowledge to officials including Egawa. The following year, Egawa would be assigned the task of training musketeers along European lines.

At the Nirayama-juku private school Egawa established in the family home in 1842, Egawa would teach hundreds of students the rudiments of Western military practice. His students would include many, such as the intellectual Sakuma Shozan, who would go on to play key roles in the new Meiji government of 1868 following the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate. It was Sakuma who would coin the catchphrase, “Eastern ethics, Western technical learning.”

After US Commodore Matthew Perry’s visit to Japan in 1853 and his promise to return the following year, Egawa was charged with strengthening Edo Bay’s defenses in line with his earlier proposals. Egawa supervised the construction that year of six artificial islands outfitted with cannons near Shinagawa (what is now the modern landfill district of Odaiba) to protect the capital from attacks by foreign fleets.

World Heritage: Nirayama Reverbatory Furnaces. Built in 1854–7, the four furnaces are based on a design found in a Dutch textbook. The Izu-ishi stone foundations and made-for-purpose firebricks are original. The iron bracing was added in 1957 to preserve the stacks in the event of earthquakes.

Nirayama Reverbatory Furnaces: The Technology

Reverbatory furnaces are so called because the heat and flame produced by burning fuels such as coal is “reverberated” off the furnace ceiling and focused into a single area to achieve the high temperatures necessary to melt iron.

The Nirayama Reverbatory Furnaces comprise two twin structures of locally produced firebricks enclosing a pair of furnaces elevated on a foundation of Izu-ishi stone. The furnace pairs meet at a right angle on their gate sides so that the molten metal flowing out from the four furnaces could be mixed in one place. The inside of the furnaces are dome shaped to maximize heat reflection, while the firebrick chimneys provide natural ventilation.

Production capacity at the Nirayama Reverbatory Furnaces has been estimated at 2–3 tons, meaning a 150-pound cannon could be produced when the four furnaces were operated simultaneously.

The furnaces were surrounded by buildings for coal storage, a forge, and a barrel-drilling machine driven by watermills, among other facilities.

To equip these and other coastal defenses, a reverberatory furnace was a requirement for the casting of iron cannon. Japan’s traditional tatara iron-making technologies were not up to the task.

Using a Dutch instruction manual as his guide, Egawa and his men set to work building Western-style reverbatory furnaces close to the Egawa family residence, completing the first in 1854. Egawa would die suddenly the following year, but three more furnaces were soon built by his son, with the project being completed as envisaged in 1857.

The cannons and mortars produced at Nirayama were mostly used in the Edo Bay island fortresses, but the facility was not efficient and closed in 1864. The Nirayama Reverbatory Furnaces nevertheless are testament to the ingenuity and determination of Egawa and his followers to haul Japan into modern times — for the sake of its own peace and security. Egawa is revered in Izunokuni to this day, partly explaining why his reverbatory furnaces are the only ones in the world still preserved in their original form, making them one of the stars of the twenty-three World Heritage Sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution.

Built in around 1600 to replace a previous structure, the main building of the Egawa family residence was again renovated in 1958 when it was designated as an Important Cultural Property. The high roof, originally thatched, was replaced with copper plate at that time.

A statue to the great leader Egawa Hidetatsu stands on the grounds of the furnaces, while the Egawa family home is now open to the public and celebrates the 36th patriarch’s many groundbreaking achievements.

Alex Hendy, The Japan Journal

Bibliography: The Making of Modern Japan, Marius Jansen; Meiji 1868: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Japan, Paul Akamatsu; Cambridge History of Japan, Vol. 5; Izunokuni City, Nirayama Reverbatory Furnaces Guidance Center and Egawa Residence pamphlets and volunteer guides


View toward the Egawa family residence’s main gate from what was the Nirayama-juku school classroom at the time of Egawa Hidetatsu









Waterwheels once turned here, powering the Nirayama factory’s cannon barrel-boring drill. The Furukawa river which fed the wheels still follows its original course.


Above, a precise replica of a 24-pound cannon produced at the Nirayama factory based on documents preserved at the Egawa family residence. (24 pounds refers to the weight of the cannon ball.) Below, an original mortar produced at the factory.
Two of many drawings by Egawa Hidetatsu, an accomplished artist, depicting the training of soldiers at the private school which he established at his family residence and which he used for instruction.


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