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 fourth article of a series introducing the twenty-three component parts of the inscription, we take a look at the tenth component, the Hashino Iron Mining and Smelting Site, and the wider industrial heritage of Kamaishi in Iwate Prefecture.
Deep in the mountains of present-day Iwate Prefecture, flanked on one side by a river and on all sides by thick forests, lie the ruins of Japan’s first western-style iron works, the birthstones of Japan’s modern steel industry. There may not be much to look at today — the barest remnants of building walls and the diminished masonry of three blast furnaces — but the scale of the site and a little background knowledge make it easy to imagine the enormity of what happened here 160 years ago and appreciate why the Hashino Iron Mining and Smelting Site is inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
It takes about one hour on foot to navigate the grassy ruins of the old Hashino Works, a walk which circles the remains of the site’s three former blast furnaces, facilities for crushing and purifying iron ore, carpenters’ and blacksmiths’ workshops, a water conduit feeding Japan’s first waterwheel-driven bellows, and payroll offices. At the peak of its operations between 1858 and 1894, it is said, the Hashino Works employed as many as 1,000 workers.
Why were the Hashino Works and neighboring sites in present-day Iwate Prefecture able to prosper when earlier western-style furnaces, for example in Hagi and Nirayama (see previous issues), were so short-lived? The answer is twofold: the rich deposits of high-grade iron ore (magnetite) in Kamaishi; and the deep local and “imported” knowledge of one Oshima Takato (1826–1901).
Born to a samurai family in Morioka in present-day Iwate Prefecture, Oshima Takato studied Rangaku (Dutch and by extension Western learning) in Edo (former name for Tokyo) and Nagasaki, the latter port being one of Japan’s few windows on the western world during the 250 years of self-imposed isolation that was, by the middle of the nineteenth century, coming to a confrontational end. Oshima initially studied medicine but, like many of his peers at this critical juncture in Japan’s history, soon turned his attentions to military science and weaponry.
As with the previous examples of proto-industrial furnaces in Japan, the desire for improved iron production was motivated by fear of western “invasion” and the perceived need for modern weaponry such as mortars and cannons to “repel the barbarians.” Japan’s traditional tatara iron-making technologies, which used iron sand as the raw material, were not up to the task.
Inspired by a Dutch textbook on iron making, Oshima built an experimental furnace based on its methods when commissioned by the Mito Domain in present-day Ibaraki Prefecture to help shore up its defenses. Though the reverbatory furnace he built in 1855 was successful in producing a number of mortars, Oshima recognized the limitations of the local raw materials and returned to his familial Nanbu Domain with a plan to mine the Kamaishi area’s rich magnetite deposits.
Knowing moreover that the mountain forests could provide the necessary charcoal for fuel and that tough local granite could be mined for the structural foundations, he set to work building a western-style blast furnace in Ohashi. Construction again followed the Dutch textbook but incorporated Japanese traditions and knowledge gleaned from first-hand experience of precursor experimental furnaces. A key consideration was how to adapt the Dutch technology to the indigenous mineralogy — magnetite iron ore rather than hematite iron oxide — a challenge Oshima met through such innovations as box-shaped rather than circular Fugui bellows housing.
On 1 December 1857 (15 January 1858 according to the new solar calendar introduced in 1873), Oshima succeeded in tapping molten pig iron from iron ore mined from the Ohashi deposit using his adapted western-style furnace. The triumph paved the way for the construction immediately thereafter of ten blast furnaces in the Kamaishi area, including the three furnaces at Hashino, thereby laying the foundations for the modern iron and steel industry in Japan.
Following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Oshima served as a technocrat in the Ministry of Industry overseeing the development of Japan’s mining operations as a public concern. The growth of the local and national iron and steel industry thereafter has not been without its hiccups, interventions and policy changes, but the continued existence of the Kamaishi Works of what is now the privately owned Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal Corporation, the world’s second largest steel producer by volume, nevertheless owes much to the engineering brilliance, prescience and stamina of Kamaishi’s favorite son, the “Father of Modern Japanese Iron Making.”
Bibliography: The Japanese Iron and Steel Industry 1850–1990: Continuity and Discontinuity, by Yonekura Seiichiro; “The Father of Modern Japanese Iron Making,” by Kon Yuro, Materia Japan, Vol. 34, No. 10 (1995); “Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution” website; Nittetsu Mining website; Nippon Steel News, No. 357 (2007); IGS Forum blog, 18 July 2017.
Alex Hendy, The Japan Journal