Walking on Drift Ice
Spread across eight prefectures, the Sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution (明治日本の産業革命遺産, Meiji Nihon no Sangyo Kakumei Isan) highlight the country's rapid development into an industrial power in the second half of the 19th century. They are mainly related to iron and steel production, cannon forging, shipbuilding and coal mining. In July 2015, the sites received world heritage status.
Towards the end of the Edo Period (1603-1867), Japan was desperate to modernize her armed forces, manufacturing industry and other aspects of society in order to stave off encroachment by the imperialist Western powers and establish herself as a strong, independent nation. Through the import of Western technology, Japan was successful in closing the gap with Europe and America to become the first industrialized country in Asia over the period of just half a century.
The world heritage sites number over twenty and are spread across various parts of Japan. For better understanding, they can be grouped into nine clusters, six of which are located on Kyushu and one each in Yamaguchi, Shizuoka and Iwate Prefectures. They are listed below in an order that illustrates their relevance from a chronological perspective:
The capital city of one of the two leading, rebelling clans behind the Meiji Restoration, Hagi was the site of early, local efforts to improve industrial technology. Standing in separate locations outside of the city center are a reverberatory furnace, some dock remains and iron manufacturing ruins, which were constructed with the aim to build Western-style naval ships using traditional Japanese iron-making techniques. Also among the sites are the Shokason Juku School where several of the pioneers instrumental to Japan's modernization were schooled, and the city's former castle town.
The capital city of the other leading clan behind the Meiji Restoration, Kagoshima made early efforts to strengthen the country's defenses through cannon casting and shipbuilding. The sites are all related to the Shuseikan industrial complex around Senganen Garden, including the ruined foundations of a furnace, a machine factory (now housing a museum) and a residence for foreign engineers. Additional sites on the hills above include a ruined charcoal kiln and the remains of a sluice gate which provided the factory with charcoal and hydropower.
The Nirayama Reverberatory Furnace on the Izu Peninsula was completed by the Tokugawa government in 1857, marking a turning point towards modern iron production in Japan. The iron smelted on site was cast into cannons to be used in coastal defenses. Constructed of local Izu stones, the Nirayama Furnace is the most complete reverberatory furnace of its time left, with its furnace bodies and four chimneys still standing.
Located farthest apart from the other sites, the Hashino Blast Furnace in Kamaishi in the Tohoku Region was the first Western-style blast furnace built in Japan. Only some foundations and ruins are left of the three blast furnaces and of the water-powered bellows. The site is located deep in the forested mountains between central Kamaishi and Tono, in an area were magnetite was originally found. The Iron and Steel Museum in central Kamaishi provides visitors with more information about Kamaishi's industrial heritage.
The Mietsu Naval Dock in Saga Prefecture was established in 1858 as the country's first dry dock for shipbuilding and repair. Japan's first steamship was constructed here. The site was excavated in the past but covered up with soil again afterwards. As a result, there is very little for visitors to see if it wasn't for virtual reality goggles, which are available for free from the adjacent Sano Tsunetami Memorial Museum. The goggles allow visitors to see virtual recreations of the dock structures as they stood here one and a half centuries ago.
The only port kept open to Western traders during Japan's era of seclusion, Nagasaki was chosen as the site of the country's first modern shipbuilding facilities and a naval academy. The shipyards featured some of the most modern equipment of the time, some parts of which are still in operation today. Across the bay on top of a hill stands the spacious home of Thomas Glover, a Scottish merchant who was instrumental in importing Western shipbuilding technology and establishing the nearby slip gate dock. In addition, two islands off the coast, Takashima and Hashima (better known as Gunkanjima) supported mines that produced the coal for use at the shipyards and the steel works in Kitakyushu.
Numerous coal mines were established along the Ariake Sea in southern Fukuoka and northern Kumamoto Prefecture, starting in the Meiji Period. The two best preserved of them, Manda and Miyanohara, have been designated as world heritage sites. The Manda mine, in particular, preserves not only the elevator structures but several other surrounding brick buildings. Also designated were the nearby Miike Port and the now-dysfunctional railway that connected the port with the various mines. The port remains in use today and was groundbreaking for allowing large ships to dock regardless of the sea's strong tides.
The Misumi West Port was commissioned by the Meiji Government in 1884 and grew to be a major shipping terminal for coal from Miike and commodities like rice, wheat and flour. However, it was only busy for about ten years before slowly falling into obscurity due to a new railroad that connected only the nearby Misumi East Port. Today, the West Port area preserves not only the beautiful stone quay, but also several restored historical buildings that can be entered and house pleasant cafes.
The state-owned Imperial Steel Works in Yawata, Kitakyushu, were built towards the end of the Meiji Period and played a major role in the development of the modern steel industry in Japan. The complex still operates under a private owner today, and its historic buildings, including the former head office, forge and repair shop sit preserved within the factory grounds. Visitors are not allowed to approach, enter or photograph the buildings but only view them from a distant platform. More satisfying can be a visit to the nearby, preserved Higashida Daiichi blast furnaces (see photo), although they are not on the list of world heritage sites.