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From Value One, Summer 2012, No. 37  

The Shirase I has launched its second life, based at the Port of Funabashi

It was exactly a century ago that a 1912 Antarctic expedition led by Nobu Shirase, a lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army, reached Antarctica and became the first Japanese to ever set foot on the continent.

In 2009, an icebreaker named Shirase I completed its 25-year Antarctic observation mission and was transferred to Weathernews Inc., a private meteorological information company. The official spelling of the vessel's name was converted from hiragana characters into Roman letters to symbolize friendliness to the global environment, and the ship is now moored at the Port of Funabashi in Chiba Prefecture and open for the general public to explore. "We would like to keep delivering information on changes in the global environment," says Mr. Shigeru Saigusa of Weathernews, who was a member of the recent Japanese Antarctic expedition.

An icebreaker is an indispensable vessel for carrying Antarctic observation personnel and the large volume of supplies they need. A special-purpose ship with a hull reinforced with massive steel plates, an icebreaker uses its weight and momentum to crush the frozen layer of seawater. If the ice is too thick to crack at first, these ships will resort to more powerful methods, including charging and ramming, which involves a powerful rush after first moving astern. The high tensile strength steel plates of the Shirase I are as thick as 45 millimeters in the bow section.

In 1957, 45 years after Lieutenant Shirase and his team went on their expedition, another Japanese team journeyed to the continent aboard the first Japanese Antarctic observation vessel Soya, and succeeded in building the Showa Station. Later generations of Japanese icebreakers were far larger and more powerful than their predecessors; the Shirase I met the highest international standards at the time, embodying the best of Japan's world-leading naval architecture. The Shirase II, which entered service in 2009, has about 650 tonnes of stainless clad steel in its bow, which prevents corrosion and cuts the frictional resistance of ice and snow, giving it enhanced icebreaking power.

The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force operates the Shirase II. Captain Hiroki Matsuda, chief of the Antarctic Research Support Section of the Maritime Staff Office, explains the key aspect of operating the vessel: "The Shirase II is the world's leading icebreaker operating in Antarctic waters, but sailing in the Antarctic's harsh environment demands experience and know-how built up over the years."

Icebreakers work their way through the harsh world of ice. What embodies Japan's industrial technology and human wisdom will continue to support Antarctic expeditions.


The Shirase II at sea in the Antarctic (photo courtesy of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force)


The bridge of the Shirase I


The Shirase I is open for visits (free of charge) by the general public by prior arrangement. If you are interested in visiting the vessel, please visit http://shirase.info/, the Weathernews website created for the Shirase.


The Shirase II under construction at the Universal Shipbuilding Corporation's Maizuru Shipyard


The Shirase I is moored at the Port of Funabashi. Although the ship cannot travel under its own power because its engine and other main machinery are no longer operational, the vessel was towed to the Port of Onahama in Fukushima Prefecture last July after the Great East Japan Earthquake to encourage people in the disaster-hit area. "The Shirase I will continue to engage in various programs and events as a source of information on environmental changes in the world," says Mr. Saigusa. Its second life has a significant future.
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