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From Value One, Winter 2018, No. 59  

Remains of Oitayama Tatara Iron Works

A World Heritage Site That’s Part of the Foundation of Japan’s Heavy Industry

Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution World Heritage Sites were registered in July 2015. These sites are related to Japan’s heavy industries—including shipbuilding and iron- and steelmaking—that developed between the latter years of the Edo Period (1603–1868) and the Meiji Period (1868–1912).

The Remains of Oitayama Tatara Iron Works in Hagi is one of the 23 sites in Kyushu, Yamaguchi Prefecture and other parts of the country. It was recognized for its prominence as an ironmaking center preserving the memory of Japan’s long-established tatara ironmaking technology.

Tatara ironmaking is a uniquely Japanese technology in which iron sand is smelted to produce pure iron by heating it with charcoal in a furnace. This process dates back more than a thousand years. Most of the tatara furnaces are located in the Chugoku region, where high-quality iron sand was plentiful.

The Oitayama Tatara Iron Works was situated on a plateau created by cutting into a mountain slope. The remains of a hondoko, which corresponds to a blast furnace, a section to extract the iron sand, tetsuike for cooling hot molten iron and other facilities here are reminders of how iron was made in those days.

The Oitayama iron works operated during just three periods in one hundred years of the late Edo Period. Since tatara ironmaking consumes vast quantities of charcoal, those iron works were built in wood-rich hills. The Oitayama works operated in half-century cycles to match the growth of the surrounding forests.

The Choshu domain bought the entire output produced during the Oitayama works’ final operation in the late Edo Period. The domain’s independent drive toward modernization was meant to counteract the menaces of the Tokugawa Shogunate and Western powers. Choshu also built a reverberating furnace that made smelting of high-purity iron fit for cannons possible, and imported foreign technology to build a shipyard for construction of Western-style warships. Other remains that survived the subsequent years include the Hagi reverberating furnace and the Ebisugahana Shipyard.

Professor Kazuo Watanabe of Baiko Gakuin University, a member of the team that excavated the remains of the Oitayama Tatara Iron Works, says: “The group of World Heritage Sites in Hagi, embodying what was then the most advanced iron and steel technology in existence, reveal to us how serious the Choshu domain was about confronting the perceived menace of Western Europe.”

The Industrial Heritage Sites in Hagi related to Japan’s traditional ironmaking technology mark the starting point of modern-day Japanese manufacturing.

The Hagi reverberating furnace was registered as a World Heritage Site together with the Nirayama reverberating furnace in Shizuoka Prefecture



A breakwater near the remains of the Ebisugahana Shipyard

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