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From Value One, Spring 2018, No. 60  

The Meiji Maru is the oldest existing iron-built ship in Japan

An Industrial Heritage Embodying the Technology of Iron-Built Ships

In a corner of the Etchujima campus of the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology in Koto City, Tokyo, there sits a large ship of about sixty-eight meters in length. She is the Meiji Maru, the oldest and only surviving iron-built ship in Japan. Looking back on her 140-year wake, one can understand the importance of her role in the modernization process of Japan.

Commissioned from a Scottish shipyard in 1874, the Meiji Maru was a large, epoch-making iron-built ship. Iron-built ships saw their brief peak period in the latter half of the nineteenth century, when they supplanted wooden ships. After that, steelmaking technology and steel-built ships reinforced with carbon and other materials took over, and constituted the mainstay of the merchant marine in those days.

In the early years of Meiji Period (1868–1912) just after Japan’s long period of self-imposed isolation, there were no Western-styled lighthouses. The Meiji Maru was built as a lighthouse patrol vessel. The Meiji Maru was first assigned the task of surveying and transporting materials needed for lighthouse construction. In 1897, she was sold to the Tokyo Nautical School (today’s Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology), and served as a moored training ship on which more than five thousand young seafarers learned seafaring skills until U.S. Occupation forces took control of her after the end of World War II.

The Meiji Maru also served as an Imperial ship. The climax of her role in this respect came in 1876, when Emperor Meiji came back from his visit to the Tohoku (northeastern) region aboard the ship, arriving in Yokohama on July 20. That date was later designated as Marine Day, a national holiday in Japan.

In 1875, the Meiji Maru carried a government investigation group to the Ogasawara Islands, whose territorial rights were at issue with the UK. She arrived at the islands two days earlier than her British counterpart, which was a decisive factor in validating Japan’s sovereignty over the Ogasawara chain.

Professor Emeritus Hideo Yabuki of the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology says: “The Meiji Maru is a precious piece of our industrial heritage that teaches us much about shipbuilding technology in the age of iron-built ships. As a Tokyo Nautical School training ship, she also made significant contributions to the development of human resources for Japanese maritime industries.”

After going through a two-year large-scale repair project that finished in 2015, the Meiji Maru has a refreshed, beautiful and gallant figure. She is a icon to be studied when discussing the history of Japan’s maritime industry.

The living room for Emperor Meiji during his stay aboard the ship



The Meiji Maru also was active as a training ship for the Tokyo Nautical College (1936)

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