Iron and Steel

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It was in the 1850s that the construction of reverberatory furnaces started in various parts of Japan, the only guide being a technological book written in the Dutch language. For casting cannon in these furnaces ever increasing quantities of pig iron were needed and to respond to the demand Takato Oshima, a Japanese technologist, tried to build a small blast furnace at Kamaishi, using the Dutch book as a manual, and succeeded. This was the starting point for the development of modern iron-making technology in Japan. It must be noted that the Kamaishi furnace was successful not because its design was Western but because the principles of European iron-making were scientifically applied by Oshima in the context of indigenous Japanese culture.

After the Meiji Restoration, the government embarked on a project to build a modern large-scale iron works under the slogan of “increase production and promote industry.” Under the guidance of foreign engineers, an iron works with two large blast furnaces was completed in 1880 but its operation was hampered by one failure after another, leading the government to close the works. The government then established in 1901 a large-scale iron and steel works at Yawata designed according to the latest technology available at that time in the West. However, again this undertaking was impeded by a succession of troubles which finally caused operations at the works to be suspended. In essence, the technical failures at Yawata closely resembled those at the earlier state-run iron works. The man who was asked to revive the works and who played a central role in the technological consolidation of the Yawata plant was Kageyoshi Noro, an outstanding scholar of metallurgy. Thanks to his efforts, the Yawata Steel Works was put onto the right track and could resume its operations. This marks the independence and coming-of-age of Japan’s iron and steel technology.

Equipped as it was with iron and steel making furnaces as well as steel rolling facilities, the Yawata works was the first integrated iron and steel works to be built in Japan. Along with technological development in steel making, Japan also made rapid progress in metallurgical science as was shown by the invention of KS magnet steel. However Japan still had a long way to go before she could become one of the top steel producers in the world, a status that was finally achieved after the Second World War.