Yokosuka Verny-Oguri Memorial Ceremony Celebrates the 150th Anniversary of Yokosuka Naval Facility

Story by Ryo Isobe and Yuji Kawabe, FLEACT Yokosuka Public Affairs
Photo by Yuji Kawabe, FLEACT Yokosuka Public Affairs

French Ambassador Thierry Dana offers flowers to the bust of François Léonce Verny during the Verny-Oguri Memorial Ceremony, Nov. 15, 2015.  (Photo by Yuji Kawabe, FLEACT Yokosuka Public Affairs)

French Ambassador Thierry Dana offers flowers to the bust of François Léonce Verny during the Verny-Oguri Memorial Ceremony, Nov. 15, 2015. (Photo by Yuji Kawabe, FLEACT Yokosuka Public Affairs)

(YOKOSUKA, Japan) – Yokosuka City hosted the 64th Verny-Oguri Memorial Ceremony at Yokosuka’s Verny Park, Nov. 15, 2015.  This year also marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of Yokosuka Iron Works, the earliest ancestor of U.S. Naval Ship Repair Facility and Japan Regional Maintenance Center (SRF-JRMC).  The facility was the first Japanese steam-powered modernized factory established during the Edo-Meiji transition era 150 years ago.

The celebration honored a Japanese samurai, Kozukenosuke (Tadamasa) Oguri and French engineer François Léonce Verny who contributed to the building of Yokosuka Iron Works, which was later called Yokosuka Shipyard and in turn became Yokosuka Arsenal for Japan in 1903.  In this regard, Yokosuka Iron Works is the father to Tomioka Silk Mill built in 1872 which was registered as a World Heritage site in 2014.

Important and honored guests included Japanese Princess Takamado; Thierry Dana, Ambassador from France to Japan; Miki Yamada, Parliamentary Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs; François Cuillandre, Mayor of Brest, France (Sister City of Yokosuka); Yuto Yoshida, Mayor of Yokosuka, and from the U.S. Navy, Vice Adm. Joseph P. Aucoin, Commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet; Rear Adm. Matthew J. Carter, Commander U.S. Naval Forces Japan; Capt. David T. Glenister, Commander Fleet Activities Yokosuka; Capt. Garrett Farman, Yokosuka Ship Repair Facility (SRF-JRMC), commanding officer, and Capt. Glen Crawford, United States Naval Hospital (USNH) Yokosuka, commanding officer.  Other guests included representatives from Japan’s national, prefectural and municipal offices and executives from the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.

The factory complex, with a modernized system of salary plan, working hours, weekends and employees’ health management, laid a foundation for Japan’s modernization.  The facility boasted about 1,000 workers unlike any Japanese factories seen at the time.  In this era of manufacturing, most Japanese factories had about 10 or less workers far removed from modernization.

The original Japanese name of the facility, Yokosuka Seitetsu-jo means “producing iron.”  “Seitetsu” in a true sense of the Japanese at the time, however, connoted broader meanings including all the industrial processes with iron.  In fact, the Iron Works was a large comprehensive factory of different shops which processed pig iron into range of iron products, such as pipes, cans, ship engines, boilers, shafts, gun mounts and ordnance parts.

Lord Kozukenosuke (Tadamasa) Oguri was a Japanese samurai who served for Tokugawa Shogunate as a Magistrate of Finance and he played a leading role in modernizing Japan.  His proposal to build a shipyard within Japan’s mainland was based on an increasing demand to repair many foreign-built ships Japan had already bought from the Western countries.  Since Japan didn’t have large ship facilities to repair the Western-made ships with cutting-edge technology, ships that were significantly damaged had to travel to Shanghai, China, or Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies (present Indonesia) for repairs.

French engineer François Léonce Verny was commissioned to the construction of Yokosuka Iron Works in 1865.  He studied at Paris’s prestigious science and engineering university, the Ècole Polytechnique, and majored in naval architecture and engineering at the Institute for Applied Maritime Science.  When the Edo Shogunate requested support from French Minster Léon Roches to build a full-scale factory for shipbuilding, the French government, which was a little behind in expanding to the East, happily accepted the request and commissioned the task to Verny who then had finished a job of shipbuilding in Shanghai, China.

Starting in 1853, American Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry paid several visits to Japan that led to the opening of Japan’s ports to the U.S. vessels.  The first treaty between the U.S. and Japan Shogunate, the Treaty of Peace and Amity (or Treaty of Kanagawa) was concluded in 1854.  Considering the circumstances surrounding Asia — such as aggressive colonialism of the British Empire epitomized in the Second Opium War — Japan accepted America’s request to make a stronger bond with the U.S. and went on to sign the Treaties of Amity and Commerce in 1858.  In order to exchange the treaty’s instruments of ratification, Japan’s delegation to San Francisco was deployed in 1860.  Among the Japanese representatives on USS Powhatan to the U.S. was Oguri who acted as an inspector/censor for the exchange.  The delegates visited the White House, met the President of the United States James Buchanan, and exchanged documents.  During his stay in the U.S., he visited Washington Navy Yard, and his impression there greatly influenced his idea of building a comprehensive steam powered iron-processing factory in Japan.

The fact, that Oguri was a harbinger of the advanced Japan is barely known even among Japanese.  In the light of popularity, Japanese history textbooks tend to make space for such historical figures as Kaishu Katsu or John Manjiro who, however, just went along with Oguri on an escort ship Kanrin Maru at the time of ramification exchange.  The Dutch-built ship was the first steam-powered, screw-driven Japanese Naval ship Japan had acquired.

During the turmoil of political transition, Oguri, who had already resigned from the Edo Shogunate, sought reclusion in the present Gunma prefecture.  Following Shogun Yoshinobu’s return of political power to the Emperor and Yoshinobu’s refusal to fight against the new government, Oguri might have lived a peaceful life in the middle of nowhere.  Unfortunately, however, he was charged and hunted down for treason by the new military.  Since then, Oguri has been given a bad name in Japanese history, and his spirit of enterprise and contribution to Japan’s modernization have been hardly recognized.

Nov. 15 (or Sept. 27 in the lunar calendar) marks the day factory construction began.  Two steam hammers used in the factory are on exhibit in Verny Memorial Museum in Yokosuka.

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