By Ryo Isobe, FLEACT Yokosuka Public Affairs
Over the western sea, hither from Niphon come,
Courteous, the swart-cheek’d two-sworded envoys,
Leaning back in their open barouches, bare-headed, impassive,
Ride to-day through Manhattan.
–“A Broadway Pageant,” Walt Whitman (1860)
Yokosuka City hosted the 65th Verny-Oguri Memorial Ceremony at Verny Park and honored two founding fathers of Yokosuka Iron Works. They are François Léonce Verny, a French naval architect, and Kozukenosuke Tadamasa Oguri, a Japanese samurai and government official. The Yokosuka facility was the first Japanese modernized factory complex established during the Edo-Meiji transition era more than 150 years ago. It was also the earliest ancestor of Yokosuka Ship Repair Facility and Japan Regional Maintenance Center (SRF-JRMC).
“Oguri and Verny not only brought Japan’s technological innovation, but they also built the base for Yokosuka to develop as a naval city, and made it possible for the Japanese navy to come into prominence,” said Capt. Christophe Pipolo, Defense Attache, Embassy of France in Japan, in his celebratory remarks. “The Yokosuka Naval Arsenal facilities that supported the development of the Japanese navy are still utilized today.”
The distinguished guests included Pipolo and Reza Salami, Deputy Mayor of Brest, France (a sister city of Yokosuka). The other guests consisted of representatives from Japan’s national, prefectural and municipal offices, officers from the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force, as well as French officer cadets trained at Japan’s National Defense Academy in Yokosuka.
The guests from the U.S. Navy included Vice Adm. Joseph P. Aucoin, Commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet; Capt. Steven J. Wieman, Deputy Commander and Chief of Staff, U.S. Naval Forces, Japan; Rear Adm. Richard A. Correll, Commander, Submarine Group Seven; and Capt. Jeffrey Kim, Commander, Fleet Activities Yokosuka.
On a fall day, 151 years ago, the ground-breaking ceremony of dry dock one and construction of the facility began on Nov. 15, 1865. With technological support from Verny, the oldest but still currently active dry dock in Japan was completed in 1871.
It is not too much to emphasize that Japan’s modernization and industrialization started in Yokosuka. Not just the dry docks, technologies from Yokosuka Iron Works greatly contributed to Japan’s modernization
For example, built in 1872, the Tomioka Silk Mill’s building design was drawn by French architect Edmond Auguste Bastien, working at Yokosuka Iron Works. This was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage site in 2014. The construction methods, called timber framing, and the truss structure used to build the mill also were used for several buildings in Yokosuka Iron Works.
Equipment built in Yokosuka Iron Works also contributed to Japan’s modernization. To name a few, turbine water mills in Aichi’s governmentally-operated spinning mill was made in Yokosuka. Furthermore, a lighthouse in Kannonzaki was designed by Verny and built by the Works’ construction section head, Louis Felix Florent, in 1872.
The Japanese name of the facility, Seitetsu-jo, today means “a place where iron is produced.” “Seitetsu” in a true meaning of the Japanese at the time, however, connoted a broader definition including all the industrial processes with iron. In fact, the Iron Works was a large factory of different shops which processed pig iron into a wide range of products, such as pipes, cans, ship engines, boilers, shafts, gun mounts and ordnance parts.
The factory complex, with use of metrics in weights and measures, working hour and salary plan system, weekend day-offs and employees’ health care, introduced many new managerial methods never seen in Japan until then. The facility boasted about 1,000 workers unlike any Japanese factories at the time. In this era of manufacturing, most Japanese factories had about 10 or fewer workers.
The question may arise why it was a French engineer who was selected as an advisor in building a factory other than ones from the U.S. or other modern European countries. History shows the U.S. was in the middle of its Civil War, in a conundrum where it couldn’t extend its power outside the country. The British Empire, on the other hand, was so powerful that Oguri became cautious of such steps taken by the empire over Asian countries as shown in the First Opium War from 1840 to 1842. Russia was also thought dangerous after the Tsushima incident where Russians attempted to occupy the island between Kyushu and Korea. Holland, which had been in a good trade relationship with Japan for a long time during Japan’s Shogunate era, via Dejima – a special district for trades – was politically and technologically over the hill as an international dominant power.
The fact that Oguri was a precursor of modern Japan is not commonly nor widely known even among Japanese. In light of popularity, Japanese history classrooms tend to emphasize such figures as Kaishu Katsu or John Manjiro as Japanese key figures of the age, who went along with Oguri onboard USS Powhatan, on an escort ship Kanrin Maru at the time of ratification exchange of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the U.S. in 1858. It is, however, due to the fact that Oguri was extremely loyal to the Shogunate until he was killed by the new government army in Gumma prefecture.
“This kind of ceremony is not widely known, but the fact Yokosuka City itself hosts and conducts it every year means a lot,” said Taiken Murakami, a chief priest of Tohzenji, the temple with Oguri’s grave in Gumma prefecture. He is also an author of many books on Oguri. “Yokosuka is literally a base from which Japan’s modernization began.”