The foundations of shipbuilding industry and structure of the navy
The turning point of Japanese shipbuilding industry was July 8, 1853 when a squadron of US Navy “black ships”, led by Commodore Matthew Perry anchored in Edo Bay (known today as Tokyo Bay).
The ruling Shogun Iesada Tokugawa was much surprised to hear the news of foreign warships entering Japanese waters, but what came as an even greater surprise was the ships themselves: the Shogun, or anyone else in Japan, had never seen anything of that kind. One has to remember that in those days Japan had been completely cut off from the outside world for over 250 years. In the meantime, European nations were already building sail ships equipped with steam engines and two-bladed propellers. A rapid development of steel industry was giving rise to vast advancements in shipbuilding technology. Then a technological leap forward in the design of ship-borne artillery took place in the mid 50’s of the 19th century. New, more powerful naval guns required new, much larger vessels to accommodate them. The wooden hulls of tall ships in service at that time were simply too narrow and had inadequate displacement to carry the big guns. The existing ships, powered by bulky steam engines and loaded with huge amounts of coal, did not offer enough space for installation of the newly designed guns. It was at that point that the western navies began toiling with an idea of a completely new warship design. It was now only a matter of time before the concept of an “iron hull design” would crystallize. France and Great Britain, the perennial Old World rivals, were among the staunchest supporters of the new concept.
The Japanese were completely stunned by Perry’s fleet entering their home waters. Before the USS Mississippi, Plymouth, Saratoga and Susquehanna sailed into Edo Bay nobody in Japan had seen a foreign naval vessel. Shogun lesada understood that the arrival of American ships would have great consequences for the defense of the Empire and her territorial waters. He quickly realized that without a potent and modern navy it would soon become impossible to rule the Empire and to protect the country against internal and external threats. The Shogun and his aides decided that it was of crucial importance to replace the sail and oar powered fleet with much more powerful and better armed vessels similar to the Western ships. Japan clearly lagged behind the West in terms of shipbuilding technology, weapons design and naval warfare tactics. It became Shogun Iesada’s top priority to close that gap as quickly as possible. Iesada’s first step was to establish a naval training center in Nagasaki. With extensive help from Dutch advisors the center was opened in mid 1850. At the same time a group of samurais from various clans set off for a long overseas journey. Their destination was the Netherlands and Great Britain where they would learn the art of shipbuilding and naval warfare. For some of the samurais these would be the first encounters with steam powered warships and naval artillery.