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Late Edo-Period Ships: When Innovation Was Forbidden


When we think of Japan now, we think of it as the land of the latest technology, cutting-edge design and innovation, but when Japan restricted its borders (opened only to the Dutch and Chinese) during the Edo Period (1603-1868) and to limit the movement of its people to foreign countries, the Shogun thought of ways to “de-innovate” the ships and to make them less sea worthy, particularly in open waters.

In fact, since the 18th century, Japan enforced laws to specify the design of these transport ships. Ships like Hojunmaru, a senkokubune (“thousand stone boat” or 150-ton capacity) transport ship, did not arrive at Edo (Tokyo) with its cargo in 1832.

Caught in a storm in the Enshu Nada Sea, the ship and its crew of fourteen didn’t have a chance. It was also late in the season when storms were more frequent as the hot summer air gave way to cooler autumn breezes—conditions for a perfect storm. My book OUT TO SEA: HOW A YOUNG JAPANESE PEASANT BECAME AN ENGLISH GENTLEMAN recounts what happened aboard as they drifted into the Pacific Ocean.

These ships had simple rigging of just a single mast and square sail. And although the shallow draft and lack of a keel helped these ships to dock in shallower waters, it increased the possibility of capsizing in strong winds and waves.

The exposed rudder, 1.8 meter in length, could be moved up or down depending on the depth of the water. It was helpful for navigating the ship in shallow waters of Edo Bay and docking but it also made it easier for the rudder to break off from stress of more turbulent waves.

The construction regulations required all vessels to have a gaping hole in the aft of the hull which not surprisingly allowed sea water to easily fill the hold. While the removable deck made up of wooden planks easily slid (left un-nailed) next to each other to facilitate loading and unloading of the cargo, it did not offer much of a water-tight seal, an important feature I suspect for a ship at sea. In short, the Hojunmaru was never meant for the rigors of ocean travel.

To the western observer such as the American Mr. Charles King of the shipping company Olyphant &Co. with their fleet of state-of-the-art brigs of 16 sails and two square-rigged masts, it was no wonder these Japanese vessels would be considered “junks.” (In truth, the word “junk” entered the English language in the 17th century through the Portuguese “junco” which in turn came from the Malay word “jong.”)

He described the sides of the vessel as cased with “coarse latticework,” “the broad Chinese rudder is more than imitated,” and “the immense helm” increases its “clumsiness.” Later, after closer inspection, King dismissed these “miserable crafts, hardly meriting the name of shipping.” When it came to Japan’s knowledge of seafaring, King thought, “the Japanese of the present day are consequently as ignorant of nautical affairs as the ancient Egyptians or modern Persians.”

These government specifications did the job however to keep the Japanese in, but the costs were paid in the lives of hundreds of Japanese sailors who lost their lives at sea. Of the fourteen sailors aboard the Hojunmaru, only three would survive, but even then, none would ever return home to Japan.

Useful Resources

  1. Information about Japanese shipwrecks during the Edo Period

The Shōgun's Reluctant Ambassadors: Sea Drifters, Katherine Plummer, Lotus Press, 1984

  1. Life-size Reconstruction of a senkokubune vessel on Sado Island

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