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Friday, September 20, 2013

1955 Ad About Japan's Iron & Steel Industry

Y'know... I thought it would be cool to show an ad from a 1955 Japanese newspaper, Nippon Times, for a Japanese iron and steel company.

The ad itself is pretty blah... no cool graphics or punchy copy... it's simple, straight and to the point... which is what one would expect of a company that makes steel.

But I just wondered to myself just why a Japanese steel manufacturer would need to advertise itself in a foreign-language newspaper. For foreign purchases, I guess... but who are these guys? 

As a courtesy, I thought I would get a bit of information on the company that made the ad—Yawata Iron & Steel Co., Ltd.—just to see if it still exists.

It does... as part of something else... but then I realized that that historically speaking, it played a large role in the industrialization of Japan.

Crap. More research... more writing. Y'know... one day I won't be so damn curious. I'm apparently anal retentive in that I like to know as much as possible about everything. In my head, that will allow me to be able to converse with anyone, from all walks of life, about anything.

So... let's get smart together:

Yawata Steel Works was formed in 1901... and in 1970, the then-named Yawata Iron & Steel Co., Ltd. merged with Fuji Iron & Steel Co., Ltd. to form the Nippon Steel Corporation, a Tokyo-headquartered conglomerate that is one of the largest steel corporations in the world.

Back in 1901, Yawata was a Japanese government business (like the post office) that was actually a non-physical (no building) entity formed back in 1896 and was known as the Imperial Japanese Government Steel Works, and, when constructed, would be located in Yawata, which is now a part of Kitakyūshū in northern Kyushu, Japan. While it was a government industry, several privately-owned steel making companies were founded.

So... why did Japan need to have a government-run steel producer?

Thanks to the newly discovered U.S. influence after Japan opened up its borders to the global community, the Japanese government (during the so-called Meiji restoration) sought to be like the rest of the world, and underwent its own industrial revolution.

Japan wanted to be modern, and wanted a western-style factory manufacturing steel and steel products to help lead it to the promised land. It really liked the locomotive Commodore Perry brought with him from the U.S., to impress upon the Japanese that the Americans were technologically advanced (and to show that the Japanese should trade with them to become technologically advanced, too).

The Yawata construction—thanks to the Western influence—introduced a reverberatory-style of furnace that would replace the Japanese-style tatara system.

A reverberatory furnace isolates the materials processed from contact with the fuel, but not from contact with the combustion gases. D'uh.

The traditional Japanese tatara system of smelting is one of those things now that people look on with fond respect as the ancient and best way to make steel... because this was the smelting method used to create katana swords for the samurai warrior class... and those buggers can have steel folded onto itself (I'm guessing) hundreds of times... but... to make steel the old way, it involves a clay vessel known as the tatara. When the vessel is dried and fired and a fire lit under it, iron sand is added and then layered with softpine charcoal... This is continued for 72 hours or more and can involve a minimum of four people to work to convert the iron to steel... a labor of love, to be sure, but not a method to mass produce anything.

A pair of bellows flank a tatara system.
So why Yawata? Money, I'm sure... but to make the steel, the factory needed coal (to create fire), water, able workforce and transportation. It also had to be safe from earthquakes... but then again, what didn't? The Yawata site in the village of Yahata (now present-day Kitakyushu) was also chosen because it was close to Japan's most productive coal area - the Chikuho field.

Hey... in case you needed to know... steel is an alloy of iron and carbon. Mostly iron. Other elements can be added to change the characteristics of the steel. It has been made for thousands of years, but became a refined industry about 400 years ago.

What's the difference between the 1896 and 1901 dates I gave? One was when the idea started... and the 1901 date is when the Higashida Blast Furnace No. 1 was ignited... turning Japan into more of a modern megalith... when it could actually begin to make steel in huge quantities... for things like... warships... warplanes... submarines... weapons... whatever... that wasn't the original thought behind it all. It was to become more Western than the West.

As a steel mill... it was a success... with three planned expansions, new blast furnaces and factories to build more steel products... infrastructure like the Kawachi Reservoir was created... new products requiring steel were invented which helped increase production of steel... people had money to spend, and now had steel to create products of their own... new industries were created... and it all helped create a modern Japan... a warring Japan, too, but truthfully, Japan would have been an aggressive warring country no matter what. Steel gave it an edge.

By the 1920s, there were 30,000 workers at all of the Yawata enterprises... with over 100 blast furnaces, steel making mills, roll mills, repair shops, railway shops and other mills...

Although each mill was forced to follow primitive production control and accounting requirements imposed upon them by the top management, the way they ran their business was left up to the mill managers. Hire and fire whom they liked...

With World War 1 on, Japan helped control the Pacific waterways with the good guys, and as such many Japanese men went off to do their part.

The Great War (WWI) caused a shortage of workers at the steel mill, and conversely the war meant more of a need for steel. It meant lots of work... with crappy pay... and a couple of labor strikes in February of 1920, whereby labor reforms were established along with an increase in worker pay and saw demands for better working conditions.

Yawata Steel Works. Photo from
Built in 1899, this red-brick building (above)  was the command center of Yawata Steel Works, housing the director’s and consultant engineer’s offices and other central offices. It was the head office for Yawata Steel Works until 1922. According to the Nippon Times ad at the very top, in 1955 its headquarters was in Tokyo.

The Smithy (image directly above) was designed by the German firm Gutehoffnungshütte (Bless you!), which also provided the steel for construction when it as built in 1900.

Equipped with a 350 ton hydraulic press–extremely large for that time–it was built to forge iron and steel equipment needed for the construction of the steel mill. It is a steel-frame structure with a ridge length of 55 meters, a span of 15 meters, and an eaves height of 7.4 meters. Today it serves as the archives holding data on the history of the Yawata Steel Works.

Nowadays, the entity known as the Nippon Steel Corporation is still going strong... but back in the early 1980s... when things weren't... the company sought to diversify.

How, you hopefully ask? By going in to the mushroom business.

How does a steel manufacturer go about growing mushrooms? Well, it's actually quite brilliant. The furnaces give off a lot of heat, so Nippon Steel would take the excess heat and use it to heat greenhouses where they had decided to grow mushrooms.

That's actually smart and shows some green initiative.

Andrew Joseph


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  3. Thanks for the information. I have been searching for history of Yawata for some time now. The name Yawata lives on in our company, Yawata Electrode (Thailand) Co., Ltd.

    1. You are very welcome! Thanks for letting me know about Thailand still holding the name!