Japan’s top producer

Himeji City, Land of Kuroda Kanbee (1546-1604), an outstanding samurai strategist in the age of warring provincial lords, boasts Himeji Castle, one of Japan’s national treasures and its first World Heritage site. In addition to this beautiful White Heron Castle, Himeji is proud of a variety of indigenous industries such as steer hides that rank first in Japan with the largest output. The local chain industry produces well over 60 percent of the nation’s total chain output. Let’s have a look at its history in Himeji.

History of Chains

The origin of chain manufacture dates back to pre-Christian times.

Chain use at Piraeus Port in ancient Greece

In Athens of ancient Greece in pre-Christian days, chains were used at ports facing the Mediterranean. Ports had defensive walls as an extension of castle walls and used chains to seal off the entrance waterway to defend against the invasion of foreign enemies (see drawing below). Piraeus Port is said to be the first facility to fortify itself by chaining off the port entrance when necessary.

Anchor chains developed by Vikings

The Vikings of the Scandinavian Peninsula from the 8th to 12th centuries played active roles in various parts of Europe thanks to their expertise in seafaring skills. They had a long history of making use of bronze and iron ware and continued to develop them. This was facilitated by the easy access they had to the mineral lode that was abundant on the peninsula. They made the most of their skills to forge and quench iron.
   Vikings were the first to use chains for ship anchorage. The anchor excavated at Denmark’s Fyn Island was attached with chains of over 30 feet long. However, for several centuries after the 12th century, there was no evidence found of anchor chain use.

   After the Age of Exploration, large merchant ships began to be deployed to meet the needs of expanding world trade. As they grew in size, wooden ships began to be equipped with iron plates to increase the strength of the hulls for an ocean voyage. Conventional hemp ropes for anchors naturally wore easily and were replaced by chains.

Fire of blacksmith in Himeji

Bell-shaped bronze vessels and iron pieces were among the articles unearthed from the Nagoyama Archaeological Site (B.C. 2nd to 1st centuries) in Himeji, where many immigrants from the Korean Peninsula had settled bringing with them advanced skills. They were good testament to the fact that people in the area were already engaged in iron making, forging and casting works at that time.
   Their skills gradually developed into blacksmith skills to make nails and repair farm tools in the Himeji region.

Start of chain manufacture

There are 40 chain manufacturing companies in Himeji with its southern seashore area of Shirahamacho as their center. The combined output of chains accounts for well over 60 percent of the national total.
   From around 1680~1800, smith forging of Matsubara nails had been well developed, which then developed into the manufacture of ship nails later in 1889~1904. Towards the end of the Meiji era, Chozo Segawa from Shirahamacho started to produce chains in Osaka. The business was so successful that he opened a new chain factory in Himeji’s Kiba to meet increasing demand.

   The electrical welder for daily necessities was developed during World War II. Later in 1957 chain makers of Himeji introduced foreign-made, large flash butt welding machines. And then, home-made welders gradually replaced imported welders. Smith forging is a rare sight today.
   The chain industry of Himeji is now diversifying its product line. Some chains have a diameter of several tens of millimeters and others are dedicated to accessories. You can also find aluminum chains.

A tale of the battleship Kaiyo Maru

In its efforts to build up its naval force, the Tokugawa shogunate ordered a battleship with a coal-fired steam engine together with sails (three masts) from the Netherlands in 1862. This was only five years before the Tokugawas gave up their ruling prerogatives of Japan that had continued for over 260 years.
   In the same year, the shogunate dispatched 15 young men from samurai and doctor families to the European country to study its state-of-the-art technologies as well as culture.
   The Kaiyo Maru, the largest Dutch wooden warship ever built, was launched at C. Gips en Zonenlifht in 1865. It was delivered to Japan in 1867.

Although the shogunate was forced to return the ruling power of Japan to the imperial family late in the same year, loyalists to the shogunate opened fire against the new government in January 1868. The Boshin War, a civil war, started between the imperial forces and shogunate loyalists.
   Under these circumstances, Enomoto Takeaki, vice admiral of the shogunate naval force and one of the 15 students who had been dispatched to the Netherlands to study, escaped to the northern island of Hokkaido aboard the Kaiyo Maru. It had still been under his command, mooring in Tokyo Bay.
   Since loyalists occupied Hokkaido’s Hakodate, Enomoto entered its central Goryokaku and further tried to occupy Esashi, west of Hakodate. But on November 15, 1868, the Kaiyo Maru was stranded off Esashi due to a severe snow storm, sinking into the sea around 10 days later. The life of the ship ended only three years after its launch.

Enomoto and his men, who had lost the Kaiyo Maru and accordingly naval supremacy, finally surrendered in May of the following year. It ended the 17-month civil war and heralded the arrival of modern Japan. (Sources: Kaiyo Maru Youth Center, general incorporated foundation, and other historic documents.)

Chains salvaged

The anchor chains salvaged from the Kaiyo Maru proved to be slightly different from those of today. They were in a transition process from anchor ropes to iron chains. With a diameter of 44.5mm, two connected chains were about 24 meters long and 7 meters long, each. They weighed about 1.3 tons.
   The anchor chains were manufactured by the Royal Dutch Metal Workshop Association in Leiden in 1865. This was evidenced by the stamp mark on the chain studs. The spiral chains were hand made.