Yawata Steel Works completed in 1901 was monumental for its size and for its representing modern Western technology. Supposedly, it epitomized two salient characteristics of Japan's modern industrial and technological development: first, the government played a large role in investing in (and supporting) industries and, secondly, the country heavily depended on imported technology. To be sure, Yawata Works was constructed by the government with the technology, equipment, and engineers imported from Germany. Still, the question remains: was it really the reason behind Yawata's success (if it should be called success at all)? Is the entire history of the Japanese iron and steel industry similarly characterized by such large involvement of the public sector and by such imitation or importation of foreign technology? A detailed inquiry will suggest that the reality is much more complicated.
The first attempt to make steel with Western technology was made during the 1850s, almost a half century before Yawata, still in the Tokugawa era, but after Seclusionism was abandoned. Before then, iron and steel had been made from iron sand and charcoal using an indigenous small-scale production method. However, under the military threat from Western countries, the Shogunate government and some of the powerful feudal lords considered it urgent to build strong cannons. Since quality steel was needed to make these cannons, they constructed reverberating furnaces copying the technology described in a Dutch book--an example of technological flow from the Dutch during the Tokugawa era--but entirely with Japanese hands. These furnaces produced wrought iron on a small scale out of pig iron made with indigenous technology.
One of the engineers who made these furnaces, Ohshima Takatou, proposed the building of a blast furnace to make pig iron using iron ore.