A Quiet Revolution: Japan’s Maritime Startup and Innovation Ecosystem Report

In 1878, a steel hull ship was launched from a UK shipyard. The Hideyoshi Maru was ordered by a fledgeling Japanese shipping line. The ship was at the cutting edge of technology. It was the first ship in the world to be fitted with a three cylinder compound steam engine and had been commissioned to carry coal between Fukuoka Prefecture and Nagasaki Prefecture. Six years later, in 1884, a partnership was formed between 55 small shipowners, including the owner of the Hideyoshi Maru, to pool their resources and investments, creating Osaka Shosen Kaisha (OSK) Line, the forerunner to Mitsui OSK Lines.

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In 1893 the Hiroshima Maru, operated by the newly formed NYK Line, arrived at the port of Bombay, India for the first time. It was the first international liner service operated by a Japanese company and marked the beginning of a rapid and successful expansion of Japan’s international maritime industry.

Three years later, in 1896, entrepreneur and industrialist Kawasaki Shōzō founded Kawasaki Dockyard Co. Ltd, by merging the operations of two dockyards he had built in the previous decades. In 1919, the shipyards built more ships than market demand would allow for. Kojiro Matsukata, the president of Kawasaki Dockyard at the time, decided to use the excess ships to start the shipping line that eventually became known as K Line.

Though there have been several mergers and changes over the decades, K Line, NYK Line, and Mitsui OSK Line have been at the frontier of Japan’s maritime industry since they were founded. Two themes run throughout their respective histories; the first is an appreciation and understanding of new technology and the second is the ability to adapt to a rapidly changing world.

Today, more than 140 years after the Hideyoshi Maru first set sail, as the shipping industry faces an unprecedented pace of change, Japan’s maritime sector continues to adapt, making the most of the cutting edge technology in the process. At a time when most developed economies are obsessing over the role startups can play in creating positive change across the shipping industry, it is Japan’s large corporate enterprises that are breaking new boundaries in everything from electric vessels and autonomous shipping, to data sharing and crew welfare. 

Japanese innovation philosophy, that revolutionised consumer technology throughout the twentieth century, permeates every manufacturer, shipyard, and shipping line in the country today.

In this free report, published in partnership with Inmarsat and Startup Wharf:

  • We discuss just a few examples of the role innovation plays in keeping Japan at the forefront of the global shipping industry.
  • We explore how the Japanese innovation ecosystem, which is unique in the world, continues to push the boundaries of what’s possible across digital, mechanical, and electrical engineering.
  • We analyse Japan’s innovation outlook, including the size of the maritime technology sector today, and the strategic opportunities for the industry.

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