HOME > Columns > 40 years of Japanese long haul car ferries

40 years of Japanese long haul car ferries

Tsuyoshi Ishiyama

1. Preface

Shipping has been prosperous since olden times in Japan, which consists of four main islands - Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, and other small islands. Many ships have plied between the mainland and remote islands. In 1884, modern train ferries appeared in Japanese waters. The main routes of train ferries were the Chihaku route (Wakkanai - Otomari (now Korsakov, Sakhalin Island), 167km); the Seikan route (Aomori - Hakodate, 113km); the Uko route (Uno - Takamatsu, 20.7km); and the Kampu route (Shimonoseki - Pusan (now Busan, South Korea), 226km). Especialy the Kampu route was one of the most important routes, which connected colonial Korea to the then Empire of Japan.

Before WWII, there were several routes between the Continent and mainland Japan (most of them were the so-called "colonial routes"), and other ocean liners' routes - the North & South America routes, the Australia route, the Africa route and the Europe route. N.Y.K. (Nippon Yusen Kaisha) Line, Osaka Shosen Kaisha (now Mitsui O.S.K. Line), etc. operated these routes.

During the war, these Japanese merchant ships were requisitioned by the military, and used as transport ships, etc. However, most of them were swallowed by the sea. Japanese military crammed a lot of POWs into incommodious holds of the ships, and took them to many POW camps in the mainland. Therefore, these ships are dishonorably known as "Hell Ships" in history. The only ocean liner which survived was the N.Y.K. Line's Hikawa Maru (11,622gt, 1930). The small ocean liner which was used as a hospital ship is now saved at the port of Yokohama.

In August 1945, WWII ended. Japan lost all colonies. Only the Seikan route, the Uko route and other short routes of train ferries, and some remote island routes survived as Japanese ferry routes.

The first car ferries of Japan were the 43gt Daihachi Wakato Maru (=Wakato Maru No.8) and Daiku Wakato Maru (=Wakato Maru No.9), which were launched in March 1934. Their operator was the Wakato Tosen (=Wakato Ferry). The double-ended ferries could carry 2 lorries and 4 tricars, and plied between Wakato and Wakamatsu of northern Kyushu (only 600m).

In 1950, the Korean War broke out. Japan provided the U.S. Armed Forces with many commodities. The war led to the revival of the Japanese economy.

On April 11, 1954, the first regular car ferry route was opened between Hanshin area (Osaka & Kobe, Honshu) and Shikoku via Awaji Island. The route consisted of 2 routes, the Akashi Straits route (Akashi, Honshu - Iwaya, Awaji Island; 9.3km) and the Naruto Straits route (Fukura, Awaji Island - Naruto, Shikoku; 14.8km). The double-ended ferries, Asagiri Maru (229gt) and her sister Wakashio Maru were launched out. Local governments, Hyogo Prefecture operated the Akashi Straits route, and Tokushima Prefecture operated the Naruto Straits route respectively. Later, JH (Japan Highway) operated the routes.

In Japan, car ferries which run on over 300km routes are discriminated as "Long Haul Car Ferries" from other ferries. This classification has no relation with ships themselves, but has much to do with history. However, most long haul car ferries are large ferries and have a unique character as "Bypasses of the Sea" for lorries. In this point, Japanese car ferries are quite different from European car ferries, which have developed as "Channel Ferries" for tourists. The shape and routes of Japanese car ferries reflect their character.

2. 1968-1975

In 1960's, industries, such as automobile, shipbuilding, iron and steel, electric engineering, etc. developed in Japan. And in 1968, Japan placed the largest next to the U.S. in GNP (gross national product) among capitalist countries. But the motorway system of Japan was still underdeveloped in those days. Route 2, which linked the Hanshin area (Osaka & Kobe) with Kokura in the northern Kyushu, for example, was so crowded.

Under the circumstances, a man hit the idea of transporting lorries from Kobe to Kokura by ship. The man was Mr. Toyokuni Iritani, the president of Kanko Kisen. His idea was using car ferries as "Bypasses of the Sea" for lorries. But in the then Japan, the general public regarded ferries as "Sea Bridges" between the mainland and remote islands. The idea that transporting lorries by ship running parallel to roads was quite creative or unique. Nobody except Iritani believed the idea would come off well.

On August 10, 1968, the Hankyu Ferry's new ship, Ferry Hankyu (4,979gt) made sail from the port of Kobe, and the history of Japanese long haul car ferries began. In November, the Dairoku Hankyu (=Hankyu No.6, 5,011gt) entered their service between Kobe (Honshu) and Kokura (Kyushu), and their daily service started. Contrary to many people's expectations, Iritani's new business was welcomed by many lorry drivers and was a great success. These car ferries were built on the model of JNR's train ferries.

Soon after the success of Hankyu Ferry, he founded Shin Nihonkai Ferry in June 1969. In August 1970, he opened a new route between Otaru (Hokkaido) and Tsuruga/Maizuru (Honshu), and introduced the 9,053gt Suzuran Maru into the route. The Suzuran Maru had a unique dome on her bow in order to stand against the rough waters of the Nihonkai (=Japan Sea) in winter, and was called "Umi No Shinkansen (=bullet train of the sea)." Although she was the largest ferry in the then Japan, she had few public rooms for passengers, and was specialized for the transport of lorries. Later, Shin Nihonkai Ferry has grown into the largest ferry operator in Japan.

At the same time, energetic Iritani also founded Kampu Ferry in Shimonoseki in June 1969. In June 1970, the 3,875gt Ferry Kampu began to ply between Shimonoseki (Japan) and Pusan (South Korea). This ship was the first international ferry between Japan and other countries after WWII, and was operated together by Kampu Ferry of Japan and Pukwan Ferry of South Korea.

As a result, SHK Line group was formed. The group takes the top seat of the Japanese ferry industry today, and now enters into even a cruise business (Japan Cruise Line).

After Iritani's success, many companies, most of them were not shipping companies, started a new business - car ferrry business. In the first half of 1970's, car ferries were booming in Japan. Many car ferry companies were founded, many routes were opened, and many car ferries were built.

Most companies imitated the Iritani's business model - "Bypasses of the Sea" for lorries. But some of them which failed to make the best use of advantage of "Bypasses of the Sea" were compelled to close down. These were such losers.

* Central Ferry, Kawasaki - Osaka - Kobe, 1971-1972
* Hiroshima Green Ferry, Hiroshima - Osaka, 1972-1982
* Fuji Ferry, Matsusaka - Tokyo, 1974-1979

Meanwhile, some companies operated luxury car ferries which concentrated on tourists. Various car ferries were built in 1970's. Most ferries which were built in those days are still working in Greece, Persian Gulf and the Philippines.

By 1975, the system of Japanese car ferry routes was almost completed. But Japanese ferry industry had to spend a long and dark winter because of the Oil Crises of 1973.

3. 1976-1995

As mentioned above, Japanese long haul car ferries were born as "Bypasses of the Sea" for lorries. But some ferry companies operated luxury car ferries for tourists.

* Nippon Car Ferry (Kawasaki - Hyuga)
Phenix (5,954gt, 1971), Saint Paulia (5,960gt, 1971), Bougainvillea (5,964gt, 1971)

* Kansai Kisen (Osaka - Kobe - Imabari - Matsuyama - Beppu)
Yufu (3,360gt, 1971), Maya (3,229gt, 1971)

* Terukuni Yusen (Kagoshima - Amami Island - Tokunoshima Island - Okinoerabu Island - Yoron Island)
Queen Coral (6,430gt, 1972)

* Nihon Kosoku Ferry (Nagoya - Kochi - Kagoshima; Tokyo - Nachi Katsuura - Kochi; Osaka - Kagoshima)
Sunflower (11,312gt, 1972), Sunflower 2 (11,314gt, 1972), Sunflower 5 (12,711gt, 1973), Sunflower 8 (12,759gt, 1973), Sunflower 11 (13,599gt, 1974)

But oil prices rose very high because of the Oil Crises of 1973, and what was worse, tourists decreased owing to the economic recession. The high coast and depression hit ferry companies which operated the so-called luxury car ferries. In 1976, the Kagoshima-based Kagoshima Shosen made planes for a luxury ferry linking Kagoshima (Kyushu) and Kobe (Honshu), but failed to be realized. Luxury ships disappeared from Japanese waters one by one, and freighter-like car ferries replaced them. For example, the Shin Nihonkai Ferry's New Suzuran (16,250gt, 1979) and New Yukari (16,239gt, 1979); the Hankyu Ferry's New Yamato (11,919gt, 1983), New Miyako (11,914gt, 1984), etc. were such ferries.

Thus, the newborn Japanese long haul car ferry industry met with a setback, and was forced to spend a long and dark slumping times since the mid-70's. Except for ship aficionado, a few people enjoyed cruising. It was general to take a trip by rail, air, bus, car within the country. On the contrary, travels abroad including Hawaii and Guam, was starting to become popular.

After the Plaza Accord of September 1985, the exchange rate of Japanese yen rose rapidly on the one hand, oil prices were on the decline on the other hand. These movements hit Japanese shipbuilding industry which was the largest in the world in those days. Meanwhile, these circumstances became a turning point for Japanese ferry industry which had been struggling for a long time. In other words, it came to be easy for ferry companies to build replacement ships because ship prices dropped as the shipbuilding industry was in a depression, and low oil prices made shipping business be improving. Also in 1989, Japan enjoyed an epoch-making prosperity, cruise ships were built (e.g., Fuji Maru, Oceanic Grace, etc.) and leisure industries have developed (e.g., resorts, golf courses, theme parks, etc.). Under such social background, the so-called cruiseferries were built in Japan, too. And many old car ferries which were built in 1970s were sold out and went to the Philippines or the Mediterranean.

The first cruiseferry was the Sanpo Kaiun's White Sanpo 2 (10,182gt, 1981), which ran on the short distance route between Matsuyama, Imabari (Shikoku) and Kobe (Honshu). She had luxury public rooms for a car ferry in the Seto Naikai(=Seto Inland Sea).

As for long haul car ferries, new ships of Shin Nihonkai Ferry and Taiheiyo Ferry attracted attention. These ships were cruiseferries which tried to attract tourists with their luxury cabins and public rooms. They were quite different from former ferries like freighters.

* Shin Nihonkai Ferry
New Hamanasu (17,261gt, 1987), New Shirayuri (17,261gt, 1987), New Akashia (19,750gt, 1988), Ferry Lavender (19,904gt, 1992), Ferry Azalea (20,558gt, 1994), Ferry Shirakaba (20,552gt, 1994)

* Taiheiyo Ferry
Kiso (13,691gt, 1987), Kitakami (13,937gt, 1989), Ishikari (14,257gt, 1991)

The Taiheiyo Ferry's three sisters were typical Japanese cruiseferries. Especially the Ishikari of 1991 has captured the public fancy with her luxury interior and excellent services. It is not too much to say that the Taiheiyo Ferry is the "Silja Line" in Japan. In fact the managing staffs of Japanese ferry companies used to make an inspection of the Baltic cruiseferry operators.

Other luxury cruiseferries were the Kinkai Yusen's Sabrina (12,521gt, 1990) & Blue Zephyr (12,500gt, 1990), and the Okinawa-based Arimura Sangyo's Cruise Ferry Hiryu (10,351gt, 1995) & Cruise Ferry Hiryu 21 (9,925gt, 1996). All these ships were car ferries which focused on passengers or tourists.

The Japanese, who had been working hard like ants in order to reconstruct Japan which was devastated by WWII, finally reached the level of living to enjoy cruising. But happy days did not keep long. Because prices of shares and land declined heavily in 1991 (Collapse of Bubbles). The ferry industry was forced to struggle again.

5. 1996-2008

Japan's economy experienced long days of depression during 1990's. The ferry industry panted under a decline of cargos and passengers. The Japanese Government eased economic restrictions in order to overcome the depresstion. As a result, the ferry industry which was protected by licences faced the real free competition for the first time. At the same time, the so-called low cost airlines were also born in Japan (1996), but thankfully, they did not become menaces for ferry companies because of a severe competition with major airlines. Today, the real competitors for passenger ferries are rather ro-ro vessels (freight ferries) or other cargo ships. We can see two interesting moves in the Japanese ferry industry.

The one move is giving up recapturing passengers from railways or airlines. Ocean Tokyu Ferry, which operates the Tokyo - Tokushima - Kita Kyushu route (1,173km) introduced the so-called "Casual Ferries," the Ocean North (11,114gt, 1996) & Ocean South (11,114gt, 1996). Both passengers and crew were reduced sharply in order to cut cost (Passengers: 148, Crew: 22). These ferries have only vending machines instead of restaurants, and are no-frilled high-tech service stations on the sea. Also, Kinkai Yusen (now Kinkai Yusen Butsuryu), which operates the Tokyo - Kushiro route (1,120km) ceased passenger services and changed luxury cruiseferries into ro-ro vessels in 1999.

The other move is introducing luxury cruiseferries. From 2002 to 2004, Shin Nihonkai Ferry introduced four car ferries, Lilac (18,229gt、2002), Yuukari (18,229gt、2003), Hamanasu (16,810gt、2004) and Akashia (16,810gt、2004). All ferries are cruiseferries which boast of luxury cabins with private balcony. However, they are not the same as luxury passenger ferries of 1970's. Their feature is that they earn from cargos mainly. Especially, the 32 knots fast cruiseferries, Hamanasu & Akashia can ply between Maizuru and Otaru (1,061km) everyday at only 20 hours (it took 29 hours for former three sisters), and can cut cost against fast ro-ro vessels. In addition to that, they try to attract many tourists with thier fine accommodation. In January 2005, the Taiheiyo Ferry's luxury ferry, Kiso (15,795gt) was launched.

However, succumbed in a competition, ferry companies which were forced to close routes, merge with others, or lastly close down appeared one after another. Especially, rocketing oil prices press ferry companies.

For instance, Kansai Kisen and Diamond Ferry, which operate competing routes in the Seto Naikai, have associated each other and used the common brand "Ferry Sunflower" to cut cost since April 1, 2005. Also, in July 2007, the Diamond Ferry swallowed Blue Highway Line Nishi Nihon, which operated the Shibushi (Kyushu) - Osaka (Honshu) route.

Meanwhile, Marine Express, which ran the Kawasaki (near Tokyo, Honshu) - Hyuga/Miyazaki (Kyushu) route, and the Kaizuka (near Osaka, Honshu) - Hyuga/Miyazaki route, sold assets to the newly-established Miyazaki Car Ferry, and went into special liquidation in December 2005. The Pacific Express (11,583gt, 1992), the Phoenix Express (11,589gt) and the Ferry Himuka (ex-Rainbow Bell, 13,597gt, 1996) were sold.

And, Shuttle Highway Line, which began to operate the Oita (Kyushu) - Yokosuka (Honshu) route with two secondhand car ferries in April 2004, became bankrupt in September 2007. The debt amounted to about 7.45 billion yen.

The capital city of Hokkaido, Sapporo-based Higashi Nihon Ferry was well known as operated 11 routes with 22 ferries named after gods of Greek myths or Scandinavian myths in their prime. But operating revenue of the hotel division and leisure division saw sluggish growth. Additionally, Higashi Nihon Ferry was forced to face a decline of freight shipment because of economic slump in Japan. Above all, Kyuetsu Ferry, a subsidiary which was founded in Fukuoka (Kyushu) in 1991, placed a burden on Higashi Nihon Ferry.

On June 29, 2003, Higashi Nihon Ferry and 3 related companies including Kyuestu Ferry filed for financial reconstruction under court supervision to the Tokyo District Court. Higashi Nihon Ferry withdrew from the long-haul car ferry business in July 2007. Now, Higashi Nihon Ferry operates only 3 routes: Hakodate - Oma route (40km); Hakodate - Aomori route (113km); and Aomori - Muroran route (204km) in the throes of corporate rehabilitation.

As described above, circumstances of Japanese ferry companies are severe. Some small operators, which run sea routes at remote islands are also forced to be out of business.

Today, the Japanese Government intends to convert transportation by lorries into by railways or ferries to push the "Modal Shift" project in order to prevent the earth warming. Japanese long haul car ferries were born in order to ease traffic congestion 40 years ago. Now, they are revalued as protectors for the global environment.

The heart of management of Japanese long haul car ferries has been freight transport. Passenger services are appendant, barring some exceptions. Therefore it's too optimistic to expect the time when a lot of people enjoy cruiseing by ferry in Japanese waters, will come in the future. On the other hand, the function of ferries as "Bypasses of the Sea" draws the public attention again.

I, as a ship lover, hope an expansion of the ferry industry.


This is my manuscript on the history of Japanese long haul car ferries for a book which was planned to be published in Greece in 2008. The book, however, did not see the light of day. So, I dare to publish it here.