Sometimes you don’t get the answers you want

One of the things about doing history is that you get great ideas.  Sometimes those ideas

Baader Fish Processing Machine

pan out, sometimes they don’t.  One of my fondest great ideas has just been laid to rest, thanks to the courteous efforts of Christian Witt, the area sales manager at the Baader Comany, which makes fish processing equipment. Mr. Witt has been kind enough to chase one of my ideas and confirm that my speculating has been completely and utterly without foundation.

One of the major factors in the spread of fishing is the speed with which technology transfers. A good idea in fishing, a piece of technology that does something better or faster or cheaper will spread very, very quickly.  One of the very best pieces of technology, that did a lot to revolutionize the industry,  was the development of fish processing machines. The undisputed leader in the field was the company founded by Rudolph Baader in 1919. He founded the Research Institute for Fishing in Lubeck in 1920, the forerunner of the current Federal Research Institute for Fisheries.

One of the great ideas I had in coming to the Rachel Carson Center and Germany was to see if German fish processing companies had sold any technology into Japan.  The Germans made the best processing equipment, and I know that the Japanese bought Germany naval equipment. There was a great deal of trade between Germany and Japan during the 1930as, but according to Mr. Witt, it wasn’t in fish processing equipment. This is what he writes:

Baader company was found in year 1919 and a first machine was delivered to the industry not before 1921 or 1922. The focus at that time was the local processing of Herring fish as this was done by hand and the idea of Mr. Baader was to support the industry with mechanical solutions.

There was no Baader machines available between 1920 and 1930 to process Japanese fish species. As I was told the Japanese wanted to see the complete fish for a long time before cooking etc. to see the freshness. It might Baader did not delivered any machine to Japan before 1970. Surimi production was one of the opportunities for Baader that time, Baader delivered fish filleting machines for Alaska Pollack to finally produce Surimi.

While it may seem far fetched to think about Japanese-Germany trade in the 1930s, Japan’s fishing industry was built on technology it imported from Europe and the United States. Japan’s modernization was constrained by the unequal trade treaties it had been forced to sign with the British, Americans, and Russians.  By 1880, most trade and coastal shipping was in the hands of foreigners. The treaties forced Japan into a “third world” relationship with the West in terms of manufacturing, according to historian Jon Halliday. Japan couldn’t impose protectionist tariffs on imports, so it was unable to develop an integrated manufacturing economy.  It was forced to concentrate on niche areas, and on outputs from extremely low wages. The most important niche was Japan’s relationship with the sea. [1] 

The Japanese government levied taxes to accomplish its political and economic goals of building railroads, a merchant fleet, factories, and establishing compulsory public education. The merchant fleet and the goal of establishing foreign trade were the main elements to develop the new economy.[2]  The strong central government began to collaborate with private industries that were capable of rapidly adopting new technologies. The government induced companies to go into areas were development was possible and the zaibatsu pioneered the commercialization of modern technologies in Japan.[3]  One of the most successful areas for this partnership between government and industry would be the rapid expansion of fishing from coastal Japan into the world’s oceans.

The story of of the modernization of fishing in Japan is contained in one of my favorite books, Japan’s Fisheries Industry, 1939: Authoritative Resume of Aquatic, Canning, Overseas Trade and Allied Activities. It was published by the Japan Times & Mail. The Japanese were proud of their fisheries, viewing them as a sign of their modernization and industrialization.  I found this wonderful book on the shelves at the Valley Library at Oregon State University and I spent a lot of time looking at the pictures and thinking about the story it told.

The father of the modern Japanese fishery was born to a samurai family in 1887. Kosuke Kunishi traveled to Britain and Germany, working as a sailor and fisherman on a trawl vessel, and bringing the technology back to Japan. Another samurai, Kamezo Okuda, traveled to England in 1902 to study British trawl methods. When he returned, he built the 152-ton Kaiko Maru, inaugurating Japanese trawling with European methods.[4]  A British trawler was imported in 1908, and the government paid to build a copy of the vessel. Trawling expanded rapidly, reaching 136 boats by 1912. As always and everywhere, with the introduction of trawling, there were serious conflicts with the inshore fishermen, prompting the government to establish large closed areas in coastal waters and to halt subsidies to trawlers under the promotion law.

How difficult it must have been for these two men, and for others like them, to travel to Britain and Germany and learn a completely new way of fishing, working on the steam trawlers out of places like Hamburg and Hull.  Fishing is always difficult and dangerous; for these two men, it must also have been lonely.

I’m right that the Japanese did buy German fish processing technology; I’m just off by a few decades (okay, five decades). I appreciate Mr. Witt’s willingness to chase my wild idea. And when I get around to writing about surimi and pollock and fishing in the North Pacific, I’ll be watching out for references to Baader processing equipment.

[1] Jon Halliday, A Political History of Japanese Capitalism, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1975)52.

[2] G.T. Trewartha, Japan: A Geography,  (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965), 7.

[3] Chalmers Johnson, MITI and the Japanese Miracle, the Growth of Industrial Policy, 1925-1975 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1982), 23.

[4] The Japan Times and Mail, Japan’s Fisheries Industry 1939 (1939), 101.

About finleyc

I'm a writer and a historian of science. I'm interested in the intersection of science and policy in the oceans, and especially around fishing.
This entry was posted in Environmental History, fisheries science, Fishing, History of Science, History of Technology, Japanese fishing, Maritime History, Ocean fishing, Pacific Fishing History Project, Rachel Carson Center, Sebastes rockfish, World History and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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