Vessels have a long and rich history as a vital means of transportation. As more and more people needed to travel across seas and other large bodies of water, ferries were developed as a way to transport people and goods instead of relying on bridges and overland routes.
The Era of Cargo and Passenger Ships
Meiji Era (1868-)WWII
Ocean transport has been active in the Seto Inland Sea since ancient times. Many shipowners got their start during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), transporting cargo and passengers to and from its surrounding ports by steamship. Osaka Shosen Kaisha (OSK), the forerunner of MOL, was founded in 1884 by 55 shipowners around Seto Inland Sea, who pooled their investments in 93 vessels.
OSK expanded its route networks mainly in Seto Inland. It launched the state-of-the-art cargo and passenger ships one after another in successive periods, growing its Seto Inland route (Hanshin-Beppu) as one of the best sightseeing route in Japan. After that, operation of the route was transferred to Kansan Kisen (established in 1942), which operated four frequencies a day in 1960s and grew as a symbolic presence of honeymoon trip.
Bustling Cargo and Passenger Traffic in the Seto Inland Sea in the Prewar Years
Murasaki Maru/Krenai Maru
The Murasaki Maru, launched in 1921, was the first passenger ship in dedicated service on the route between Hanshin and Beppu. Engineer Dr. Haruki Watsuji designed the Murasaki Maru, which reigned as the "Queen of Seto Inland Sea."
The Kurenai Maru, launched in 1924, was also designed by Watsuji, and served as a model for ships serving the Beppu route in subsequent years.
Nishiki Maru/Kogane Maru
The Nishiki Maru was launched in 1934, and started service on the Beppu route. It was one of the first ships to comply with a new Japanese safety regulation requiring watertight compartments on seagoing vessels, so that a ship could maintain buoyancy even if two compartments were flooded. Dr. Watsuji took great pride in is design for this vessel, and said "The Nishiki Maru is the most balanced vessel on the Inland Sea."
The Kogane Maru, launched in 1936 was the most advanced passenger ship on the Hanshin-Beppu route in the prewar years. It was designed and built to optimize safety, and was regarded as "unsinkable" at the time.
This tradition was succeeded after the WWII. Many passenger ships such as the Kurenai Maru (third generation) and Kohaku Maru started service in 1960s to meet growing demand for honeymoon trips on the Hanshin-Beppu route.
The Dramatic Emergence of the Ferry
Ferries for automobiles and people initially appeared as alternatives to bridges. Japan's first ferries were reportedly two ships linking two ports in what is now Kita-kyushu City in 1934. The route covered all of 400 meters. In the early days, short-distance service was the mainstay of ferry operation.
In the late 1960s, as automobile cargo transport grew and the nation's motorization progressed, long-distance ferry routes were opened one after another in the Seto Inland Sea and other areas nationwide. These long-distance routes not only bypassed overland cargo transport, but also created a new market for pleasure travel by luxurious ferries.
However, the ferry business faced difficult conditions as the "Oil Shocks" of 1973 and 1980 sent bunker oil prices skyrocketing and slowed the overall economy. As a result, the ferry industry saw consolidation and service cutbacks. However, in a bid to boost efficiency, ferry operators launched ever-larger vessels and diversified route operations, adding passenger conveniences and providing private staterooms.