|

Kotaro Horiuchi: A life spent in uncharted waters of boat design

As a boy, Kotaro Horiuchi was obsessed with planes, but he moved on to create and pilot with a passion all manner of waterborne vessels

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

Considering the current state of Japan’s economy, it’s remarkable to recall that 60 years ago there were hundreds of companies both old and new jockeying restlessly to fill the vacuum left after almost all the nation’s cities were heavily bombed in World War II — jockeying, that is, with the kind of entrepreneurial verve now associated with China or India.

And yet, in the memories of many now elderly Japanese that bygone spirit of experimentation, creative product development and aggressive marketing lives on. Kotaro Horiuchi is a case in point.

Horiuchi, who is currently in his 85th year, is a boat designer whose career almost perfectly coincided with the postwar decades in which Japan rose from ruin to become the first country dubbed an “Asian tiger.”

In 1950, Horiuchi joined a boat-making company called Yokohama Yacht, where he was soon designing vessels for clients as varied as local ferry operators and the U.S. Navy. Later, he moved to Yamaha Corp., then still known as Nippon Gakki Company (Japan Musical Instrument Manufacturing Company), which was at the time just starting to expand from being an instrument manufacturer into producing sporting goods, motorbikes, outboard engines and motorboats.

At Yamaha, Horiuchi designed or led design teams working on dozens of marine craft. With some products, such as private pleasure cruisers, the company created not only boats but also new markets, as its boats attracted more and more people to leisure possibilities afloat.

With other products, such as professional fishing vessels, Horiuchi and his colleagues didn’t create a market, but instead revolutionized the existing one by introducing new, super-strong but lightweight materials such as fiber-reinforced plastic.

But not all Horiuchi’s creations became hit products. His fascination for hydrofoils, for example, has always been one step ahead of that of the marketplace, where buyers both private and commercial have been slow to see the appeal of these boats with “wings” (foils) attached to the end of struts protruding into the water from the hull. As they move through the water, the foils generate lift just as airplane wings do, so the boat rises up above the water as its speed is increased.

“If the hull isn’t touching the water, then resistance is reduced, speed is increased and fuel efficiency also increases,” Horiuchi enthuses.

Since making his first hydrofoil in 1952, copying a design from a U.S. magazine, Horiuchi has made dozens of experimental versions, from single-rider motorbike-style ones to sail- and even pedal-powered boats.

Horiuchi’s other passion is rowing. Just last year he won the men’s over-80 single-scull division at the World Rowing Masters Regatta in Ontario, Canada, beating competitors from Brazil, the United States and elsewhere. That passion he inherited from his father, who was a physics professor at Hokkaido University and the well-to-do son of a construction company magnate. “He drummed into me a love of rowing from an early age,” Horiuchi reminisces.

Horiuchi had three children of his own. One passed away two years ago, and another now lives with her family in a house adjacent his in the seaside suburb of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture. His own wife passed away three years ago.

The Japan Times recently spent a morning with Horiuchi at his home. Flicking through dozens of photographs, boat sketches and plans, he enthusiastically recalled a career spent both literally and figuratively riding the crest of Japan’s wave of postwar economic development. Horiuchi was also keen to offer some thoughts on the performance of Japan’s current corporate leaders — but only after explaining the merits of yet another new-style boat he continues to work on to this day.

Your career was spent designing boats, but when did you first take to the water yourself?

That would have been around 1935, when I was 9. My father had just returned from four years of research in Europe, where he had acquired a German faltboot, which was a foldable kayak.

Then he became a professor at Hokkaido University and so the whole family moved from Tokyo to Sapporo, where there were lots of lakes suitable for rowing. He used to take us out every Sunday.

Did you enjoy it?

No, I hated it. The faltboot had its own little trolley and you had to pull it apart and put it on the trolley and then squeeze it on a packed bus, take it off, take it to the lake and then reassemble it — and it weighed around 70 kg.

He also taught me how to row sculls (light, narrow rowboats for racing). Gradually I came to like it. Or at least, I became brainwashed to think I liked it!

Was rowing popular in Japan back then?

It had been when my father was a student, in the 1920s. There weren’t really any other sports you could do, and baseball didn’t become popular until the ’30s.

Did you think at that time that you’d end up designing boats?

Not at all. As a child I was mad about planes. I spent so much time making planes with the boy next door that my father had to ban them in the house.

What kind of planes?

We made gliders and rubber-band planes. In Sapporo there were lots of great places for flying gliders. If you used a rubber band you could get them up hundreds of meters in the air, and they would just keep on going forever.

Why didn’t you become a plane designer?

I wanted to do that, but when I went to Tokyo Imperial University (today’s University of Tokyo), the war had just ended and the construction of planes was prohibited (under the terms of the Allied Occupation). So there was no aeronautical engineering department, but the professors were still there, of course — in the department of applied mathematics. So that’s where I went.

Were you at school during the war?

After I graduated from junior high school I went to the Second Higher School, in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture. (“Higher school” was for older students than today’s high schools, and included what are now the first two years of university. There were only eight of these exclusive institutions in Japan, with the “First Higher School” being in Tokyo.)

I spent three years there and, in my second year, the war ended. Then I went to university.

I graduated in 1950 and ended up at Yokohama Yacht (absorbed into JFE Engineering Corp. in 2002), which had made torpedo boats during the war and was then making passenger ferries, Coast Guard patrol boats and the like. It was run by one of my seniors at a rowing club, Shiro Chiba.

What did you do there?

Well, the first thing he got me doing was to build a new “knuckle four,” a deep-hulled rowing boat crewed by four rowers and a cox.

Was that part of your work?

No, I had to do it after hours.

Overtime?

Except without pay! I just did what he said. I got a carpenter to help me a bit at the end, but we made a nice boat.

Then he said he wanted me to enter the Kokutai (National Sports Festival) with that boat. I rounded up the well-built guys at the company to crew it with me and we started training every morning.

Where was this?

The company was at the mouth of the Tsurumi River, in Kanagawa Prefecture.

We practiced for about a month and a half, and then went to the festival, which was in Nagoya that year. And we won!

At that time, during work hours, I presume you were working on other boats. I believe you even made a spy boat.

Yes, we received an order for a spy boat from the U.S. military. The Korean War (1950-53) had started, and they needed a fast boat that looked like a regular Chinese fishing junk.

How do you make a speedboat out of a junk?

Fast boats are designed to plane when they hit a certain speed. To achieve that, you need a flat, shallow hull that will skid across the surface of the water.

Junks are totally different. They have deep hulls and they are slow moving with their normal engines. So you needed a junk with a shallow hull and a propeller that was as close to the water surface as possible. We made a concave indentation in the hull for the propeller.

And those boats were used in the Korean War?

That’s right. They lined them up inside big landing ships and took them over to Korea.

What other work did you do at Yokohama Yacht?

I did a lot of experiments with hydrofoils, having seen pictures of them in American magazines.

Did you succeed in building one?

Yes. I initially made a two-person hydrofoil in wood. It had two struts at the front and a third, with an engine, at the back. I took the president’s son around on rides.

What year was that?

Around 1952. The problem was that it was like a plane, so when you turned you needed to bank it by leaning into the curve. The president’s son didn’t quite get that, so when he turned it he tended to snap the legs.

Would this have been the first hydrofoil in Japan?

No. Hydrofoils have been around for the last 100 years or so. They had experimented with them at Yokohama Yacht during the war. But they hadn’t been put into practical use.

Hydrofoils became an enduring passion of yours. Why were you attracted to them?

The first thing is that once you’re up on the wings, then resistance and drag decreases drastically. This means that speed increases and fuel consumption decreases. And it is a much smoother to ride. A normal motorboat bumps up and down over the waves, but a hydrofoil flies over them.

To overcome the problem of the legs breaking on that first, three-strutted hydrofoil I had made, I came up with my own new design: a boat with two struts in line with the keel, each with a wing at its base. It was like a motorbike on the ocean.

Was it commercialized?

We sold three of them to Kyotei, the boat-racing association, but their riders couldn’t control them properly and they ended up just being used for training.

At that time, in the early 1950s, Japan’s economy received a major boost from the Korean War and then rapid economic development followed. What was the mood in society like at the time?

At the time, everyone was just full of hope. But even so, with respect to boat manufacturing, it was still a very small industry. There was no notion that this could be made really profitable. If you made ferries then they were basically public jobs, for the government, and that wasn’t a mass market.

Then in 1960 you went to Yamaha.

That’s right. That’s when things started to change. At the time, there was a man called Genichi Kawakami who was the president of Nippon Gakki, the forerunner of Yamaha Corp. He was a man with big dreams.

Kawakami latched onto a new material that had been invented in the United States during the war: fiber-reinforced plastic (FRP). At first the company used it to make bows for archery and then skis.

And then boats?

Ever since the end of the war, FRP had been used to make boats in the U.S., so Kawakami sent his department heads there to see how they did it. Then they assembled a team — and that was when I came in.

What was the first job you did at Yamaha?

The first boats I worked on there were the 3.4-meter UT-11 and then the 4-meter CAT-14 — both of them twin-hulled runabouts that were made with FRP.

At around that time, there was a three-day offshore speedboat race held over 1,000 km from Tokyo to Osaka. It provided a good opportunity for boat-makers to showcase their technical prowess. I helmed Yamaha entries in 1961 and 1962, and we won both times.

Had you designed those boats yourself?

In 1961, we entered a CAT-21, a 6.9-meter FRP catamaran that had four 75 hp Scott outboard motors. It was designed by someone else in the company.

The race itself was a lot of fun. It was divided into three legs, with one held each day. The start was really early in the morning so that the water would be calm. It was a big deal — the Coast Guard had patrol boats stationed along the course and there was a lot of media coverage. In 1961 we won the overall race and each of the three legs.

And the 1962 race?

Up until 1961, twin-hulled designs were considered the best for ocean racing — because with two hulls the displacement is less and drag is reduced. But then in 1961, a new type of design — known as “deep-V” — emerged in races in the U.S. The first such boat was called the Bertram 31 and it turned accepted wisdom on its head.

At the time, the normal degree of “deadrise” on a boat’s hull (the angle of the side from the keel to the water) was about 5 to 10 degrees. The Bertram 31 had a deadrise of 25 degrees — resulting in a much more acutely angled hull.

We had always believed that the flatter and shallower the hull, the less the resistance that would be generated. But it turned out that if you made a deep-V-shaped hull, then the boat actually rises up and runs along on just the tip of its hull, so it’s faster.

Did you enter a deep-V boat in the 1962 race?

Yes, in early 1962 I went to the U.S. to see the boat and other boats at boat shows there. We had already started making prototypes using the deep-V idea, and we built a boat in time for the race in July that year, which we won. It was called the S-18, and we eventually commercialized it.

For Yamaha, were those races a part of the product development process?

Yamaha had been slow to get into the boat-making business. At that point, other companies such as New Japan Aircraft Manufacturing Co., Ltd. (now Nippi Corporation) had started selling pleasure boats. So this ocean race was seen as a way to boost our presence in the market. If you won, it really showed the consumers that your product was superior to those of your competitors.

Yamaha had done the same thing with motorbikes. By the time it started making bikes, Honda was already dominating the market. But races were held, and Yamaha came in and won, and the company got a good reputation. We loved races at Yamaha.

What was the corporate culture like at the time — especially as you were creating an entirely new business with pleasure boats in Japan?

The president, Kawakami, enjoyed yachting himself, so he had this clearly defined vision of making boating a popular activity and sport. He was closely involved in everything we did.

We used to hold “claim meetings,” where we would discuss complaints or suggestions made by consumers about our products. For us, the development staff, our inclination was to assume that problems resulted when the customer was not using the boats in the correct way. But the president would turn up at the meetings, listen to the complaints and then tell us how we had to improve the products — even if the problem had been the customer’s fault!

What sort of people were you targeting with these pleasure craft?

The boats were marketed as being for cruising. People liked the idea of being able to go zooming over to Oshima Island (in the Izu archipelago off Shizuoka Prefecture), for example.

What were some of the other important boats you made at Yamaha?

The rowboats were a big success. Rowboats were available to rent then as they are now at rivers and lakes and tourist destinations. But they were all made of wood.

We saw that as an opportunity to replace those wooden boats with lighter, cleaner FRP boats. The problem was that FRP was more expensive.

But weren’t the wooden boats handmade?

Yes, but in the early 1960s FRP was still more expensive. Of course now it is the opposite.

So you redesigned the rowboat?

At the time, rowboats tended to be tapered at both the front and the back — because it was thought this allowed the water to slide by more smoothly. The problem was that this design wasn’t very stable — it was easy for the boat to roll.

We discovered that if you cut off the back into a square then you got much better stability when the boat was not moving. Then, if you wanted to row quickly, you or the passenger could sit toward the front and thus lift the stern out of the water to cut the drag by a lot.

Gradually the price of our FRP rowboats came down and they started selling well. At one point, we made 10,000 of them in a single year. I think we ended up saturating the market.

Are those boats still being used?

Yes they are — and they are just 1.6 mm or 1.7 mm thick. FRP is an extraordinary material.

But nowadays, of course, a lot of people might feel sad that the wooden boats are gone.

Yes. In Britain they have some lovely old, varnished wooden skiffs that they row. But they weren’t like that in Japan. They were just rental boats — they were all painted and the paint would chip.

You also had a lot of success with fishing boats.

Yes. Down in the Ariake Sea in Kyushu, the local seaweed cultivators association had a rule that you weren’t allowed to start collecting seaweed until 5 a.m. So you ended up with the collectors in their boats racing each other every morning to get to the seaweed fields first. It was quite a sight. I joined them a number of times.

Anyway, it was important to have a fast boat. At the time they all used wooden boats, but we were able to design an FRP boat that could plane properly and so be much faster. The boat was called the DW-40 and was about 11 meters long.

Then Yamaha set up a factory in Amakusa in Kumamoto Prefecture and for about 10 years all we did there was make those boats. I think we made 4,500 in those 10 years, up until about 1978.

Were you involved in actually selling the boats, too?

I often traveled around to talk to the fishermen who would use the boats. Everyone had different requirements, so you could tweak the designs for each region.

We had connections in most ports because Yamaha was already selling outboard motors, so we could tour around in a truck with a boat on the back and get fishermen to test it out.

One thing we liked doing was to take a mallet with us — a big heavy wooden mallet. We’d come to a port and ask the fishermen to hit the hull of our boat with the mallet. So they’d line up and take swings at the boat. Of course, the mallet would just bounce back and the hull would be undamaged. They all understood what would happen if they did that to their wooden boats, so it impressed them a lot.

Were you not thinking about exporting all these boats?

No, not the boats. Not back then. I wonder why we didn’t? I think it was because were just flat out dealing with the domestic market. Orders would come in for this and that, and then when you made new boats they would sell like crazy and then you had to struggle to keep up with demand.

The motorbikes were sold overseas from the 1960s — and the snowmobiles and things like that, too. Outboards weren’t really marketed overseas until the mid-’80s, and then boats came after that.

What did you like best about the work at Yamaha?

The best thing was that feeling of seeing something you had made really hitting the sweet spot in the market and just taking off. That’s what happened with the rowboats, the seaweed harvesters’ DW-40 and the fishing boats. It happened all over Japan. That was best thing. You really felt like you had answered a need.

If those boats were sold all over Japan, I presume you would have recognized some in footage of the tsunami. That must have been painful to see.

Ah, yes. But, you know, there’s not much you can do about that — from a boat-design perspective.

If you’re out at sea, then it really just depends on how big the boat is and whether the wave has broken or not.

You saw those videos of the boats going over the tsunami, didn’t you? They slammed into the wave, got thrown up and then went over it. So you’d be fine in a 10- or 15-meter fishing boat in that situation. And it seems a lot of fishermen in boats like that were saved.

But, once the wave has broken, then, hmm … It would be difficult to design a boat to survive that. Even if you designed it, you could never guarantee that it would come out alright.

You left Yamaha in 1996 and have continued to design boats ever since. What are you working on now?

I’m trying to make a one-person, three-hulled trimaran that is powered by just one 2hp outboard motor. It’s about 3 meters in length.

The other day we took it on a 41-km open-ocean voyage to test it out.

Forty-one kilometers! Were you piloting?

No, no. I got a friend to do that — a friend who’s in his 70s! I was in a larger boat running alongside taking a video.

I see your willingness to experiment with new products is undiminished — even at age 84. Can you tell me what you think of the performance of Japan’s large corporations today, since they are obviously not doing as well as they did in the past?

I’m not directly involved any more, so it’s difficult to say, but I do sometimes wonder about the thinking these days. I mean, I look back on my time at Yamaha and it was all so much fun. It was a real thrill to think about people’s needs, then try develop new products. As I said earlier, it is so satisfying to see the public take up a product that you have developed.

The people in the companies these days don’t seem to be enjoying themselves. I know the economy has been through a bad time, but still, there’s a lot that could be done.

What would you do if you were just graduating from university now?

Well, I think the career I had was the best for me. And it’s not over yet!

I’m still trying to develop new boats. I’m hoping to develop that trimaran I mentioned into a boat that could be offered for rent at tourist sites like Yamanaka Lake at Hakone (by Mount Fuji in Kanagawa Prefecture).

You could make it a bit larger so two people could ride in it, and it has a small engine, so those without licenses could rent it.

You could even give it an electric engine and add solar panels so it could charge itself during the week and then be ready to be used on the weekends. You could make a rental boat suited to this age of energy conservation.

Now that sounds like a business opportunity to me!

The English translation of “Locus of a Boat Designer Vol. 2,” the second of two books Kotaro Horiuchi has written about his design work, is currently available from Cayuga Aqua Ventures, LLC.