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July 3, 2011

JAPAN: A life spent in uncharted waters of boat design

TOKYO, Japan / The Japan Times / Life in Japan / July 3, 2011
All aboard: Kotaro Horiuchi pilots a three-strut hydrofoil he built in 1952.
Kotaro Horiuchi Photos

CLOSE-UP: 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.

The Horiuchi family in a German faltboot being paddled by his father in the mid-1930s.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.

A 4-meter Yamaha H-14 from 1960, whose design Horiuchi worked on.

For the full Kotaro Horiuchi interview by Edan Corkill, click here 

Ahoy sailor: Kotaro Horiuchi pictured during his recent JT interview.
Edan Corkill Photo

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