A story connecting Lake Inawashiro, Asaka Canal, Asaka Land Development
After the Meiji Restoration (1868), Ōkubo Toshimichi fostered the extraordinary idea of developing the Asaka-region as relief for the jobless former warrior class, as well as to propel the modernization brought about by new industries. Although he himself passed away before its completion, through the ‘Asaka Land Development,’ the project to draw water from Lake Inawashiro west of Koriyama, his dream was realized.
The plan for a canal that cuts through the Ōu Mountains was realized through backbreaking labor, with the import of the latest foreign technology and the gathering of people, materials and technology from the region and the nation at large. By managing the water of Lake Inawashiro, this public work brought about an extraordinary enrichment of the local food culture through rice and koi carp, as well as new industrial development like the spinning industry using hydro-electricity.
The future that was opened up by this single canal, together with the culture of diversity and harmony, the forward-looking spirit of the pioneers, and the cherry blossoms which embody this spirit, is passed down in the region even until this day.
The single canal that opened up the future ―Ōkubo Toshimichi’s ‘final dream’ and the tracks of the pioneers; Koriyama and Inawashiro―
The beloved lake that would not flow to Asaka
Located in the western sky (514 meters high) as seen from Koriyama City in the Asaka region, Lake Inawashiro is abundant with water which beautifully reflects the sky like a mirror. The idea of drawing water from Lake Inawashiro to the Asaka region had already existed in Koriyama since the Edo period (1603-1868). In the barren and dry plains people fought over water and prayed and lit fireworks for a good harvest. Yet, the water from Lake Inawashiro only flowed to the west and not to the east through the towering Ou Mountains to the Asaka Plains. The water management problems rendered the irrigation a mere pipe dream.
Employees of Kaiseisha wearing Western attire
Ōkubo Toshimichi’s dream for Asaka
During the Meiji Restoration (1868) Japan faced an unprecedented revolution towards modernization. In 1871, the ‘Iwakura Mission’ visited various Western countries over a period of a year and 10 months, to promote the modernization of Japan. Witnessing the development of these countries they were overwhelmed by the difference in power. Adopting the slogan ‘rich country, strong army,’ they painfully realized the need for the ‘encouragement of new industry.’ The governor of the Fukushima region Yasuba Yasukazu and Minister of Interior Ōkubo Toshimichi were involved in this mission. They were convinced that land development and industrial promotion would be essential for the nation’s further development. Yasuba left the mission early and started the development of Fukushima.
In 1873, a group of wealthy merchants involved in the development of the Fukushima region joined forces to establish a company known as ‘Kaiseisha,’ and engaged in full-scale development work. The creation of ponds for irrigation and the growing of foreign fruits such as grapes using state of the art and modern Western agricultural methods with Western agricultural instruments led to the birth of a new town through the increase in population concentration and growth. In the meantime, the office in charge of the development works was based in the ‘Kaiseikan,’ a Western-style building designed by local builders who copied the style off of woodblock prints, making the building highly symbolic. The employees of Kaiseisha dressed in Western style, thus pro-actively incorporating Western culture while continuing their development works. Their spirit of enterprise, of incorporating and blending new ideas without being stuck in old convictions is apparent.
When Minister of Interior Ōkubo Toshimichi visited the region as part of the Meiji Emperor’s royal progress, he was greatly impressed by the success of the joint work of the public and private sectors propelled by Fukushima’s regional government and Kaiseisha. Ōkubo decided to implement a national policy model for the creation of jobs for the warrior class which had been abolished and fallen into poverty. This policy was implemented in the widespread Asaka region earlier than any other candidate region. This was because of the strategic location for transportation in the Tohoku region, the abundant water resource of Lake Inawashiro, and the presence of the pioneers with their spirit of enterprise. In this way, in March of 1878, Ōkubo submitted a public works proposal and the national government appropriated the funds. However, right before the start of the works, Ōkubo was assassinated. It is said that he had met with the governor of Fukushima and spoke full of enthusiasm about the development just before his death. Yet, the ‘dream’ of Ōkubo was realized by the pioneers and the people who shared his dream, in the form of the Meiji Government’s first nationally-run agricultural water management project: ‘the Asaka Land Development and Asaka Canal Works.’
A new challenge: opening up the towering mountains, and the future
In November of 1878, around 2000 former warriors and their families from 9 regions all over the country starting in Kurume in Kyushu, did away with their weapons and migrated to Asaka for the development works. Expecting much hardship, in order to make this new land their home they received divided parts of the deities of their hometown’s shrines (‘bunrei’), and came together to work towards the development. In particular, the first ever division of the deity of Ise Shrine was allowed to be re-enshrined in the Kaiseizan Daijinguu Shrine, for the promotion of harmony between the people, and became the heart and soul of the new home of the immigrants.
In November of 1879, the starting ceremony was held, praying for the safety and success of this uniquely large project. The first project was the key to the success of the Asaka Canal: the construction of the Jurokkyo Sluice, meant to manage the outflow of water to the Aizu-valley and the Asaka Plains. The most revolutionary aspect was the first implementation in Japan of modern public works technology for the construction of the canal, under the supervision of the Dutch civil engineer Cornelis Johannes van Doorn. Using the latest technologies of the time, it was a scientific design based on survey data, doing away with the conventional empiricism of the time. A verification test provided evidence that the amount of water flowing to the west would not decrease by the new outflow to the Asaka Plains, leading the way to the solution of an age-old water management issue. Also, when the people who lived close to Lake Inawashiro’s banks and had suffered flooding for a long time learned that the Jurokkyo Sluice had a flood control function as well, many of them travelled from far to work as volunteers for the construction. More than 500 people lent their hands, through which the construction was finished in only a year. The biggest obstacle for the project was the construction of a tunnel of 585 meters long through the Ou Mountains in order for the water to flow straight to the Asaka Plains. The latest technology from abroad was used, such as dynamite to break the hard rocks, steam-pumps for the removal of ground water and cement for the reinforcement. Furthermore, experts from all over the country, such as Kagoshima, Oita, Tokyo, Yokohama, Iwate and Niigata came together. The challenge the pioneers faced of connecting the Asaka Plains with Lake Inawashiro resulted in a canal which later greatly influenced the construction of the Nasu- and Biwako-canals.
Lake Inawashiro brought rejuvenation and became the dream’s cornerstone
In 1882, the construction of the Asaka Canal of 52.1 km with 78 km of flood-control channels was completed after about three years, through the labor of 850,000 people and approx. 1/3 of the Japanese national budget of the time. During the opening of the canal, tens of thousands of people came together to pray for the success of the canal, including many key government officials. The land that was irrigated by the canal grew from 4,000 ha of rice acreage to over 10,000 ha at its peak. The crop yields of approx. 4,500 tons grew more than tenfold, making the area incredibly fruitful. Also, with the flow of clean water all year round, the breeding of koi carp flourished. Becoming Japan’s largest producer of koi carp, this development greatly enriched the local food culture.
In the latter half of the Meiji-Period, the canal’s height difference was also utilized and the Numagami Power Plant was constructed using the latest technology. From there, they managed to transmit electricity of 11,000v to Koriyama which was located 23 km away, making it the longest high-voltage power transmission achieved in Japan at the time, sending a shockwave through the country. This power supply allowed the paper- and cotton industries to develop in Koriyama. Subsequently, the power transmission to Tokyo from the newly built power plant on the west side of Lake Inawashiro using the Jurokkyo Sluice was highly praised for being the 3rd longest high-voltage power transmission in the world at that time, and greatly supported the modernization of Japan. Also, as a result of the land development many people gathered, which led to the opening of schools to foster education, the opening of banks and construction of railroads.
The Asaka Land Development and Asaka Canal Works were achieved through the use of the strategic location and the gathering and harmonious coexistence of a great diversity of people, goods, technology and culture from the entire country. Through the rapid development of agriculture, industry and enterprise, the success is still handed down the generations to this day. For Ōkubo, who had been so passionate about the Asaka Land Development for Japan’s modernization, it became the foundation for the fulfilment of his ‘final dream.’
Kaiseizan Park’s cherry blossoms
The dreams of the pioneers came to fruition
The Asaka Canal was developed by immigrants and engineers who gathered from all over the country, the national government and the people of the Asaka region. Around 3900 cherry trees were planted all over the embankment around the pond used for the irrigation of the area, developed by the prefectural government and Kaiseisha. Even now, in spring the old yoshino cherry trees which oversaw the history of the development cover the embankments all around Kaiseizan Park. There is a beautiful saying in Kaiseisha’s by-laws: “The trees which started as little saplings in our time, will one day become great trees, whose beautiful flowers will warms people’s hearts.” This vision, which helped open up a new future, is still alive in the region.