The 20th Century Kyushu Powershift

Question: Why did the economic heart of Kyushu shift from Nagasaki to Fukuoka over the course of the 20th century?

Nagasaki was a sleepy fishing port that transformed into a major city of international trade when Portugese traders arrived in the 16th century. It remained an important trading city through the closed Edo period, when it was one of a few cities open to trade with ships from Holland and China. The industrialization of the Meiji-era saw the city become the nation’s main port for heavy shipbuilding and other heavy industries. It also became a major naval base and served as a strategic port during the Russo-Japanese War.

But the economic importance of Nagasaki as the ipso facto capital of Kyushu faded in the 20th century as the economic center transferred to Fukuoka. The northern area of Fukuoka and Hakata, close neighbors but separate cities until after World War II, became the center of Kyushu’s industrialization. Perhaps the official recognition of this was when the government moved the high court with jurisdiction over Kyushu from Nagasaki to Fukuoka in August of 1945 — just weeks before the atomic bombing.

The shift is evidenced by the population figures. In 1900, Nagasaki’s population was at about 150,000 people while Fukuoka’s population was only 50,000. But by 1950 Fukuoka’s population had expanded to 500,000 while Nagasaki was only at 250,000. Nagasaki’s population peaked in 1975 at 500,000 and has shrunk to under 450,000 today. Fukuoka’s population was 1 million in 1975 but is at 1.5 million today.

I can think of a number of reasons for this shift that I’ll throw out to start this discussion, in approximate chronological order.

* Nagasaki reached the physical limits of growth. Nagasaki’s population peaked in the 1970s and has declined ever since. Nagasaki city is situated on a very narrow strip of flat land between the bay and mountains and there is little room for further growth. Even today, 78% of the population lives on 13.1% of the city’s land.

* The decline in the importance of shipbuilding. Shipbuilding was more important as a form of domestic and international transport and travel in the 19th century. In the 20th century, goods and people are instead transported on trains, through highways, or in airplanes.

* The atomic bomb. “Fat man” devastated Nagasaki, killing more than 70,000 people, or 20% of the population, and destroying most of the city. By contrast, only 24% of Fukuoka was destroyed in the firebombing.

* Central planning. After the war, Fukuoka was a major beneficiary of national central planning where the bureaucrats in Tokyo deemed that Fukuoka, and to a greater extent the northern Kyushu area should be the economic power important hub. Which brings me to…

* The closeness of Fukuoka, Hakata, and Kitakyushu. Before World War II, Hakata, Fukuoka, and Kitakyushu were all separate municipalities and it was not that easy to travel between them. But after the war, Hakata and Fukuoka were effectively merged into one municipality, and the economy of nearby Kitakyushu was integrated with Fukuoka through industrialization and the modernization of public transportation.

* Fukuoka has successfully sold itself as Japan’s modern “Gateway to Asia.” Trade and tourism between Fukuoka and China, Korea, and Taiwan is growing. Businesses focusing on these nations are also concentrating in Fukuoka.

But those are just some thoughts — I’d welcome input from learned readers in the comment section with regards to this question. I’d also welcome readers who can share any Japanese or English articles or other sources on this topic.

29 thoughts on “The 20th Century Kyushu Powershift”

  1. Just a few quick points:

    Not sure about the A-bomb – Hiroshima isn’t exactly a minor centre. In general bombing doesn’t seem to have affected urban growth in Japan. In fact if anything it spurred it, with large areas of land ready for redevelopment with government funding.

    With the Fukuoka area, aside from its closeness to Tokyo (relatively), one factor you haven’t noted, or at least not directly, is the importance of the massive steelworks at Yahata.

    Shipbuilding is still very important globally, but Korea has taken over from Japan, and finding their shipyards in trouble as orders that came in when the economy was good are leaving them with a lot of boats that lack funds now it has tanked.

    Fukuoka, as you note with your High Court remark, was already important before 1945. For example, the Imperial University was built there, not Nagasaki. Also more convenient for trade with Korea. That needs to be checked out.

  2. I was also wondering about the geographical proximity to Honshu. If you are shipping cargo by sea between Kyushu and cities such as Kobe, Hiroshima, Yokohama or Tokyo, then Nagasaki is closer and the developed port/warehousing facilities are important. Overland, then I guess you go via Shimonoseki which makes Fukuoka, and its freight yards, closer. Road and rail links improved at a greater pace than sea links during the 20th century so that may be a factor.

  3. Actually, I was assuming shipping used to avoid the Kanmon straits and prefer the easier route around Kyushu but a quick glance at some other sources suggests that both routes were active so I don’t know whether more ships would have reached Nagasaki before Hakata.

  4. The Kanmon railway tunnel between Honshu and Kyushu was built during WWII, and this was probably a huge factor in Fukuoka’s postwar growth relative to Nagasaki. Shimonoseki, which used to be the big shipping hub between central Japan and Asia, seems to have seen a postwar demographic and economic decline very similar to Nagasaki’s, though it has the relative benefit of being a bedroom town for the more vibrant Fukuoka/Kitakyushu metropolis.

  5. My parents worked for Yahata Steel.The first national steel company that later privatized and became Nippon Steel.

    One personal trivia.It was Kokura,the outskirt of Hakata,was to be targeted on August 9th,because of the existence of Yahata steel mill.My grand father was working there and his only remaining family,which was his two years old daughter(his wife was already dead because of lack of nutrition)was living close to what would be the ground zero.But on this very day,Kokura was cloudy.So the B-29 changed the target to Nagasaki.The two years old daughter later joined Yahata Steel as an OL and married a guy she met in the office which happened to be my father.It’s funny feeling that I may not exist had it was sunny day over Kokura on that day.

    Kumamoto used to be the center of Kyushu and many resident has strong rival feeling to Fukuoka.However,Fukuoka has coal mines and steel mill and shipyard,none of the heavy industry Kumamoto has,which lead to the regional power shift.

  6. “Fukuoka, as you note with your High Court remark, was already important before 1945. For example, the Imperial University was built there, not Nagasaki. Also more convenient for trade with Korea. That needs to be checked out.”

    The following is mostly speculative but, I suspect that proximity to Korea, particularly to Busan, Korea’s main port, was probably the significant factor in pre-WW2 developments. Remember of course that Korea was not just a conveniently nearby trading partner, but a colonial possession of the Japanese empire. While Nagasaki is certainly fairly close to Busan, from Fukuoka it’s a straight shot.

    I also wonder if the development of American industry and the closely linked opening of the Panama Canal (1914), as well as China’s sharp decline in economic importance during the late Imperial period, could have contributed to the decline of Nagasaki as a port city, as the silk road generally lost prominence in favor of modern sea routes. While Nagasaki remained the central port for transit to China (JA Wiki states that regular postal service ran between Nagasaki and Shanghai starting in 1923), trade with China was less important than trade with the overseas territories of the empire (aka colonies).

    Of course, Nagasaki is also better situated than Fukuoka for access to Taiwan, but perhaps since that difference is proportionately far smaller than for the trip to Korea, maybe they just went east to Kobe, Osaka, Yokohama. Considering that I’m studying Taiwan I’m a little surprised I don’t have any info on this

    “The decline in the importance of shipbuilding.”

    Did shipbuilding really decline though? Certainly as a share of all travel and commercial transport ocean shipping declined, but the total amount of travel and transport has been exploding throughout the modern period, so I expect that the absolute numbers never declined. Not to mention to development of modern navy vessels, which are truly massive, and which Japan had an awful lot of before WW2.

    Obviously the atomic bomb would have further hastened a decline that was already in progress.

    “Shimonoseki, which used to be the big shipping hub between central Japan and Asia”
    You really don’t hear much about Shimonoseki after the (in)famous treaty was signed there.

    BTW, I was a bit surprised to see that Japan is still #1 in merchant marine capacity. (

  7. Speaking of Nagasaki-China connection,it is noted that Chiang Kai-shek got married with Soong May-ling in Nagasaki.

    There’s one sequence in Steven Spielberg’s 1987 film”Empire of the Sun”,Christian Bale who got away from Japanese internment camp in outskirts of Shanghai witness nuclear cloud in the direction of Nagasaki.Probably could’nt have happened for real though.

  8. A quick Chinese language search doesn’t even show any mentions of CKS having ever been to Nagasaki. He did study at the imperial military academy in Tokyo, but considering the state of rail in those days (1906) I doubt he disembarked in Nagasaki.

  9. I think you guys talking about proximity to Korea and China are looking at the issue backwards. If anything, physical proximity has exponentially lost value in the 20th century. Kobe was one of the key ports of trade with China back in the days when ships relied on wind and currents to transport them. If anything, Fukuoka should have gained from its proximity to China and Korea in the 19th century, and the 20th century should have seen a leveled playing field.

    “Did shipbuilding really decline though? ”

    No — but I’m talking about the decline in the IMPORTANCE of shipbuilding, and thus the importance of Nagasaki’s heavy industry and deep ports for shipbuilding. Trains, truck, cars, and airplanes now compete, and ships really are the least competitive form of transportation for everything except major bulk transport.

    As for Korea, its entrance into the shipbuilding industry is very recent — they’ve really only become a global player in the past 10 years.

  10. “If anything, physical proximity has exponentially lost value in the 20th century.”

    At which point are your referring to? Even after wind gave way to steam you still needed to power the things–and carry all your fuel. The research I have done on Japan-Manchuria trade in the 1930s indicates that distance was a key factor in selecting routes and ports. When do you think was the key decade for the overtaking of Nagasaki?

    “IMPORTANCE of shipbuilding”

    What exactly does this mean? Do you mean the relative importance of it to Nagasaki, or in terms of global transport? Your post indicates the latter, but even if planes have taken over the passenger traffic and some of the smaller cargo traffic, ships still remain vital to global trade. Anyone with the time to hunt up some figures? I would hazard a guess that the decline in passenger traffic is more than offset by the growth in global trade, especially with China. The Baltic Dry Index has plummetted with this financial thingy going on, but previous to the collapse showed very strong development.

    Also, one small point: population increase is often driven by municipal amalgamation. To determine the relative growths of both Nagasaki and Fukuoka we need to take this into account. Is a sudden jump the result of a rapid growth, or the merging of areas that had long been populous?

  11. Jade: The merger history of Fukuoka and Nagasaki is fairly similar. Both cities have absorbed a number of suburban villages and towns over time, but they haven’t really expanded beyond their own respective metropoles.

    Fun fact: There are sixteen Catholic dioceses in Japan, and three archdioceses: Tokyo, Osaka and Nagasaki. The reasons behind this should be pretty obvious to amateur historians, but it is interesting to see how the Church has kept with history over the years.

  12. There’s also a Mormon temple in Fukuoka, opened in 2000. The first is in Tokyo and the LDS church just announced plans last week to build a third in Sapporo.

  13. Well, that’s a very even geographical spread I guess. But doesn’t have the historical quirks of the Catholics.

  14. Hakata is more handy for sending materials via the inland sea. It also became a hub for manufactures coming from Honshu.

    Hakata also has great ramen. Not sure what this has to do with development, but I thought I’d mention it.

  15. Just crossed my mind that when talking about relative decline and rise, we should also note relative position in earlier centuries. Nagasaki was an important city administered directly by the bakufu during the Edo period. The Fukuoka area was positioned between two larger and more famous “Han” – Satsuma and Choushu. Choushu is supposed to have been near 1,000,000 koku during the bakumatsu period while Satsuma was about 700,000 for most of the Edo period while the Fukuoka region was placed at 400,000 or so. This would have made it a relatively minor premodern center with nowhere to go but up when measures of agricultural productivity became less important and industry became a major draw around the WWI period.

    While I can’t recommend them for the big areas like Kanagawa, this series is great for the regions –

  16. What, if anything at all, is the significance of the shinkansen stopping at Hakata? Did this contribute to the growth of the Fukuoka region relative to Nagasaki? Or, is this simply an indication of the declining importance of Nagasaki?

  17. I think it’s more of an indication that Fukuoka is closer to Tokyo.

    For what it’s worth, Nagasaki was connected to the original Shinkansen network plan, and its spur from the Kyushu Shinkansen is supposed to be built by 2020; there’s a local government-sponsored billboard inside Kokkai-gijido-mae Station in Tokyo advertising the project, presumably to lobby commuting bureaucrats and politicians into supporting it.

  18. By the time the Shinkansen was built to Hakata and Kokura, Nagasaki was already irrelevant.

    Regarding the planned expansion, other locations in Kyushu are really mixed on the expansion of the Shinkansen routes and it is becoming one of the big topics of discussion and regional rivalry for the island. On one hand, it will bring more tourists. On the other hand, it will result in more branches of companies centralizing their offices in Fukuoka and encourage employees to “Shinkansen commute” (or at least that is what the buzz is) and shoppers to scoot to Hakata for the day rather than support the local depato and shotengai. Shinkansen routes could actually be a blow to the majority of Kyushu.

  19. Sorry, not on topic, but I thought I’d add that, according to the statement, the Mormon Temple in Sapporo is also intended to serve mormons in Vladivostok.

  20. “…intended to serve mormons in Vladivostok.”

    Remotely, perhaps? Just by its mere physical proximity?

  21. For the post 1975 population change, it is also worth thinking a bit about the psychological “life course” of people in Kyushu. Kyushu is completely out of the orbit of Tokyo and Osaka. Where a person from Tohoku would gravitate to Tokyo to go to university, work in mizushobai, or even work at a konbini just to be in the big city… the really big cities seem very remote to many of the Kyushu young people that I know. Growing up and leaving means going to Fukuoka.

    There is also the matter of Chinese and Korean population – Fukuoka has been a big draw for immigrants from both countries, advertises its “Asian-ness” and has rather vital immigrant communities. The Nagasaki Chinatown seems like a touristy fossil compared to the community in Hakata.

  22. One related question is whether or not the rise of organized crime in Fukuoka (and not in Nagasaki) is a result of the economic importance of the city, or whether it is somehow a contributing factor. Or whether any perceived connection between the two is spurious.

  23. The strength of organized crime in and around Fukuoka was due, to a large degree, to involvement with the coal mines.

  24. I think your completely wrong about the shipbuilding angle. Modern Nagasaki was, and to a large extent remains, highly dependent on Mitsubishi Heavy. While you talk down shipbuilding as 19th century industry, Japan doesnt peak as a shipbuilding nation until after WWII, (and really, 1970’s up until the oil shocks and crash in the early 80’s). Likewise the boom in global trade doesnt exist without shipping – nothing get made in china without iron ore and coal (transported by bulk carriers, which are a specialty of japanese yards), and nothing made in china gets anywhere without containerized trade (via container ships). See also oil tankers etc.

    People may be transported on planes and trains, but goods are transported by sea, and will likely always be transported by sea, because it is the most efficient method to do so. You also cant really argue that the rise in air travel/trains has hurt MHI because MHI doesnt build passenger vessels.

    While Korea has replaced Japan as the leading shipbuilding nation, this has to do with a number of factors including the strength of the korean shipbuilding industry, the cheapness of the won, and strict governmental regulation of the Japanese shipbuilding industry following the crash in the 80’s.

    But i will agree with the general gist of your comments.

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