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Kawasaki, Heart of the Keihin Industrial Zone

Japan's industrial plants are currently concentrated in four main areas. One of these is the Keihin Industrial Zone, which spans the cities of Tokyo, Kawasaki, and Yokohama.

As the 19th century ended and the 20th began, Japanese industry shifted its attention from such light industries as foodstuffs and textiles and turned instead to such heavy industries as steel, shipbuilding, and machinery. Such heavy industry required ports and vast tracts of land. In response to this need, a portion of Tokyo was built on reclaimed land, and factories sprang up in quick succession.

World War I spurred the growth of Japan's munitions industry. In order to accelerate production, more factories were built, this time on land in Kanagawa Prefecture. Then, as a result of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, there was an active migration of plants into Kanagawa Prefecture, and the Keihin Industrial Zone - centered mainly around Kawasaki and Yokohama - came into being. The Manchurian Incident of 1931 gave further impetus to the development of Japan's military-industrial complex. In particular, the shipbuilding and automobile sectors received government support, and in 1933 Nissan Motor was established in Yokohama. Although the Keihin Industrial Zone suffered major damage in World War II, many petrochemical and petroleum refineries still remain concentrated in Kawasaki.

Japan’s economy, which had suffered a major blow in the Second World War, got a boost in 1950, when the Korean Conflict broke out. Industrial activity once again began picking up. From 1955 through 1973, Japan experienced a period of high economic growth. Its average GDP growth during this period exceeded 10%, and, in 1968, Japan overtook West Germany to become the world’s second largest economic power. The Tokaido Shinkansen began service in October, 1964, and that same year Japan hosted its first Olympic Games, bringing the country into the fold of developed nations.

The Keihin Industrial Zone has played an extremely important role in promoting Japan's industrialization. On payday during the high growth period, the restaurants and shops in front of Kawasaki Station were crowded with workers, a sign of the booming times. Today there still remains an area of cheap drinking shops and set-meal restaurants, a nostalgic reminder of the time when the town catered to the needs of the ordinary workingman.

The Keihin Industrial Zone, which has ports in Tokyo, Kawasaki, and Yokohama, is not just steel and petrochemical refineries but is also home to such light industries as food products, printing, and textiles. Japan's largest printing plants are to be found in the Keihin Industrial Zone; in fact, one-fourth of all Japanese printing plants are concentrated there.

Another special feature of this area is its large concentration of small and medium size plants. Many play an important role as sub-contractors and outsourcing affiliates of major corporations. These small plants have sufficient craftsmanship skills to take on the kind of detailed and demanding work that cannot be handled by large plants. Highly valued by big industry, they played an integral part in Japan’s post-war reconstruction. However, in recent years, as a result of the movement of production offshore to countries with cheaper labor costs, many of these small and medium size companies have lost their sub-contracting work and have been forced to close.

In 1999, the Keihin Industrial Zone surrendered its top position as the largest industrial zone in terms of product shipment value to the Chukyo Industrial Zone, an area dominated by Toyota Motor and group affiliates. Because of the rise in the price of Tokyo suburban land and also as a result of tightened environmental regulations, many petrochemicals plants have been forced to relocate to other industrial zones. As a result, some operations have been converted into R & D facilities, while some idled plants and their sites have been turned into shopping centers, distribution warehouses, or residential developments. However, in Ukishima, Ohgishima, and Chidori-cho - the areas where we filmed - petrochemical refineries still operate 24/7, continuing to support the national economy.

Recently, many sightseeing tours offer a night cruise of the Keihin Industrial Zone. These heavy-industry plants aglow with all their lights make for a rather awesome and mysterious sight. It also seems a bit mysterious that, in the current IT era, such a sight can still be seen.

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