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Monday, March 3, 2008

A Few Facts About Akira Aoyama, Japanese Civil Engineer

(This blog was originally posted "In Your Neighborhood" on Monday, February 11, 2008. Due to a recent format changeover, it did not travel to the current blog and has been reposted. - MS)

Author's note: This article is being posted in connection with my earlier blog of today "Saluting My Good Neighbors - Here & In Other Places.) about the link between my neighbors Henry R. (Hank) Fenbert of Federal Way, WA and his friend Charles W. (Chuck) Hummer, Jr. of Seminole, Florida and Akira Aoyama, the only Japanese engineer to work on the Panama Canal.)

Above: My granduncle, Japanese civil engineer Akira Aoyama (with
mustache) and his family.

In 1903 my granduncle, Akira Aoyama, a Japanese national and native of Shizuoka-ken in Japan, entered the United States through the Port of Tacoma, WA on the Ryojun Maru with the purpose of making a connection with Professor William Hubert Burr, of Cornell University who was putting together a group of engineers to form a field survey team and travel to Panama. Read more about Professor Burr.

Aoyama, a devout Christian and recent civil engineering graduate of Japan’s Imperial University would spend several months in Tacoma working various odd jobs and studying his English waiting for the call to join the rest of the men prior to the team's departure for Panama in June 1904.

He would receive permission from the War Department to work on the canal as an employee introduced by Professor Burr, and began work as a roadman without examination once the group arrived in Panama. He was a Gold Team member and worked with the group of American engineers for seven and a half years. Among his responsibilities included being put in charge of construction of the Gatun Lock Gate wing wall on the lakeside and a control mooring wall further town the road.

Here's a link to a beautiful artist's illustration made of the Gatun Lock Gate.

During his work in Panama Aoyama also documented some of the work in progress and other surrounding topics of interest with his camera. The experience in Panama would serve him well upon his eventual return to Japan where he has been credited with the design of lock works in 1924 along the Arakawa River saving metropolitan Tokyo from what had been years of devasting floods.

Above: Iwabuchi Sluice Gate along the
Arakawa River designed by Akira Aoyama.

During my short correspondence with Hank’s classmate, I’ve become aware of the Panama Canal Museum and it’s work, particularly the project Hummer has been involved with researching the story of those West Indians whose contributions to the canal have not been fully told.

It is particularly uplifting for myself to hear of such on-going efforts like Hummer’s because my granduncle Akira Aoyama, by virtue of his solitary individual contribution to Professor Burr’s team and unpopular, alien citizenship did not merit outside his immediate family until recent years the most brief footnote.

Nevertheless, the value of sharing his participation on the American team is not so much because his contribution to the Panama Canal was so worthy, but it is precisely due to the fact he was a team member that made it possible for Aoyama to now be included in hindsight on some lists as one of the three most outstanding civil engineers of the twentieth century in his own county.

He has been the subject (together with two other members of his profession) of a film, two children’s books and a biography by NHK (public radio & televison) reporter Tetsuro Takasaki. The gate he designed along the Arakawa is a Metropolitan Tokyo tourist destination.

An exhibit about Aoyama was featured at a gala reception in Panama commemorating 100 Years of Diplomatic Relations between Panama & Japan courtesy of the Museo del Canal de Panama.

As president of the Japan Society of Civil Engineers in the 1930's, Aoyama worked on pioneering efforts to develop a code of ethics within the organization. He was interested in the study of Esperanto. I'm not familiar with Esperanto, but there's a website featuring inscriptions that Aoyama had placed on at least one of his construction projects in Esperanto.

Above: This is a photo
of where one of the
inscriptions Akira
Aoyama had placed in

Aoyama served in Japan’s Ministry of the Interior as director for several years prior to World War II. Ironically Aoyama’s career with the Ministry was terminated in the late 30’s as his close ties with the United States including participation on the Panama Canal were seen to be in conflict with those sympathetic to goals promoted by the military.

Conversely, it was his perceived ties as a Japanese national which cast an intolerant eye on Aoyama's work on the canal.

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