With over 100 years of experience in dredging and land reclamation, construction engineering company Kojimagumi is uniquely placed to meet Japan’s infrastructure needs and help re-evaluate the country’s approach to urban and harbor planning.
Japan experienced a construction boom around the time of the 1964 Olympics and now its infrastructure is aging and there is more demand for maintenance rather than new builds. What in your view are Japan’s infrastructural needs?
As you mentioned, Japan built a lot of infrastructure during the period of rapid economic growth and now many buildings are aging and in need of maintenance. In fact, improving maintenance is key to increasing these buildings’ longevity. At the same time, we still need to shift to new constructions and make them more efficient, so the right balance needs to be struck. Though not many people talk about it, a lot of projects need to be undertaken in Japan soon.
When renovating infrastructure, you must also consider the problem of population decline and, for example, the fact that there are still traffic jams in urban areas, which means that new roads might be needed. Furthermore, since Japan is prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis, it is important to build protections against these. These types of structures are being built, but at a slow pace. In addition, landslides have become a more severe problem and sludge is accumulating in dams, which could also lead to natural disasters, so there are many factors that need to be considered.
The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism is involved in efforts to increase safety across the Japanese territory. In this sense, maintenance of existing structures is extremely important, as are new constructions. It is time for Japan to re-evaluate its urban planning and harbor planning to make them more efficient.
While there is still a lot of work to be done domestically, Japanese companies are increasingly looking for opportunities overseas, with Japanese contractors building structures such as Jakarta’s Mass Rapid Transit and Hong Kong Airport. What do you think differentiates the quality of Japanese construction?
In truth, I think Japanese companies’ international competitiveness is weak because after the bubble burst in the 1990s they were scared to take risks, and this resulted in many companies going bankrupt. For this reason, many Japanese companies are extra careful in going overseas, in contrast to Chinese and Korean companies, for example, who are more willing to take risks. You mentioned two cases of Japanese contractors involved in foreign projects, but these are two small examples in the context of a much bigger picture. Overall, Japanese companies are lagging. When projects are over ¥50 billion, Japanese companies tend to avoid them.
There are still many challenges that Japanese construction companies must face. One being that the government has been reducing its budget for new constructions. With fewer projects, Japanese companies are not able to enhance their technological innovation. For example, the last bridges we worked on were the one that connects Awaji Island to the mainland, and the Aqua Line in Chiba. If you look at China, their technology is already advanced because they are actively engaged in new constructions.
In terms of the strengths of Japanese companies, they provide high quality, sturdy, and safe constructions. On the other hand, one of the challenges is that it takes time for them to make decisions, especially because their projects are also expensive. I feel that companies overseas would like to work with Japanese companies, but this is more costly and there is a preference for constructions done rapidly and for these reasons they do not actively engage with us. Before, companies with advanced technology had the leading edge, but now it is more about quick decision-making and providing a quality output at a cheaper cost.
Your work is carried out in coastal environments, and there are many environmental factors that need to be taken into consideration, such as tidal erosion, sea level rises, and soil deposition. How do you guarantee the marine environment’s stability when engaged in dredging and land reclamation projects?
Most of the time in Japan, harbors are built at rivers mouths, and it is natural for the soil coming from upstream to form deposits. However, dams prevent soil erosion, therefore, soil does not accumulate in harbors as much. This is affecting the environment negatively because the soil carries nutrients on which marine life depends. Therefore, it is beneficial to occasionally stir up the soil in harbors so that nutrients may circulate. However, a balance must be struck because it is also important to remove large accumulations of soil.
In land reclamation, it is very important for us to co-exist with the ocean and the key here is understanding. We worked with DEME, a Belgian company, on two projects in Singapore. They told us that it took them 20 years to get their message across that their projects are not destroying the environment and that in fact they create more sustainable environments. It is crucial for that message to get across: we are not just dredging and moving sludge to harm the environment but, rather, we are benefiting the environment through our work. Dredging is crucial to safeguarding human as well as marine lives.
By removing debris from rivers and coastlines, you contribute to preventing disasters, such as flooding, and help harbors get back to work after tsunamis and storms. Could you explain your role in disaster prevention?
When there is debris along vessels’ navigation path, it is crucial for it to be removed to secure the path, therefore allowing ports to function again after natural disasters. We are expected to be on the site within 72hours with all the required equipment and restore the port in a week or so. We have a special kind of vessel to retrieve debris from the water.
Another approach is removing sludge from the ocean and using it for land reclamation elsewhere: this effectively means retrieving sediments caused by humans, animals, and land erosion, or even organic waste such as feces and wood, which are carried into the ocean by rivers. These organic materials will eventually rot and start to smell, and that is one reason it is important for us to deal with these phenomena.
You also remove sludges containing harmful substances such as PCBs that need to be processed safely. Are you looking for partners that would allow you to do so?
Although most of the sludge we remove does not contain harmful substances, in a few cases they do and it’s important that we can process them safely. Therefore, we are looking for partners both in Japan and overseas. I believe that the successful attainment of the SDGs depends on creating partnerships between companies that have the same objective in realizing the SDGs: even if we tried hard to achieve the SDGs, as a single company that would not be possible. Therefore, we are looking forward to working with new partners to achieve these important goals.
You have several grab dredger vessels, such as GOSHO, and the 381 Ryoseimaru. All of these are used for different applications and in different marine environments. Could you explain more about these technologies?
The purpose of having large grab dredgers is to make them more economical, more efficient, and geared towards mass output. We gained extensive knowledge and experience through the Singaporean projects, including learning more about our grab dredgers’ strengths, such as the fact that they can catch stickier and harder soils. European and North American companies mainly use cutter suction dredgers or trailer suction dredgers, which are not efficient in dealing with sticky and hard types of soil. We realized that through our technology we have this advantage, and we are looking to utilize this strength to enter new markets.
Our vessels GOSHO and the 661 Ryoseimaru, which have both been used in Singapore, were created over 20 years ago and are particularly energy efficient, using half the energy needed to operate conventional grab dredgers. This is because we have developed a good counterweight system: our heaviest grab bucket weighs over 400 tons, but by connecting it with wire ropes to a counterweight behind the dredger crane, we can easily pull the sludge up. The 381 Ryoseimaru is another type, a hybrid vessel, that generates electricity while operating. Global society is calling for energy-saving activities, however, often the answer lies simply in applying physics, therefore using natural energy. Our counterweight system uses wire ropes and is basically simple technology, which also presents less risk of failure. This is one of the advantages of our grab dredgers.
Japanese construction firms are famous for their quality, reliability, and safety, but have been slow when it comes to digital transformation. Are you looking to adopt digital tools for your dredging work?
The Japanese government is calling for an increase in ICT, as well as advancements such as autonomous operating. In fact, ours are the only grab dredger vessels in Japan with autonomous operating capabilities, and they can carry out dredging and sludge removal automatically. In the future, we envision that everything will be automated, including our vessels reaching the sites by themselves, performing the dredging work, and transporting the sludge to another vessel that is unloading it to the land.
In 2008, you started your overseas operations in Saudi Arabia, and have since carried out projects in South Africa, Cameroon, and Singapore. What is your international strategy moving forward?
We are happy to go anywhere in the world whenever there is an opportunity, however, we have a limited number of vessels. We are currently targeting countries that need to build infrastructure especially in ports and harbors. East Asia and Southeast Asia is our target in the short term because many Asian countries have budgets for harbor and port constructions; India would be our next target. Later, we would like to move on to Africa.
We still have a good relationship with DEME, who we worked with in Singapore, and hopefully we will conduct more projects with them. Our capability is not sufficient to act as a direct contractor, and we still work with major Japanese firms and contractors. We would like to continue working with major companies – including international ones, with whom we have good relationships – in pursuing overseas projects. Another example is China Harbor, which is now CRCC (China Railway Construction Corporation), a major railway company in China. We hope to continue working on new projects with them too.
Imagine we interview you again on your last day as president. What dreams or goals would you like to have accomplished by then?
There are many things I would like to do for this company, including conducting internal reforms. First, I would like to uplift our employees’ capacities, as by having well-trained employees we can maintain efficient proprietary technologies. Having good employees is this company’s foundation. Furthermore, we must honor our customers’ trust. In the next 10 or 20 years, we will need to continue collaborating closely with our clients to make our technologies more efficient and advanced. We must offer our clients our best services with the goal of getting new projects. As I mentioned, if we want to improve society and meet the SDGs it is important to collaborate with other companies.
Building trust with customers is a very important factor in business. The first time we went overseas, we worked with China Harbor and established a good relationship with their employees. If you communicate well, you can understand each other. The relationship we built led to the project’s success, and the same is true for the Belgian company we worked with. We were able to gain their trust by providing what they needed even before them asking us. We have been able to come this far thanks to these kinds of relationships. When we talk about creating world peace, I believe that communication is the core and that it would lead to a much better society. I do not consider myself a “smart” guy, and this is why I follow my heart. It is important to trust others.