Cruise Ship History: JAPAN’S Trans-Pacific Liners – Were the fastest between the US and Japan prior to World War II.
In 1935, at the invitation of Waseda University, the Yale University Baseball Team came to Japan from New Haven, Connecticut on NYK’s Tatsuta Maru , and returned aboard Asama Maru. The team is seen with the captain and a ship’s officer. Six years Japan and the USA would be at war.
Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK), which literally translates to the Japan Mail Steamship Company, was first created in 1885, the result of a sensible merger between two Japanese shipping companies, Yubin Kisen Mitsubishi Kaisha (The Mitsubishi Mail Steamship Company) and Kyodo Unyu Kaisha (The Union Transport Company). Two red stripes were adopted for the new company’s house flag, symbolizing the mutual goodwill of both companies and the hope that their combined fleets would one day serve the entire world.
In due course, NYK Line became Japan’s national shipping company. Their subsequent passenger ships were given government-authorized mail-carrying status and therefore the highest priorities. The affixation was similar to the designation R.M.S. (for Royal Mail Ship) used by the most prominent British liners.
Historically, NYK Line opened the first regular Japan to the USA service in 1896 (the first arrival was met at Seattle with a 21-gun salute). They grew quickly. In 1901, just sixteen years after their formation, they already ranked as the seventh-largest shipping company in the world. A decade later, in 1911, an NYK freighter delivered the first cargo of trans-Pacific cherry tree saplings, a gift from the City of Tokyo to Washington, D.C. These same cherry trees line the banks of the Potomac to this day.
(Left: First and Second Class Accommodations aboard NYK Liners.)
One of Japan’s proudest periods in passenger shipping was the 1929 building of two of the finest and most luxurious ships ever to sail the Pacific Ocean – the Asama Maru and Tatsuta Maru. They were Japanese-designed and built, coming from the renowned Mitsubishi shipyard. At some 17,000 tons, they were then-traditional class-divided ships, and had provision for cargo as well as the all-important mails.
They were routed on NYK Line’s premier express service, regularly sailing from Hong Kong, Shanghai, Kobe and Yokohama to Honolulu, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Their passenger areas were of the highest quality, much of it in traditional European style. There were polished woods, stained glass skylights, fine dining rooms, lounges, library, gift shop, hair salon, comfortable cabins and a swimming pool on deck. This was luxury cruising at its finest.
The Asama Maru was the first to enter service in 1929 and she soon set the record for the fastest crossing of the Pacific on the Yokohama to San Francisco route. Her sister, the Tatsutu Maru entered service in 1930. In 1936 the Tatsutu Maru become the first merchant ship to pass under the new Bay Bridge linking San Francisco and Oakland.
They were routed on NYK’s premier express service, regularly sailing between Hong Kong, Shanghai, Kobe, Yokohama, Honolulu, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Yokohama to San Francisco, for example, took 15 days. Fares by the late 1930s started from $190 in second class and from $315 in first class. Their passenger areas were of the highest quality, much of it in traditional European style. There were highly polished woods, stained glass skylights, fine dining rooms, lounges, a library, a gift shop, hair salon, comfortable cabins, and a swimming pool on deck. This was luxury cruising at its finest.
Their First Class accommodations were especially fine and attracted such notable passengers as Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin and his wife Paulette Goddard, Helen Keller and Efrem Zimbalist.
The Asama Maru was the first to enter service in 1929. She soon set record for fastest crossing of Pacific on Yokohama-San Francisco route. The Tatsuta Maru entered service in 1930. One of the notable moments in her career was in 1936 when she became the first merchant ship to pass under the bridge (length of the main structure, 6.8 km; width, 19.8 m), linking San Francisco and Oakland.
Ceremonies of the opening were held at 11:10 a.m. on the 12th November 1936, on the Oakland side, and at 11:40 a.m. on the San Francisco side. Shortly after noon the Tatsuta Maru passed under the bridge in view of the many thousands of people who had gathered to witness the opening of the bridge for traffic from vantage points on the San Francisco side of the bay. Until the completion of the Seto-Ohashi in Shikoku, Japan, the Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland had been the longest in the world.
In 1937 the Asama Maru suffered a mishap when she was driven aground in Kowloon Bay during the Great Hong Kong Typhoon.
After the outbreak of the Second World War both ships were requisitioned as troopships but unfortunately both were sunk and did not survive the war and it was left to the Hikawa Maru to re-establish the trans-pacific service.