Special Reports

Japanese imports lend critical engineering expertise

Weaving the intricate web of cables on suspension bridges is a highly specialized skill, one learned largely through on-the-job training.

It has not been practiced much in the United States in the past 50 years, and as far as the current generation of American construction engineers is concerned, it’s unknown territory.

Suspension bridge construction is alive and well in Japan, however, and Tacoma Narrows Constructors has imported a crack team of experts from its subcontractors, Kawada Industries and Nippon Steel Corp., to advise them on the new Tacoma Narrows bridge

The first members of the six-man team arrived in Gig Harbor in March, and began preparing their array of catwalks, tramways and spooling equipment before the towers were even finished.

Most of the men brought their families with them. All are living in the same residential complex, the Cliffside, within walking distance from the bridge construction site and TNC’s Narrowsgate field office.

The team includes two design engineers, Kiyotaka Miwa and Shin Fukatsu, and construction engineer Yoshinari Takai, who translates the designers’ calculations into practical terms for building.

Takenori Watanabe, a mechanical engineer, supervises the use of the specialized equipment used in the cable spinning (which is also from Japan).

Katsuhide Mine and Saburo Matsueda are field engineers. They have been spending their time on the construction site, training American workers and supervising construction.

The team’s collective résumé includes an impressive list of suspension bridges. Each member has worked on at least four bridges, some as many as six.

Their skill is not as unusual in Japan as it is in America, but it is still rare. Miwa estimates perhaps 50 other people in Japan have experience similar to theirs.

“Always the same few companies build suspension bridges,” he said.

Miwa, who is 37 and from Tokyo, came to Washington with his wife and 7-year-old daughter, a second-grader in Gig Harbor’s Harbor Heights Elementary School.

While the team members have worked on many bridges, this is their first in the United States, and they’ve noticed some striking differences.

The biggest, they say, is a matter of how the construction industry is organized.

“Japan and America have different systems,” Matsueda said. “It’s cultural. I think.”

In Japan, workers are more attached to their companies, they say, which gives them a sense of group loyalty and pride. Here, workers are more individualistic.

Also, they say, in Japan teams of specialists tend to stay together and travel from job to job as skilled units. Here, workers usually go their separate ways when a job is finished.

“Japan has one team, one small team goes anywhere. They’re specialists,” Matsueda said. “In America, at the time a project finishes, they separate.”

One would think that would make the learning phase of construction more difficult here. Matsueda says that is not the case, or at least he is too polite to say so.

His struggle with the English language sometimes is a problem, he says, but he tries his best to make up for it with sign language and by demonstrating.

Working on bridges is a Matsueda family tradition.

“Three generations, all metal bridge work, my father, three brothers, one sister and a cousin,” he said.

On their days off, team members and their families have been taking in the local sights – the Olympics, Mount Rainier, the Ballard Locks, the Yakima Valley.

That’s been fine, Matsueda said, but he has another dream of seeing America, one that’s been with him since he was a young man.

“I want to drive Route 66 in a Corvette Stingray,” he said.

It doesn’t look as if that dream will be realized this time. The team will be returning to Japan right after the deck is hung on the bridge cables next summer.

“Maybe Route 66 next time,” Matsueda said.