As an industrial export powerhouse, Japan has a reputation second to none. The country has manufactured every conceivable mode of transport, from green hybrid vehicles, groundbreaking Shinkansen trains, high-performance MotoGP motorcycles and even a significant portion of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
As the first country in Asia to develop its own shipbuilding industry, Japan is continuing to build on its reputation as a pioneer in the international shipping industry.
When the shipbuilding industry in Japan achieved international recognition in the 1970s, South Korea was one of the first nations to identify the industry as a driver for their own economic growth.
It took decades for the country to overtake Japan as the world's largest shipbuilding nation, which it finally accomplished in 2003. China began its own manufacturing of vessels in the 1990s and is expected to overtake South Korea in the next few years and become the largest shipbuilding nation by gross tonnage.
While the quality of new buildings in China has increased significantly, Japan's "quality first" credo and dedication to environmental technologies has enabled it to remain a significant player in the industry, despite increased international competition.
"Craftsmanship plays a very important role within Japanese culture and this is reflected in our shipbuilding industry. Japanese shipyards only hire the most highly trained expert craftsmen to work on their vessels," says Hiroaki Sakashita, deputy director-general of the Maritime Bureau of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.
Japan's Asian neighbours continue to build low-costs vessels and with the appreciation of the yen against the dollar, high material prices and increasing labour costs, Japan's shipbuilding industry faces many challenges.
"To remain competitive in the world market, Japanese shipyards are continuing to build highly sophisticated, quality vessels that are equipped with the latest innovations in industry technology," Sakashita says.
Recent innovations have focused on green shipping, an aspect of the industry in which Japan has remained a leader. Conceptualisation and development of new categories of vessels have included reducing CO2 emissions. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has finalised a conceptual design for a new Panamax containership vessel which reduces CO2 emissions by 35 per cent. IHI Marine United has developed a design for a 13,000 TEU-class type container ship which reduces greenhouse gas emissions and cuts fuel consumption by 30 per cent.
In order to further drive innovations, almost all Japanese shipyards collaborate with industry associations, universities and think tanks. An example is the Ocean Policy Research Foundation which develops new technologies to reduce emissions and improve vessel efficiencies.
"In order to reinforce Japan's competitiveness within the global shipbuilding industry, we undertake comprehensive research and prepare major studies on ocean policy and maritime technology. We also encourage international co-operation and facilitate open dialogues on industry developments," says Masahiro Akiyama, chairman of Ocean Policy Research Foundation.
Solutions developed by the maritime cluster which lead to safer and greener technologies are being applied to supporting industries.
The Japan Marine Equipment Association consists of almost 300 members. Accounting for a significant portion of the supply chain, the association's members support initiatives towards cleaner technologies.
"Our members are some of the most respected companies in their fields and supply the shipbuilding industry with high quality, innovative environmental technology solutions," says Shoichi Kitamura, executive managing director of the Japan Marine Equipment Association.
Member companies include manufacturers of diesel engines, navigational equipment, shaft and propeller systems, deck and marine auxiliary machineries and marine boilers.
"What helps drive our industry is the close collaboration between the various actors within the sector. While 90 per cent of Japanese shipowners order from local shipyards, 95 per cent of Japanese shipbuilders order from Japanese equipment manufacturers," Kitamura says.
As an export-driven economy with high levels of imported foreign goods, Japan depends heavily on its shipping and logistics sectors - the country's commercial fleet is the largest in the world. NYK Line, K Line, Mitsui OSK line and Nippon Express remain some of the biggest names in global shipping and in addition to their well-established global networks these giants provide a vital link from Japan to the world.
"When discussing the significance of international shipping in terms of our own economy, China is perhaps Japan's single most important market," explains Makoto Igarashi, vice-president of the Japanese Shipowners' Association. "Our shipowners have a long history of conducting business in China and they are continuing to secure long term contracts with companies engaged in steel, chemicals, power plants and other industries."
As bilateral trade between the world's second- and third-largest economies continues to grow, so too does China's coverage of the entire shipping industry's supply chain.
Japanese marine equipment and machinery manufacturers, shipping houses and logistics companies have a significant presence in China,
Most companies have multiple offices throughout China and some Japanese shipyards have manufacturing capabilities there.
Trading companies such as China & Japan Marine Industries, Kyushu-based logistics provider GENEQ Corporation and shipbrokers Matsui recognise the advantages of working closely with the mainland.
"I believe the Chinese economy will continue to grow," Sakashita says. "In order to sustain the country's expected growth, it is essential to further develop the cooperation which has been established between Chinese and Japanese companies."
Last year, the International Maritime Organisation's 40- member council elected Japan's Koji Sekimizu to the position of secretary-general.
"This appointment is very significant for Japan and the rest of Asia as Sekimizu is the first Asian to be elected secretary-general. We are proud of the fact that Asian countries are increasing their representation in the organisation," Sakashita says.
Throughout Asia and the rest of the world, opportunities for the industry to come together in major maritime hubs are highly anticipated. SEA Japan 2012 takes place in Tokyo from April 18 to 20 and is seen as platform for Japanese maritime companies to showcase their latest technologies and establish partnerships.
"Working alongside one another within the maritime industry has enabled Japan to remain competitive. We have the desire to push the limits of technology and seek new business opportunities. In addition, strengthening our relationship with China is very important for the future of our industry," Sakashita says.