Table Speech

SIP “Next-Generation Marine Resources
Survey Technologies” --- “Zipangu in the Ocean” Plan

September 17, 2014

Dr. Tetsuro Urabe
Program Director, Cabinet Office, Government of Japan
Emeritus Professor, The University of Tokyo

 I will speak on the Next-Generation Marine Resources Survey Technologies program today. It constitutes the Strategic Innovation Promotion Program (SIP) that enhances the growth strategy advocated by Prime Minister Abe. This program is also known as the “Zipangu in the Ocean” plan, taken from the name referring to Japan in the travel accounts of an Italian merchant Marco Polo who traveled as far as to China in the 13th century. Marco Polo once wrote: Zipangu “produces a massive amount of gold and its palace and houses are made of gold.” We believe Zipangu today exists not on land but on the seabed.

 Please make a guess which country had the world’s largest export volume of “gold after the 8th century, silver around the 17th century and copper at the end of the 19th century.” The answer is Japan. While Japan is a small archipelago, it is estimated that 100-200 tons of gold were produced around the 8th century. The Spanish missionary of the 16th century, Francis Xavier, called Japan the “silver islands.” Silver export back then is estimated to have totaled 10,000 tons. Thanks to the modern mining technology introduced by the Meiji government, Japan became the world’s largest copper exporter in the 1890s. Looking back on our history, we should note that those in power have traded such abundant mineral resources in exchange for foreign cultures and civilization. Trading of gold brought the Buddhist culture from China. Silver exports brought advanced technologies from China and the West, together with silk, cotton, medicine, sugar and books. Copper exports enhanced the progress of modern mechanical civilization in Japan.

 Looking at our geological features, Japan has intense volcanism and seismicity, which trigger “hydrothermal activity” that forms metalliferous deposits underground and on the seabed. Most parts of the Honshu (main island of Japan) arc was below sea level 15 million years ago. As it emerged to be islands, abundant metal resources were found. Research shows that Japan borders on three submarine island arcs similar to the Japanese archipelago in size and arrangement. There is a high chance that abundant resources are buried under the seabed.

 Submarine hydrothermal activities of 14 million years ago formed the black ore deposits that run from Hokkaido to Shimane Prefecture in Japan. They produce superb quality copper, lead, zinc, gold and silver. Today, submarine hydrothermal activities are observed at about 400 locations throughout the world, of which 15-20 are located around Japan. We have an advantage because such deposits that surround Japan are at the depths of 700 to 1,600 meters, while majority of deposits around other countries are located as deep as 2,500 to 3,500 meters.

 Currently, extensive exploration is being conducted at Izena Cauldron in the Okinawa Trough. Data obtained by the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) developed the bathymetric charts showing that this area has the world’s largest black ore deposits which measure some dozens of meters high. There are very extensive ore bodies beneath these heaps of ore. What is more, we found the cobalt-rich manganese crust formations within the Japanese territorial waters at the depths of 1,000 to 3,000 meters. The 10-centimiter thick crust covers the seamount, which is a massive source of copper, cobalt, nickel, platinum, rare earth, phosphorus and titanium. If we succeed in extracting these seabed resources, we will become almost self-sufficient in metals and noble metals needed for advanced technologies. Let me highlight that the world’s oldest seamount (100 million years old) is located within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the Minami-Tori-Shima Island, the easternmost territory belonging to Japan, and has a vast amount of resources.

 I am the member of the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. The application made by the Japanese government to the International Seabed Authority was accepted and now 4 manganese crusts are added to our continental shelf that is 12.6 times as large as our total land area. The continental-shelf floor is the last frontier we are endowed with. Submarine resource development depends on an unexplored technology and there are numerous risk factors. The “Zipangu in the Ocean” plan has three main objectives: 1) to conduct metallogenic studies on the features of submarine minerals and deposits, 2) to develop a system that enables a much speedier and efficient information acquisition on submarine mineral resources, and 3) to develop a long-term monitoring technology on the environmental impact to allow sustainable mining. We are grateful for the budget allocation worth 6 billion yen a year on this five-year program. Our goals are to create a marine resource investigation industry that utilizes Japanese-made technologies as well as to make the Japanese investigation technology and environmental impact assessment method standardized internationally through close collaboration among the government, industry and academia. We hope to become the “Zipangu in the Ocean.”

 It is our sincere wish that the Japanese government implements this program on a long-term basis, based on a far-sighted policy, because mineral resource development is crucial to support Japan as a technology-oriented nation.