TOKYO — As a small boy, Teruaki Kawai watched wide-eyed as American DC-3s took off and landed at a small airport across an inlet from his home on the Hiroshima coast.
Japan’s golden era of aviation, which culminated with the feared and respected Mitsubishi Zero fighter planes, had ended a decade earlier along with World War II.
Banned from making planes by American occupiers after the war, then allowed only to make parts for U.S. military jets, Japan’s aircraft industry was a shadow of its former self.
If all goes well this year, Kawai, now 65 and president of Mitsubishi Aircraft, will preside over Japan’s biggest aviation comeback since the war. In late 2013, the company plans the first flight of its Mitsubishi Regional Jet, a sleek, 90-seat commercial plane that is Japan’s bid to break into the industry’s big leagues after almost 70 years.
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“For decades, we were confined to supplying parts for other passenger jets. But we’re finally heading into new territory,” Kawai said in a recent interview at Mitsubishi Aircraft’s Tokyo office.
Mitsubishi’s comeback was abetted in large part by Boeing’s outsourcing more of its aircraft manufacture to overseas suppliers. As Boeing came to rely on foreign contractors, Japanese manufacturers moved in, designing and supplying some of the jet’s most vital sections.
A full third of Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner is supplied by Japanese manufacturers, including Mitsubishi Aircraft’s company, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which makes the jet’s carbon-fiber composite main wings.
Even so, Boeing and Mitsubishi could not be further apart in their approach to jet-building. In contrast to the cutting-edge 787, Mitsubishi’s regional jet uses only a little of the advanced carbon fiber that its parent company supplies to Boeing.
Neither does the regional jet use the volatile lithium-ion batteries that have become a major headache for Boeing, overheating on two planes in January and prompting American and Japanese safety regulators to ground the entire 787 fleet. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration on Friday approved Boeing’s fix for the battery system.
Mitsubishi’s caution underscores the importance, to the company and to Japan, of getting the regional jet project off the ground in an industry where reputation for reliability is paramount. That is especially the case, experts say, for a country long absent from the business of making planes, save military jets under license from the United States, and a series of small private jets.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, Mitsubishi participated in a consortium to develop the YS-11 plane, a 60-seat turboprop airliner led and largely financed by the Japanese government, which was eager to restart the country’s aviation industry.
Leading the YS-11’s design was Teruo Tojo, one of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter’s original engineers and the second son of Hideki Tojo, the Japanese wartime leader who was executed as a war criminal by the Allies.
But with no experience in making civilian jets, Tojo and his team of engineers struggled with the YS-11’s design.
Burned by the YS-11 flop, Japan shifted its aviation strategy to supplying, and learning from, the largest aircraft makers of the time, of which the largest was Boeing. Japanese suppliers have played an increasingly bigger role in building Boeing aircraft, supplying 15 percent of the 767 jet, 21 percent of the 777 and 35 percent of the 787.
The Japanese government quickly became one of the largest financial backers of those projects, handing out billions of yen in subsidies to help Japanese suppliers develop technology and win lucrative contracts from Boeing. T
Though the government declines to reveal exact numbers, estimates by researchers at the State University of New York of how much Japan has handed out to 787 suppliers in subsidies and loans over the past decade are as high as $1.6 billion.
Boeing outsources its parts manufacturing to pare its investment in research and development, design, manufacturing and also its workforce. These Boeing contracts have kept tens of thousands of Japanese workers busy for years, and still account for about 40 percent of jobs in the industry. They also help keep Japanese companies on the forefront of crucial aeronautical technology.
And in a cozy quid pro quo, Japan’s biggest airlines have for years bought their planes almost exclusively from Boeing — an unusual practice among global carriers, which tend to play Boeing off rival Airbus to negotiate better terms and prices.
In 2003, Japan announced bold plans to finance the development of compact, fuel-efficient aircraft. By the mid-2000s, Mitsubishi executives were gearing up to develop a passenger jet. The company placed Mitsubishi Aircraft’s new headquarters in its prewar offices in Nagoya, where engineers designed the Zero.
The Mitsubishi Regional Jet, announced in 2008, is conservative in its use of new technologies and materials.
Still, Mitsubishi’s regional jet boasts about 20 percent in fuel savings compared with similar size Brazilian-built Embraer 190 jets. Much of the fuel economy comes from its use of new engines from Pratt & Whitney.
The plane’s wings are thinner and are more aerodynamic than those on similar models, also improving energy efficiency.
Mitsubishi says newly designed seats on the MRJ also offer wider seats than rival aircraft: 18.5 inches across compared with 17.3 inches on Canada’s Bombardier’s CRJ700 series.
The company has 165 firm orders for the $42 million jet, and it aims to secure as many as 5,000 orders over the next two decades — a goal some experts dismiss as unrealistic.
It faces well-established rivals like Bombardier and Embraer. The Russians and Chinese are also making inroads into plane-building.
By bolstering its aviation credentials, Japan could also keep upstarts in South Korea, Taiwan and China from encroaching on its lucrative Boeing work, which analysts say contributes around a fifth of Mitsubishi’s roughly $5.7 billion aeronautics business.
“As a boy, I didn’t think that Japan would build a plane again,” Kawai said. “But it’s been over a half-century. It’s high time for Japan to give it another go.”