The MRJ is part of Mitsubishi’s plan to make Japan a leading power in the aerospace world, but it's not the only part.

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FARNBOROUGH, England — Fifty years ago at the Farnborough Air Show, the first commercial airliner designed and built by a consortium of the largest Japanese industrial companies made its first appearance in Europe.

The YS-11, a twin-turboprop seating 64 passengers, lost money and production ceased just a dozen years after its first flight.

At this year’s Air Show, Japan is trying again with a new commercial airliner, the Mitsubishi Regional Jet or MRJ. It flew on the opening day of Farnborough 2018, carrying aloft the hopes and ambitions of the Japanese aerospace industry.

The MRJ is designed and built by the Mitsubishi Aircraft Company — a unit of industrial giant Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, MHI, which was part of the YS-11 consortium. (It’s being tested at Moses Lake, and several hundred in Washington state are employed on the flight test  program.)

In an interview at Farnborough, Shunichi Miyanaga, the chief executive of MHI, said the MRJ is part of his company’s plan to make Japan a leading power in the world of aerospace.

“Our strategy is to expand the aerospace industry as a whole and to foster Japanese supply-chain-related industries and by doing so to become a … significant figure of the aerospace industries in the world,” Miyanaga said.

In April, trade magazine Aviation Week revealed that MHI had presented to the Japanese government proposals to strengthen collaboration among the country’s aerospace giants, which also include Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Subaru. The magazine reported that the options included the creation of “a Japanese version of Airbus.”

It’s not out of the question.

“I cannot say such a thing as ‘the Japanese Airbus,’ because we have not officially announced such ideas,” said Miyanaga. “But there might be such a possibility in the future.”

“But it has not been decided,” he added. “And there will be lots of (possible) ways to improve the business.”

The important relationship between the Japanese companies and Boeing, which at this juncture includes a large measure of uncertainty, is a key factor in shaping that future.

Nervous about their role

Japanese aerospace manufacturers are already powerhouses of technology. They are each so-called “Tier One” suppliers to Boeing, making large aerostructure parts for all Boeing’s jets.

MHI makes the wings of the 787 Dreamliner and fuselage panels for the 777 and 777X.

Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI) makes huge 787 carbon-fiber composite fuselage barrels and fuselage panels for the 777 and 777X.

Subaru, formerly Fuji Heavy Industries (FHI), makes the center wing box for the 787, the 777 and 777X.

The neat division of the Boeing work is not accidental.

There is already collaboration among the companies. With government backing, they formed an umbrella body called the Japan Aircraft Development Corp. (JADC) that puts in a coordinated bid to Boeing for work on new jet programs. JADC then divides up the work packages according to each company’s expertise.

Japan first got extensive work with Boeing on the 767 program, and with each successive Boeing jet program its projects got more and more sophisticated. On the 787, the Japanese companies were risk-sharing partners, paying part of the jet’s development costs.

On a tour of Japan’s aerospace business last year, the Japanese companies made clear their hope for an even higher “Super Tier One” status — “one step closer to being a builder of complete aircraft” — on Boeing’s next all-new airplane.

But as that next all-new airplane, the proposed NMA or 797, approaches a possible launch early next year, the Japanese companies still have no information from Boeing on what role they might play.

And they are worried, according to a senior executive in Japanese aerospace who spoke privately at Farnborough. This executive said Boeing has rebuffed all efforts to speak in detail about its NMA plans.

“Worst case, we may not be included,” he said.

Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief Kevin McAllister, in an interview at Farnborough, said his team will engage with suppliers on the program “at the right time.”

He added only that he’s pleased with the work of the Japanese suppliers on existing programs.

Exacerbating the Japanese concern is Boeing’s newly announced plan to acquire an 80 percent share in the regional jet program of Brazil’s Embraer.

Boeing needed a partner to counter the Airbus acquisition of the Bombardier CSeries and might have chosen the MRJ. Instead it chose the Embraer E-Jet family.

Japan’s parallel paths forward

Miyanaga says he’s not worried. He believes action is needed to strengthen the relationship with Boeing, but that the outcome is in Japanese hands.

He said MHI wants to remain a close Boeing partner and to be an “active supplier” rather than a passive partner that waits to see what work is handed out.

“Without doing so, it will be pretty difficult for us to survive as an attractive Tier One partner for Boeing,” he said. “We have to be a more sophisticated aircraft engineering company.”

He said MHI and the other Japanese companies have been working to improve productivity through technological expertise and innovation.

“We need to show the advantages of our expertise and our new production technologies, factory automation and other techniques, which Boeing can enjoy,” Miyanaga said.

He said the higher productivity should lead to more cost-competitive operations ­­— which has become a huge factor in Boeing’s calculations for the NMA.

And for him, the MRJ is a parallel path, likewise leading toward technical sophistication and independence.

“We need to focus on strengthening the Tier One business (with Boeing) and at the same time, we need to complete the MRJ development program,” he said.

Looking to the future well beyond the NMA, Miyanaga said potential aerospace competition from Russia and China, along with the Airbus/Bombardier and Boeing/Embraer consolidation, may spur the Japanese airplane industry toward greater integration.

“It might be a kind of concentration of Japanese industries,” he said, referring to MHI’s proposals to the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) for more intercompany collaboration. “But nothing has been decided.”

He noted that the unique structure of Japanese industry makes it difficult to merge the various pieces of its aerospace manufacturing into a single company like Airbus.

That’s because each of the giant companies is an industrial conglomerate. Fully 94 percent of Subaru’s business is making automobiles. Kawasaki makes motorbikes, ships, trains, jet engines and precision machinery. MHI has a vast array of industrial products. Aerospace is no more than 30 percent of the revenue for any of them.

“There are a lot of obstacles” to combining the aerospace parts, said Miyanaga. “It’s difficult to think about.”

In the meantime, flying its own airplane at Farnborough for the first time in five decades represents Japan’s ambition to move up in the world.