“Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter”
– African Proverb

Walter Benjamin famously said that “history is written by the victors”, and the truth of this mantra repeats throughout the inventing timeline over and over; take the unsung hero of the second industrial revolution, Nikola Tesla, whose work was stolen by Thomas Edison, or Daisuke Inoue who never made a million from his karaoke machine.

Time and time again, great inventors become overshadowed by corporations or people that take the credit for their work. What follows is just another tale in a library full of broken dreams: we bring you the mystery of the Ohgushi Peerless Respirator.

One of the first scuba regulators is born – in Japan

In 1904, Watanabe Riichi, Omura Clansman of Kyushu, Japan, graduated from the Tokyo Fisheries Institute, a university of marine science and technology. He quickly became engaged in fisheries research, and established the Takashima Cultured Pearls Enterprise in Nagasaki Prefecture, a first for Japan.

It was here that he began his first steps towards the invention of the mask-style respirator with the assistance of local blacksmith Ohgushi Kanezo, after whom the invention would later be named. Their aim was to design a self-contained diving system, using a similar mask design to that of the famous Ama divers, women who dived the Japanese waters bare-chested and harvested pearls. In 1916 Riichi went on to cooperate with Captain Kataoka Kyuhachi, to continue research and development for the respirator – it is here that Ohgushi Kanezo’s place in the story ends, and mystery surrounds his very own disappearance much like that of his eponymous invention.

By 1918, the first model of the Ohgushi Peerless Respirator was patented in Japan, and put into production by the Tokyo Submarine Industrial Company; a firm which was established specifically for the purpose of marketing the Ohgushi mask-style respirators, salvage works and for the business of collecting products from the sea floor, using this revolutionary new piece of technology.

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A diver (identity unknown) models the pioneering Ohgushi respirator

They bet their lives on it

The development of the equipment attracted the attention of the Japanese Naval authorities, who requested a demonstration of this alien device that allowed people to freely breathe underwater. They arranged to view the apparatus at the Yokosuka Harbour. To prove that their equipment worked, either Watanabe Riichi or Captain Kataoka would have to risk their lives, diving an incredibly deep 60 metres to the murky, litterstrewn bottom of the harbour with ships hovering above like storm clouds.

Luckily, the demonstration was successful and the new device won high favour with the Japanese Naval authorities who decided to adopt the machine and use it at each and every naval station. Earlier that year Captain Kataoka had also travelled to the warm Polynesian waters, and carried out Ohgushi tests for six months; it was a machine that proved able to work in different conditions.

Treasures from deep

The Japanese Naval authorities were so confident in the device that the Ohgushi Peerless Respirator was used to salvage the wrecks of both the Norwegian vessel Calendar outside Nagasaki Harbour, and the British vessel Nile off the Yamaguchi Prefecture. These operations were carried out at a staggering 60 metres deep, and the official advertising pamphlet claimed the equipment had been dived to 114 metres – if correct, this would have been an amazing result even for today’s scuba equipment.

The Ohgushi Respirator was also used to salvage the S.S. Yasaka Maru, famously sunk by a German submarine off the mouth of the river Nile with 45 tons of sterling gold coins in her safe. Working for three months, 10 divers succeeded in recovering 99 percent of the gold from a depth of 76 metres.

The Ohgushi was becoming widely successful, and in 1919, the British patenting office patented the Ohgushi Respirator (no. 131,390), followed by the US (no. 1,331,601) in 1920.

In 1922, Captain Kataoka and three divers sailed to Thursday Island, part of a small archipelago that sits in the Torres Strait, Australia, to test the Ohgushi Peerless Respirator in the deep sea by collecting pearl oyster shells at a depth of up to 79 metres. The test was highly successful, and showed the Torres Strait Oyster Guild, who were present, exactly why they should start using the Ohgushi equipment to improve their harvesting.

Captain Kataoka Kyuhachi, developer of the respirator that should have changed the course of scuba diving history

Captain Kataoka Kyuhachi, developer of the respirator that should have changed the course of scuba diving history

A deal was struck between the Torres Strait Pearl Guild and Captain Kataoka for Ohgushi to be used in Australasia. A contract was made for around SGD 14,000, and the Japanese team received SGD 500 as option money and happily returned to Japan with their eyes on the larger prospect; Ohgushi was about to take over the world.

Subterfuge and sabotage?

But in life, when things look on the up, there always seems to be someone who wants to bring you down. In this case it was the British Homeland Diving Equipment Manufacturers and Dealers, who heard of the success of Ohgushi and the proposed contract, which would make the Japanese the leading pioneers of the diving industry. To counter this, they spitefully launched an opposition campaign to stop the completion of the deal. There was so much overwhelming pressure on the Guild from high-power members that they were forced to cancel the contract.

There was nothing Riichi or Captain Kataoka could do. Ohgushi’s deal was cut and soon afterwards they silently fizzled out of the public eye like a firework with water damage. It wasn’t until two decades later that a suspiciously similar mask that covered the eyes and nose turned up in the Western world, and its “inventor” was declared a pioneer of the industry. Meanwhile, half the world away, the efforts of three bright inventors were nothing but a memory.

The truth will out

In 1972, Captain W.O. Shelford published an article in the British magazine Triton, announcing his discovery of a device called “Ohgushi”, developed in Japan, which predated any modern mask developments. The buzz to find the truth behind the Ohgushi mask was on, yet still to this day, many facts and historical records appear misplaced (or rather lost) and the details behind what exactly happened to the fantastic invention remain a mystery.

An early technical drawing of the Ohgushi Respirator. Image courtesy of Nyle Monday

An early technical drawing of the Ohgushi Respirator. Image courtesy of Nyle Monday

To find out how the Ohgushi Peerless Respirator worked read Asian Diver (Issue 1/2016)

Images courtesy of Nyle Monday – for more of Monday’s selected works, click here.