While the development of diving equipment has been fairly well documented in Western Europe, the innovations which appeared in other parts of the world remain less so. Japan, as an island nation, has obviously had a long and vital connection to the sea, and it is hardly surprising that they would begin to develop equipment and techniques for exploring beneath the waves. “Ohgushi’s Peerless Respirator” was certainly one of the most successful of the former.
Most of what we know about this device and its inventors comes from the patents which were filed in various counties and anecdotal mentions in records of salvage operations. The man initially responsible for the idea for the respirator was Watanabe Riichi. A resident of Tokyo, Watanabe was a pearl merchant who was dissatisfied with the diving equipment then available to his workers. The standard diving dress then in use in Japan, patterned after the heavy diving helmets and dresses introduced from England and elsewhere in Europe in the last half of the 19th Century, was certainly useful, but was costly and difficult to maintain and use. The smaller stature of the Japanese at that time added a literal burden to the divers as well. Watanabe decided it was necessary to develop some new kind of diving gear that would be more flexible and easily transportable, requiring fewer workers and smaller boats. At the same time, it must be lightweight and safe to operate at the depths at which pearling typically took place.
Watanabe himself, however, had no real knowledge of diving equipment or its manufacture, so he enlisted the aid of a friend, Ohgushi Kanezo. Ohgushi, also of Tokyo, was a machinist. While it is not known if he himself had any particular knowledge regarding diving equipment, the two men worked together on the project and by 1916 had developed a unique diving device anything seen before. Patents on the new device were taken out in Japan, Great Britain (no.131,390), the United States (no.1,331,601), France (no.496,716) and Italy. In the end, the new equipment satisfied all the goals that Watanabe had set, and also give divers the ability to work in either a surface-supplied or self-contained mode.
While designing the equipment was a great step, it meant nothing if the gear was not manufactured and used. For this Watanabe turned to a true professional in the field of diving, Kataoka Kyuhachi (1884-1958). Kataoka was not only an innovator in the development of new equipment, but also actively engaged in salvage and other actual underwater operations. It was Kataoka who developed the third type of valve used on the Ohgushi Respirator which fully freed the diver’s hands for work. In 1918 Kataoka founded the TOKYO SENSUI KABUSHIKI KAISHA (Tokyo Diving Industrial Company) which manufactured the respirator, and he later embarked on a string high profile salvage operations using the new equipment, most notably the salvage of nearly 200,000 Pounds Sterling worth of British gold sovereigns from the torpedoed “Yasaka Maru” near Port Said. It was as a result of his less successful work on the salvage of the “Black Prince” for the Soviet government in 1927 that the Ohgushi respirator made its entry into Russia, where it continued to be used into the 1950’s.
The stories of Watanabe, Ohgushi and Kataoka and their innovative diving equipment deserve to be immortalized in the annals of diving history. While the device was well known in Japan and the pearling grounds of Asia, it was not until diving historians began to “connect the dots” that the link to Russia was discovered and recorded. We now know that Watanabe’s goal was probably realized beyond his wildest dream. Ohgushi’s Peerless Respirator was indeed an invention of worldwide significance.