Page last updated at 23:14 GMT, Monday, 10 August 2009 00:14 UK

What happened to the Box in Japan?

The BBC Box project, launched in September to tell the story of international trade and globalisation by tracking a standard shipping container around the world, has faced delays on the latest leg of its journey in Japan.

Ian Aitchison from the shipping line NYK, which is working with the BBC to manage the logistics of the project, explains why.

The Box
The Box offers a window into the world of global trade

As a member of the Box project team and as someone very keen to see the Box move onwards from Yokohama, please let me explain some of the background to the issues we have been facing since the Box arrived in Japan in April.

I would also like to apologise to the many thousands of you watching this page for the fact that, despite our efforts, circumstances have conspired against us and meant the Box's stay in Japan has been rather longer than planned!

The first problem to befall the Box was a legal one. The process to clear the Box through Japanese customs was not as straightforward as planned, when customs staff took a keener interest than anticipated and requested additional duties be paid as a result of the satellite transceiver equipment (a tracking device) inside the Box.

BBC News is following a container around the world for a year to tell stories of globalisation and the world economy
The Box's journey began in September, transporting Scotch whisky
Since then it has travelled to countries including China, the US, Japan and Brazil
It has carried goods such as beauty products, gardening equipment and spearmint flavouring

There was also a structural problem, with the discovery that the Box had been damaged between loading in Brazil and discharge in Japan.

After an in-depth investigation, which took some time, to ascertain where and how the damage could have occurred, the Box was repaired and the task of identifying a suitable shipper for the next leg began in earnest.

Drop in trade

This identification process has been challenging and has caused the bulk of the delay for three reasons. Firstly, the downturn in global trade generally meant that the original cargo, planned at the outset of this project, was no longer available for shipping.

Instead, the Box will contain a consolidated cargo, made up of a range of items to be shipped - all of them less than a full container load - which have been "consolidated" into a full container load. This is the same principle that post offices around the world use to fill their postal vans with letters and parcels all bound for similar delivery destinations.

The impact of the downturn can be seen in the graph below, which shows the total number of international container shipments in TEU per quarter from 1996 until 2009, and the current forecast until 2016, as estimated by the freight transport consultants MDS Transmodal. TEU stands for Twenty-Foot Equivalent Unit and is the standard unit of measurement in the container shipping industry. The Box, being a forty-foot container, is equal to 2 TEU.

Total international container shipments

Secondly, as Japanese automotive goods - the project team's planned cargo - are shipped by experienced exporting companies, these companies have modified their packaging over the years to fully utilise the space inside a standard container. Unfortunately, the amount of space taken up inside the Box by the marine batteries, which power the satellite transceiver, is just too big to allow this packaging to fit.

Thirdly, container shipping works because everyone uses standard-sized containers, which can easily be swapped with each other since there are millions of them dotted around the world. Under normal shipping circumstances, we would simply supply a customer with the correct-sized and most conveniently located NYK container.

Send us your pictures - the Box on its travels, other containers in interesting or unusual situations, or just good shots of containers in use

However, for this project we are using a specific container, so must ensure that we have a suitable cargo for the next leg available at whichever destination the Box arrives.

A bit like in a game of snooker where after potting the red balls, a good player always lines up the white ball ready to pot the coloured balls in order. But if a pot is missed or the white becomes misaligned, it can take a few shots before you can continue on to the black. So it is with The Box in Yokohama.

Onward bound

This said, I am delighted (and relieved!) to announce that the Box will soon be moving again. On Saturday, 15 August it will finally leave Yokohama with a consolidated cargo bound for Thailand, where it is due to arrive the following weekend.

Finally, I would like to thank you all for reading and for your support. The level of interest shown in this project has exceeded all our expectations. All of which makes it rather embarrassing when we incur such an extensive delay in Japan. For this I can only apologise.

You can join in with our project by sending us your pictures - the Box on its travels, other containers in interesting or unusual situations, or just good shots of containers in use. We will show off the best on this website.

Send your pictures to, text them to 61124 or you have a large file you can upload here.

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