“A picture is worth a thousand words”: the artwork on the cover of my book, A Short History of Transport in Japan from Ancient Times to the Present, is a composition of two paintings by the British romantic painter, J. M. W. Turner (“Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway at Maidenhead”, and the sky in “The Fighting Temeraire, Tugged to Her Last Berth to be Broken Up, 1838”) that illustrate the essence of some important themes in the book. Turner’s nostalgia for the past is demonstrated by steam railways supplanting river and canal transport and steam-powered ships replacing sailing ships. The insertion of a magnetic levitation vehicle projecting out of the steam engine’s firebox alludes to a future with a 500 km/h mode of land transport.
The historical transformation of the transport sector, when applied to Japan, is a key theme of this book. Change is driven by institutions and organisations and, importantly, by individuals.
Institutions of national, regional and local government promulgate policies that are taken up by key actors in both the public and the private sector organisations of the economy. In the case of the governance of Japan from ancient times, descriptions of role of independent clan chiefs, the Emperor’s Court, regional warlords (daimyo), three successive military governments, the restoration of the Meiji Emperor and the more recent modernisation and bureaucratisation of the country, are described. Within this socio-political framework the evolution of transport systems (ports and shipping, canals and river transport, roads, railways, and airports and airlines) are explained.
There is an important component of the book’s cover that alludes to another theme: railways and the importation of overseas technologies and policies. Railways were vital to the British industrial revolution, so it was the British Minister to Japan, Sir Harry Smith Parkes, who successfully persuaded the Meiji Government that railways would unify the country as it progressed on its modernisation path and would help to move rice quickly to areas suffering from famine. In April 1870, the Japanese government hired Edmund Morel as its first Engineer-in-Chief to guide and supervise construction, to evaluate engineers working on the project and to provide guidance on the screening of foreign equipment imports. In addition, on his advice, the Ministry of Public Works was established (whose major role was introducing Western technology), as was an engineering college (later, the Tokyo Imperial Technical University).
The Ministry of Public Works administered the railway expansion program with Masaru Inoue, who had studied railway and mining at University College, London, as its first Director of Railways in Japan. The technical advice from British engineers was that the locomotives should run on the 3' 6" (1 067 mm) narrow gauge tracks used in British colonies such as South Africa and Australia where the density of traffic was low. The first shipment of ten tank locomotives and 58 two-axle passenger carriages manufactured in Britain arrived in Yokohama in September 1871. The story of private-railway development on even narrower gauges (782 mm) from the 1910 Light Railway Act is also pursued, including innovative business practices that included special excursions to bathing facilities, ownership of department stores at railway termini and suburban real estate development.
There is a detailed explanation in the book of how the railway network unfolded in urban and rural Japan but the salient points are: Government nationalisation of all major trunk routes; the use of railways by an increasing militaristic and colonial society; rebuilding railways after defeat in the Second World War; bankruptcy of Japanese National Railways (JNR) and geographically privatised companies over a network of 23,474 km; and a railway renaissance with high-speed trains running in time to announce Japanese technology to the world at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics.
That the Shinkansen program progressed is much to the credit of the JNR President, Mr Sogo Shinji, who appropriated money in the company’s 1959 budget. A World Bank loan to the Japanese Government funded the Tokyo-Osaka line as the first stage of a 2,765 km network in operation today. There was considerable public criticism: “Just like horse-drawn carriages and sailing ships were taken over by trains and steamships in the beginning of the nineteenth century the latter half of the twentieth century is the age of automobiles and airplanes, and now the railway is on the road to extinction.” There is an even more remarkable technological story coming a century and a half after the Russian Admiral, E. V. Putiatin was the first to demonstrate a steam engine to the Japanese in 1853: the 500 km/h magnetic levitation rail (Chuo Shinkansen) developed through Japanese scientific endeavour, and now under construction between Tokyo and Nagoya and planned for completion in 2027.
Other examples of cultural and technological borrowings abound. From archaic times, there was an influx of people from continental Asia and the Korean peninsula during the Yayoi period (900 B.C.—A.D. 300) who brought spinning and weaving technologies along with an agricultural package including the cultivation of paddy rice and millet. Chinese culture was imported in the first millennium – architecture (design of capital cities), calligraphy (kanji ideograms), religion (Zen Buddhism) and treaties on wise government. Fundamentally, a social code of behaviour, with strong Confucian influences from China, became formalised with a hierarchical system that continued through the centuries. The Chinese-inspired ritsuryo codes were more than mere words (ideograms) on a page: they reﬂected a “legal cosmology” that rested on metaphysical assumptions about the nature of the universe and place of people within it. The maintenance of social order was premised on vertical relations of hierarchy and subordination where every person had a specific role and specific duties.
There are several examples in the transport sector of the transfer of important concepts from China that were modified for local conditions. In the diplomatic trade missions between the two countries, the port administration in Japan followed the T’ang Dynasty government’s Shi Bo Si (市舶) – its Oceangoing and Marketing Department. The design of the Japanese road system was a direct copy of the Chinese system established during the Chou dynasty (1122-1222 B.C.), and subsequently improved in the Chin dynasty (222-207 B.C.). Chin highways were 50 paces wide, paved or well compacted, and lined with “shade trees” with each tree located at an interval of every 10 m. Post-stations at intervals of approximately every 112 km provided fresh horses for those on official business. The Taiho Code stipulated similar dimensions but, given the different mountainous topography, modifications were made with Japanese roads being narrower, and the post-stations were placed at an average interval of 20 km.
In conclusion, a general case can be made that Japan has imported Chinese and Western models, modified them for domestic consumption and re-packaged them for export into international markets.
26 March 2022
A Short History of Transport in Japan from Ancient Times to the Present is a new Open Access title available to read and download for free on the link below.