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Railway Giants: Shinkansen—The Train That Launched Japan Onto the World Stage

Railway Giants: Shinkansen—The Train That Launched Japan Onto the World Stage
photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain/C53 locomotive
18 / 05 / 2024

The story of Japan's railways is truly fascinating and full of innovation. Its highlight is certainly the Shinkansen, which has become an icon of the modern railway industry.

The story of the Japanese railway cannot be called austere; quite the opposite. It culminates in the creation of the most famous non-European trains, the Shinkansen. Let's recall how they were born and who one of the creators of this idea was.

Destined for the Railway

The year is 1901 and we are in the Japanese city of Osaka. It is here that a boy named Hideo is born into the family of a railway engineer named Shima. The Japanese Empire has been in a rather isolated position for many centuries. Unlike other countries in the Far East, Japan will not succumb to the power of the European powers and become a colony, but will instead develop slowly and on its own. However, Japan is still a relatively poor feudal state at the end of the 1860s. This would change with the reforms introduced by Emperor Meiji. Thanks to him, Japan will soon enough become a centralized modern country without the traditional caste system. The reforms will include a greater opening to the world. Japan will begin to trade with the world, and European experts will be brought in to help Japan overcome the many pitfalls of introducing industry into the country. Japan's development will go hand in hand with ever-greater power ambitions. This will culminate in the extreme nationalization and imperialist policies of the 1930s and 1940s. But that is another story.

Source: Wikimedia commons / Cassiopeia sweet / Public Domain

Let us now return to ours. Hideo inherits much from his father, including a love of the railroad. He will be educated at the prestigious Tokyo Imperial University, where he will study engineering. At the age of 24, he will join the Japanese Ministry of Railways, where he will work on the design of steam locomotives. He is involved in the production of Japan's first three-cylinder C53 class locomotive, based on the C52 class locomotives imported to Japan from the USA. Somewhat paradoxically, Hideo will be interested in the future's biggest competitor of the railways, the automobile industry, as he himself will design a model car that will eventually actually be produced in full series.

In the period of the fulfillment of Japanese imperialist appetites in the 1930s and the first half of the 1940s, the railways, like other 'unnecessary for the war' industries, would go by the wayside, with funds flowing almost exclusively to the military. This would change only after the end of World War II and the surrender of Japan in 1945. This would be followed by the American occupation, which would last until 1952. The situation in which Japan finds itself after the war is absolutely catastrophic. The country is in tatters, the morale of the population is near absolute zero, and the pain of the losses suffered in the war is infinitely high. After the war, Japan has no choice but to start building its country anew, practically from scratch. This makes room for the latest technologies, including the ever-expanding railways.

An Unexpected Twist

A key moment in Hideo's career is the tragic train derailment on the Hachikō line in 1947. Four carriages tip over into a field, resulting in the deaths of 184 people. Such a high death toll was primarily due to the wooden construction of the cars, which failed to protect the passengers inside. Hideo comes up with an idea in response to this event. He seeks permission from the American general and post-war administrator of Japan, Douglas MacArthur, to replace all Japanese wooden cars with steel-bodied cars. The American's approval doesn't take long.

In the following year, Hideo would be promoted to the position of head of the rolling stock department. Three years later, however, he abruptly resigns after a fire breaks out at Yokohama Station, killing more than 100 people in his cars. Hideo will not be held responsible, but he will still feel guilty and prefer to give up his position.

Source: Wikimedia commons / Public Domain

New Chances, New Opportunities

Despite recent setbacks, a new opportunity soon opened up for Hideo. He left the Ministry of Railways and signed on with the private company Sumitomo for further work. Why? Because he felt the need for speed. To set the record straight, Japan was one of the first countries in the world to have private companies tackle the issue of building high-speed rail. The project, which would one day go down in history as the Shinkansen (new main lines), may have been in its infancy, but when a company had to choose a Japanese to head it, the choice could hardly fall on anyone other than Hideo. He was appointed chief engineer of the magnificent project.

While the line linking Tokyo to Osaka would prove successful, the project became considerably more expensive due to the construction of numerous bridges and tunnels, leading to Hideo's removal from his position. His reputation in the industry suffered greatly, but Hideo himself did not give up. In 1969, Hideo began a brand new career. He became the director of Japan's National Space Development Agency. That same year, he received the James Watt International Medal from the British Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Hideo was the first ever "non-Western" person to receive it. He was awarded the Japanese Order of Cultural Merit in 1994 for his lifetime of work. Hideo breathed his last on March 18, 1998, at the age of 96.

Hideo's contribution to Japanese railways is significant. In addition to the renewal of the rolling stock and numerous innovations in infrastructure, he was instrumental in establishing a network of high-speed trains that linked Japan and, without exaggeration, propelled the island nation to the economic top of the world.

Source: Wikimedia commons / MaedaAkihiko / CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED