Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
To paraphrase Dickens, it was the best of times –period: almost 20 years had passed since the war, Japan’s wounds had healed (at least the material ones; the others would take a little more time), the burnt cities had been rebuilt and the international community had agreed to offer it a chance to present its new face to the world through the biggest sport event-fiesta, the Olympic Games of 1964. For two weeks from October 10 to October 24 Tokyo –and by extension the whole country- would be the major item in all news programs and would show its best. And what more appropriate symbol for its rapid development and its dynamic move forward than the world’s fastest train, the one the Japanese call “shinkansen” (新幹線) and the rest of the world “bullet train”, borrowing the temporary Japanese name “dangan resha” (弾丸列車) for which it is the literal translation.
The plan for a train this fast that would serve the Tokaido (東海道) line, the descendant of the classic route with the same name which connected, in the Tokugawa years, the actual capital (i.e. Edo) with the typical (i.e. Kyoto) didn’t come with the 1964 Olympics: the Japanese had already thought of such a fast line in 1940 and they had even envisioned it as the Japanese part of a network that would reach Beijing and, by connection with the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Moscow. It is easy to imagine that this vision was directly related to the geopolitical aspirations of the Showa Emperor; a glance in history makes equally obvious why those plans fell through and why they were revisited in the 1950s and why they were realized in the 1960s. Besides the obvious though, one shouldn’t overlook the practical rationale behind these trains: the postwar development of Japan was nothing less than phenomenal and the need for fast transportation was very real and very pressing.
Exactly half a century later, the shinkansen are a reality serving 300 million passengers each year in three of the four major islands of Japan with Hokkaido being expected to follow very soon (?) Although their cost remains high for both passengers and the companies managing them (one of the reasons the old Japan National Railroad company was dissolved was precisely the cost of the shinkansen) they have become such an important part of both the life and the image of the Japanese that any change is only for the most, the fastest or the more convenient; and when the magnetic levitation trains (which a few weeks ago demonstrated to the media they can already run 310 mph) get into the picture they will be even more competitive against airplanes. And because history repeats itself, the goal for their launch is the next Tokyo Olympics, those of 2020; not unjustifiably so since today, like then, Japan needs a symbol of moving forward.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.