How The Shinkansen Rebuilt Japan With Christopher Hood


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  • One of the most iconic images of Japan is that of the gleaming white bullet train passing in front of Mount Fuji. The Shinkansen is a marvel of technology and engineering known internationally for its speed and safety. However, not much is known about what makes it work so well.
  • On this show, Anthony delves into the history and details of the shinkansen with Christopher Hood, author of Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan. Christopher talks about his book and the impact of high-speed rails on Japan.
  • Anthony also talks about the uncertain future the country faces as it turns off the last remaining active nuclear power plant.

Nuclear Power Shutdown in Japan

Anthony is back in Japan and has restarted his Japanese language lessons with hopes of creating a podcast in Japanese. Upon his arrival, he was greeted with the news that Japan has shut down the last of its nuclear power plant. Due to damages in the Fukushima plant and the lackluster response of government when the earthquake struck last year, public support for nuclear power plummeted. However, some companies say that if Japan moves away from nuclear power, this might cause massive power outages and hurt economic growth.

Alternatives such as solar and wind power only contribute up to 10% to the country’s power source and are not reliable. Burning fossil fuels, natural gas, and oil goes against the Kyoto protocol to reduce gas emissions. Japan might not be so keen to believe China’s claim on safely using thorium for its nuclear power plants. After all, its neighboring country is notorious for its relaxed environmental laws in the name of profit. The fact remains that people are moving towards a modern lifestyle and the energy requirement to meet its demands are huge.

Backtrack on the Shinkansen

Probably everyone has seen the image of a bullet train whizzing around Japan. This network of high-speed trains called the Shinkansen is known for its efficiency and outstanding safety record. Christopher Hood, the author of the book Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan, discussed how the train came to be, why it works so well, and how it created a tremendous impact on Japan and high-speed train service around the globe.

Original plans to build the Shinkansen stems from the 1930s and during war times when Japan was expanding to East Asia. Aviation was seen to be relatively slow and with only a small capacity to accommodate people. Thus, the Japanese wanted to find a means to get people from Tokyo to other parts of Asia as quickly as possible. When people realized they might lose the war, they started thinking beyond the conventional steam train. After the war, their ambitious project came together with generations of families and military men onboard who modernized the train’s design. While the train itself took some time to make, the tracks were conceptualized 20 years ahead. The tunnels still used today were also built in advance. By the time the 1964 Olympics kicked off, the Shinkansen was opened to the public using the iconic photo to launch the event.

Designing the Shinkansen

Surprisingly, the word Shinkansen does not directly translate to a bullet train. Rather, it simply means the New Trunk Line. While the train’s shape and capacity are comparable to that of a bullet’s, the inspiration behind it came from aerodynamics. One of the team’s designers previously worked on aircraft and wanted it to look good too. While the train would benefit from plane-like features, he designed in a way that air flowing at its beak would not lift the train. The design of the train would eventually evolve with the technology for wind and magnets. A series of train fleets would also be produced and retired in time. Still, the people would continually develop these trains to move faster and reduce their noise. They also work to ensure that in any condition, the train would manage to stay on track and not derail. Fences and safety operating systems were made to ensure accidents and errors were avoided at all costs. Drivers and train staff undergo intensive training and simulations to address the worst possible scenarios. Maintenance is done daily. The Japanese culture in which people remain compliant with rules in the platforms also adds to the success of the entire system.

Thus, the bullet trains are still more associated with Japan despite other countries gaining traction in developing their high-speed trains. Adopting some of the elements in Japan’s train systems may not perfectly fit another country’s unique circumstances. From technical knowledge and skills down to its computer networks, the train system is carefully harmonized to fit the needs of the Japanese society.

Changing the Landscape of Japan

The expansion of the railway network changed the cities and towns surrounding it. The Shinkansen also accelerated the depopulation of rural areas. Because people can conveniently live in big cities and go off to see their families on holidays, business in these small towns closed.

But the cultural impact of its success after the war could not be denied. The Shinkansen gave the Japanese people the confidence to rise after the bombings. It also set the example that they can be good at something. In only 18 years after the war, the country had an amazing turnaround. Exports in cars and electronics went up. The train also played a role in its economic growth as it was used to transport passengers and goods. The Shinkansen could have been marketed to other countries. But due to unfavorable events in the world and historical issues among countries Japan had conflicts with, the government did not do enough to promote the system. With the original railway plans completed, the debate is now on whether the money for building the trains will still be collected and where it will go next.

The shinkansen remains to be an amazing feat in engineering. Despite other developments such as video conference calls, many Japanese do business face to face and the Shinkansen continues to do this by bringing people all over Japan. To find more interesting facts about the Shinkansen, Christopher’s book is available on Amazon and other bookstores online.

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