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Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japan counterpart Shinzo Abe in front of a Shinkansen bullet train in November 2016. Photo: AFP
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japan counterpart Shinzo Abe in front of a Shinkansen bullet train in November 2016. Photo: AFP

The legend of the Shinkansen

When it was launched in 1964, the Shinkansen bullet train set a high bar for rest of Japanese transportation systems. Come 2022, it should do the same for Indian Railways

By the time you read this fortnight’s historically minded despatch, India and Japan would have embarked on an ambitious new railway project to connect the cities of Mumbai and Ahmedabad. As T.S. Ramakrishnan wrote in these pages in December 2015, if all goes according to plan, India will get one hell of a deal from Japan. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) will not only provide a loan for 80% of the total cost of the line, but also charge an interest of just 0.1%, after a moratorium of 15 years. If things go more or less according to plan—that plan being the line is built in time, that it has enough passengers, who are charged an adequate fare—Ramakrishnan reckoned in 2015 that this could go down as a landmark aid package in Indian history.

Let us hope for the best. Not only that the line is built in time and ramps up to capacity quickly, but also that it replicates some of the transformative effect it has had on social and economic welfare in Japan, and also, importantly, the impact it had on the rest of the rail systems in Japan.

This, I think, is terribly important. As several studies of the impact of the Shinkansen mention, the high-speed network’s high standards for safety, reliability and punctuality set a high bar, down the line, for the rest of Japanese transportation systems to follow suit in terms of reliability, technology, design, training and so on.

Thus, in 2022 when the Mumbai-Ahmedabad line opens, it must become an inflexion point not just for that one line and those two cities but for transport and transport infrastructure in that region and, subsequently, all over India.

So how do the Japanese do it? The clichés about Japanese proclivities for technology, engineering, punctuality and discipline are all true. But as with most stories of great national achievements, taking a slightly broader look at the history of something such as the Shinkansen paints a slightly more complex picture. A picture in which ingenuity makes room for chance and unforeseen outcomes.

In 2014, Japan celebrated 50 years of the Shinkansen. The first-ever commercial journey of a Japanese bullet train took place on 1 October 1964, when a Hikari No.1 model train left Tokyo for Osaka on the Tokeido Shinkansen line.

However, the idea of a Japanese High Speed Rail system was seeded decades before that first journey. In the 1930s, shortly before the outbreak of World War II, the Japanese government had already begun talking of upgrading the Japanese rail network not just on the Japanese islands but also across the nation’s possessions in East Asia. Initial plans intended to build a dangan ressha or bullet-train system from Japan to Shimonoseki, one of the points on Japan closest to the Korean peninsula (the term dangan ressha has more or less fallen out of favour now in Japan to describe the network, but the direct English translation prevails).

Over time, these plans began to get more and more ambitious. Until, as M. William Steele describes in a paper titled Roads, Bridges, Tunnels And Empire: Highway Construction And The Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, the Japanese drew up plans for both a bullet train and bullet highways (dangan do¯ro) that would not only traverse Japan but then cross through an undersea tunnel into Korea, and then onwards into China, Bangkok and the rest of South-East Asia.

A 1942 propaganda poster of the proposed line, published in David Earhart’s book Certain Victory: Images Of World War II In The Japanese Media, show the proposed Imperial Japanese bullet train system extending from Tokyo to Singapore, via Seoul, Beijing, Hanoi, Saigon and Bangkok. Steele explains that these transnational networks of rail and road were both conceived by the Japanese as “monumental projects to commemorate the 2,600th year of imperial rule in 1940". It was all very much meant to be a display of imperial power.

Indeed, construction began on the projects, routes were mapped, land was acquired on the Japanese lands, and even the digging of tunnels had begun, before Japan’s fortunes in the Pacific War turned. The nation suddenly had to be much more mindful of how it spent time, money and iron. The projects were eventually abandoned, but not completely. Land acquisition for the projects continued even as American bombers were pounding the country. Writing in Bodies Of Memory: Narratives Of War In Postwar Japanese Culture, 1945-1970, Yoshikuni Igarashi estimates that ultimately the wartime government was able to acquire around 19% of the land needed in Japan for this high-speed rail. Ironically, Igarashi reckons, American bombs made this acquisition easier—flattened real estate in and around urban centres could be picked up cheaply and quickly by the national rail company.

Many years later when postwar Japan revived their plans for high-speed rail, these wartime activities proved to be a godsend. Much of the land was readily available and some of the tunneling work could be picked up from where they had been left off more than a decade before.

When considering the success of the Japanese Shinkansen, it is worth thinking about the role these wartime legacies had in its success. Particularly, as we know that later, as the network grew and construction and land acquisition costs spiralled, the state-owned operator ran into huge losses and mountains of debt. It makes you wonder, how different the legend of the Shinkansen would have been had wartime investments played out differently.

Success, they say, has many fathers. It is worth trying to remember all of them.

Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/dejaview

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