Op-Ed: Japan’s $50B Bet on High-Speed Rail
Comparisons with the 1964 construction of the Shinkansen and recent large infrastructure projects highlight the current challenges facing the construction of the new JR maglev
Poster for upcoming action film, Bullet Train. Sony Pictures Entertainment
The shinkansen — Japan’s sleek bullet train — has withstood the test of time. It remains a marvel of infrastructure and technology that continues to amaze tourists since its inaugural run on the eve of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
On the other hand, Japan is far from living in the future, despite what travel bloggers might tell you. Sluggish economic growth and lacking technological advancement is a major concern for politicians and business leaders. Expats in Japan often mock the outdated nature of business practices in Japan, best represented by the fax machines still found at many Japanese companies — all but eradicated by email in other parts of the world. This sentiment is strongly echoed by progressive business leaders like the CEO of Rakuten, Hiroshi Mikitani, who argues Japan’s poor economic growth reflects an inability to adapt to global business practices and embrace new technologies.
Despite this, the shinkansen continues to carry on the image of the futuristic Japan that Hollywood and the world have embraced over the past few decades. There is no better proof of this than the upcoming action film Bullet Train, boasting a cast that includes staple Hollywood names like Brad Pitt and Sandra Bullock.
What remains relatively unknown outside of Japan is that a new and faster shinkansen is already well under construction. This will be a train propelled by magnetic repulsion — known as a maglev. Using the power of superconducting magnets placed along its track, the train will float off the ground and speed to a record-breaking 300 mph. A group of Chinese companies partnered with the German corporation Siemens to launch the first commercial high-speed maglev in 2004, connecting the then newly-built Shanghai International Airport with the rest of the city’s rail network. But this is the first time the technology will be implemented for long-distance travel — with current plans calling for a segment between Tokyo and Nagoya to be completed in 2027, before an eventual extension of the line to Osaka.
The project has faced a series of hurdles due to environmental and economic concerns, with many questioning what the ultimate impact of the project will be. With the expansion of remote work brought about by the COVID-era, the project, long touted as an important asset for business travel, must now prove its worth. With 21st century Japan facing a rapidly aging population and dim economic prospects, it is unclear whether this new “dream super-express” can fulfill its promise of revitalizing Japan. Despite this uncertainty, the national government and the train’s private operator Central Japan Railway Company (JR Central) continue to place their bets on the maglev with long-term hopes that their technology might even be exported to the US one day.
A working prototype of the maglev on the test track JR Central has operated in Yamanashi Prefecture since 1997. CNBC
With the travel time from Tokyo to Osaka shortened from two-and-a-half hours to around sixty-seven minutes, the maglev project promises to link the metropolitan areas of Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka to create a functional megacity that stretches across the center of Japan. According to the Ministry of Transportation, this will enable the flow of information, investment, and human resources at an unprecedented scale. These discourses are strikingly familiar to those surrounding the construction of the first shinkansen in the sixties, albeit with a few modern twists that acknowledge pertinent social dilemmas.
The concept of a megacity where information and investment flow smoothly along the bullet train’s route should ring familiar to those who witnessed the opening of the original line in the 1960s. Famed architect Kenzo Tange had his own set of influential ideas about the impact of the original bullet train and the resulting megalopolis. In her book, Dream Super Express, Jessamyn Abel explains that Tange saw railroads as a vital element of a capitalist society. While mass media and the telephone could efficiently convey information, Tange thought that the direct exchange enabled by high-speed rail and highways allowed for information to flow more directly, creating information “feedback loops” that would ultimately drive society forward. Today, this discourse also leaves room for discussions of regional revitalization in Japan where the population of towns and small cities is rapidly declining. A report by the Ministry of Transportation strongly emphasizes the role of the train in promoting commuting between urban and rural areas, despite the few planned intermediate stops in smaller cities along the route compared to the existing bullet train. The same report also suggests faster business trips on the maglev could help solve Japan’s concerning gender inequality — an issue often listed as the root of Japan’s low birthrate — by allowing working mothers to spend less time on the frequent business trips that characterize Japanese corporate culture.
Not all of these claims seem far-fetched. The maglev would indeed be of great benefit for the communities that it will directly serve. The mostly-underground route between Tokyo and Nagoya is set to stop at Iida City in mountainous Nagano Prefecture. Normally, the only link to Tokyo from this area is a three-hour bus. But the direct underground route of the maglev and its high speeds could whisk passengers from the skyscrapers of Tokyo’s Shinagawa District to the breathtaking landscape of the Japanese Alps in around thirty-minutes. For a place where already tens of abandoned train stations line the local scenery, the maglev could completely transform the local economy by bringing tourists and even commuters looking to settle. Indeed, the adoption of hybrid work culture by some large companies during the pandemic might be a harbinger for much needed movement toward rural areas. If the time workers must spend in the office decreases, the entire existing nationwide bullet train network could become a handy tool for the government’s long overdue regional revitalization. It is up to Japanese companies and the government, however, to ensure that hybrid work remains possible and is not seen as a disadvantage to climbing the corporate ladder in a business culture that is often too adamant to change.
Tourists visit an abandoned train station along the Iida line in Nagano Prefecture. Yomiuri Shinbun
History tells us that commuting by bullet train is feasible as long as the government is willing to incentivize it. Despite the relatively high cost of a ticket on the bullet train — around $100 each way from Tokyo to Nagoya— the concept of commuting long distances on the bullet train is not new. Japan once had double-decker bullet trains carrying commuters from peripheral cities to the Tokyo metropolitan area. However, this occurred mostly during the 1980s due to a combination of factors; the economy was booming, and wages were increasing, while Tokyo real estate prices became far too expensive for the average family. To combat this issue, tax breaks and commuter tickets were offered to those commuting to Tokyo from other areas, thereby launching the golden age of bullet train commuting, which lasted until the late 90s.
The E1 double-decker shinkansen was first introduced in 1994 . Wikipedia Commons