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Sunday, Jan. 14, 2007

Bullet train straight to the heart of Japan

Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan, by Christopher P. Hood. Oxford: Routledge, 2006, 266 pp., $125 (cloth).

The needle-nosed bullet train racing past the base of Mount Fuji is one of the most enduring images of Japan, a postcard mix of high-tech and traditional beauty. This retains an appeal even though the Shinkansen has become utterly mundane for most residents of the archipelago. Hurtling down the Tokaido Line toward Osaka at 270 kilometers per hour in its sleek white fuselage is about as remarkable as riding a taxi. Yet tribute is due to these railway rockets.

When the Tokaido Shinkansen marked its 40th anniversary in October 2004, it could boast an astonishing safety and performance record: 4.16 billion passengers carried, 1.5 billion kilometers traveled, and not a single injury or fatality from derailment or collision. Each day it transports 360,000 passengers and completes 300 runs. In fiscal 2003, its average delay for departure and arrival was all of six seconds. The other bullet train lines have similar records.

On that basis alone, the Shinkansen is a spectacular triumph. Yet the English literature on it remains scant, and Christopher Hood's "Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan" is a welcome, informative survey of the topic.

Hood, a Japanese scholar at Cardiff University, is no engineer. He has a trainspotter's zeal for the differences between a 500 and 700 series, but his main interest is cultural rather than technical. A childhood encounter with a photo of the train grew into an obsession with its role not only as a Japanese icon, but as a societal mirror.

If Japan is an empire of signs, as Roland Barthes claimed, the Shinkansen is its most potent badge of modernity: speed, progress, technology, even beauty. All these are denoted, yet the Shinkansen also symbolized Japan's postwar prosperity and international reinstatement when it was launched in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

The super-express is nothing if not a vehicle for cultural nationalism, but Hood also weighs its political and financial dimensions, particularly the influence of patrons like former Prime Minister Kakuei Takana.

Its detractors have complained of the mountains of debt from pork-barrel spending during the Japanese National Railways era, as well as noise pollution and endless concrete embankments through the countryside. Hood offers an even-handed, positive assessment, noting that all Shinkansen lines are now profitable, and while some have excess capacity in design they are basically justified by the tremendous economic benefits of bringing people together quicker. While his scholarly, often prolix, text sadly lacks compelling visuals, it makes up for this somewhat with thorough research and a wealth of facts.

The idea for a bullet train, or dangan resha, was first floated in 1939 amid Japanese expansionism. The notion of a 200-kph steam locomotive that could travel the 1,000 km between Tokyo and Shimonoseki on wide-gauge track in only nine hours was part of a grand scheme to build a railway linking Honshu with the Asian continent via Korea -- trains were to travel through a seabed tube.

Though line construction was abandoned in 1944, JNR visionary Hideo Shima persevered to help make the high-speed express a reality two decades later. Shima became "synonymous with the Shinkansen," but Hood offers the reader precious little biographical detail.

The Shinkansen's other father, former JNR President Shinji Sogo, is at least credited with helping inspire what made it such a success. This, notes Hood, is due less to the hardware of the train's advanced automatic control system and pressurized carriages (in tunnels, the contents of toilets would explode before this innovation) than the "software" of its highly professional, safety-conscious crew.

"I'm happy as long as the Shinkansen runs safely," said Sogo, who resigned with Shima in 1963 as the project went over budget. "That's all I wanted."

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