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A steam locomotive arrives at the overhead platform of Osaka Station sometime during the 1930s. Originally a wooden building, Osaka Station became a stone structure in 1901 (Meiji 34). Compared to the current Osaka Station, the platforms look a bit deserted. Largely through the enormous efforts of the Japanese government, traveling by train was extremely popular and common, though. When this photo was taken, Japan already had one of the busiest and most advanced railway networks in the world.
Osaka Station’s function as the entrance gate to Osaka goes back to the early Meiji Period (1868-1912). Surveying work for the train connection between Osaka and Kobe started on August 25, 1870 (Meiji 3). Service between the two cities, only the second train line in Japan, began on May 11, 1874 (Meiji 7). In 1876 (Meiji 9), the line already reached Kyoto City, and by 1880 (Meiji 13) it was extended to Otsu.1 By 1889 (Meiji 22), passengers could travel between Kobe and Shinbashi Station in Tokyo. It is important to remember that all this was achieved at a time when Japan was emerging out of feudal times.
Most of the early work of creating Japan’s railway system can be attributed to over 300 foreigners, many British, hired by the Japanese government. They were the directors, engineers, locomotive superintendents, traffic managers, mechanics, engine drivers, track maintenance workers, carpenters, plasterers, masons, and so on.
The first foreigners to work on the new Japanese railways were hired in 1870 (Meiji 3). By June 1874 (Meiji 7), as many as 119 foreigners were employed in the Japanese railway system, most of them living in the foreign settlements of Kobe and Yokohama. These men were absolutely invaluable in transferring know-how and expertise.
The transfer of knowledge was systematized in May 1877 (Meiji 10) when the Engineer Training College was opened at Osaka Station. It was headed by the British Engineer-in-Chief T. R. Shervinton. When some five years later the school closed, twenty-four students had graduated. They would be in the vanguard of the further development of the Japanese railway system.2
The first locomotives, passenger carriages and wagons were all imported from the United Kingdom. During the 1880s, however, material was also imported from the United States (Porter Inc., Pittsburgh) and Germany (Lokomotivfabrik Krauss, Munich). Many more American and German locomotives were imported during the 1890s and 1900s, and a small number of locomotives came from Switzerland, France and Belgium. As the Japanese railway system exploded from just 29 kilometers of track carrying less than half a million passengers in 1872 (Meiji 5), to 1,974 kilometers of track carrying almost 32 million passengers in 1902 (Meiji 35), the country became an important market for European and American manufacturers of locomotives.
In 1893 (Meiji 26), the first locomotive was manufactured in Japan, at the government works in Kobe. Built under the supervision of Richard F. Trevithick (1845-1913), grandson of one of the inventors of the steam locomotive, it was mostly made of parts imported from the United Kingdom. Many dozens of copies of imported locomotives were built at several locations in Japan during the 1890s and 1900s, and full-scale Japanese production of locomotives finally became a reality after 17 major private railways were nationalized between 1906 (Meiji 39) and 1907 (Meiji 40).
The first Japanese train drivers made their appearance in 1877 (Meiji 10). From 1885 (Meiji 18) only Japanese drivers were employed; all foreign engine drivers were dismissed. Timetables, however, were still created by foreign train managers. Only in the late 1880s had training caught up enough to hand this responsibility to Japanese personnel.3
As the Japanese railway system was domesticated it was extended all over the country. Although in 1872 (Meiji 5), there were just 29 kilometers of track connecting Yokohama to Shinbashi in Tokyo, by the start of WWII in the early 1940s this had ballooned to more than 18 thousand kilometers. Speed also greatly increased. In 1889 (Meiji 22) a train trip between Kobe and Tokyo took 20 hours. By 1930 (Showa 5), it took only 9 hours. Japanese engineers had managed to more than halve the time.4
The development of the rail network was both the result and the initiator of Japan’s industrial revolution. Railway technology was integral to the industrialization process, while the network itself made it easier to distribute products of swiftly developing new industries.
Symbolizing the “civilization and enlightenment” policy of the Meiji government, railways also helped spread modern Western civilization and technology. They contributed tremendously in changing Japanese from being laid back and loose with time into people who are among the most punctual in the world. On the negative side, they made Japan’s colonization and militarization possible.
Railways played such an important role in Japan’s modernization that they have been called Japan’s keystone of modernization.
Ironically, Japan’s enormous success in creating a modern railway network meant that the road system remained relatively under-developed. At the start of the Meiji Period (1868-1912) Japan had an extensive and well-developed road system, but it was created for people on foot or horseback. Vehicle transportation was prohibited on highways such as the famed Tokaido, and horse carriages were unknown. For security reasons, bridges were not allowed on the major highways. Goods were therefore mostly moved by boat.
Because trains could take goods and people just about anywhere, and because there was no history of transport by horse carriage, the car didn’t become as important as it did in the US during the early 20th century. When in 1945 (Showa 20) the US forces landed in Japan, they were uniformly shocked by the bad Japanese roads. This would soon change, though. During the 1960s, the Japanese government started with an ambitions construction program for highways, and Japan now has an excellent road system.
The development of the train network, however, didn’t stop. In 1964 (Showa 39), the Shinkansen (known abroad as the Bullet Train) started service and shortened a trip between Osaka and Tokyo to just 4 hours. Today, this same trip takes about 2.5 hours.
Duration of a trip from Tokyo to Kobe3
1889: over 20 hours
1896: over 17 hours
1903: 15 hours
1930: about 9 hours (after WWII shortened to 7 hours)
1964: over 4 hours (using the newly opened Shinkansen until Osaka)
Today: less than 3 hours (by Shinkansen)
Japan’s booming railway network
1 Aoki, Eiichi (March 1994). Japanese Railway History 1: Dawn of Japanese Railways, Japan Railway & Transport Review No. 1: pp.28–30
3 Aoki, Eiichi (October 1994). Japanese Railway History 3: Growth of Independent Technology, Japan Railway & Transport Review No.3: pp.56–59
4 Kato, Shinichi (December 1995). Japanese Railway History 6: Upgrading Narrow Gauge Standards, Japan Railway & Transport Review No.6: pp.56–59
5 (March 1996). Japanese Railway History Special Pictorial: Landmark Locomotives, Japan Railway & Transport Review No.7: pp.38–41