Precision: operates on time. Safety: zero fatal accidents. High Performance: knits together the mountainous archipelago at top speed. The Shinkansen embodies the knowledge and spirit of Japan as a major economic power.
The first Shinkansen departed Tokyo Station on Oct. 1, 1964. A memorial plaque at the station reads:
"This railway was completed through the wisdom and efforts of the Japanese people."
Fifty years have passed. What history have Japan and the Shinkansen witnessed? What future are they heading toward? Let's relive the journey of the dream superexpress through the archives of The Yomiuri Shimbun.
Connecting Tokyo and Osaka with a 515-kilometer high-speed railway was a national project with its origins in unrealized plans for a prewar superexpress train.
This was the "bullet train" concept, for which the Railways Ministry started a field study in 1938.
The backbone of the original plan was the idea of a high-speed railway connecting Tokyo and Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, via Osaka at a maximum speed of 200 kph. As the Tokaido Line had to deal with increased freight and passenger traffic after escalation of the Sino-Japanese War, which started in 1937, the plan became more ambitious: A tunnel under the Tsushima Strait would connect it with the Korean Peninsula and China.
The project was stopped in 1943 as the war worsened, but many assets for the eventual Tokaido Shinkansen line—such as plans for routes and stations, as well as acquired plots of land—remained.
Source: Feb. 11, 2012, Yomiuri Shimbun morning edition
Even after the superexpress plan was suspended, engineers continued research. Years later, a pivotal lecture drew fresh attention to the project.
The lecture, titled "Possibilities for three-hour Tokyo-Osaka travel by superexpress," was held on May 30, 1957, at Yamaha Hall in Ginza, Tokyo.
Four engineers from a Japanese National Railways research institute said a train with a top speed of 250 kph could cover the route in three hours. As it took 7.5 hours to travel between the two cities at that time, the bold claim provoked surprise—followed by enthusiastic applause.
Three of the four speakers were veterans of the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy. A number of top-notch military engineers who found postwar employment at the institute were working on superexpress development. These engineers developed the first-generation 0 series Shinkansen's iconic rounded nose and the world's first Automatic Train Control system for a high-speed railway.
(Sources: Sept. 6, 1999, Yomiuri Shimbun morning edition. Sept. 28, 2000, Yomiuri Shimbun Osaka morning edition)
Two developers are called the "fathers of the Shinkansen": Shinji Sogo, JNR's fourth president, and JNR chief engineer Hideo Shima.
The groundbreaking ceremony for the Tokaido Shinkansen was held on April 20, 1959, at the mouth of the Shin-Tanna Tunnel between Atami and Mishima stations in Shizuoka Prefecture, as it was expected to be the hardest part of the construction.
According to news reports from the time, JNR President Shinji Sogo shouted as he dug into the soil three times with a golden shovel. He then declared:
"We'd like to build the most efficient railway ever, beyond what the rest of the world has been able to achieve. We pledge to develop a railway that can meet expectations as one for the people of a new era."
Development of Shinkansen cars was also under way.
Test runs began in 1962 on a prototype line between Ayase and the Kamonomiya district of Odawara, both in Kanagawa Prefecture. Over this short section—the true birthplace of the Shinkansen—test trains ran a total of 250,000 kilometers in two years. In October 1962, a test car reached 200 kph, and in March the following year, 256 kph was achieved, a world record for an electric train.
(Sources: Sept. 6, 1999, Yomiuri Shimbun morning edition, April 20, 1959, Yomiuri Shimbun morning edition)
It was Oct. 1, 1964.
At 6 a.m., the Tokaido Shinkansen was officially inaugurated with the simultaneous departures of Hikari No. 1 from Tokyo Station and Hikari No. 2 from Shin-Osaka Station. The timetable was quite simple, as the Hikari express and Kodama local services each ran just once an hour.
Here's how The Yomiuri Shimbun reported the historic moment when the 12-car Hikari No. 1 left Tokyo Station's Platform 19, which is still in use today.
(Source: Oct. 1, 1964, Yomiuri Shimbun evening edition)
With a thrilling blast of its horn, Hikari No. 1 pulled out of Tokyo Station right on schedule at 6 a.m. amid cheers and applause, beginning its four-hour journey to Osaka as the world's fastest commercial train at 200 kph. As it slipped through the chilly autumn haze, passengers' smiling faces could be seen in every window.
What was it like to be aboard the Tokaido Shinkansen's Hikari No. 1, which left Tokyo Station amid cheers from the crowd on Platform 19?
The Yomiuri Shimbun's evening edition that day carried a colorful report by a reporter aboard the train.
Intensive training for drivers began two years before the Shinkansen came into service. Using aptitude tests and academic achievement exams, JNR screened train drivers with at least two years of experience to identify the elite.
How did Shinkansen drivers spend Oct. 1, 1964—the day on which Shinkansen service was inaugurated? Kazutaro Oishi, one of the drivers who operated the first Hikari service from Shin-Osaka to Tokyo, recalled his experience.
The Tokaido Shinkansen connected Tokyo and Shin-Osaka stations in four hours at the time of its inauguration. In November 1965, just over a year later, the time had been shortened to three, which had been considered a dream.
The Yomiuri Shimbun's morning edition on Sept. 28, 1965—just before the Shinkansen's first anniversary—reviewed the first year through data.
As of Sept. 26, the official count of Shinkansen users was 23.24 million, a figure equivalent to a quarter of the Japanese population at the time. About 70 percent were business travelers, suggesting that the Shinkansen gave a major boost to Japan's economic development.
From the opening through that day, there had been 363 cases of damage or mishap. A series of typhoons caused embankments to collapse—including one between Toyohashi and Nagoya stations—prompting complaints that the Shinkansen system was vulnerable to rain.
(Source: Sept. 28, 1965, Yomiuri Shimbun morning edition)
The Shinkansen has run for the past 50 years amid major social changes.
The nation moved from rapid economic growth to the bubble economy and its collapse.
Superstars rose and faded, and unparalleled disasters occurred.
The era turned from Showa to Heisei.
Let's look back on five turbulent decades through Yomiuri Shimbun photos.
The first Shinkansen, the 0 series, traveled between Tokyo and Osaka in 3 hours and 10 minutes at a maximum speed of 210 kph. The Shinkansen featured white and blue colors to convey the ideas of "new" and "fast." It was nicknamed "dangoppana"—literally, dango dumpling nose—after the shape of the locomotive.
(In service October 1964 to September 1999)
The Osaka Expo lasted 183 days and attracted roughly 64 million visitors, around 10 million of whom took the Shinkansen. To bolster its transportation power, JNR added extra cars to its 12-car Hikari trains, leading to the 16-car version in use today.
Due to poor management, JNR was only able to put on a small exhibit at the expo. However, as former JR Tokai Chairman Hiroshi Suda later noted, "It seems that a lot of children were super-keen to visit the Expo, primarily because they wanted to ride on a Shinkansen." Indeed, the idea of Hikari trains as "moving pavilions" persisted throughout the year.
When the Sanyo Shinkansen's Okayama-Hakata service began operating, it became possible to travel between Tokyo and Hakata in 6 hours and 56 minutes.
Despite a recession caused by the oil crisis, parts of Kyushu such as the hot spring district of Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, suddenly registered a surge in visitor numbers.
The Yomiuri Shimbun described the upbeat mood: "Hotel operators have been taken aback by the boost to the tourist season trade, and for the past month, even ryokan inns have been fully occupied; people in the industry just can't stop smiling."
However, some among the local populace took a less positive view. Protests were held to voice concerns about environmental pollution. It certainly was not the case that everyone welcomed the coming of the Shinkansen.
In 1985, the original 0 series Shinkansen trains were joined by the 100 series. The 100 series improved on the 0 series design by introducing double-decker rolling stock to enhance customer experience. The new dual-level carriages were used as dining cars and first-class "Green Cars," and proved very popular. The 100 series also had a sleek design: The locomotive's sharp prow led to the nickname "shark nose."
(In service October 1985 to September 2003)
JNR was virtually bankrupt under the weight of massive debt.
Many reasons were cited: The company was constrained by political influence and government budget considerations; management took no initiative; employees lacked cost-consciousness. However, the ultimate reason was the fact it was a public corporation, and privatization was a natural consequence.
JNR was broken up into private companies including Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai), which took over operating the Tokaido Shinkansen line. With the help of the money-making line, JR Tokai's financial status gradually stabilized.
The 300 series Nozomi was the first thoroughly new model since the start of Shinkansen operations.
The aluminum body was 25 percent lighter than previous models, and its top speed was 50 kph faster at 270 kph. Tokyo-Osaka travel time was cut to two and a half hours.
Five years after JNR's breakup and privatization, the bubble economy burst and business users did not increase as expected. But the Shinkansen entered a new era of high-speed rail, with airlines as its main rivals.
(In service March 1992 to March 2012)
The 500 series, developed by West Japan Railway Co. (JR West), debuted. It was the nation's first commercial train to run at 300 kph, connecting Shin-Osaka Station and Kokura Station in Fukuoka Prefecture in as little as 1 hour and 59 minutes. It was the first time for a train to travel between Osaka and Kyushu in less than two hours. The train had a long, downward-pointing nose, and its body was light gray with blue stripes. The series was retired from Nozomi superexpress service in 2010, and now runs on the Sanyo Shinkansen Line as the local Kodama train.
(Served on the Tokaido Shinkansen November 1997 to February 2010)
The 700 series, dubbed the "aero stream" model for its advanced aerodynamic design, was introduced in 1999 to further speed up Shinkansen service. Its nose has been likened to that of a platypus. The series also adopted a new system to manage the rocking of its cars, greatly improving passenger comfort.
(In service since March 1999)
Commercial operations for the N700 series—a modified version of the 700 series—began. Its "aero double wing" nose made the train more eco-friendly by reducing power consumption and noise, while also giving passengers a more comfortable ride.
(In service since July 2007)
The N700A series is a more advanced model of the N700 series. Its refined control system enables it to maintain the maximum speed for each section of track, and its improved braking system lets it stop faster in case of a disaster.
Shinkansen designs had long aimed at higher speeds, but the new series focused more on safety as the whole nation worked to rebuild from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.
(In service since February 2013)
The Shinkansen seems on track to appear in the rest of the world and run on into the future.
The journey of the dream superexpress has just begun.