Japan's shinkansen: The development of economic and eco-conscious transportation.

By Whitney Nekoba
Swarthmore College ‘08
Spring 2007

In 1964, modern Japan’s idea of intra-nation transportation sped up faster than ever imagined before.  The shinkansen, the high-speed bullet train, was born.  Years of ingenuity since World War II led to its creation and the economic rebuilding of the postwar era secured its prosperity.  Today, the shinkansen is seen as one of the major symbols of contemporary Japan and now carries over one hundred million passengers per year to various destinations around the archipelago country.  Considered high-speed transportation, the shinkansen travels at speeds up to 300 kph (Liu 2002), compared to the recommended automobile speed of 130 kph on the Autobahn high-speed road in Germany (“Autobahn” 2007).  With the electric-powered shinkansen trains frequenting a station up to 11 times per hour on a typical day, it would seem as if its environmental ramifications are enormous and difficult to correct when the populace’s dependence on it is increasing.  Yet, in the realm of transit congestion by all modes of transportation in the overpopulated Asian country, its environmental impact is surprising low, and continues to improve.  Needless to say, there are flaws within the system and research is continuously conducted to determine how the shinkansen can better serve Japan’s people and have less impact on the ecosystem.  The economic and societal need for the shinkansen exemplifies the impact of the environment on human travel, as well as the impact of human travel on the environment. 

Rail travel was introduced in 1872, during Japan’s Westernization process.  The Meiji government implemented this technology to develop trade routes throughout the island, and sought to industrialize in a Western format (Ito & Chiba 2001).  The railways eventually promoted suburban spread, and continued to prosper until World War II.  During the United States’ occupation in postwar Japan, many engineers shifted into the development of technology that promoted the movement of the nation’s population within the country, due to the suppression of aeronautical and aircraft engineering and the Japanese immigration discrimination overseas (Nishiyama 2003).  These engineers focused on the reduction of vibration of passenger railcars by employing their knowledge about aircraft vibration to the ground stability of trains.  A laboratory leader of the bullet train design and a former Navy Air Arsenal engineer, Dr. Tadashi Mastudaira developed the train suspension system, similar to that found in Japanese buses, to reduce the lateral and vertical vibrations of the train at increased speeds (Nishiyama 2003).  Developed in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games (Shima 1994), the shinkansen beckoned global attention as post-occupation Japan reentered the international industrial market.  The postwar brainpower found in former military engineers helped to develop the migration trends of the nation’s general public, increasing the amount of trade and communication across the island, decentralizing Tokyo’s economic stronghold.

The difficult geography and minimal resources of Japan promoted the early success of the shinkansen.  The Japanese archipelago, comprised of thin islands, is covered in mountainous ranges and narrow valleys.  Mountains comprise over 80% of Japan’s land, allowing little habitation space and agricultural strips along the valley edges (Petry 2003).  The habitable areas of Honshu, the main island of Japan, are along coastal plains and dispersed on the Eastern and Southern seaboards.  The lack of natural resources native to the islands make Japan reliant on global imports, and does not provide an adequate need for freight transportation within Japan (Okada 1994).  Thus, the transit of goods and services lies in the people as economic wealth.  Running along the coastal regions, the shinkansen services run through highly populated cities to efficiently transport passengers to various metropolises, such as Tokyo and Osaka. 

Seventy percent (70%) of the Kyushu rail route is through tunnels, due to the island’s mountainous landscape (Hood 2003).  Interestingly, the only complaint about the tunnel-laden route is its unsightliness in contrast to Japan’s emphasis on aesthetics (Kido 2005).  Tunnels through the mountain ranges do not lead to negative environmental consequences on the geographical feature, and its utilization of non-arable and non-inhabitable land is applauded. The Japanese view of aesthetic, in addition the environmental policy reformations occurring globally, will lead to successes in more environmentally aware design and eco-friendly construction (Kido 2005).  The shinkansen encounters many environmental challenges throughout the year, due to Japan’s harsh climate and seasons.  During the rainy season and typhoon season (spring through summer), the elevated sections of the train over the rail allow for the smooth and continued flow of passengers on schedule throughout the day (Hood 2003).  The snow, wind, and constant threat of earthquakes keep high-speed rail engineers continuously developing innovative ways to provide continued service and safety.

The development of earlier Japanese railways began before the influx of modern city growth, and was the only means of transportation for many years.  The urban sprawl had no choice but to centralize at nearby rail stations to increase accessibility to other national cities.  The shinkansen routes and stations were planned and constructed in these existing areas, leading to its eventual success (Okada 1994).  Resulting from ineffective land use regulations, Tokyo has failed to halt the suburban sprawl along these railway lines (Hayashi 2004).  Short station-to-station distance, high reliability, and easy convenience of the shinkansen can be credited to the elevated population density and the emergence of new cities along rail routes, and is a way that it compensated for its consequential population explosion of suburban areas (Okada 1994, Hayashi 2004). 

The invention of the shinkansen was originally focused on managing Tokyo’s growing population and economic centrality (Liu 2002).  Yet, Ito and Chiba (2001) suggest that the shinkansen revolutionized Japan’s view of space and distance, minimizing the time-lapse of gratification in movement from point A to point B.  The reduction in time between Tokyo and Osaka promoted the expansion of Osaka as a strong economic base and equivalent substitute for Tokyo business and commuters (Liu 2002).  In 2002, the shinkansen controlled 81% of high-speed travel between the two cities, four times that the air travel economy (Hayashi 2004).  Hall (1995) asserts that high-speed trains, such as the shinkansen, have an advantage over air flights because of station convenience.  The urbanization of the region heavily depends on access to the shinkansen or major airport, in which cities that lack access are not as economically prosperous.  However, high-speed trains promote the development of “end-cities”, usually the biggest cities, such as Tokyo and Osaka.  Intermediate cities, such as Nagoya, that lie between the two main stops suffer and force these cities to rely even more heavily on the larger ones (Hall 1995).

The increase of transit need between Tokyo and Osaka increased the demand for the shinkansen.  However, the availability of the shinkansen allowed for more travel and more demand for trade between the two cities.  The consequences of the high population densities along the shinkansen routes as a result of its successes lead to its scrutiny over its environmental impact.  Although engineered to minimize vibration frequencies for passengers, complaints about its noise and vibration emitted externally has resulted in increased environmental standards (Okada 1994).  Noise increases as speed increases.  Unfortunately, the demand for faster travel as well as the demand for decreased noise emission impedes the advancement of shinkansen technology.  Currently, a privatized shinkansen company, the JR East Group, is installing external soundproof walls, sound-absorbent materials, and rain grinding on tracks to decrease the amount of noise that their trains produce.  The company highlights their dedication to the natural aesthetic of the landscape and continues to develop non-obtrusive structures for transportation purposes (JR East Group 2005).  In addition, the company has asserted their use of railway trees, trees that have been planted alongside railway tracks to shield the trains and tracks against harsh weather and natural disaster, as well as a means of CO2 emission absorption.  The trees owned by JR East Group absorb 17,000 tons of CO2 per year, which is approximately 0.7% of their annual CO2 emissions (JR East Group 2005).

Transportation is heavily reliant on oil, which influences Japan’s economy due to the nation’s lack of fossil fuel reserves and natural resources.  Economic expansion in the early 1970s drew importance away from the railway and into modes of transportation that allowed for travel to and from smaller cities and suburban areas.  This led to a high increase of oil dependency and pollution.  Outcry from environmentalists and economists highlighted the instability of oil’s sustainability, and developed more programs to promote the use of railway once again (Ito & Chiba 2001).  The distribution of oil consumption for use in transportation purposes has increased from 16% to 23% from 1973 to 1990 (an increase of 33 million kiloliters, Okada 1994).  Also, energy consumption by the shinkansen does not compare to the extravagant energy consumption required by automobiles or aeroplanes.  The high-speed rail consumes less than one-fourth of the kcal/100 million passenger-kilometers that the automobile requires, and less than one-fifth that of aeroplanes (JREA 1990, provided by Okada 1994).  It is important to note that if the shinkansen mode had not been developed, an additional 360 million liters of oil would have been consumed in 1985 in transportation need (Okada 1994).  The shinkansen emits little CO2, NOx and other harmful gases.  Although the shinkansen commands 80% of the mode of travel between Tokyo and Osaka today, it is responsible for 16% that of a passenger automobile in CO2 production per unit transportation volume (Okada 1994).

The emergence of the shinkansen in Japan’s transportation culture shows a great impact on the benefits in the economic sphere.  In a calculation done by Okada (1994), the shift of 85% of passengers from conventional rail lines to the shinkansen would result in an approximate 400 million hours saved in commuting time for economic purposes.  This decrease of commuting time would result in the conservation of ¥ 500 billion per year (calculating the value of time per hour from the GDP per capita, Okada 1994).

High-speed modes of travel, such as the shinkansen, are predicted to be the dominant transportation system by 2050, due to the increasing rate of CO2 emissions and eco-consciousness worldwide (Schafer & Victor 1999).  Thus, the threats of increased global warming and the success of the shinkansen in Japan have led to the reexamination and development of high-speed railways in many industrialized countries.  France and Germany have begun operation on the TGV and ICE, respectively.  The United States, China, and Germany are now contemplating the addition of Maglev technology, a faster high-speed railway than what is available today (Liu 2002).  Japan continues to progress in their shinkansen technology, as well as update their environmental standards and environmentally friendly equipment. 

Literature Cited

Autobahn (2007, 28 February). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 8 March 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autobahn.

Hall, P. (1995). Towards a general urban theory. In J. Brotchie, M. Batty, E. Blakely, P. Hall, & P. Newton (Eds.), Cities in competition: Productive and sustainable cities for the 21st century (pp. 1-33). Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Longmans.

Hayashi, Y. (2004). Integrated land use and transport planning and policy for sustainable cities and regions. Proceedings from FOVUS 2004: Networks for Mobility. Stuttgart, Germany.

Hood, C. P. (2003). The shinkansen and the environment: Friend or foe? Proceedings from the 10th International Conference of the European Association for Japanese Studies, August 27-30, 2003. Warsaw, Poland.

Ito, K., & Chiba, M. (2001). Railway stations and local communities in Japan. Japan Railway & Transport Review 28, 4-17.

JR East Group. (2005). JR East Group Sustainability Report 2005: Aiming for a sustainable society. Japan: JR East Group.

Kido, E. M. (2005). Aesthetic aspects of railway stations in Japan and Europe, as a part of “context sensitive design for railways”. Journal of the Eastern Asia Society for Transportation Studies 6, 4381-4396.

Liu, R. (2002). Urban growth affected by the evolution of transportation technologies. Proceedings of the 49th North America Regional Science Association International (NARSAI) Conference, November 14, 2002. Puerto Rico.

Nishiyama, T. (2003). Cross-disciplinary technology transfer in trans-World War II Japan: The Japanese high-speed bullet train as a case study. Comparative Technology Transfer and Society 1(3): 305-327,

Okada, H. (1994). Features and economic and social effects of the shinkansen. Japan Railway & Transport Review 3, 9-16.

Petry, A. K. (2003). Geography of Japan. Japan Digest. <http://www.indiana.edu/~japan/Digests/geo.html>. Accessed 6 March 2007.

Schafer, A., & Victor, D. G. (1999). Global passenger travel: Implications for carbon dioxide emissions. Energy 24, 657-679.

Shima, H. (1994). Birth of the shinkansen – a memoir. Japan Railway & Transport Review 3, 45-48.


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