Dream Super-Express: A Q&A with Jessamyn R. Abel

Cover image of Jessamyn R. Abel, Dream Super-Express: A Cultural History of the World's First Bullet Train

Interviewed for #AsiaNow by Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

When two blue-and-ivory “dumpling-nose” engines departed from Tokyo and Osaka train stations and started racing toward each other at 6:00am on October 1, 1964, the world’s fastest train officially became a reality. Japan’s bullet trains took the old-fashioned railroad industry and updated it with new technology and a sleek Space Age design, uniting the past and the future in one impressive infrastructural project.

As historian Jessamyn R. Abel describes in her absorbing new book, Dream Super-Express: A Cultural History of the World’s First Bullet Train (Stanford University Press, 2022), the launch of the high-speed railway did not represent an unqualified victory for Japan. Construction of the New Tōkaidō Line had sparked protests among communities displaced by the project, and in time it would contribute to an increasing homogenization of the region it ran through while also rendering outlying areas secondary to those along the route. Abroad, admiration for the country’s technical accomplishment blended with apprehension stemming from memories of World War II and concerns about a Japan again on the rise.

Abel, who is Associate Professor of Asian Studies at the Pennsylvania State University, covers all these topics and much more in Dream Super-Express, in which she recounts both “the dreams and nightmares of the bullet train.” While it is now as much a shorthand representation of Japan as cherry blossoms and samurai, the origins of the train were contested and complex, the project sparking debates and divisions at the local, regional, and national levels.

Jessamyn Abel and I discussed the complicated history of the bullet train in the interview below, conducted via email.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham (MEC): I’m always interested in learning about the origins of projects like this one. Did the idea of studying the bullet train come from your own travels on it, or did you encounter something that kindled your curiosity in its history?

Jessamyn R. Abel (JRA): Having relied for many years on New Jersey Transit, I have a great appreciation for Japan’s high-speed rail system, but I didn’t think of studying the Tōkaidō Shinkansen until I was researching the 1964 Tokyo Olympics for my first book. Since its inaugural run was just days before the Olympic opening ceremony, the news at the time was full of breathlessly excited reporting on the new line, and references to it kept popping up in my research materials. Only a brief mention of the new railway made it into that first book, but I still wanted to know why people were so excited about a train at a time when the world was turning to faster and more technologically advanced transportation infrastructures, and in Japan, as well, the government was working to expand international air travel and starting to get into space exploration. So the beginning of my research on this book came from just trying to understand the reasons for that popular fascination.

MEC: I was surprised to read that the bullet train actually had its roots in wartime Japan. How did that earlier version of the rail line influence the one that eventually came to fruition? And how did Japanese rail officials give credit to their predecessors in the 1930s and ‘40s for their technical achievements, while not appearing to endorse the politics or actions of the Japanese empire?

JRA: I had read a bit about the wartime plans for a high-speed line nicknamed the “bullet train,” but I was surprised how much people looked back to that failed project when the Tōkaidō Shinkansen was being built. Rail officials definitely gave credit to the original “bullet train” where it was due, which was not so much in technical achievements but rather in mapping out and preparing the route. For instance, Japanese National Railways (JNR) still owned a fair amount of land along the route, which the government had acquired during the war. That gave postwar planners a good head start and helped speed up preparation and construction. But probably more important in terms of public perceptions was the treatment of the wartime bullet train in popular culture. In particular, there was a 1964 television series made up of fictional stories about the bullet train that included a double episode about the wartime start on construction of the New Tanna Tunnel. The digging for that tunnel was used for the postwar line; in fact, the opening ceremony for construction was held at its entrance. So the tunnel is the most significant material connection between the two projects, and stories like the one on the TV show likely had the effect of knitting them together in the public imagination.

On the question of avoiding the appearance of endorsing a success of imperial Japan, those who emphasized the connection steered clear of that pitfall by focusing in closely on the specifics of planning and construction, so that the contexts of war and empire were left largely outside the frame. JNR officials treated the wartime bullet train plans purely as a matter of infrastructural development, stripped any political or military significance. Similarly, the television show I just mentioned celebrated the wartime progress on the tunnel as a symbol of the Japanese people’s perseverance and connected that directly to the growing prosperity of the 1960s. (This is along the lines of the memory construction that has been described by other scholars, such as Yoshikuni Igarashi, Kerry Smith, and Mariko Asano Tamanoi.) And at the same time, elements of the dialog and plot work hard to separate railway construction from the war needs and imperialist goals that propelled it.

MEC: As you discuss in the book, residents of Kyoto caused considerable headaches for JNR: city officials campaigned hard for a stop on the New Tōkaidō Line, but then many groups protested plans that would displace their communities. Although those protests were ultimately unsuccessful, how did they nevertheless change the landscape of local politics in Japan?

JRA: This was one of my favorite but most difficult chapters to write, simply because of the challenge of finding out about people who tended not to record their own thoughts and activities. So I had to glean protesters’ stories from others who wrote about their activities with varying levels of detail, sympathy, and credibility. This patchwork of sources came together to provide a view of protests that were only partially successful in their most immediate goal of ameliorating the dislocation caused by the new line (through assistance in getting new housing or higher levels of compensation, for instance). But they also present early instances of the kind of local, issue-focused protest movements that gained traction over the subsequent decade, not only in Kyoto but throughout the country.

MEC: Foreign coverage of the bullet train expressed admiration for Japan’s accomplishments in building the line. Often, however, it also included a strong undercurrent of techno-Orientalism, in which East Asia is imagined to be futuristic and advanced, but also robotic and menacing. How did the bullet train fit in with other elements of this narrative in the early 1960s?

JRA: International displays of the bullet train show Japanese leaders’ contribution to American techno-Orientalism through their efforts to present Japan as exceptionally adept at technological innovation and industrial production. For instance, considering the Japan Pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, we can see government planners, Japanese industry representatives, and American Fair-goers working at cross-purposes in a way that produced a techno-Orientalist view of Japan. Government planners’ primary goal of representing Japan in terms of its advanced technologies and rapid industrialization informed three different displays of the bullet train. But that goal was undercut by the need to attract viewers by satisfying American consumers’ desires to see the “exotic Japan” that they expected. The result was that they inadvertently reinforced the old view of Japan as the “land of geisha and Fujiyama,” but also turbo-charged it with the technological spectacle of the world’s fastest train, as well as computers, cars, and rockets.

MEC: Almost sixty years after its launch, how is the bullet train viewed in Japan today? With the expansion of high-speed rail across China and elsewhere, does Japan’s bullet train still stand out in any special way, or do people simply regard it as utilitarian, unexciting transportation?

JRA: I think there’s still some excitement about the bullet train, in part because it is continually upgraded and expanded. The trains that ran on the New Tōkaidō Line in 1964 were replaced by a series of newer models with ever-sleeker designs and higher average running speeds, and the introduction of a new model is always accompanied by a great deal of fanfare and clamor. The regional Japan Rail companies that now operate the system also make purposeful efforts to increase fascination (and ridership) with special trains, like a shinkansen showcasing contemporary art, promoted as the “World’s Fastest Art Gallery.” If the planned Tokyo-Osaka maglev train is ever completed (and resistance to construction by Shizuoka Prefecture truly makes me wonder if it will), then perhaps the old “new” Tōkaidō main line will seem stodgy by comparison. That said, the original train, now visible only in railway museums, rather than exuding a feeling of speed, instead inspires nostalgia.

MEC: If people who read Dream Super-Express want to explore some of the topics you touch on in more depth, what other works do you recommend they pick up?

JRA: Wow, I want to recommend a huge library of books, but I’ll try to limit myself to just a few. If people read just one other book on railways, it should be Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century. On the development of the bullet train, Takashi Nishiyama’s Engineering War and Peace in Modern Japan, 1868-1964 is great for its connection of wartime engineering to the postwar railway industry. For a more general treatment of several aspects of the high-speed rail system, Christopher P. Hood’s Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan is a great resource. On a more theoretical level, the work of anthropologists like Brian Larkin, Penny Harvey, and Hannah Knox is essential for understanding the social significance of infrastructure.

MEC: Finally, what has captured your attention lately—as a reader, writer, historian, professor, or person living in the world?

JRA: Recently I returned to a cache of materials I had collected a few years ago at the Gordon W. Prange Collection with the intention of including a chapter on Occupation-era railway reconstruction in this book. Ultimately, I decided that the topic didn’t quite belong, so the folder containing everything I’d photographed at the Prange was just collecting dust (metaphorically) on my computer. Unable to travel to Japan during the pandemic, I had the time to read more carefully through these materials, a grab-bag of anything filed under “Transportation: rail” at the archive, from instruction manuals for new JNR employees to poetry by railway laborers. I was surprised to find a drumbeat repetition of an unexpected theme: the role of the railways in helping to build democracy in Japan. I am currently working on writing an article about the connection that people involved in the railway industry made between their workplaces and the broad social changes taking place in Japan. I am also curious about what other ways Japanese people in all walks of life rethought their own work and other activities in terms of the national goal of democratization, and I am beginning to envision this as a book.