My guest today is Christopher Hood (@HoodCP), Christopher is an academic and author based at Cardiff University. He is the author of five academic books, including Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan, which we focus on today. And he is also the author of three novels, including Hijacking Japan.
In this conversation, we go deep on everything about the Shinkansen, from its early beginnings all the way through to its economic and cultural impact.
I hope you enjoy my conversation with Christopher Hood.
[00:00:32] – [First question] – What got Christopher interested in the Shinkansen
[00:06:52] – Christopher’s favourite Shinkansen series?
[00:08:53] – Early proposals for the Shinkansen
[00:13:25] – The meaning of the word Shinkansen
[00:14:49] – Significance behind the Shinkansen launching at the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 1964
[00:17:50] – Safety Features on the Shinkansen
[00:22:27] – Whether the driver’s roles will automate
[00:24:57] – Downstream effects of the JNR reform in 1987
[00:28:39] – How the Shinkansen combats extreme weather
[00:33:30] – How the Shinkansen has affected cities along the route
[00:37:12] – Why hasn’t exporting Shinkansen technology been successful?
[00:41:21] – If the US were to implement Shinkansen technology, what should they avoid?
[00:45:00] – Christopher’s favourite Shinkansen fun fact
[00:46:26] – Most undervalued life experience?
[00:49:30] – Influential books?
[00:51:52] – Why write a novel?
Connect with Christopher:
- Follow Christopher on Twitter
- Christopher’s Website
- Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan
- Christopher’s novel, Hijacking Japan
Listen to this episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, or on your favourite podcast platform.
Kalani Scarrott (00:32): My guest today is Christopher Hood. Christopher is an academic and author based at Cardiff University. He is the author of five academic books including Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan, which is today’s focus. He is also the author of three novels, including Hijacking Japan. In today’s conversation, we go deep on everything about the Shinkansen, from its early beginnings, all the way through to its economic and cultural impact. So please enjoy my conversation with Christopher Hood.
So Christopher, thank you so much for being here today, but I think before we dive deep on the Shinkansen itself, I’d love to just start with understanding how you first got involved with Japan and the Shinkansen, and maybe what got you curious about all this?
Christopher Hood (01:16): Sure. First of all, let me say thank you for inviting me to come on. It’s a great opportunity to talk about what I’m doing, and hopefully I can get across some of my enthusiasm to some of your listeners, because one of the things I’ve been saying for years is that not enough people look into learning more about the Shinkansen. I think a lot of people who go to Japan love traveling on it, but don’t maybe take the next step to learn a little bit about it.
And I suspect, in some respects, my story of the Shinkansen actually starts from that very personal side. So, it all begins really back in the 80s when I was a high school student. I went to a school which was predominantly for foreign students who wanted to go to British universities. And I had a lot of Japanese friends, but friends from other countries as well. And one day our head teacher gave us a talk about, we need to think at university options and everything. And I came out from that, bumped into one of my Japanese friends and he said, “So what are you going to study at university?” And I said, “Japanese, of course.” Just purely as a joke, and we had a laugh about it. And then afterwards I thought, “Well actually, maybe it’s not such a bad idea.”
So I went to the school library the next day to actually check whether it was possible to study Japanese at a British university, and in those days there was only about four options. But they were options nonetheless, and so I went with that and got the grades I needed to go to uni to study Japanese. But the Shinkansen comes into the story as well. So, after finishing my A levels, the examinations you do in order to get into university, I went down to Japan for about four weeks, also going on to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, largely staying with friends, so it was not particularly expensive trip.
But one of the highlights for me was taking the Shinkansen down from Tokyo to, I went all the way to Shin-Osaka. And one of my Japanese friends had decided which train I would be on. I think he even paid for a reserve seat. I still got the ticket, tucked away somewhere. He obviously knew what he was doing. I hadn’t got a clue particularly, but my image of the Shinkansen was the round nosed, very much looking like a bullet kind of design. And it wasn’t, it was what I now know is a 100 Series, which had a much more Concorde like look and so on, much more pointed and very different of course to any trains we get in the UK, so that blew me away.
Apart from that, the experience of that particular journey, I remember most, I guess, from the disappointment and not really being able to see Mount Fuji properly from the train, because particularly back in the 80s and 90s, you just couldn’t because of the pollution. A lot of it is actually due to smoke coming from the paper mills around the base of Fuji, I think as well. So, that was disappointing, but otherwise of course it was just an amazing experience going on the Shinkansen, and very different to trains in the UK.
And then as I said, I went on to uni to study Japanese and kept on going to Japan for many times. Most years I’d get up to Japan at some point or another. And of course this is all back in the days, pre-digital cameras. So you had to buy camera film, it was expensive. You’d have to get it developed, that was expensive. So you’d come back from a trip, I did an eight-week trip to Japan and came back with maybe 10 films of 36. So that’s what? 360 pictures, half of which would be out of focus, wouldn’t have worked, so you just don’t know about it till you get it get back. So, in reality, you come back with about 150 pictures, which is less than most of us probably taking in one morning if we’re in Japan these days.
But one of the things that struck me from getting all these pictures developed was that I’d taken a lot of pictures of trains. And this surprised me, but I wouldn’t consider myself a train spot or anything like that, but clearly something with catching my eye about these trains and realized it was to do with the shape, the colors, because all the trains of different colors and things. And so, as time went on, I thought this could become an academic study. And I actually looked into doing something related to the Shinkansen for my undergraduate dissertation, but I just couldn’t find materials and ended up actually doing my dissertation about a completely different subject, all about the creation of the J.League in Japan and wanting to host the 2002 World Cup.
Speeding forward a little bit after a year in Japan teaching English, I decided to do a PhD and again, thought about doing something on the Shinkansen but was still worried about whether I’d find the resources or not, so I did a different topic. But after finishing the PhD and working on getting that converted into a book, I thought, “I don’t want to do anything more on that topic, which I’ve been working on, I want to do something a bit different.” And by this stage I’ve made contact with some people at JR Central, so one of the companies that operate the Shinkansen. And so I thought, “Well, even if there aren’t books out there, I’ve got a way into the company at least.”
And so in early 2001, thanks to having won a contest for speaking Japanese and everything, which paid for a flight and various other things to get out Japan, I spent a week doing my first field work visiting JR Central, getting shown around and everything. And that just completely sealed the deal. I thought, “Right, that’s it, I’m committing to this research.” And by then it turned out that actually lots of people in Japan were writing about the Shinkansen from a very different aspect to me, but it gave me the opportunity to do my own field work, read other things as well. So it all just came together very nicely. So I’ve been working on the Shinkansen for 21 years now.
Kalani Scarrott (06:37): Yeah, it’s a crazy story, and I love it because there’s a few twists and turns and you never really know, but you eventually ended up with what you love.
Christopher Hood (06:43): Yeah, that’s it. And it just started from having friendships and taking photographs really. And I guess it just developed into something bigger over the years.
Kalani Scarrott (06:52): Exactly. And yeah, you never know where it’s going to end up. Do you have a favorite Shinkansen series and maybe why? Is it sentimental or?
Christopher Hood (06:57): Yeah, that’s a tricky one because there’s so many different Shinkansen. This tends to be a very popular, the question on social media groups and stuff like that. I’m a member of a couple of groups, including obviously the Japanese Railway Society and so on. And this question does come up. And the 500 Series is a very popular answer. And I get why people would say the 500 Series, because it is a very sleek design. I remember being completely amazed by it when I first saw it back in ’97, but I don’t know whether it is my Japanese influence or what, I don’t know, but it’s almost too perfect in the same way that Concorde isn’t my favorite airplane, because again, it was too perfect as a passenger plane in that very sleek design. I prefer the 747, because there’s something not quite right about it, but somehow it works.
And so, I’m like that with the Shinkansen. And I think on balance, I would probably say the 700 Series, which at the time, when it first came out, it really didn’t impress me a great deal. It got the nickname as duck-billed platypus, which probably from where you are from is not necessarily a bad thing to be called, but in Britain and in Japan is not necessarily seen as a compliment. But it’s also the Shinkansen I went on the most when I was doing my research for the book. It’s the first Shinkansen I went in the cab with the driver. And although it still, well, I say still, it’s been retired now, it looks a little bit funny from the front. Side on, it was a really nice profile.
So for the combination of sentimental reasons and everything, I’d actually say 700, which I think it surprised a lot of people. Similarly, I also like the E4 Shinkansen, which was an ugly brute of a train, about to be retired this year, but because I set a novel on the E4 series, I have a particular connection with that train as well. So probably those two over, probably the more traditional answers that people give.
Kalani Scarrott (08:53): No, I love that. And yeah, obviously no platypus slander on this podcast. I think people obviously associate the Shinkansen with very modern, but I don’t think people realize how early the proposals and plans were for it. So, what was the thought process behind it, more the early plans? Could they envision in what it was today or?
Christopher Hood (09:08): Yes and no to the last bit, which is the amazing bit about all of this. So, the original plans for the Shinkansen actually go back to the 1930s. Japan is starting to expand into Asia. It’s obviously got a foothold in Korea already. It’s developing Manchuria as well. One of the side effects consequences of this, is that of course that Tokyo, which became the capital in the late 19th century, is getting further and further away from the edge of the empire. Because Tokyo is almost as far East as you can get in Japan. And so they really were looking at a way to speed up the connections with the rest of the empire. In Manchuria, it was going to be very easy to build high-speed railway lines, but Japan had got these narrow gauge railway lines, which limited how quickly trains could go. It’s a 1,000 kilometers roughly from Tokyo all the way over to the Western most point of Japan to make an easy connection over to Korea. And it was taking a horrendous amount of time.
So they started developing plans for this new trunk line, which is what Shinkansen means. It refers actually to the line rather than the train essentially, but I’ll come back to that story in a moment. So they started developing the plans for the Shinkansen and started building the line as well. So actually when it all gets resurrected in the 1950s, the original photograph taken of the groundbreaking ceremony is a little bit ironic because it’s taken right in front of a tunnel, which was built for the original Shinkansen. And some of these tunnels after the war got used for other purposes before the Shinkansen eventually did actually use them.
But obviously the projects came to a halt during the war once it was obvious the war was turning against Japan and resources needed to be put elsewhere. The original plan even included ideas of having the Shinkansen connect Japan to Korea, potentially using, this is the most amazing concept and I find really scary when you think about the number of earthquakes and everything that goes on, but it was literally going to be a tube in the water standing on stilts. So rather than going under the sea bed and going through as a conventional underwater tunnel would do these days, it was literally going to be in the water, which I find mind boggling, and imagine what happens if that sprung a leak. But obviously none of this happens.
But one, as I said, some of the construction went ahead, some of the land purchase went ahead. So some of this obviously then influenced the design when it gets resurrected in the 50s. But one of the amazing things is, the guy who was involved with designing the train in the 1930s, he was told to work on the basis of a steam train, which he did. And you can find the diagrams for this. And because of the nature of the empire and everything, the train was given the name of dangan resha, which means bullet train. And this is why now the trains are still referred to as bullet trains, because nobody came up with a better alternative when the eventual Shinkansen was launched. So the term the Japanese started using was a bit of a mouthful, because the Japanese themselves didn’t really know what to call it, which is how it ended up being called the Shinkansen referring to both the train and the line. But bullet train goes back to the 1930s.
But although Shima had been told to design a steam train, he actually also in parallel, started working on an electric train. He could see this was going to be the future. If we then roll forward 20 or so years, and we come to the resurrection of the Shinkansen and so on, his son is then the one who is involved with the design the actual Shinkansen. And of course it becomes electric Shinkansen and so on, with essentially motors under each carriage. So you don’t have locomotives at its end. And just to tie all this together, the sun of that Shima was then involved with the project of the high-speed railways being set up in Taiwan, which uses a hybrid of European and Japanese technology, but the train is very much Shinkansen. So the three generations of the Shima family have been involved in different stages of the Shinkansen’s evolution.
Kalani Scarrott (13:25): Yeah. Well, I didn’t realize about the grandson. I knew about the son, but not the grandson, so that’s great for me. Yeah, you touched on Shinkansen as the new trunk line, the story there, does that get a bit confusing as well with Shinkansen referring to both the line and the train?
Christopher Hood (13:37): For most people, no. The only time I come across confusion is actually with my own students. Hopefully my new students won’t get to hear this podcast before I start the course with them in two or three weeks time, because I start off by asking a whole range of questions related to Japan. It’s just multiple choice, a bit of fun, just to ease them into the topic before I give lots of reading to do and so on. And one of the multiple choice questions I give them is, what does Shinkansen mean? And option A is, a fast railway train, option E is a railway line. And of course, most of them go for the train and everything, and I then point out to them, “Well, technically it’s the line, but it’s a trick question as well, because it also means the train.”
It’s not like in France where they developed the two different terms, TGV is the train, but they also have chemin and grande vitesse referring specifically to a high-speed railway line itself. For most Japanese, most of the time when we’re speaking Japanese or anything like that, there is no confusion. It’s obvious which one you’re referring to. And of course predominantly it’s the train, because there aren’t many times where you need to refer to the railway line. And if you do need to be specific, there are ways of referring to a railway line specifically to get rid of the ambiguity in that respect.
Kalani Scarrott (14:49): Cool. That’s interesting for me. So obviously the Shinkansen launched for the Tokyo Summer Olympics, what was the significance behind that, do you think?
Christopher Hood (14:56): There’s a lot of significance, and just to say, one of my biggest reliefs of the Tokyo Olympics happening in 2021 and passing relatively successfully is that actually we didn’t have one event, which I was really fearing we were going to have, and that was a fatality due to the heat. Because nobody in their right mind, as far as I was concerned, would go and put the Olympics in Japan in July and August. It’s way too hot and humid. It had never been proposed to do this before. So Tokyo was meant to hold the Olympics, obviously back in the 40s, that didn’t happen. When Tokyo hosted the Olympics in ’64, it was the first time that an Asian city had hosted it. And of course it’s coming less than 20 years after the end of World War II, officially it has come to an end, and is very symbolic of Japan coming back into the world stage, and the symbolism for that one.
Obviously there’s always a lot of symbolism when the Olympic flame is lit and so on. And this time, with Naomi Osaka and everything, and all the issues of mental health and also racial issues within Japan and so on, that I think was an amazing choice in many respects. But the symbolic choice back in the ’64 was even greater because the person who lit the flame was born in Hiroshima on the 6th of August, 1945. He was born in Hiroshima on the day of the bomb. How about that for symbolism?
So you got all this symbolism going on, and the Shinkansen starting only a few days before it. The Shinkansen starts 1st of October, the Olympic starts, I think it’s the 7th of October. So the world media is in Japan to see Japan return to the world stage, but they’re not just returning to the world stage, they’re actually saying to the world, “We’ve come a long way. Look at this train we’ve got. We’ve got color TVs.” In the Tokyo Olympics, it was first time that the Olympics is broadcasting in color and so on as well. Some of the events were deliberately held in Osaka to ensure that people had to travel from Tokyo down to Osaka so again, they would experience the Shinkansen. So this was really sending a very strong signal out to the world that Japan is back and then some. But also sending a signal to the Japanese people, “Just look how far we come and what the trajectory is that we’re going on.”
And this was important for the Shinkansen story, because a lot of people were very skeptical about when it was being built. They thought it was a white elephant at best. People were terrified it was going to lead to some high casualty numbers because the railway company, railway organization, it was a nationalized company in those days, JNR, had a terrible safety record. And so people were convinced there would be accidents. In fact, practically in newspapers they had essentially written the stories and all they needed to do was drop in the train number, what time it happened and everything, but they had the stories ready to go. But of course they’ve never had to be printed.
Kalani Scarrott (17:50): Yeah, that’s insane. I didn’t realize it was that dire, I guess, or that their opinion was like that. So the safety record is obviously immaculate, and during its 50-year history, it’s carried over 10 billion passengers, but there hasn’t been a single fatality due to collision or derailment. What are some of the unique safety features and how have they achieved this basically?
Christopher Hood (18:09): Okay, so there’s a number of features and these were all built in right from the beginning to try and ensure the safety. So, the first thing is obviously that it’s running on a dedicated railway line, so it doesn’t have to worry about slower traffic getting in the way. There is slower traffic in the sense that some Shinkansen stop at all stations, but some only stop at some, so trains will sometimes put into a station and be there for five minutes to let faster services through and some. But you haven’t got freight trains in the way, for example, or small commuter trains, things like that. So that was one feature.
Part of this also meant making sure that there are no level crossings. So today in Japan, 50% of railway accidents happen at level crossings. I always think it’s a little bit of a strange phraseology for it to be saying that 50% of train accidents happen at level crossings, because by definition, I always think the train was supposed to be there, it’s probably the car that wasn’t supposed to be there. Because it’s a little bit unfair to brand it as a rail accident, but anyway, that’s how it gets done statistically. So getting the trains from the cars was an important feature, which I think becomes increasingly important as we go through into 60s, 70s into the 80s and more and more people have cars. Obviously I think that was really far sighted way of doing it.
Another safety feature was making sure that the train design itself could cope with the high speeds, that it wouldn’t lead to derailment. Helping with this is the design of the railway line itself, that the lines themselves, the bits of metal, which the train runs on are much longer and better designed than other countries. Sometimes have to make sure there’s no warping or anything.
And then the next thing, which I guess is always the one that surprises people is that, the Shinkansen has no railway signals. I think most countries in the world, if you walk down to the end of the platform, you see red lights, orange lights, screen lights for trains to go. It’s a very similar system to cars in many respects in most countries. There’s nothing like that for the Shinkansen. Because the signaling happens within the cab. And so the driver is constantly getting updates on what is the maximum permissible speed that they’re allowed to travel at, which takes account of, the line itself. So if they’re coming up to a corner, obviously there’s going to be a drop in the speed. But also if they’re getting closer to a station, if they’re getting closer to the train in front, automatically the speed limit goes down. But the driver is still in control. Okay.
And this is a really important thing I always like to stress, and I’ve certainly had stressed it in me a number of times by the railway companies themselves, the Shinkansen need the drivers. They are not automatic. A typical London underground train can be more automated than the Shinkansen in that respect. But if the driver doesn’t respond, the train can then override and will stop the train. The only time effectively where that doesn’t happen is when the train comes into the station, and a roundabout halfway along the platform, there is a point where the driver has to press a manual override switch and say, “I am in control now, I’m going to be stopping this trainer precise at the right point.” They’ve got a 15 centimeter window in which to stop this train, which may be 400 meters long.
It’s quite amazing both watching them do it, and I’ve also had the experience of trying to do it on a simulator and seeing how horribly wrong it can go. But basically they have to press this manual override button to say, “I’m in control now.” If that doesn’t happen, the train will come to a stop, but only about halfway along the platform. And this did happen one time. I can’t give you a year off the top of my head. I’m guessing 2003-ish, maybe, where a driver had fallen unconscious for some reason. And it first became apparent when the train stopped halfway along the platform at Okama, but nobody was ever in danger because of the safety system that’s there. But it’s very much, the driver is still in control.
It’s different, I would say, to autopilot on a train, on an airplane rather, because autopilot on an airplane is very much, the autopilot’s number one, and the pilot is there monitoring to make sure it’s not making any mistakes other than most pilots prefer to do take off and land themselves. With this, it’s much more the driver is in control and the train is keeping an eye on them to make sure they don’t make a mistake. The software side, the human is more important than the hardware side.
Kalani Scarrott (22:27): Do you see their role changing going forward? Is there any plans to automate it more or are they perfectly happy with how it is?
Christopher Hood (22:33): I think for the main Shinkansen, it will stay that way. We might see some variations across the companies. One of the things that happened was back in ’87, the Japanese National Railways was broken up and privatized into a number of different passenger companies and one freight company. One of the things that struck me about during my research is although these companies were obviously originally all together, now they have very different fields and cultures. Just traveling around Japan, you’ll see even the trains, even the Shinkansen themselves, can look different across these organizations, both the design, but also how they paint them and various things.
So there are company and cultural differences and this potentially could lead to a change naturally, but some of them, I don’t see it changing because I think they are so focused on the human elements being central to the Shinkansen, I don’t think they would want to change that as long as they’ve got enough labor. As I’m sure everybody’s aware, Japan’s population is going down quite rapidly and there’s a labor shortage in certain areas, but being a Shinkansen operative is quite prestigious. So I don’t see this as being an area where they’ll necessarily have a shortage of supply for the time being.
But one area where it’s almost certainly going to be different is on the Linear Shinkansen, the maglev of Chuo Shinkansen and whatever term you want to use, which will initially, once it’s constructed, operate between Tokyo and Nagoya because they’re meant to be extended to Osaka. Because this train is going to be traveling at 500 kilometers an hour, it’s essentially a low-flying airplane, there’s nothing really the driver can be doing. How far they can see and react, it’s immaterial at those speeds.
Already on the Shinkansen, there are certain elements of this, so if you look at the Shinkansen, if you picture one in your mind, if you were trying to draw one, I think everybody would be drawing it with the lights. They tend to be quite distinctive, but the lights actually were put on the train as a confidence trick to passengers. Originally, it was going to be no lights on the Shinkansen because the designer said, “They serve no purpose. We can’t have lights which are bright enough to be able to help the driver to see far enough in the dark for that breaking distance.” And when it comes into the station, there’s going to be lights, so they don’t need lights. But others in the organization said, “Passengers will not get on a train if there are no lights, so we’ll put the lights on.”
Kalani Scarrott (24:57): That’s such an interesting tidbit, and not something you’d think about normally. But you mentioned the JNR reform, which happened in 1987 so, what have been the following effects either through operation-wise and culturally-wise, even economically? What have been all the downstream effects, do you think?
Christopher Hood (25:10): So there’s been a big difference. So, if you can picture Japan, there’s obviously the four main islands. So, Hokkaido was given its own railway service, Shikoku was given its own railway service, Kyushu was given its own railway service, and then the main island de Honshu was split into three. So you go at JR West, which is essentially Osaka, and Westwood, you’ve got JR East, which is essentially Tokyo going north, northeast, and then you’ve got JR Central, which is the bit in between.
JR Central is essentially a Shinkansen company. 90% of its income comes from the Shinkansen because it operates the line from Tokyo down to Shin-Osaka. Technically, some of its, Shinkansen, is going into the territories of other companies. So it should switch over at Maibara going to the west and it should switch over at Odawara going east. But they decided it would be too complicated to have J drivers jumping in and after these points, so JR central essentially invades into the territory of other companies. And this happens with some of the other lines as well.
But its income essentially comes from that. There’s not a lot of money in the commuter lines around Nagoya. It doesn’t have many other rural lines. It’s got the most money and it’s purely focused on Shinkansen. Actually, every single employee of JR Central, at some stage or another, goes through the process of getting a Shinkansen driving license, so that even if they end up in marketing or accounts, they understand how the Shinkansen operates. It’s very much, that is what company’s about.
JR East on the other hand, although they have a Shinkansen line, a lot of their revenue comes from the commuter belts around Tokyo, not the Shinkansen. So, they operate the Yamanote Line, the circle line in Tokyo, the Chuo Line. This is a lot of where their money comes from, but they’ve also been pioneering the retail aspect of things. So although this is a historical thing, which a lot of private companies did going right back into the 19th century. So, Keio, Odakyu and these various other lines which people may have traveled on if they’ve been to Japan, a lot of these companies realized in the early days, they don’t just own the railway line and the station, they own the space up above the station. And so they started building department stores above the stations, and people would literally just travel in, get out of the station and go in into the department store, essentially still in the station complex and then return home. They didn’t really get out into Tokyo or whatever.
And JR East has really been the one that’s pushed that ahead from the JNR side of things that they’ve got the most kiosks and retail side of things. Their Suica ID, the IC card, which you can use for, I’m it using for train fairs, people have got so used to purchasing things at shops with that and so on, it’s just become a norm these days. And a lot of people just refer to a Suica rather than sort of an IC card or something like that. It’s just become the norm. So they pioneered that side.
JR West on the other hand is very much split between Shinkansen, the commuter lines in Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe area, rural lines, also trying to develop some retail as well. So it’s much more spread and the other JR companies have their own things. So each of them, because of where they are and what markets they serve, develop slightly different ways of doing things, and because of that, there’s also topographical things. JR East has to cope, at the beach looking at the Shinkansen, it has to deal with a lot more snow than say JR Kyushu would have to. So they have to design their trains and railway lines to be able to deal with the snow. So, you get differences because of this as well.
Kalani Scarrott (28:39): Yeah, to dive deeper a bit more on the weather aspects, how do they combat, obviously, cyclones, earthquakes, the snow? What are some of the features they do for that?
Christopher Hood (28:47): So different things have different responses. So for earthquakes, there are earthquake monitoring devices all around the country, many of which have been developed by the JR companies themselves. And as soon as an earthquake happens, there’s something called a P wave, the primary wave, which is released. This largely is an energy wave, but doesn’t actually create any damage per se, but it can be picked up by sensors.
The secondary wave is the one that comes after it, a little bit slower, but this is the one that we associate with earthquakes. But obviously the further you are away from the epicenter, the bigger the gap there is between the P wave and the S wave. And the detection devices will be able to pick up the P wave, working out where the earthquake is, and from that, be able to work out where it was, scale of it, is this an issue? And if it’s an issue, they can then send out the warning automatically to trains saying, “Shut down.” And you can find videos of this, of how trains literally start the shutting down process and so on. Because obviously it’s safer for a train to be stationary than moving at high speed if an earthquake hits.
The one time when or a particular time when a Shinkansen did derail due to an earthquake, the train was practically over the epicenter of the earthquake itself, so the gap between the P wave and the S wave just wasn’t enough for the train to slow down very much. But it happened to be an older style of train. So very big and heavy style, Shinkansen, in an area where they have big gullies for dealing with melt water from the snow and the train derailed into that gully and basically stayed at a 45 degree angle. Nobody was seriously injured. So, a little bit of luck involved, but equally, it could have been even worse if it hadn’t even started hitting the brakes potentially. So that’s the main thing for earthquakes.
For volcanoes, they don’t tend to be such a big problem as, rather than the ash can get into the motors and so on. And there is a constant active volcano right at the Southern end of the Shinkansen network down in Kagoshima. So JR Kyushu has a special cleaner to clean all the motors and everything to get any ash out and so on.
When it comes to snow, different responses for different things. It’s always a British joke about, a number of years ago, there were excuses used by the railway companies saying that, the trains were being delayed because it was the wrong type of snow, and people were like, “Well, there’s snow and it’s snow, how can you have right types and wrong types?” And, well, one of the things I discovered we doing my research on the Shinkansen is there really is different types of snow, and Japan gets both types. So the East Coast gets a very dry powdery type of snow. This is, as far as railway companies are concerned, the right kind of snow, because you don’t have to do much with it. As long as there’s sufficient traffic coming along, the pressure wave at the front of the train just literally blows it out of the way, and so you don’t need to worry about it.
The wrong type of snow comes from the Siberian direction off the Japan sea and is much wetter, and so it becomes thicker. This will stick to the line, it will stick to trains, and then start to form into ice and so on as well. And the only way to get rid of this, and this is the system that’s used on the Shinkansen, is they have sprinklers. The sprinklers, the water just needs to be above freezing, and essentially that’s warm enough to start melting the snow. This then of course then produces a lot of water, they try to recycle as much of this back into the system and just warm it up a little bit. Sometimes it’s very easy. In a town like [inaudible 00:32:17], which is a hot spring resort, there’s no shortage of warm water around, and so it’s relatively straightforward. But other times, obviously the water has to be warmed up, which is not economically efficient, but it’s better than having trains delayed or accidents happening. So sprinklers are used to get the snow out of the way essentially.
The biggest problems the Shinkansen actually have is, wind and rain. Nothing can be done about these. If the rain gets too heavy, and this of course also applies to if the melt water from snow gets too much, if it’s getting too much within a particular, an hour or over a period of time, the Shinkansen has to shut down. And this has happened from time to time. And again, with wind, if the wind speeds are getting too high, they have monitors regular spaces along the line, if the wind speed is getting too high, either the top speed is dropped or the service is suspended altogether.
And of course in Japan, wind and rain come together on a regular basis in the form of typhoons. And it’s a fairly regular news item that when a typhoon comes, who’s winning and losing between the airline industry and the Shinkansen, who’s having to do the most cancellations, who’s managing to keep going, and so on. But there’s nothing that can really be done about it, you just have to let it blow its way through.
Kalani Scarrott (33:30): To maybe go deeper on how the Shinkansen has affected cities and those, how has the Shinkansen basically affected cities, and especially those along the route?
Christopher Hood (33:40): Yeah, this is a really interesting question and one that’s, I’ve been looking at in my research quite a bit more after I actually published a book. So I’ve done some additional research which was published in an article and I keep looking at, because I think everybody can buy into the theory of high speed railway lines as a way to connect countries. And Britain’s doing this at the moment with HS2, the logic is, you’ve got too many people in the capital area, let’s have a high speed railway line outside the capital area so people can then invest in those other areas, and they can travel up to the capital if they need to. It’s so easy to understand the logic. And it seems very good idea to make sure that money doesn’t concentrate in one area. And there were certainly indications that this was what was happening in Japan during the growth period, and I mean growth both in terms of economy and population.
What we’ve seen since the 1990s, however, is actually the opposite happening. That people saying, “Everything happens in Tokyo, because of the Shinkansen, I can move to Tokyo and then I can get back to where my parents and grandparents are very conveniently if I need to.” And so what the Shinkansen appears to be doing is accelerating the process of rural depopulation. I visited one city called Kumano, which wasn’t even included on the Shinkansen line, but used to be on the main line, they told me, “Because we were then not on the Shinkansen line, one day people will go back to Kumano and there’ll be a sign just saying, Kumano was here.” The whole place, they expect it to collapse one day.
But even on the Shinkansen stations near cities nearby, so somewhere like Ueda, for example, although there was a lot of excitement around the time of the opening and so on, and there was probably some investment at that time, revisiting there over the years, you see how many of the shops have now shut down. You’re getting to the point to community collapse because people are saying, “There’s just not enough investment coming into the city. There’s not enough critical mass of taxes being paid. Everything is moving to Tokyo.”
And the only thing that’s potentially bucking this trend, and this seems to be happening across the whole of Japan, it’s not unique to the Hokuriku Shinkansen, this is happening across Japan, the only thing that potentially could back this trend of course is, responses to COVID-19 and whether that will encourage people to get out of Tokyo and live in other cities and travel into Tokyo, if they need to, otherwise use video conferencing and so on. But I think there’s a big question mark over the long term impact of COVID in that respect. I’m very skeptical. I think humans have an amazing capacity to forget. I think this is a line from Doctor Who or something like that, “Humans have an amazing capacity to forget that’s why we keep on fighting wars.” I think five years down the line, COVID-19 is forgotten and we’re all packing the big cities again.
In the same way, I’ll be writing a blog about this week, that one of my memories of 911 was seeing on the day itself, people saying, “Oh, this is the end of skyscrapers, no one want to be living and working in tall buildings again.” Well, that didn’t last very long, did it? We just move on and go with a particular trajectory. The pressures are on, whether you call it market forces or what, yes, you can move up to a provincial city, it’s very easy in Japan to travel in by the Shinkansen. But if companies have got a choice of two employees and one is on their doorstep and they know is likely to work overtime, and the other ones saying, “Oh, I need to leave at nine o’clock no later than that, because I got a Shinkansen to catch,” who are they’re going to go for? I just think that these sort of pressure is going to just take us back to norm at some stage.
Kalani Scarrott (37:12): Yeah, great points, and I totally agree myself. In terms of exporting the Shinkansen technology, I think it’s probably fair to say that hasn’t been successful, why is this?
Christopher Hood (37:20): Variety of reasons over the years, I would say, and different reasons for different countries. So there have been many attempt and talks about it. China was talking about importing the Shinkansen technology back in the 70s even, which given that they’d only normalized diplomatic relations at the start of that decade is actually quite amazing. But they were still talking about doing this investment in the 1990s. I was actually there when there was a visit from some dignitaries from China, and they were on the Shinkansen partly to investigate the possibility that Shinkansen broke down, which from a British perspective, I had a certain degree of schadenfreude, that the Shinkansen was breaking down, and another part of me wasn’t quite so happy. But there were also obviously cultural historical reasons why it was complicated for China to import the Shinkansen.
There was a talk of doing it at one point and there was local protests about building Japanese railway lines in places like Nanjing after what happened in the 1930s. And there’s actually a very parallel story going on at the moment this week, talking about, just a Japan-themed cultural area in a Chinese city, and how this is disrespectful in relation to what happened in the 30s and 40s and so on. And of course in the end, China reached a point where it didn’t really need to import so much from Japan. It could just import the knowledge and skills, because the Chinese economy [inaudible 00:38:41] so much. So in the end they imported a few trains and then basically were given license to build almost identical style trains. But they also imported trains from Europe as well. So they got a mixture of systems going on. I assume, they would develop their own trains more and more.
South Korea was even more complicated, because, when they were looking to build a high speed railway line, there was very polarizations between the two countries. We’re talking about a time when essentially you couldn’t buy Japanese cars in Korea, any cultural goods and so on. And the exchange rate was going haywire as well. So it made Japan look very expensively compared to the TGV option, which is what they went with.
With Taiwan, it was a little bit more complicated. They appear to be going down the European route, but a few things cropped up. One was that, my understanding is that, whereas when Taipei built its metro system using a European system, there were other things on the table such as the sale of Mirage fighter planes and so on. Nothing was included of that sort with the TGV type offer and so on. So that may have also been a slight issue. But then there was also a big earthquake, and Taiwan said, “Hold on, how good is the TGV or European system?” Because I think it was tied in the Germany as well. “How good are they with earthquakes compared to the Shinkansen?” Which we know is very good with earthquakes.
So Japan seemed to take this as an opportunity that a lot of money was being sent to donations and stuff from Japan anyway. And so Taiwan used this an opportunity to say, “Hold on, we need to do a redesign here.” And they basically backed out of the TGV thing, went with Japan, but still used a mixture. So they got it like a hybrid system, which I know a lot of people who weren’t happy with them and thought wouldn’t work. But so far, actually it has seemingly worked without any significant problems.
Other countries have also looked to use the Shinkansen. So Iran, Malaysia-Singapore corridor was looking to do it, and then Florida, Texas, and California. And each of these have their own reasons why it has or hasn’t happened. Sometimes it’s just related to whether the project would go ahead at all or not.
America looks as though it’s the most likely to go down a Japanese route. But I think the Linear Shinkansen itself, I’ve always argued, there’s a good chance we’ll see a Linear Shinkansen operating outside Japan on a large scale sooner than we actually see it in Japan. There’s still a lot of complications in getting that constructed. And part of me thinks that this is like an advertising for the technology, that if people wanted to have a really fast, low flying airplane, they should use the Japanese Linear Shinkansen system and so on.
Kalani Scarrott (41:21): So, if we imagine that the East Coast of the US do implement the Shinkansen, do you think there’s anything that they should do differently or anything they should avoid or can learn from or do better, do you think?
Christopher Hood (41:30): It’s hard for me to answer because I’m not an expert on the USA. And I think one of the things I learned from studying the Shinkansen is there are so many cultural elements involved with making sure the system works. And the best example I could give of this and why, if you just drop the Shinkansen in the UK, it wouldn’t work. First of all, it wouldn’t fit on our railway lines. The train’s too wide. We’d need to build wide railway lines or we could take the mini Shinkansen, the ones that go to Yamagata and Akita, we could fit those, I think, on the British railway lines, because it’s same size wheels, but the body is the same narrow design that we have for British train. Shinkansen are basically top heavy, which is why you end up with a three by two seating.
But if we look at the Shinkansen, it’s well known how punctual they are. The average delay is less than one minute, which is partly a statistical thing. On the Tokaido Shinkansen, you’ve got 300 trains roughly operating a day. If one of them was five hours late, but all the other are on time, that actually brings them all down to an average delay of only one minutes. So you can see if most of them are on time, the average is going to end up being tiny.
So it’s a statistical thing there, but it’s not just down to the amazingly skilled drivers, it’s not just down to the technology, it’s down to the passengers as well. The train is only in the platform for 40 to 50 seconds usually. This requires the passengers to line up in the correct place, which in turn requires the driver to stop the train in the right place. That requires people who are on the train to get off promptly, and it then requires people who are waiting on the platform to be queued up in the right place and get on.
Picture, if you can, obviously, listeners to your podcast are all around the world, but I’m sure many people have visited London and would be aware that the London underground, say take the Central Line, have standard train carriages. The doors are in exactly the same place on every single train. But there is no mark on the platform to show where you should line up. People line up in various places quite often just where they’ve got onto the platform itself rather than moving along. Very few people think strategically about which door would be helpful for them when they get off, which is something which is done as standards on the underground in Tokyo. They have maps saying, “Well, if you want to get off at this station, you can transfer to this line, you should be in this carriage,” and various things like that.
And then when the train finally does show up, people start trying to get onto the train while other people are still trying to get off the train. It’s chaos and this causes delays. And this would not work on a high speed railway network if you’re trying to be punctual. It could change. My understanding is Japanese people never used to be that punctual. I don’t think they’re particularly naturally punctual. I don’t think that is necessarily a human trait anyway, and you get regional differences as well. Hello Kyoto, I’m talking to you, but people can be taught to be punctual for certain aspects. And the Shinkansen has managed to do this.
Could British people be trained, for example, to become punctual, if there were lines showing where you’d have to queue? Absolutely. British people love queuing, it’s a national pastime, so it could be done, and maybe it needs something like the Shinkansen to make it happen. But it raises the question, why haven’t they tried to do it elsewhere? Why doesn’t this happen on the London underground? Or other cultural things. So in America, would people be prepared to queue up in a particular way? I don’t know. Based on my experience in the United States, visiting various places, I would say in Hawaii, yes, New York, not so much, so I don’t know.
Kalani Scarrott (44:50): No, that’s fair enough. And yeah, I wish I could say Australia was different, but we’re pretty much the same. No markings and it’s just chaos.
Christopher Hood (44:55): I’m not saying anything, and it’s a long time since I went to Australia, so I couldn’t possibly comment.
Kalani Scarrott (45:00): That’s fine. I can say for us yeah, it’s chaos and it’s just yeah. To wrap a neat little bow on this, what’s your favorite Shinkansen fun fact?
Christopher Hood (45:06): My favorite fun fact, that’s a really tricky one. The one that’s popping into my head actually is a nice historical one. So I’m sure many people who listen to your podcast and who are familiar with Japan, know all about Tokyo and the views of Mount Fuji, which were done and so on. And generally, the view of Fuji done from Tokaido, is that you’ve got Tokaido and Fuji is on the right hand side, because that’s the natural side. You’ve got the coast on one side, you’ve Tokaido, the original road, you’ve got Mount Fuji. But there is one picture, which because the Tokaido bends, you actually end up with Fuji being on the other side.
This happens on the Shinkansen as well, very, very briefly. Just near Yaizu in Shizuoka, there’s enough of a turn on the Shinkansen line, that if you’re sitting on the left hand side of the Shinkansen, you can see Mount Fuji out of your left hand window rather than having to be at the right side. So, I find that a fun little thing, that you got that historical topographical overlap.
Having said all that, I actually think some of the best views of Mount Fuji from the Shinkansen are actually going north from Tokyo out past Omiya and in that direction, but that’s by to by.
Kalani Scarrott (46:26): No, that’s great. I love it. To move in my closing round of questions, what do you think is the most, a bit off topic but still I think on topic, I think what is the most undervalued life experience that university-aged students don’t give weight to? What’s an underrated skill or an experience that you think they should have?
Christopher Hood (46:41): Being at university full stop. I think, I don’t know what it’s like in Australia or many other countries now, but in Britain, there’s much greater pressure for 18-year-olds to go to university than it used to be the case. It’s become a norm for 50% of the population, which is great, and I don’t have any issue with that. But I think it happens almost on an escalator. People move up to the next level without actually thinking about why they’re doing it. Is it necessary? And then because of the way the fee structure has gone in the UK, which I know is still much cheaper than it would be say in Japan or the US, but it’s still huge investments, people are looking to make money while they’re at university doing part-time jobs, and I think this is putting terrible pressure on the students because they’re doing bar work or something like that, and they can’t afford to lose that job because they need the money to do their studies.
But because they’re doing the work, they don’t actually get to do their studies properly because they need the money. And so you get this awful catch 22, where they are living the life they’re not supposed to be living. They’re actually in the worst of all worlds. People used to talk about university, the three or four years at university as being a break from the real world and everything. And I think some people said it a little bit disparagingly, but actually it’s a very important time at university, is just to come to terms with who you are, what you are doing, and so on.
I think that was particularly important when universities were maybe a little bit more elitist, and people needed to find their way because these would be the leaders one day and think about how they would run companies or whatever. But I think even in a universal education system, it’s good for everybody to just have that time to think about who you are or what you want to do, what you want to be studying, and how you study it. And we know that once you graduate, you’re going to be working, and it’s difficult to do that. Even on a two, three-week holiday, you can’t always be doing these things. You can’t really do it on a daily basis if you’re listening to just music. You need that bigger period of time just to do that discovery sometimes.
And so, they’re actually in the worst of both worlds because they’re working plus they’re meant to be studying as well. And we assume they’re doing a 35 hour working week. And these two things do not fit together. So, if there’s one thing I would change, I would try and I would love governments to find a way of making university education so that people don’t have to do part-time jobs at the same time. I think it’s killing what university education or university experience is meant to be about.
And my recommendation to any parent out there who listens to your podcast and to what I’m saying is, whatever you do, try to make sure that your kids don’t need to do part-time work. They may have loans and systems for sorting out the fees, great, but it’s the living expenses. Make sure they can just enjoy life without having to go and do part-time jobs, because it will just make such a huge difference to their university experience.
Kalani Scarrott (49:30): Yeah, I totally agree. Has there been any books, classes, experiences that have been influential in shaping your worldview?
Christopher Hood (49:37): Yeah, obviously over the years I’ve read so many books and stuff. But the one concept I keep on coming back to is one by the Professor Joy Hendry, called Wrapping Culture. She wrote a book called Wrapping Culture itself, but the concept she brings into a number of her studies, and I find it’s really important for understanding Japanese society, where there’s these various layers which we all know about in terms of politeness and so on. And if anybody has ever received a gift or buy anything in Japan, it’s quite the same as it used to be because of environmental concerns, but there tends to be layer upon layer, upon layer of stuff. So it’s very literally a wrapping culture, that the language wraps things. The level of politeness is making a certain social dynamic work.
Through understanding that, it helped me to understand the design of the Shinkansen. How the trains themselves are wrapped, how the colors reflect a particular ethos of a company, how the design of the train reflects certain things. And I’ve then extended that onto looking at even the airline companies. So why ANA has Star Wars or Pokemon on some of their planes, and JAU will have Disney or pop groups on some of its planes, things like this. So the whole concept of wrapping culture, I think is probably one of the most important concepts for people to get their head around in understanding Japan.
Kalani Scarrott (50:59): Yeah, I love it. Christopher, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Where can people find you or anything you want to plug as well?
Christopher Hood (51:04): Sure. So, the easiest way to find me is by my WordPress site. That’s hoodcp.wordpress.com. You can also find me on Twitter @hoodcp. Please do take a look, I’ve got loads of academic books, obviously dealing with Shinkansen, but I also write novels. The first one of which was actually set on a Shinkansen, but it’s not just about trains, so don’t get put off if you’re not totally into trains, it’s a much bigger story than that. There’s lots of things you can get hold of, and my novels are very easy and cheap to get by ebook and stuff like that. So it’s meant to be a way for people to escape from the real world. But they’re all set in Japan, and hopefully people will learn a little bit more about Japan through my experiences and things I’ve observed and things like that, which I bring into the books as well.
Kalani Scarrott (51:52): Yeah, and if I’m allowed to ask, just curious, why write a novel? Especially compared to academic work, it’s a big change, I reckon.
Christopher Hood (51:58): It is a big change. Couple of different reasons. One, it started from a workshop I went to where they said, “We’re giving tips on how to just get your fingers working, do a bit of free writing.” And I thought, “Fine, but why not just add up all the free writing until you get a book?” It is also due to the pressures of British academia. There are restrictions these days about what you can put in academic writing. And there were things I wanted to say, so I thought, put it in books. To some degree you can also do this blog sites, which I do as well.
But it was also that, the first one, as I said, it was partly set on a Shinkansen and it stemmed from the fact that, I was doing one of the Shinkansen journals, obviously for my research, and it’s just like, one day I just thought, “Is there a way of turning these journeys into something more than just the research?” Things that I see, just ideas that pop into my head and so on. So, those things all came together, I guess.
Kalani Scarrott (52:51): Oh, absolutely, love that. But overall, Christopher, thank you so much. It’s been an absolute pleasure today. I’ve loved it.
Christopher Hood (52:56): Absolutely, no problem at all. And very happy to have been on, and please, don’t hesitate to ask me back at a future day to talk about some other topic as well.
Kalani Scarrott (53:04): Perfect. Sounds like a plan. If you enjoyed this podcast episode, be sure to check the website, compoundingpodcast.com. On the website, you’ll find every episode complete with transcripts, show notes and other related resources. Also be sure to sign up to my weekly newsletter, Curated by Kalani, where I share what I’ve been reading, learning, and watching for that week. Same as the podcast, it’s compressed to impress and I aim for maximal return in the time invested. So sign up at kalanis.substack.com. You can also connect with me on Twitter @ScarrottKalani. But until next time, have a good one.