Dream Super-Express
A Cultural History of the World's First Bullet Train
Jessamyn Abel


Contents and Abstracts
Introduction: Dreams of Infrastructure
chapter abstract

This book tells a cultural history of Japan's first bullet train, the Tōkaidō Shinkansen, viewing its significance within 1960s Japan in terms of the aesthetic power it exerted as a technologically advanced infrastructural project. Views of the new line were formed in relation to the specific historical contexts of rapid economic and industrial growth, expansion of communications and transportation infrastructure, changes in Japan's international position, revision of views about the wartime past, and a growing culture of grassroots protest.

1 Invisible Infrastructures of Protest in Kyoto
chapter abstract

This chapter considers the bullet train planning process, focusing on two opposing positions in a story of intersecting battles surrounding its route. The Kyoto leadership pressed JNR to change its initial route bypassing the city as part of their effort to create a new metropolitan image by adding a sheen of global modernity to its reputation as a repository of history and tradition. On the other hand, those whose communities were destroyed, families evicted, or businesses ruined by the construction of the tracks through the city challenged JNR's rhetoric of the bullet train as an important project bringing national benefits in order to question the structures of democracy in Japan, joining a broader struggle to gain a greater voice for citizens and bolster the power of the individual against state and corporate forces.

2 Reconstructing the Tōkaidō
chapter abstract

This chapter considers debates among urban planners, general public discourse, and popular culture featuring the bullet train to explain its function in the social construction of space. Such a perspective highlights the relationship between ideas and infrastructure and sheds light on the dynamics of power over space, including changes not only to physical urban forms but also in the ways that people understood the cities on the line. The bullet train raised issues such as centralization, cultural homogenization versus diversity, and the tension between development and preservation.

3 Railroad for the Information Society
chapter abstract

This chapter situates the bullet train within socioeconomic changes of the 1960s and early 1970s, identified at the time as a transformation from an industrial to an information society. Views of the bullet train in terms of information highlight two questions about the emerging information society: urban planners emphasized the new line's impact on information flows, considering how that could be used as a form of social control, while producers of cultural materials were concerned with the issue of inequality and used the idea of unequal access to information as a form of social critique in semifictional stories about the planning, construction, and early operation of the line. Through such debates and depictions, the new line became a flashpoint that people used to grapple with the problems accompanying ongoing changes and envision a better future.

4 Nostalgia for Imperial Japan
chapter abstract

This chapter brings the former empire into view with a quick glance backward in time in order to understand the place of nostalgia and memory in the story of the bullet train. It examines two rail systems of the 1930s and 1940s not to tell a continuous narrative but rather to build a foundation for understanding the wartime memories inspired by the bullet train. Two symbolically important wartime trains—the South Manchurian Railway Company's Asia Express and the original "bullet train," a planned (but never realized) express train between Tokyo and Shimonoseki—were the subjects of a 1960s surge of nonfiction reminiscences and fictional stories, which connected the present to a sanitized past. This comparison shows how the promise of high-speed rail was drawn into the construction of public memory of war and empire.

5 Technology of Cultural Diplomacy
chapter abstract

This chapter examines the complicated effect on Japan's international relations of its recognition as a leader in high-speed rail through examination of the government's use of the bullet train as a tool of technology diplomacy. The introduction of the train helped redefine Japan's position within the global community of nations but also contributed to growing concern about the threat of Japanese exports on world markets. International displays of Japanese technology were aimed at improving views of Japan and promoting its industrial exports, especially to the United States, while rail-related technological assistance was deployed in rebuilding diplomatic relations with developing countries. Foreign observers were impressed by the train, but its use in diplomacy sometimes inadvertently reinforced old stereotypes.

Conclusion: Bullet Train Dreams in the Twenty-First Century
chapter abstract

This conclusion views retrospective treatments of the original zero-series bullet train as performing a monumentalization of infrastructure, that is, making it represent a certain view of Japanese society of the 1960s in connection with the present day. It also considers more recent echoes of the bullet train dreams treated in each chapter.