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



Dreams of Infrastructure

AT PRECISELY SIX in the morning on October 1, 1964, two sleek new trains glided simultaneously out of stations in Tokyo and Osaka to capture attention and imaginations across Japan. At every station, the inaugural bullet trains were greeted by flag-waving crowds and children presenting bouquets to the drivers. Bands played rousing marches specially composed to mark this triumphant moment, as local leaders and officials of Japanese National Railways (JNR) gathered to congratulate themselves for their part in building the world’s fastest train. People along the tracks stopped what they were doing to wave at the passing train, both witnessing the event and becoming part of the spectacle via the news helicopters that raced alongside it. Even those who were not able to participate in person could join in the celebration from a distance: television and radio audiences experienced the pomp of the opening ceremony and the speed of the world’s fastest train vicariously through descriptions and footage of its two-toned blue and ivory cars leaving the station and dashing across the countryside.

But not all observers saw the same thing that morning. The bullet train connected distant cities at unprecedented speed, but it also tore through a region dense with people, industry, agriculture, and history. Opening day was undoubtedly a more somber occasion for those who had been evicted from their homes, had been pressured into selling their land, or were coping with damage to their livelihoods, local environments, and communities. JNR (the public precursor to today’s private regional Japan Rail companies) promoted the high-speed railway as a solution to the problem of transportation bottlenecks that were threatening the growth of Japan’s industrial economy. But scholars in the emerging field of information studies saw the line in a different light, as part of an emerging post-industrial society. The train was often described as futuristic, but for those who had lived through the Asia-Pacific War, it was also a reminder of the past. Commencing operation just days before the start of the Tokyo Summer Olympics, the new line was not just a means of transportation but one of several new infrastructures that national leaders hoped would showcase Japan’s economic and industrial progress and potential to the world. The name of the new railroad was the Tōkaidō Shinkansen, literally the Tōkaidō New Trunk Line, but English-language reports referred to it as the New Tōkaidō Line or by the nickname “bullet train” (dangan ressha). That sobriquet was used less often in Japan, but with its evocation of speed and power, it captured the impression Japanese leaders hoped to make on a foreign audience. The domestic press dubbed it the “dream super-express” (yume no chōtokkyū), intimating the widespread anticipation and expectations of the Japanese public. This book is about those aspirations and frustrations surrounding this important infrastructure project, the dreams and nightmares of the bullet train.

In recent years, scholars have given careful attention to the political and social impact of the promise held out by infrastructures: the hopes, desires, and visions of a shared future they inspire.1 Penny Harvey and Hannah Knox demonstrate the power of a road, for instance, to enchant both the workers struggling to build it and the public eager to use it.2 Brian Larkin draws attention to the aesthetic function of infrastructures, which—alongside their technical function of moving people and things from one place to another—“also operate on the level of fantasy and desire. They encode the dreams of individuals and societies and are the vehicles whereby those fantasies are transmitted and made emotionally real.”3 And although certain types of infrastructure (pipes, wires, roadbeds) are hidden from view, there are some, as John Durham Peters points out, that form “intentional displays of power and modernity,” that, like any technological device, have an element of “bling.”4 This function of display is related to what Michael Adas identifies as the modern use of technological expertise as a barometer of national power and the “level” of a civilization.5 These notions of enchantment, promise, or aesthetic force are all concerned with the power of infrastructures to move people not just physically but also intellectually and emotionally. Taking inspiration from such work, this book views Japan’s first bullet train in terms of competing interpretations of the promises it held out to Japanese society in the 1960s; rather than the train itself, it is about the dreams (both good and bad) that it inspired. As an infrastructure that relied on advanced technologies and precision engineering, the bullet train combined the forces inherent in infrastructures and technologies to powerful effect.

These stories of bullet train dreams show that technologies and infrastructures do not have to be entirely new in order to enchant. In fact, though newly built, the line did not represent radical innovation. Its design relied on incremental improvements to existing systems already in use on some JNR lines and methods borrowed from aeronautics and other fields, not a profound technological leap.6 And it did not create an entirely new infrastructural link so much as enhance an existing one. The original Tōkaidō Main Line connecting Tokyo and Osaka was completed seventy-five years earlier, and with recent improvements, its running time from end to end had been cut from nine hours to under seven hours. With new highways, expanding airline service, and a recently constructed monorail providing fast access to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport from the city center, travel between the capital and nearby cities by airplane, bus, or automobile was becoming faster and more convenient. In terms of industrial and technological developments, Japan’s airline industry was expanding, and the nation even had the beginnings of a space program. The railroad, in contrast, was seen globally as a sunset industry, a relic of the past in the emerging space age. In this context, it is curious that the opening of a new railroad line, even one that could claim the title of “world’s fastest,” garnered such rapt attention.

The explanation for this seemingly incongruous national excitement about a high-speed railroad lies not in some universal enthusiasm for three-hour trips between Tokyo and Osaka, but in the power exerted by the very idea of a fast, high-design, high-technology transportation infrastructure. For most people, the line’s practical use in their everyday lives was negligible. Even among residents of the cities with stops, many would never ride it. Tracing the meanings assigned to the bullet train at the historical moment of its conception, construction, and early operation shows that its importance, therefore, came primarily from the ways that it prompted the reimagination of identity on the levels of individual, city, and nation in a changing Japan. The bullet train was built to move people at high speeds from one city to another, but it also moved people’s hearts and minds in more subtle ways: it conveyed meanings, instilled feelings, and evoked emotional responses. Those intangible and malleable historical, social, and cultural functions are the subject of this book.

The New Tōkaidō Line became a broadly powerful symbol precisely because its promise (or, for some, its threat) was interpreted in many different ways. Groups and individuals, each with their own distinct but overlapping interests, worked to co-opt, divert, or challenge official narratives about the significance of the line to serve particular purposes. These efforts themselves created new meanings, expanding and diversifying the promises of high-speed rail from JNR’s original plan to solve a transportation bottleneck impeding industrial growth to a multifaceted vision that essentially contained something for everyone, even those who suffered from its construction. Harvey and Knox argue that, although painful stories of obstacles, accidents, and frustrations associated with the process of planning and construction are usually written out of celebratory official discourses, in fact, such difficulties and challenges, recounted as “tale[s] of achievement against the odds,” themselves contribute to infrastructure’s power to enchant by creating modes of individual engagement that are directly related to people’s particular interests and concerns.7 Multiple contrasting narratives together illustrate the various promises embodied or belied by infrastructural projects. Narratives that nudged and questioned the dominant discourse themselves ultimately contributed to the affective power of the bullet train. Exploring these diverse perceptions—the many ways in which the bullet train enthralled people in various walks of life—demonstrates the ways that infrastructure and technology can be exciting without being new and exert power in seemingly unrelated areas of politics, society, and culture.

The bullet train imaginary is similar to the cultural change effected by the introduction, extension, and improvement of railways in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. High-speed rail intensified the feeling of shrinking time and distance that the first railways had created, and it stood, as older railways in both the archipelago and the empire previously had, as a symbol of Japanese power, modernity, and technical achievement. But it differed in ways that were characteristic of its time. In the earlier period, in Japan and its colonies as in Europe and the United States, the development of railroads represented the extension of civilization, the conquest of nature.8 The bullet train did not push the boundaries of civilization, retracing a well-worn path between the nation’s largest urban centers. And in contrast to the nineteenth century, when railways represented Japan’s modernization through the import of Western industrial machines and methods, twentieth-century train systems symbolized Japan’s own technological prowess. In the period of imperialist expansion, the control and construction of railways in Korea and China were part of the literal extension of Japanese power.9 The bullet train reflects a different method of regional influence, as railway technology was made part of Japan’s postwar rehabilitation through development and technical assistance.10 Therefore, like previous railway advances, it changed perceptions of space and identity, but in directions that were shaped by its specific historical context.


1. For an overview of recent literature on this theme, see Hannah Appel, Nikhil Anand, and Akhil Gupta, “Introduction: Temporality, Politics, and the Promise of Infrastructure,” in Nikhil Anand, Akhil Gupta, and Hannah Appel, eds., The Promise of Infrastructure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 1–28.

2. Penny Harvey and Hannah Knox, “Enchantments of Infrastructure,” Mobilities 7, no. 4 (November 2012): 521–536.

3. Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology 42 (August 2013): 333. Also see Brian Larkin, “Promising Forms: The Political Aesthetics of Infrastructure,” in Nikhil Anand, Akhil Gupta, and Hannah Appel, eds., The Promise of Infrastructure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 175–202.

4. John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 35–36.

5. Michael Adas, Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989); Michael Adas, Dominance by Design: Technological Imperatives and America’s Civilizing Mission (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

6. On the technical development of the bullet train, see Tōru Koyama, “The Shinkansen (Bullet Train): A New Era in Railway Technology,” in Shigeru Nakayama and Kunio Gotō, eds., A Social History of Science and Technology in Contemporary Japan, vol. 3 (Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press, 2006), 379–389; and Takashi Nishiyama, Engineering War and Peace in Modern Japan, 1868–1964 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).

7. Harvey and Knox, “Enchantments of Infrastructure,” 525–528.

8. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 23; Leo Marx, “The Impact of the Railroad on the American Imagination, as a Possible Comparison for the Space Impact,” in Bruce Mazlish, ed., The Railroad and the Space Program: An Exploration in Historical Analogy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1965), 202–216; Steven J. Ericson, The Sound of the Whistle: Railroads and the State in Meiji Japan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 1996), 62–63.

9. Yoshihisa Tak Matsusaka, The Making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904–1932 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2001), 147–148, 394.

10. Railways were part of a broad effort to rebuild relationships with other Asian nations while bolstering Japan’s national economy through development assistance. On that context, see Hiromi Mizuno, “Introduction: A Kula Ring for the Flying Geese: Japan’s Technology Aid and Postwar Asia,” in Hiromi Mizuno, Aaron S. Moore, and John DiMoia, eds., Engineering Asia: Technology, Colonial Development and the Cold War Order (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), 1–40.