Railway opening in Japan (日本の鉄道開業)

Here, in "Railway opening in Japan," the background to the official opening of Japan's first railway line between Shiodome Station (Japanese National Railways) and Sakuragicho Station on October 14, 1872 is described.

Observations of railway by Japanese people

In Britain, operation of the steam locomotive railway for freight transport was started between Stockton and Darlington in 1825, and in 1830, passenger railway service was also started between Liverpool and Manchester. However, it is said that not until the 1840s did Japanese people know these things.

The first known Japanese to ride a railway train is said to be John Manjiro (Manjiro NAKANOHAMA), who had been saved by the American vessel while adrift in the Pacific Ocean and taken to America, in 1845.

Then in 1853, a Russian named Evfimiy Vasil'evich Putyatin arrived Nagasaki by sea. He showed Japanese model railways of steam locomotives on the ship and explained about them in detail in order to display the power of Western countries. In the following year, Matthew Perry came to Japan for the second time. Among other things, he presented to the bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun) a model of live steam trains that ran by steam power in the same way as a real steam locomotive and was able to carry people. It was recorded that the model carried Hachinosuke KAWADA, a Japanese government official, on the roof and ran at the speed of about 20 miles (32km) per hour. He told that it was a very pleasant ride; however, according to a foreigner who was at the scene, he was clinging onto the train tremblingly.

Those from Saga Domain especially showed a strong interest in the model; in 1855, an about-27cm-long model locomotive ran by alcohol fuel was completed by the hands of senior vassals and people at hanko (domain school) of Saga Domain. Although it was just a model, it was the first locomotive made by Japanese.

Furthermore, in 1858, a real 762-mm-gauge steam locomotive, which Britain had originally planned to use for the railway in China, was brought in Nagasaki. The demonstration run was also held for one month.

In 1869, a coal-mine railway (Kayanuma coal-mine railway) started running in the Kayanuma coal mine in Hokkaido. Although it was referred as "a railway," it was no more than wooden rails reinforced with iron plates, whose coach ran by oxen or horses. Some say that it was the first railway in Japan.

See also Japanese railway history (the Meiji period).

Birth of a railroad project

Under the circumstances described above, some railroad projects were already being drawn up in some places, such as Satsuma Domain, Saga Domain and Edo, in the end of the Edo period. However, it was shortly after the Meiji Restoration that a concrete project actually came up.

At that time, Asian regions were being colonized at high pace by Western powers, except few countries such as Japan and the Kingdom of Thailand. In order to avoid the colonization, the Meiji government aimed to build a modern state by promoting fukoku kyohei (fortifying the country, strengthening the military). However, in the first year of Meiji, such movement might have antagonized some Japanese. Therefore, in order to visually show Japanese people what modernization modeled after Western countries would be like, Shigenobu OKUMA, Hirobumi ITO and others decided to construct a railway. Although seaborne traffic (marine transport) had been developed in Japan, transport of men and freight was increasing. Accordingly a demand to improve the efficiency in overland traffic was recognized, which served as a spur for the railway construction.

Originally, it was planned to construct two routes: the route which connects Tokyo City to Kyoto City, Osaka City and Kobe City, namely the route to connect three urban prefectures which would support Japan chiefly; and the route from Tokyo to Tsuruga City, a trading city on the Japan Sea side, diverging from Maibara City. However, the budget was not allowed for the construction since at the time the government needed to assume all domains' debt, which amounted about 24 million ryo (about 560 billion yen in the present value), in accordance with the return of lands and people to the emperor and Haihan-chiken (abolition of feudal domains and establishment of prefectures). Moreover, military personnel such as Takamori SAIGO opposed the project, insisting that armaments should be strengthened first. Then, some insisted that it should be constructed even with some private capital, but also they thought that they needed to show people an actual railway in order to attract capital. Finally, in 1869, a 29-kilometer railroad construction between Tokyo, the capital of Japan, and Yokohama City, where a port was located, was decided as a model section.

Meanwhile, 'a railway construction permit between Edo and Yokohama' (Japanese would provide the land only) had been issued in 1867 by Nagamichi OGASAWARA, a roju (senior councillor) of the Edo bakufu, to Portman, an American legation attaché, and after the Meiji Restoration Portman pressed to the new government for its implementation. However, the Meiji government dismissed it for "the bakufu signed the document after the inauguration of the new government in Kyoto; therefore it does not have diplomatic authority." Also when the railway construction mentioned above was decided, some capitalists residing in Japan, such as a British capitalist Canfer, had proposed the government "they would provide funds and construction in exchange for the management right." However, OKUMA and others thought that it could become the preliminaries for Britain to colonize Japan as did the railway in India, so they rejected this.

Since Japan could not construct it by its own in those days, Britain was selected for a technical and financial assist. The choice was made not only because technical capabilities of Britain, the birthplace of railways, was highly evaluated but also because Harry Parkes, the Biritish minister in Japan, had presented constructive proposals on a railway in Japan. The following year, in 1870, Edmund Morel from Britain assumed the chief engineer and the full-scale construction started. As for the Japanese side, Masaru INOUE (known as the father of Japanese railways as well as an advocate of the nationalization of railways) became the head of mining and railways in 1871 and was involved in the construction.

Railway construction and opening

Surveying for the railway construction started in 1870, and the construction work started within the same year. In the beginning, they considered importing iron crossties. However, the plan was changed because the employed foreigner Edmund Morel suggested using Japanese lumber, which was easier to process hence a better choice for future railway construction and also preferable in terms of the budgetary issue. Moreover, a railway bridge over the Tama River (the Rokugo River), which had been planned to be made of imported iron and stone from England in the beginning, was made of wood due to a budget cut (later it was replaced by an iron bridge in 1877 due to its rapid deterioration).

There were many campaigns against the railway construction since railway was unknown to the Japanese people in those days. In the end, between and around Shiba and Shinagawa where the residence of Satsuma Domain was located, embankment was built on the sea to construct the railway on it. About 10 kilometers, which was one third of the entire 29-kilometer railway, was built on the sea.

Anyhow, the rail construction work was completed under the instruction of foreign engineers. The trial runs were operated with ITO and others on board, and preparation of stations, etc. was proceeded one after another. On June 12, 1872, the train ran two round trips between Shinagawa Station and Yokohama Station (Sakuragicho Station at the present) as tentative operation for opening. On the following day, June 13, it ran six round trips. Incidentally, stations were not set in the middle at first, but Kawasaki Station and Kanagawa Station (Japanese National Railways) (now closed) were opened on June 5.

The opening ceremony of the line between Shinbashi Station (which later became Shiodome Station [Japanese National Railways] used only for cargo trains and is disused at present) and Yokohama Station was held at Shinbashi Station on October 14. And the train with Emperor Meiji on board went back and forth from Shinbashi to Yokohama. The entire line started operations officially on the following day, October 15. Tsurumi Station was also opened at that time. At time of official opening, the train ran nine round trips a day, entire travel time was 53 minutes, and scheduled speed was 32.8 km per hour. In commemoration of this, October 14 was designated as "Railway Memorial Day" in 1922. The name was changed to "Railway Day" in 1994, according to the suggestion of the Ministry of Transport.

It is said that Western countries expressed admiration for the fact that Japan, an island nation in the Far East which had been closed off the world for a long time, completed own railways in only several years after the Meiji Restoration. A historian Arnold J. Toynbee said, "One of the miracles in human history is modernization of Japan since the Meiji period." There is no doubt that what had supported Japanese modernization was its network of railroads, which exceed 7000 kilometers in a little more than 30 years after opening line between Shinbashi Station and Yokohama Station.

Episodes related to the opening

The official opening was originally scheduled on October 11 (September 9 in old calendar), the day of Chrysanthemum Festival, but postponed because of the storm, and eventually it officially opened on October 14.

Fares for the entire line were 1.125 yen for the first class, 0.75 yen for the second class and 0.375 yen for the third class. It is said that even the third class fare was as expensive as about 10 kilogram of rice.

It is said that railroad workers' attitude to passengers was arrogant because many of them were descendants of a samurai.

As for the practical construction, Japanese techniques based on the experience of castle construction were applied in public works, but only the railway bridge over the Rokugo River was constructed under the British's instruction using timber.

All carriages were imported from Britain. All ten steam locomotives were tank locomotives of 1B axle arrangement produced by five different manufacturers. Among them, four type-160 steam locomotives of Japanese National Railways made by Sharp, Stewart & Co. Ltd. were said to be the easiest to use.

All passenger carriages were two-axle cars: ten first-class carriages (riding capacity of 18 passengers), 40 second-class carriages (riding capacity of 26 passengers) and eight brake vans were imported. However, 26 of second-class carriages were converted into third-class carriages with a riding capacity of 52 passengers before the opening. In those days, wagons and underframes of the passenger carriages were made of iron, and main bodies including walls and roofs were made of wood. The modifications on the main bodies were done by experienced Japanese carpenters.

Engineers who operated locomotives were foreigners. Moreover, preparation of train schedules was entrusted to a British, W. F. Paye. These technical experts were called "employed foreigners" and earned the high salary.

Operating results

As for the operating condition in 1873, the following year of opening, there were an average of 4347 passengers a day. The annual passenger service revenue was 420,000 yen and the freight service revenue was 20,000 yen. The annual profit was calculated at 210,000 yen by subtraction of direct operating expenses, 230,000 yen, from the revenues. As a result, the recognition that "a railway makes a profit" prevailed. The high ratio of passenger to freight transport might have been partially due to insufficient preparation for freight management, but also due to the circumstances where there was "nothing to transport" since it was just after the Meiji Restoration and modern industries were still underdeveloped.

The background of adopting the 1067 mm track gauge

The railway (railroad) width (gauge) was set to 1067 mm (narrow gauge), which was narrower than a standard gauge in Europe and America (1435mm). The reason for this is said to be that a British railroad construction engineer called Ray who had been employed by the Meiji government engaged in fraudulent practices, scheming to line his own pockets by reducing costs through the use of used and unnecessary equipment (tracks and carriages); this equipment were being stored in India at that time, but had been used in the Republic of South Africa prior to that. Although the Ray was discharged after that, the materials transported from India were used as planned. It is said that a narrow gauge was used for railways in the Republic of South Africa because such railways are faster to build, and they wanted to construct railways quickly to transport diamonds and gold mined in mountainous areas of the country.

Moreover, reportedly Shigenobu OKUMA, who was also in charge of finance of the new government at that time, did not understand what rail gauge was. Some say that employed foreigners such as Edmund Morel insisted to adopt narrow gauge in order to construct the railway quickly in consideration of the budget and transportation demand and that he was persuaded by them.

But even if it were the case, if the financial conditions of the Japanese government at that time (Takamori SAIGO also mentioned financial reasons to oppose the construction) and the expenses which would have cost to purchase and convey carriages for the main line from Europe or America are considered, it cannot be said that the decision of the Japanese government was a mistake.

In any case, the truth has not been brought out yet. Shigenobu OKUMA remarked that the adoption of narrow gauge was "the gravest blunder in my life" afterward. Some say that an inferiority complex about having narrow gauge has made today's Japanese high-level railway technology that can be seen in passenger transport systems such as Shinkansen Super Express.

See also Controversy over the change of rail gauge in Japan.