Transportation in Japan (日本の交通)

This section, "Transportation in Japan," describes the history and conditions of transportation in Japan.

Before the steam engine and the internal-combustion engine were introduced, members of the ruling class in Japan had not been very active in enhancing transportation. Some of the reasons include concerns about maintaining traditions and social order due to the active turnover of people or property, and for military reasons. In "Nihonshoki" (Chronicles of Japan), Kojin (a god) and other local people who make human traffic stop are introduced, and descriptions include that, immediately after the Taika Reforms, some travelers were punished by local people because they violated a taboo not knowing the customs in the area. To form a shape as a nation, in Japan too, major roads, which connect the capital of Japan and the kokufu (provincial office) of each ryoseikoku (province), were improved. However, most roads except major Kando (roads that were improved, managed, and maintained by the Japanese nation) were not improved because the government was afraid that improving the traffic connecting among local regions might help farmers flee from the region, and thus the government believed that it should be enough to prepare a bridge of boats on rivers in the local regions only when nengu (land tax) needed to be transported to the capital (Kinoeinu-jo in May 801 of "Nihongi Ryaku" (Summary of Japanese Chronologies)). During the Edo period too, bridges were not built across major rivers for military and political reasons, and the government not only issued the national isolation policy (Kaikin Policy - the policy to forbid private people to trade with foreign countries) and the ban on production of large ships (a part of Buke shohatto - Laws for the Military Houses), but also prohibited distribution using vehicles such as horse- or cow-drawn buggies on Kaido (road) to protect Edo. Therefore, roads in Japan were hardly ever surfaced, and vehicles with wheels used on the roads in Japan were only load-carrying vehicles, such as large carts, and some cow-drawn buggies. Moreover, use of horses was also limited. For the transport of goods, river boats or small merchant ships were used, and thus water routes were well-developed.

After the Meiji Restoration, Japan began developing into a modern state. To promptly improve the transportation systems in Japan, the government placed priority mainly on the improvement of the railway network and thus did not focus on road maintenance and construction so much. The road maintenance and construction were seriously started after the war. In the high economic growth period, the expressway (Meishin Expressway) was constructed for the first time in Japan. After that, with the Tokyo Olympic Games, the Osaka Expo, and other large events, improvement of Shinkansen (bullet trains) lines and urban expressways began, resulting in today's 14,000km-expressway network and advanced Shinkansen lines. However, transportation in Japan has some problems in various aspects, for example, waning city center due to advance of motorization.

History of transportation
Ritsuryo era
In ancient times, along with the development of the Ritsuryo system (a system of centralized government based on the ritsuryo code), roads were developed based on the Eki transportation system between the capital (Kinai region - the five capital provinces surrounding the ancient capitals of Nara and Kyoto) and local regions, and Umaya (regular intervals stages) were set up on the ways. These roads are called ancient roads, and ancient Kando were developed along with Goki-Shichido (five provinces and seven circuits), which were local regional divisions.

Goki-Shichido: Kinai, Saikai-do Road, Nankai-do Road, Sanyo-do Road, Sanin-do Road, Tokai-do Road, Tosan-do Road, and Hokuriku-do Road.

Up to the Sengoku period (period of warring states)
In the Medieval period, with the development of urban areas, land transport was improved because of the necessity for transporting nengu, and periodical markets and other events were also opened. Along with this, ports and cargo-vessels were also improved, and maritime traffic and maritime transportation were also started accordingly. The government, daimyo (Japanese territorial lord) in the Sengoku period, and major temples and shrines set up sekisho (checking stations) at check points of traffic to collect sekisen (toll).

Edo period
Development of post-station towns
Go-kaido Road (starting point: Nihonbashi (Chuo Ward, Tokyo): Tokai-do Road, Nakasen-do Road, Koshu-kaido Road, Oshu-kaido Road, and Nikko-kaido Road
Taru-kaisen (a kind of cargo vessels), Higaki-kaisen (a kind of cargo vessels)
Palanquin, horse (Umako), Kitamae-bune (a cargo vessel), etc.

From the Meiji period to World War II
During the Meiji period, Japan had an increased need for traffic network to become a modern state. To promote traffic network, the construction of railways was given priority over that of roads. Although there were many problems and obstacles in the way of railway construction, temporary operations began between Shinagawa and Yokohama, and then operations between Shinbashi and Yokohama started. After this, railway construction was promoted by both the private and public sectors. In addition, in large cities, streetcars and subways were constructed and improved, and gas lamps and pavement were also improved for horse-drawn buggies.

Jinrikisha (a taxi-like vehicle pulled by a man), horse tramway, Jinsha-kido (a railway system in which men push a passage car or a freight car), etc.: early Meiji period
National land with only a few flat lands and many steep mountains -> tunnels

After World War II
During World War II, the pavement ratio of even National Routes was very low, and the improvement of roads for automobiles was not promoted well. For economic reconstruction, a Nagoya-Kobe Expressway (current Meishin Expressway) that would connect Nagoya and Kobe was planned; however, because there were no traffic engineers who could make a plan of expressway in Japan then, the Japanese government asked the United Nations to formulate the plan. This is the Watkins Report issued in 1956. This report has the following comment.
'The roads of Japan are incredibly bad. No other industrial nation has so completely neglected its highway system.'
Inspired by this report, road maintenance and improvement in Japan began making dramatic progress.

In railway construction, trains were shifted from steam locomotive to diesel trains (diesel car) or electric trains.

In Japan, where the development of aircraft was limited due to Japan's defeat in the war, many engineers, who did not do well in aircraft manufacturing, but were active before the war, pushed back the boundaries of the automobile industry and supported the growth of the auto industry in Japan.

In time for the Tokyo Olympic Games held in 1964, the Tomei Expressway was constructed and the operation of Tokaido Shinkansen started. The Metropolitan Expressway, which was constructed in tje Tokyo Special Ward and the first urban expressway in Japan, was also partially opened to traffic in 1962. From the late 1960's, the growing popularity of privately-owned cars dramatically increased, and thus the number of cars accordingly increased substantially (motorization). On the other hand, traffic accidents also increased drastically because of a delay in improving roads and environments for the usage of cars, resulting in the so-called traffic war. The emergence of motorcycle gangs also became a social issue. For the prevention of traffic accidents, a system in which sidewalks and driveways were separated was promoted by introducing pedestrian bridges. The number of automobiles owned in Japan reached 10 million by 1971.

While the development of the conventional railway was overwhelmed by the wave of motorization and thus slowing down, Shinkansen lines, the high speed passenger railway, started growing as a main artery of Japan. In addition, the success of the Shinkansen, which bridged a gap between automobiles and passenger transportation by airplane, triggered a review of the improvement of railways, which was slowing down in Japan then, and also motivated European and Asian nations to build a high speed passenger railway.

In Japan, where many resources are sent form foreign countries, shipbuilding technology had been well improved since pre-war periods, and even after the war, shipbuilding including large tankers was actively carried out, which played a role, with the steel industry, in economics and distribution in Japan. At the same time, the improvement of airports was promoted as well, and thus the size of air transportation gradually increased. After the late 1980's, when the yen (currency) became stronger, both business and private traveling overseas became popular.

Current transportation in Japan

Before the high-growth period, roads in Japan were bad, but the improvement and construction of roads have been actively implemented since 1960's, achieving highly maintained roads throughout Japan. Today, more and more expressways have been constructed and the expressway network has been spreading nearly all over Japan. Although the number of deaths from traffic accidents has been reduced as traffic safety measures have been advanced, the number of traffic accidents have been increasing along with the increase in traffic and the progress in aging. Based on the current financial situation, the budget for road improvement tends to be reduced, and some changes in institutions, including privatization of Japan Highway Public Corporation and shifting road-related tax revenue to general revenue, are now occurring.


Along with the increase in uses of automobiles, the ratio of people who use railway has been decreasing in Japan. Therefore, there are some railways which have discontinued, especially in rural areas. On the other hand, there is still considerable discussion about the need for Shinkansen in regions with no Shinkansen lines, because it would encourage economic development. In addition, LRT, which has been spread in Europe, was introduced (to Toyama Light Rail) and parking lots for "park and ride" have been developed.

Central Japan Railway Company (JR Central) has already decided to construct Chuo Shinkansen, which uses linear motor trains, showing Japan's unceasing movement toward faster railway network.


Airports have been constructed all over Japan, and, as a matter of fact, every prefecture in Kyushu has an airport. On the other hand, however, no hub airport has been constructed yet in Japan. Although Narita International Airport used to keep its position as a hub airport in East Asia, Hong Kong International Airport in China and Incheon International Airport in South Korea are taking this position, because the construction of runways of Narita International Airport has not moved forward as planned.

Regional division based on the transportation system
There are many cases where regions are divided roughly based on Goki-Shichido in the Ritsuryo era and Go-kaido Road during the Edo period for a transportation system or road map in accordance with the topographical conditions.