Jessamyn R. Abel. Dream Super-Express: A Cultural History of the World's First Bullet Train. Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute Series. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2022. Illustrations. ix + 289 pp. $28.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5036-2994-3; $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5036-1038-5.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Schramm (Missouri University of Science and Technology)
Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (June, 2022)
Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)
The nation of Japan is known for many things, but it may be the nation most internationally known for high-speed trains. Shinkansen “bullet trains” shuttle millions speedily and safely between major cities. The bullet trains first turned a wheel in the mid-1960s, a time when Japan was emerging from postwar rebuilding into a high-tech player in the global economy. Jessamyn R. Abel, associate professor of Asian studies at Pennsylvania State University, has written a groundbreaking cultural history of the first shinkansen line between Tokyo and Osaka, which opened in 1964. Abel examines how the "dream super-express," as it was called in the Japanese press, both reflected postwar Japan and influenced how the Japanese and others viewed postwar and increasingly postindustrial information-society Japan. This is not a technical, business, or administrative history of the bullet train itself but a book “about the dreams (both good and bad) that it inspired” (p. 3).
After a short introduction, chapter 1 focuses on the early planning of the new high-speed rail line in the Kyoto area. Constructing new infrastructure of any type in highly populous Japan would displace and disrupt lives. While this disruption is often ignored or downplayed as a noble sacrifice in official accounts, Abel here looks at protest in Kyoto over the route of the new line. In protesting the loss of their homes and neighborhoods, citizens helped to redefine democracy in Japan and challenged corporate and government power structures. Abel also examines the efforts of the city leadership to draw the new line to the city, when it was originally in official planning documents supposed to bypass the historic city center. Chapter 2 broadens the focus to the whole line to examine how it changed official and popular conceptions of space. With cities now much closer in travel time, how did the Japanese people conceive of the changes? Chapter 3 continues this analysis but again with a broader national perspective. As Japan emerged from postwar reconstruction to a world economic player in the 1960s and 1970s, how was the railway, itself an older industrial technology, seen as part of new, information-society Japan? Chapter 4 considers prewar imperial Japan and two specific railway projects, the Asia Express in Manchuria and the first planned (but never built) express bullet train project of the 1930s and early 1940s. Here Abele links nostalgia and memory of these two imperial projects to the new shinkansen and shows that the bright, shiny, new train line did have a complicated past with cultural influences from imperial projects. The final chapter zooms out even further to look at the shinkansen in international perspective. The railway and its advanced technology were used by the Japanese government to showcase a modern, reconstructed, and technologically sophisticated Japan to international observers, but one, like the railway itself, that was firmly grounded in the past. A short conclusion draws larger conclusions and speculates about the future of high-speed rail in Japan and elsewhere in Asia. Endnotes, bibliography, an index, and occasional black-and-white illustrations complete the work. A detailed map is of special interest as it greatly helps the reader place the many locations mentioned.
Abel has written an impressive cultural history of the shinkansen. Grounded firmly in contemporary infrastructural and Japanese history, it is exceptionally well written, well researched, and easy to read and understand. While looking at official records, Abel also dives deeply into contemporary newspapers, fiction, and even the monster movies of Godzilla and similar ilk. But review readers are cautioned to take the word "cultural" in the title to mind. You will not find discussion of the technical challenges of railway construction nor even much discussion of the huge technical decision to build the line in a new gauge, standard (4 feet, 8 1/2 inches or 1,435 millimeters) instead of the 3 feet, 6 inches (1,067 millimeters) gauge of the rest of the Japanese railway network. Abel posits an imperial influence from the standard gauge railways of Manchuria but does not adequately examine this topic. This is, however, a minor quibble for an otherwise exceptional work. Abel sets a high bar for cultural infrastructure studies. This book is recommended for those who wish to know more about postwar and Cold War Japan; those interested in the broader cultural implications of railways, especially modern high-speed lines; and those interested in infrastructure projects in general.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-sci-med-tech.
Jeffrey Schramm. Review of Abel, Jessamyn R., Dream Super-Express: A Cultural History of the World's First Bullet Train.
H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews.
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