Does there exist, anywhere on the earth, a being conceived in the joys of fornication and born in the throes of motherhood, who is more dazzlingly, more outstandingly beautiful than the two locomotives recently put into service on the Northern Railway?
- Joris-Karl Huysmans, À rebours
J.G. Ballard famously stated that the arechtypal image of the 20th century was that of a “man in a motorcar, driving down a superhighway towards some unknown destination”. Given Ballard’s literary fixation upon catastrophic events (one of his all-time favorite books was Malcolm MacPherson’s volume of transcriptions of ‘black box’ recordings recovered from crashed commercial flights), his statement always contained the implication that the “unknown destination” could be a literal or figurative disaster scene. The drive down the superhighway was never just a Romantic reverie - a machine-age update of Caspar David Friedrich’s solitary wanderer gazing out over the fog - but an acknowledgement that new dreams did not come into existence without being accompanied by new nightmares. If new freedoms (e.g. increased freedom of movement) appeared to be granted to us by virtue of our advances in techno-science, they rarely appeared without a complementary set of new constraints.
So, with all this in mind, could one contender for the “image of the 21st century” be a man gazing through the passenger window of a Japanese shinkansen [translating literally to “new trunk line”, but still commonly referred to as “bullet train” owing to the distinct bullet-like profile of the train] as it blazes down a length of standard-gauge track? At the very least, I feel it’s a valid companion image to the one which Ballard attributed to the post-industrial Occidental man as he surveyed his near-future terrain with a catalytic mixture of hope, lust, and fear. I’d argue that such an image, although generally used as a visual metaphor for sentiments unique to Japanese society, has much to say about all technology - and information-saturated societies. One of the primary reference points on this subject - Christopher Hood’s Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan - has much more to explicitly say about how this transporation innovation became one of the most potent visual condensations of every characteristic that Japanese citizens wish to display to the rest of the world. However, it has just as much to implicitly say about the rest of the world, and in particular the question of whether new extremes in technological innnovation really portend an acceleration towards a “new” perceptive apparatus, or if they merely use a new symbology to proclaim a further ossificiation of existing beliefs and behaviors.
After a fashion, the shinkansen provides a counter-narrative or just a notable exception to the iconic imagery most associated with the 21st century. When compared with the filmed footage of passenger planes crashing into the economic nerve center of the United States, which perfectly crystallized the vicious acceleration of conflict between rival forms of globalism, we have instead the conspicuous lack of disaster associated with the bullet train’s history (its story can also be favorably compared to transportation marvels like the Concorde - an engineering breakthrough and yet a commercial failure). Hood emphasizes how, at the time of his book’s writing, there were zero derailment-related fatalities on the bullet trains since their introduction in 1964, and no derailments at all until forty years after this, when an earthquake derailed a shinkansen traveling some 18 kilometers away from its epicenter. Thanks to novel technological safeguards like the ATC [automatic train control] system, the vast majority of the 8 billion shinkansen passengers from 1964 onwards have been shuttled to their destinations with little to no fear of disaster, or even disruption of service. Indeed, Hood notes that “average delays are less than one minute per train, with almost all trains arriving on time”, and in doing so points at the breakneck speed which complements the trains’ impeccable safety record. Powered along by a motor system known as EMU, in which motors are placed underneath each individual shinkansen carriage and thereby distribute the full train’s weight evenly while preventing track fatigue, the trains have become poster children for a paradoxical combination of “outside-the-box” innovation and traditional Japanese persistence.
I should emphasize at this point that my fascination with the bullet train always had less to do with the vehicles themselves, and more to do with the experience of seeing a whole environment cinematically transformed through their passenger windows. I might even take issue with Hood’s assessment that “the majority of passengers use trains to get from A to B rather than for the sake of taking a train journey itself.” Within Japanese society as a whole, there are probably not too many exceptions to that rule, and one testimonial to this fact is that every major rail company in the company also owns lavish shopping centers and other attractions that are strategically located within, or close to, a train station where a shinkansen docks. Wherever “point B” may be, very concerted efforts are made to have this terminal point bursting with material conveniences and sensory satiation as soon as the passenger disembarks from the docked train.
Speaking for myself, though, I found the opposite of Hood’s statement to be true, occasionally planning day trips in Japan in which the train ride would be the centerpiece of the day’s events, with the events happening at the departure and destination points being matters of secondary importance. Nothing seemed to embody my attachment to the poetics of “transitionality” like seeing mega-urban centers devolve into rural enclaves - and back into mega-urban centers again - repeatedly within a couple of hours’ time or less. On most of my trips, there was a reverent and meditative quiet with which this unfolding of landscapes took place (made possible by the unconventional ‘resilient tie tracks’ that the trains run on). This heightened the ability for me to muse freely on themes of ‘eternal recurrence’ while munching on the surprisingly nutritious ekiben [train station box lunches]. As such, I’d wholeheartedly agree with former Japanese prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s assessment that the shinkansen is a “good place for generating ideas,” as the speed and certainty of my travel on the trains seemed to be a spur to a similar speed and confidence of thought, particularly that which was speculative and / or creative.
Nakasone’s statement, like so many statements attributable to politicians at his level, was as much a public relations boost for his constituency as it was an attempt to encourage foreign interest and investment in Japanese technology. To have the shinkansen viewed not only as a high-speed people mover and economic lubricant, but also as a marvel of cultural engineering whose speed and efficiency engenders a similar speed and efficiency in cultural matters, seems to be an ongoing project for those defenders of Japanese culture as uniquely indispensible to the world. However, Hood confesses outright that he is skeptical of this kind of narrative, claiming a cynicism towards a “modern life” in which “symbolism can count for more than concrete action”. One of the questions that is central to Hood’s book - i.e. “does this icon also influence the society of which it is a part?” - is often answered negatively, and he repeatedly unearths the ways in which the shinkansen phenomenon is an intensifier of existing Japanese values rather than a portal beckoning towards some world that has yet to be realized.
Of course, even thought the earlier designers of these trains were seen as incorrigible mavericks and were referred to by diminutive terms like “the daydream team” or “the crazy gang,” the shinkansen’s development was never concerned with radically redefining what it means to be human. The construction of the main shinkansen lines was certainly not as bold in this sense as the work of the Metabolist architects, who aimed to rebuild the war-flattened Japanese landscape and, more specifically, to rebuild it as a composite of techno-utopian and organicist ideals - an idea that even now seems “futurist” in its application. This is fine, as there is really no point in encouraging an aimless “throw everything against the wall and see what sticks” sort of radicalism. Also, the sensory and aesthetic predictability that goes hand-in-hand with the bullet trains’ reliability is not necessarily an evil born out of stubborn resistance to new ways of perceiving and thinking, particularly when it seems that this is a voluntary state of affairs for most passengers. Something as intrinsic to the shinkansen experience as an ekiben can be counted on to reinforce regional traditions within the country, rather than to make them dissolve in a high-velocity futurist blur (seasonal ekiben dishes are also prepared that show a rigorous adherence to holiday observances).
However, cultural traditions like Japanese box lunches are spared from larger ‘paradigm shifts’ because the aesthetic experience associated with them isn’t necessarily improved by an intensification of said experience. There is a profound difference between this type of close adherence to tradition and adherence to the unreflective, often obsessive consistency that has become the hallmark of bureacracies in general and Japanese bureacracy in particular. Hood repeatedly mentions incidents in which bureacrats tasked with the development of new shinkansen lines persist with a certain action plan, no matter how counter-productive, until it finally becomes apparent that the consequences of continuing with it will be fatal. He also makes a strong case for how a reverence towards efficiency, in the form of perfect timing, takes precedence over effectiveness, or the ability for a given system to stay resilient in as many different scenarios as possible. Out of all the criticisms that Hood levies against the symbolism of the shinkansen, one of his most resonant is the suggestion that an “efficiency over “effectiveness” ethos leaves the operators of the bullet train network helpless in the face of “black swan” events:
…what has concerned me in investigating some [shinkansen-related accidents] is that while companies seem to be prepared for expected incidents, they are not always so good at responding to the unexpected. This is a problem that appears to be inherent within Japan.
The impression that comes from reading a full survey of these incidents is that the shinkansen’s utopian and forward-thrusting symbolism was meant to impress foreign observers (and has regularly succeeded), but was not meant to be understood by actual Japanese as an incitement towards personal and collective cultural reassessment. While the trains themselves remain as impressive in their operating stage as they ever have been, their continued maintenance and development has fed a stagnating system of policy-making that only recently became critical of practices like amakudari (something we might refer to in the U.S. as “getting kicked upstairs,” i.e. the tendency for established State officials to “retire” into high-ranking private sector positions).
It was noted above that the shinkansen has operated almost without a catastrophic incident for over fifty years, but here a definite caveat needs to be added. The shinkansen tracks have occasionally provided the stage for a special category of Japanese suicides which seem, given their high visibility and the certainty that they will temporarily throw a spanner into the works of the country’s vaunted technological efficiency, colored with a lurid tinge of protest. These suicides are not uncommon along more conventional commuter train lines within Japan, and I’d submit that they are carried out as a singular demonstration that one is being collectively “murdered by society” rather than making a fully conscious decision to die. They also seem like a means of exacting at least a little revenge on that society, as was the case for one 2004 suicide on the Tokkaido line which held back the progress of 44 trains and delayed the traffic of some 38,000 passengers. Incidents like these, though they are outliers on the spectrum of Japanese behavior, are still a sharp condemnation of the idea that the bullet train’s technical progress is inspiring a society-wide acceleration away from the more psychologically destructive aspects of Japanese society. Social mobility is a promise held out for Japanese citizens who gain acceptance into the “right” universities and companies, but when these rewards are not conferred upon individuals who have risked their mental and physical well-being through endless hours of hard study and overtime work, then complete breakdown is an all-too-present possibility: and what better way to make a final acidic commentary upon the lie of guaranteed social mobility than by instilling fear and doubt into the passengers of the country’s most visible symbol of that mobility.
The poignant irony of this phenomenon is that it does confirm the theory that, on some level, the shinkansen has inspired dramatic shifts in thought and action, even though this particular shift represents an advance in psychopathology rather than in any more universally desirable area of modern life. This type of ‘self-immolation as protest’ is a relatively new feature of Japanese life when contrasted with suicide as enacted in traditional Japan: Steven Stack notes a past form of suicide, a highly romanticized and poetically charged “’sacrificial suicide’ in which the individual commits suicide to save face for the group,”[i] while S.I. Hayakawa also stresses a concept of suicide not attached to societal transgression, i.e. “an honorable path for a samurai or commoner to take under certain circumstances in Japan”.[ii]
If we look beyond the infamous symbolism of bullet trains flying by Mt. Fuji like glistening ivory arrows, and refuse to let that symbolism tell us the complete story, we can soberly realize the truth behind the shinkansen phenomenon and others like it. Namely, the achievement of new technological extremes is not, on its own, the harbinger of an organism with an enhanced power for conceptualizing, or with a deeper understanding of how to harmonize internal and external realities. Hood’s book is worth reading for several other instances that bear this out, and for its pervasive suggestion that a lack of visible, high-profile disasters does not also mean a freedom from failures and catastrophes at the individual scale: the shinkansen, though many will continue to see it as a symbol of perfectionism’s attainability, is a useful distraction from the numerous cases in which the perfectionist drive has made matters worse.
[i] Steven Stack, review of The Thorn in the Chrysanthemum: Suicide and Economic Success in Modern Japan by Mamoru Iga. American Journal of Sociology Vol. 93, No. 6 (May, 1988), pp. 1493-1495.
[ii] S.I. Hayakawa, “Suicide As A Communicative Act”. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, Vol. 15 No. 1, pp. 46-51.