Its railway system has arguably shaped Japan in a more fundamental way than in almost any other culture in the world. Unlike legendary lines that linked continents and time zones or opened up horizons and gave access to new spheres of human existence, Japan's dense railway network consolidated the cities and villages on Japan's major islands and thereby laid the ground stone for the country's self-awareness as a nation. In this respect we can compare Japan's railways with many of Europe's systems, which also developed at a fast pace in the second half of the 19th century. In Japan, the difficult mountainous terrain required very high engineering skills, the formation of which had a decisive impact on the people's educational and national identity. In addition, the rapid process of urbanisation and with it the development of electric commuter lines led a large percent of the population to become emotionally deeply involved with questions related to rail transport. Although Japan's railway system spreads over four islands – the main island of Honshû, the two smaller islands of Kyûshû and Shikoku, and the vast northern landmass of Hokkaidô – this did not lead to a division of the system thanks to an equally efficient network of ferries.
As mentioned, Japan is a mountain country covered by dense forests with only little land for urban or agricultural development. Whatever flatter land there was, it had to be used largely for rice paddies, with the result that settlements traditionally consisted of clusters of houses clinging to the steep rims of the valleys, as did the railway lines to connect them. However, it was the staggering growth of population in the great Kantô Plain in the East of Japan with Tôkyô at its centre, which has given the country its distinct character as an unusually dynamic urban society with worldwide impact.
The railway network spreading out from the centre of Tôkyô into every corner of the Kantô Plain and transporting more people than any other system in the world, and doing so in a safe and meticulously structured fashion, is fascinating beyond words. The networks in the other two huge urban clusters – centering upon Nagoya and Ôsaka respectively – are equally complex and carefully operated, but not quite as extensive as those in the Kantô Plain are.
Long before anyone else believed this to be possible Japan completed its first high-speed railway line in 1964, linking the three megacities of Tôkyô, Nagoya and Ôsaka. Since then, thousands of kilometers of high-speed railway line – called Shinkansen ("New Trunk Line") – have been added, all built as a separate railway system not using any existing lines as high-speed trains in many other countries do.
I can only develop this internet site gradually. A fair amount of material was collected before the age of high-quality digital photography, and for the time being circumstances do not allow professional treatment of these older documents. Moreover, copyright considerations dictated the need to draw my own maps, which can only give a very rudimentary idea of specific locations and how railway lines extend through the country. Place names, however, should help in finding geographical spots when using maps that are more sophisticated.
The intention is to include a broader perspective of Japan's railway system, its history and social setting, taken from various sources. This task, however, will take time, especially as most material needs to be studied in, and translated from, Japanese language sources.
A further point is that in documenting Japan's railways I have usually not used a car but relied on the services the railways provide themselves. That means that many pictures have been taken from the train and not of the train, particularly on lines where it is impractical or impossible to make a stopover.
People sometimes ask me whether I had obtained permission to take photographs from what they think is the driver's cab. In fact, except in Shinkansen or express trains it is usually possible to see out through the front. On rail bus-type vehicles, the cab takes up only the left half of the front end, leaving the right-hand window free. Photography of the cab itself and its usage, however, was avoided. All photographs are my own, unless otherwise indicated. I plan gradually to replace pictures of poorer quality as far as circumstances permit me to do so.
Note on the use of Japanese words: