Fast Women: The Shinkansen and the Changing Japanese Gender Roles

“A woman has taken the controls of a Japanese bullet train to claim a history first… On the whole, although job opportunities for women are improving in Japan, a glass ceiling remains in most sectors.”

(British Broadcasting Corporation, 2000)

 

In terms of jobs that women regularly do in Japan, the two that involve the greatest speeds are working on airplanes and on shinkansen, or “bullet trains.” The focus of this chapter is on the latter. I consider female shinkansen workers whose labour is often taken for granted and whose presence is frequently overlooked. I describe jobs, admittedly less glamorous than those done on airplanes, about which most people in Japan know very little. Along with extensive archival research, interviews, and personal observations, I draw upon a book and associated television program written by a female shinkansen worker, one of the few texts meant to give the general public a behind-the-scenes look at women’s roles on the shinkansen. I also discuss the impact of the recent hiring of female shinkansen drivers and question why it took so long for women to be allowed to pursue this line of work. I question whether this advance is a harbinger of changes in women’s working practices more generally.

The chapter begins by providing background on the cultural and economic significance of the shinkansen in order to better understand the significance of women’s jobs on these high-speed trains. The second section explains the direct-customer service roles performed by women on the shinkansen, particularly the provision of on-board sales. The third section analyzes changes that have allowed for the hire of more female drivers. Although this chapter will consider all of the shinkansen lines, the focus will be on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen, the first and most used line. The Tōkaidō Shinkansen has a twenty-five percent larger passenger volume than all the other main shinkansen lines combined (Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism 2009). It is also the most representative of Japan’s technological progress, as evidenced in the now iconic photograph of this train speeding in front of Mount Fuji that has often appeared in Japan Railways publicity materials and guidebooks about Japan. For most people in Japan, the shinkansen has become a normal part of everyday life, whether they use it or not. This slide into normality makes the shinkansen a useful vehicle through which to study various aspects of Japanese society. To properly appreciate women’s roles on the shinkansen, it is necessary to first examine the operation of these trains and their network of lines across Japan.

 

“Welcome to the Shinkansen

 

Passengers boarding trains on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen have been welcomed by these words for over forty-five years. The Tōkaidō Shinkansen is one of the six lines running throughout Japan that are currently in use. It is perhaps the most symbolic route and best-known internationally, as it not only connects the major cities of Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto, and Osaka, but it also passes Mount Fuji. Being the busiest high-speed railway line in the world also means that the Tōkaidō Shinkansen is often the focus of global studies on Japanese railways. Its punctuality is world renowned, and even Queen Elizabeth II was reported to have said, “I hear that the shinkansen is more accurate than a watch,” during her 1975 visit to Japan (Oikawa and Morikawa 1996:12-13).

On October 1, 1964, the world’s attention turned to Japan. At 6:00 that day, the shinkansen began taking passengers between Tokyo and Osaka, making Japan the first country in the world to offer passenger services at over 200km/hour. At this time, there was only one design of train and two types of services: “Hikari” which only stopped at main stations and “Kodama” which stopped at all stations. At first, the train was referred to as the “Super Express of Dreams” (Yume no chōtokkyū), but in time it came to be known as the “shinkansen,” literally “new main line” (Hood 2006:45).

Today there are six shinkansen lines: the Tōkaidō Shinkansen (Tokyo – Osaka), San’yō Shinkansen (Osaka – Fukuoka), Kyūshū Shinkansen (Fukuoka – Kagoshima), Tōhoku Shinkansen (Tokyo – Aomori), Jōetsu Shinkansen (Tokyo – Niigata), and Hokuriku Shinkansen (Tokyo – Nagano).[1] The shinkansen network continues to expand as other lines, such as the Hokkaidō Shinkansen (Aomori – Hakodate) and an extension to the Hokuriku Shinkansen between Nagano and Kanazawa, are under construction (projected completion in 2015 and 2014, respectively). All shinkansen services have a name, such as the Hikari and Kodama mentioned above, as well as a number, so that passengers can identify the correct train. Of the names given to shinkansen services, three are common girl’s names – “Nozomi”, “Hikari”, and “Tsubasa” – and another, “Komachi” was named after the famed Heian era poet Onna no Komachi who was from the area that the Akita Shinkansen serves.

On April 1, 1987, the Japanese National Railways (JNR), which has operated the shinkansen together with an extensive network of other railways, was broken up and privatized. Six regional passenger companies and one nationwide freight company were created as a result. Although done largely on a regional basis, for practical reasons, Tōkai was allowed to operate the whole Tōkaidō Shinkansen, despite the fact that sections (Atami – Tokyo and Shin-Ōsaka Station – Maibara) are within the territories of JR East and JR West, respectively. (JR Tōkai is officially known in English as the “Central Japan Railway Company,” but I use the term by which it is better known in Japan. “JR” is the common abbreviation for “Japan Railways.) Other than station facilities in shared-territorial space (e.g. Tokyo Station being used by JR East and JR Tōkai), the JR companies may own and operate all aspects of the railway service. For instance, this means that a train travelling from Tokyo to Hakata will see a change in train crew at Shin-Ōsaka Station so that JR West staff can continue to operate the train along the San’yō Shinkansen. However, it is worth noting that catering and other on-board services may be provided by a sub-contractor rather than the JR company itself, as is discussed further below.

Since 1993 there have been three types of service on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen: “Nozomi” which stop at only the main stations; “Hikari” which stop at the “Nozomi” stops and some additional stations; “Kodama” which stop at all stations. Many Nozomi services and a few Hikari services continue beyond Shin-Ōsaka Station onto the San’yō Shinkansen (or start at a station on the San’yō Shinkansen and continue onto the Tōkaidō Shinkansen). All trains on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen are sixteen carriages long. Originally, all sixteen carriages on Nozomi services were for reserved seats only. Since the 2003 opening of Shinagawa Shinkansen station and the expansion of Nozomi services, three carriages are now for passengers without seat reservations, while there are five carriages for this purpose on Hikari services and eleven on Kodama services. There are also three carriages (“Green Cars”), which are the equivalent of “first class” on all three types of services. Over the years, the number of carriages on which smoking is permitted has been reduced. For example, on N700-series shinkansen, smoking is not permitted in any carriages. Instead, there are small cubicles at the rear of come carriages where smokers can go.

Since privatization and in order to better compete with the airlines, JR Tōkai has continued to research ways to improve the design of the trains (Hood 2006:231-234). But it is not only speed where the shinkansen competes with the airlines; service is also very important. Service can be split into two main categories: that related directly to the train operation (e.g. whether the train is on time or not) and that related to the customer experience inside the train (e.g. whether the train is clean or not and what merchandise is available). It is this second aspect of the service to which the chapter will now turn.

 

Shinkansen Girls”

Having considered some of the key aspects of the shinkansen itself, it is now possible to discuss jobs on these trains often done by women. I will do so in the order in which customers are most likely to encounter these workers. At least at terminal stations, the first group whom passengers might see is the cleaning staff. Although there are male cleaners, the majority, based on my numerous observations, are female. For the Tōkaidō Shinkansen, the cleaners will wait at the platform for the arrival of a terminating shinkansen. Then, unless the train is to be sent to a local depot for cleaning, after greeting the alighting passengers, the custodial staff will board the train, clear the rubbish, clean the toilets, turn the seats so that they are facing the direction of travel, and replace the cloths which go over the headrests. All of this has to be done in about five minutes. The majority of these workers tend to be over forty years old. It would appear to be that the subsidiary companies contracted to clean the shinkansen are predominantly employing those who are seeking a return to some sort of relatively low-skilled, often part-time, work or that the terms of the employment are attracting these sorts of people. It is rare to see young people at these jobs.

The time when passengers might be most aware of women working on the shinkansen is through the on-board catering services. Although it is likely that most passengers had some idea about how these staff worked, the level of knowledge increased after Tokubuchi Mariko, a purser on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen, was interviewed for a popular column in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper in August 2006. This column became the basis for the book Shinkansen Girl (Shinkansen gāru), which is part of the Media Factory series on service workers discussed in the book introduction and chapters by Laura Miller and Alisa Freedman. Tokubuchi explains how she became a top-ranked purser after only one year and four months on the job. She stated that she wrote the book to express the inner thoughts of the more than 900 women who work on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen and to explain the daily lives of pursuers to readers who might never have thought about what the job entails (Tokubuchi 2007: 7). The book went through nine printings and was adapted into a two-hour television drama special, broadcast by NTV (Nihon Television), a network that often airs dramas about working women (Freedman and Iwata 2011: 302), on July 4, 2007. Although the book centres on Tokubuchi’s own background and experiences, it reads like a sales-pitch for the job and the Tōkaidō Shinkansen.

The book’s seven chapters cover a typical day in the life of a purser, how Tokubuchi became a purser, some of the key aspects of her job, explanations of how pursers improve sales, and love of the shinkansen itself. After graduating from a junior college, Tokubuchi worked briefly at a hotel, where she felt unhappy that she could not properly help the guests. She answered an advertisement for part-time assistant pursers, not out of a love of trains, although she was a fan of the two Shinkansen Love Story (Shinkansen koi monogatari, 1993 and 1997) television drama series, but out of a desire to continue to work in the service sector. Her main job was selling boxed lunches (ekiben), coffee, and other snacks from a trolley, a seemingly trivial profession but one she felt provided the chance to interact with people and touch their lives, even for a moment. After only a few months, she was hired as a full-time worker and won accommodations for her sales record. Through small encounters with different kinds of people during her approximately twenty-two trips between Tokyo and Osaka each month, she had learned to be compassionate for human suffering and what she could do in her small way to make the world a better place. She has the function of making the train ride more comfortable, as Alisa Freedman discusses of tour guides in her chapter. Tokubuchi’s book, full of photographs, offers a behind the scenes look at the training of female service employees to maintain a uniform level of politeness and appearance as representatives of the company and thereby of Japan.

As previously mentioned, the pursers on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen are not employed directly by the train operating company but work for JR Central Passengers (JR Tōkai Passenjāzu), a subsidiary of JR Tōkai. They are based at Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka. In 2007, there were around 1,000 pursers, of which about 400 were based at Tokyo, 500 at Osaka, and 90 in Nagoya (Tokubuchi 2007:82). It is easy to understand why so many are needed as there are over 300 shinkansen on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen every day, just over half of which are Nozomi services, with the remaining being Hikari and Kodama services (Hood 2006:221). There are five pursers on Nozomi services, three on Hikari services, and two on Kodama services, although these numbers are subject to change during peak times (Tokubuchi 2007:63). Tokubuchi comments that customers may not have had many chances to see male pursers on the train (2007:52). Yet three of the nine employees who began training at the same time as Tokubuchi were male (Tokubuchi 2007:52). This raises the question of what becomes of these men? It is not unusual to find male staff working in hotels in Japan, so why not on the shinkansen? Is this because of the general public perception that jobs such as pursers on shinkansen and cabin crew in planes are done by women? Could such a perception lead to a social-stigma toward men who work in such roles? Or is it that the employers themselves prefer to employ women?

The lack of male pursers is perhaps particularly surprising given the general increase in Japan of men doing both part-time work and working only for a relatively short time at one company before changing jobs. Working as a purser on a shinkansen would appear to be perfect for such people. As well as the full-time pursers, there are also part-time pursers who are paid by the hour. Whilst some part-time workers, such as Tokubuchi, become full-time employees, the use of part-time workers allows the company to respond better to changes in demand and ridership of the trains at particular times of the year, as well as keeping their staff costs lower. However, one could also argue that such a strategy restricts the opportunities for others to get full-time employment in this sector. By not using a large staff on the trains at any one time further means that there is little flexibility for workers in determining what days or hours they work. This is likely to be particularly problematic for any workers who have responsibilities for looking after children or other family members, for example. I will return to this issue after discussing the typical working day of the pursers and other train crew.

Upon joining the company, all prospective pursers have to undergo a period of initial training. As Tokubuchi explains, this training is split into two parts. The first part is “desk training” (kijōkenshū) which lasts four days. There are then five days of “on the job training” (referred to with the Latin letters OJT). During the desk training, the trainees learn about important aspects of the job from instructors and manuals. They are also introduced to the various rules about appearance. These include not having a suntan and how hair should be presented. Pursers with dyed hair are required to use black spray (Tokubuchi 2007:53). There are also rules concerning the amount and colour of make-up which can be worn, as well as what jewellery is allowed (Tokubuchi 2007:54-5). Whilst Tokubuchi details some of these rules, she does not express an opinion about their need or appropriateness and instead seems to accept them as given. In addition, training concentrates upon ensuring that the pursers use the appropriate language (Tokubuchi 2007:56-62). The Japanese language has various levels of politeness depending on the situation. Although this is taught at schools, companies often find that employees are not familiar with the proper usage of the politest forms and accompanying body language, such as the levels of bowing.

An important part of the training concerns how to use the trolley and the tray services (for particularly busy times or when selling a limited number of items). This training includes ensuring that the trainees push the trolley at the appropriate speed, stop it in the correct place, and do not bang it into passengers’ seats (Tokubuchi 2007:66-72). Another aspect of this training concerns the use of the “handy scanner,” or a sheet with details of some sales items. Somewhat surprisingly, this scanner does not work like a standard cash register, so one cannot input how much money has been received from the customer; consequently it does not calculate the amount of change needed (Tokubuchi 2007:67). It is not unusual to see pursers use separate calculators for this purpose. Given the need to work neatly on a fast-moving train in a confined space, it seems strange that this system is maintained. A sophisticated scanner would make pursers’ jobs easier and reduce the number of things they need to carry.

Without any doubt, the rules regarding appearance are very strict. Indeed, in countries such as the United Kingdom or the United States, it would be hard to imagine companies being able to enforce some of these rules. Yet in Japan such practices are not uncommon. It is a form of “wrapping,” as the anthropologist Joy Hendry (1995) has discussed in her studies of Japanese society. “Wrapping” is not limited to that found around a new product or gift but also extends to the clothing worn by people in particular roles and even to the use of the language. Passengers and pursers alike have preconceived notions about how pursers should look, and the rules are a reflection of these.

One key part of the appearance is the uniform. Pursers have their own lockers and change into their uniform after they arrive at the office. The design of the uniforms has changed significantly over the years (for example, JR Central Passengers 2009a). Tokubuchi (2007:50) notes that, around the time of the opening of the Shinagawa Shinkansen Station, purser uniforms were changed to navy blue, thus making them the same colour as JR Tōkai conductors and drivers. This made shinkansen staff appear to be a more uniform group working together to provide service. Another important part of the uniform is the badge. Badges are five different colours, differentiating the pursers’ status in the company.

Let us now consider a typical day for the pursers to better highlight the high demands of the job. Pursers working on the main Nozomi services on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen usually work in one of two patterns. The first of these (Pattern A) sees the purser do a return trip between Tokyo and Shin-Ōsaka stations, with a rest period of a couple of hours in Osaka. The second pattern sees the purser doing the return trip between Tokyo and Shin-Ōsaka stations, but then doing an additional journey to Shin-Ōsaka. This time, rather than returning to Tokyo, they will stay in company accommodations in Osaka. The return journey to Tokyo is made the following day. An example calendar for a purser sees that within one month the purser does six Pattern A shifts and eight Pattern B shifts, with eight days off (JR Central Passengers 2009b).That pursers are sometimes required to stay in company accommodation away from their own home points to why it is likely that many employees are young, unmarried, and have no children. Indeed, the largest text on the dustcover to Tokubuchi’s book even points out that “she was top of her workplace at the age of twenty-two” (Tokubuchi 2007). The working conditions may lead to a relatively high turnover in staff, a fact that can be in part seen when considering the potential career progression of a purser.

 

Table 1 – Purser Hierarchy

Job title Main responsibilities Badge Colour
Chief Purser

(chīfu pāsā)

Communication with conductor, contact with office and overall leader of the on-board crew Purple
Senior Purser

(shinia pāsā)

 

Works in the Green Car and checks tickets. Some operates as acting Chief Purser. Blue
Purser

(pāsā)

Trolley sales. Conducting OJT training for new pursers. Green
Assistant Purser

(ashisutanto pāsā)

 

First stage full time workers. In charge of trolley sales. Orange
Assistant Crew

(ashisutanto kurū)

 

Part-time workers. Trolley sales. Red

Based upon Tokubuchi 2007:82 and JR Central Passengers 2009b).

 

According to the company website, pursers can take the promotion examination from assistant purser to purser after a year. A year later, they may take the promotion examination to senior purser. After another two years, they may take the promotion examination to chief purser. At this stage there is also the possibility of becoming an instructor (JR Central Passengers 2009b). That there are only about sixteen instructors out of around a thousand pursers (Tokubuchi 2007: 82) is probably an indication of the relatively short period that pursers do the job. As well as the stresses that can be caused by staying away from one’s own home, the job itself is also physically demanding. During a Pattern A shift, the purser is on her feet for at least five hours a day. There are also other meetings and tasks to be attended, which means that the time from clocking on in the morning to clocking off at the end of the day could be in excess of ten hours (Tokubuchi 2007: 19). According to Tokubuchi (2007:14), she would expect to do the return journey between carriage seven, where the pursers are based, and the first carriage, for example, three times during one journey. Each shinkansen carriage is approximately twenty-five-meters long so the total distance travelled would be 1050 meters (in comparison the shinkansen itself will have travelled 515 kilometres). Having done two trips in a day, a purser, therefore, will walk around two kilometres, not including the distance between the train and the company’s office. However, the need to push the trolley so that no passengers get hit, for example, makes it challenging. Furthermore, although they may have only walked two kilometres, they would have been standing for over five hours, needing to maintain their balance as the train speeds along. It is no wonder that one thing that Tokubuchi “must do before going to bed is have a foot massage” (Tokubuchi 2007:18).In 2007, the N700-series shinkansen was introduced on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen. The most significant technical development of this train is that it has a tilting-mechanism that allows it to maintain a higher speed on corners, of which the Tōkaidō Shinkansen has more than any other line. In reality, this has had little impact on journey times between Tokyo and Shin-Ōsaka, and one JR Tōkai train designer admitted that the people who would probably benefit most from the innovation were those having to push trolleys along the train (anonymous interview, 2004).

 

Shinkansen Drivers

The pursers may be the most visible women working on the shinkansen, as they pass through the train on a frequent basis. However, they are not the only workers on the train: there are also those employed by the train operator as conductors and drivers. The shinkansen driver, like the pilot of the plane, is the most prestigious, as well as the best paid. Consequently, the recent hire of female drivers not only show changes on the shinkansen but represent increasing possibilities in Japan for women to pursue careers once reserved for men.

All of the railway companies have their own training systems, although there is much in common and certain parts need to meet the standards set by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism (Kokudo Kōtsū Shō). The system is based on the premise of having an intake of well-educated, hard-working recent school and university graduates. Companies rely on the idea that their new “raw materials” can be moulded to the company’s “colour,” with “promising but relatively inexperienced students” being sought rather than those with any kind of related job experience (Ishida 1993:150). It is highly unusual for one JR company to employ someone who has worked for another JR company.

 

Figure 1 – Female Conductor

Photograph by author. A female conductor checks that the platform at Nagoya Station is clear before closing the doors for departure.

 

Upon hire, an employee becomes a resource of his or her company. Staff can be, with few exceptions, allocated to any of the company’s activities. In the railway industry, this can mean significant geographical upheaval, which can happen throughout the career as well as upon initial employment. The system for staff employed in the day-to-day railway operations (i.e. station staff and staff on trains) is similar among the JR companies; all staff need to be trained for and gain experience in all aspects of these various jobs before moving on to the next stage. To become a driver, one has to have completed time working at a station and as a conductor. It is generally the case that time will be spent on the conventional railways prior to training on the shinkansen. The significant difference in this respect is that, because shinkansen income accounts for about 85% of JR Tōkai’s revenue as compared to 18% at JR East and 25% at JR West (Hood 2006:109), they have a much greater need to train employees for shinkansen jobs. Indeed, so important is the shinkansen for JR Tōkai that even those employees who will be assigned to “office jobs,” will first go through training that will culminate in their obtaining a shinkansen driving license. Thus JR Tōkai shinkansen drivers tend to be significantly younger than their JR East counterparts, who tend to spend much longer as drivers of conventional trains prior to working on the shinkansen.

Various aspects of the training programs that JR staff undergo are visible to passengers. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the uniform. So smart are these uniforms that some observers have commented that drivers look “more like airline pilots than railway men” (British Broadcasting Corporation 2001). Every aspect of the uniform is carefully coordinated and precise. While there have been stories in the media about the apparent over-concern for the dress-code (see Hood 2006:148-9), the uniform, which has winter and summer variations, is clearly another means by which the JR companies can ensure compliance with standards and demonstrate to the public that this is being done. Posters on the walls and in the elevators of JR Tōkai’s training centre in Mishima, as well as around the areas of the station complex which are not accessed by passengers, remind employees about how they should appear and speak. These rules are comparable to those of the pursers as discussed above.

Although the shinkansen has been in operation since 1964, female drivers were not seen until 2000. The main reason cited by JR companies for why there had not been any female drivers was due to restrictions in the working hours which could be done by women (JR Tōkai interview April 2004). After revision of the 1986 Equal Employment Opportunity Law that made it theoretically possible for women to work the same hours as men, the JR companies allowed women to be drivers (Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism interview January 2001; JR Tōkai interview April 2004). Given the importance of the shinkansen to JR Tōkai, in particular, and the need to have sufficient numbers of staff able to drive the shinkansen, the law clearly played a part in preventing women from becoming drivers. However, one cannot overlook that it is likely also that the way in which shifts were designed and allocated, similar to those for the pursers discussed above, is likely to have also been at the centre of the problem. Had JR Tōkai really wanted to use female drivers, it may have been able to do so on shorter journeys, for example, which would probably have not caused any legal problems. However, this would have meant treating female and male drivers quite differently. Further it would have required a greater diversification in how shifts were organized, which, based on my observations at the companies and the insight provided by Tokubuchi about life as a purser, would not appear to be something which would be considered. It should also be noted that the change in design of trains in recent years has meant that the driver’s job is less physically arduous than in the past, and some female drivers have commented that this in itself is a significant development (JR Tōkai interviews 2001 and 2004).

In 2000, JR West became the first company to use female shinkansen drivers (Japan Times 2000; JR West interview 2003). However, this development passed without any significant media attention. This may be because JR West did not believe it to be a significant story. However, JR Tōkai promoted their use of female shinkansen drivers more publicly. Although this may be, in part, due to JR Tōkai’s adept use of public relations (Hood 2006:160), the fact that these women were driving the Tōkaidō Shinkansen, the most popular and most symbolic line, is significant. Their female shinkansen drivers obtained their licenses as part of the training that is expected of most JR Tōkai employees. It was not until June 20, 2003 that JR Tōkai allowed women to actually drive their shinkansen. The Japanese Transport Minister heralded this decision (Japan Times2003). The hire of JR Tōkai female shinkansen drivers made global headlines.

 

Figure 2 – Female Shinkansen Drivers

Photograph by author. On the left hand side, staff confirm their orders for their next shinkansen service. On the right hand side, one of JR Tōkai’s first female shinkansen drivers, Umeda Yasuko, confirms the details of the service that she has just completed.

 

From 2000, this new position for women has been explained, both in Japanese and English, on webpages for children by the Tokyo Broadcasting System (2000). It is interesting to note that the titles to the stories have been different depending on the language. In 2000, the English site had the informative yet neutral headline, “First woman shinkansen operator.” The Japanese site, on the other hand, appeared to be aimed more at raising children’s awareness of what they could grow up to do and had the headline “My dream is to become a shinkansen driver” (Shōrai no yume wa shinkansen no untenshi). The use of female shinkansen drivers was seen as symbolic in the sense that it was sending out a signal that women could do almost any kind of work in Japan. The symbolism was not lost on the drivers themselves. Umeda Yasuko, who had already been JR Tōkai’s first full-time female conductor, felt that it was her “duty” to get promoted to being a driver for the sake of the women who would come after her (interview April 2004).

The focus of media attention and interviews was that, if women can drive the shinkansen, a symbol of the male-dominated work of the railways (as well as being male-dominated in terms of the passengers on board), then women can do almost any job. Of course, there is a chance that impact of female drivers diminished once the story faded from public attention. The drivers of the shinkansen are generally out of view. You can only see the driver if you watch him or her board the shinkansen or if you stand near the end of the platform as the shinkansen is about to leave. The names of the diver and conductor are announced to passengers on board, but their gender might not be clear by their names. While the train is moving, the driver, who is in the cab alone and is hidden from sight, and there is no co-driver, equivalent of an airplane co-pilot.

It needs to be kept in mind that the number of female shinkansen drivers remains low. JR Tōkai, JR West, and JR East hired around 600, 550, and 450 shinkansen drivers, respectively. In 2004 (Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism interview January 2004). However, JR East did not get its first female shinkansen driver until April 2010 (Mainichi Shimbun 2010). That this event received media attention not only confirms that female drivers are still rare but also that their job itself is newsworthy. JR Kyushu is the latest company to have a shinkansen line, but, as of 2009,none of its drivers are female (anonymous interview 2009).

Some at JR East had not been convinced of the merits of using female drivers. One JR East employee went as far as to suggest that what JR Tōkai had done was nothing more than a publicity stunt (anonymous interview 2004). By November 2009, the number of female shinkansen drivers at JR Tōkai had risen to about forty and the number of female drivers of conventional railway lines to about fifty (JR Tōkai interview, November 2009). This suggests that a gradual shift is starting to be seen. Yet it is likely that, for reasons similar to those discussed in relation to pursers, the ultimate number of female drivers is likely to be limited. One female driver told me that she does not experience discrimination on the job. However, due to the nature of the work, she cannot return home at the end of the day. This work schedule has caused concern about child-care among female employees (interview October 2001). Lack of family support might be another factor in preventing more women from becoming shinkansen drivers.

 

Conclusions

This chapter has focused on two areas of women’s work on the shinkansen: the purser and the driver, with attention often given to such lower-profile jobs as the cleaning staff. The nature of the jobs of purser and driver is fundamentally different. The first is centred on customer contact; the second is performed out of customers’ view. The first is largely about sales, whilst the second can only happen if a ticket sale has already been completed. Yet this chapter has also highlighted the commonalities between pursers and drivers. Both sets of workers tend to be young, single, childless women. They also share another important factor: their potential greater symbolic impact. In Japan, railways are a central part of life, and approximately twenty-five percent of all journeys are done by train (Asahi Shimbun 2005: 182). Changes that occur on the railways are often seen as newsworthy.

Recently, as reflected by the change in uniforms, the job of purser has been promoted as being more akin to that of flight attendant rather than merely being focused on sales. However, it is likely that the general public will never view the shinkansen purser’s job as being as glamorous as that of a flight attendant. On reason is that train travel is more common and covers shorter distances than airplane trips.

The media attention given to female shinkansen drivers indicates that these women represent a fundamental change. In a similar vein, the media also reported on Fuji Ari when she became Japan’s first female captain and pilot for a regular domestic Japan Airlines Express flight in July 2010 (e.g. Mainichi Shimbun 2010). It is probable that the media will also report when JR Kyushu first uses a female shinkansen driver. It is important to note the time when female drivers are no longer considered newsworthy and instead are viewed as part of the experience of riding the shinkansen. The change in the Equal Employment Opportunity Law helped women’s entry into this career. The amendment of the law coincided with the withdrawal of the 0 and 100 shinkansen series, which were physically demanding to drive, and this might have been a larger hindrance for women.

Perhaps the biggest question remains whether the age profile of these female shinkansen employees will change. With Japan facing employment shortages there is a need for Japan to encourage more women to continue working longer, particularly after marriage and childbirth. Yet because pursers, conductors, and drivers often have to work shifts that require stays away from home, it is unlikely that these jobs will be attractive for married women, particularly those with children. As the numbers of female conductors and drivers increase, the pressure within the JR companies to develop new work patterns that can better adapt to the needs of employees may grow. If the JR companies begin to change, the knock-on effect across to other Japanese companies, which have often been seen as being overly rigid, could be significant, and the female shinkansen employees will be, all the more, modern women who have spearheaded social and economic movements.

 

 

A version of this paper was originally prepared for the Modern Girls on the Go: Gender, Mobility and Labor in Japan Conference held at the University of Oregon in January 2010. I would like to give my thanks to those who organized that conference and who provided suggestions for improving the text subsequently.

[1] Officially, the Jōetsu Shinkansen is between Ōmiya and Niigata and the Hokuriku Shinkansen between Takasaki and Nagano, but most trains connect with Tokyo.

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