Designs That Defined Modern Japan: Shinkansen

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I attended an excellent webinar on the topic ‘Designs That Defined Modern Japan’ by Professor Hiroshi Kashiwagi, and the audience were set the challenge of coming with their own list of 8 Designs That Defined Modern Japan. This post covers the first of my choices.

It should come as no surprise that the first design that I am choosing – although there isn’t a particular ranking to the list – is the shinkansen. After all, I have been doing research about the shinkansen since 2000, have written a book about the shinkansen, and have even written a novel, Hijacking Japan, which is partly set on a shinkansen. Shinkansen also feature within my book Japan: The Basics as well as my other research on symbolism – such as an article about contents tourism.

The shinkansen was mentioned even within the discussion at the end of Kashiwagi’s seminar in relation to items that the audience thought that should be included in the list and Kashiwagi himself acknowledged that it deserved a place in the list.

The shinkansen has been voted by Japanese people in some polls as Japan’s top invention/innovation of the post-war period. There is no doubting that its influential on Japan has been significant (this doesn’t necessarily always mean positive – for example, the shinkansen may be having some negative impact in relation to depopulation of rural areas and even reasonably large cities, as I discussed in my article ‘The Shinkansen’s Local Impact‘). The impact was also global. The shinkansen was launched at a time when many thought the future of transport would be planes and cars. The iconic first shinkansen helped people realise that there was a place for high-speed rail and in the process the term ‘bullet train’ (although harking back to the original plans for the shinkansen during the 1930s) became synonymous with not only Japan but high-speed in general.

At the time of writing this post I am part way through writing a series of posts on my favourite shinkansen. The original 0-series shinkansen, while not my favourite is arguably the most iconic.

A 0-series-renewal near Higashi-Hiroshima

In terms of my list of designs that defined modern Japan, the shinkansen is the only form of transport that make my list of eight. Part of me feels that there should be a car on there, given the impact that Japanese manufacturers had globally – but, in the end, I came to the conclusion that no single car captured this and, as much as anything, it was the production methods of Japanese car manufacturers that was defining rather than the design of any particular car.

Returning to the shinkansen, I discuss the significance of the shinkansen in a podcast, Compounding Curiosity.

During the autumn of 2021, I wrote posts about each of the main shinkansen in a series called ‘my favourite shinkansen‘. To help index these posts – although you can use the tag also, the list of shinkansen is below. They are listed in numeric/alphabetical order. You will need to go through the posts to discover where they ranked.

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