Book Review: Early Japanese Railways by Dan Free

The copy of this book that I bought was a coffee-table size paperback published by Tuttle Publishing. My anticipation was that it might be quite light on detail and full of generic pictures. It is actually a meticulously researched work. Dan Free seems to have spent 25 years on that research.

The book begins by dividing the story into historical periods. The general history of Japan in the years before 1853 is surveyed in the Prologue, [7], (p11-19).

Chapters cover short periods in what was a rapidly developing political landscape. Japan was a place of intrigue and political machinations as the power of the shogun rulers dissipated and became refocused around the emperor.

Foreign powers fought for a prime place of influence over events within Japan. Increasing confidence in indigenous engineering ability among Japanese leaders led to local control beginning to be exercised over construction projects and expensive foreign engineers contracts gradually not being renewed.

The story focusses first on the introduction of railway technology to Japan and the attempts by the Tokugawa Shogunate to offer a concession to the United States. This phase was not long-lived and the balance of power swung round to the influence of the British at the end of the 1860s. “The political double-dealings and diplomatic blunders committed by both the Japanese and Western powers are laid out in impressive detail. For instance, the Shogunate’s rail concession to the United States (although legally binding to the Meiji government) was seen as something to be negated by the former enemies of the Tokugawa who now found themselves in power. Using the time honored Japanese techniques of stalling, failing to reply to diplomatic requests, and not addressing any of the real issues when a reply was given, the Japanese diplomat Sawa Nobuyoshi ran rings around American diplomat Charles DeLong, taking full advantage of his inexperience in the world of international relations. Instead, seasoned politico Harry Parkes of Great Britain managed to maneuver his country into overseeing and supplying (at great benefit to the coffers of English businessmen) the embryonic Japanese rail industry.” [1]

The first railway built was that between Yokohama and Shimbashi in Tokyo between 1870 and 1872.

In 1868 Thomas Blake Glover, a Scottish merchant, had brought the first steam locomotive, “Iron Duke”, to Japan, which he demonstrated on an 8-mile track in the Ōura district of Nagasaki. [1][2] However, after around 250 years of a culture of ‘distrust of foreigners’, construction of the ‘premier’ railway connecting Japan’s former and new capitals by non-Japanese was considered politically unacceptable to the new Japanese regime, and so the government of Japan decided to build a railway from the major port of Yokohama to Tokyo using British financing and 300 British and European technical advisors: civil engineers, general managers, locomotive builders and drivers.[1]

“In order to undertake its construction, foreign experts were contracted, with the specific intent that such experts would educate Japanese co-workers so that Japan could become self-sufficient in railway construction expertise, at which time the foreign contractors were expected to leave the country.” [3]

On 12th September 1872, the first railway, between Shimbashi (later Shiodome) and Yokohama (present Sakuragichō) opened.  A one-way trip took 53 minutes in comparison to 40 minutes for a modern electric train. Service started with nine round trips daily. [4]

The line between Kobe and Kyoto was the first railway in central Japan. Further railway building took place from 1877 to 1884 – the short (11.25 mile) line to Otsu was designed and built by indigenous staff; the line from Tsuruga to Shiotsu; Nagahama to Shunjo;  and East to the Nobi Plain.This is Shinagawa Station in the late nineteenth century did actually look this rural, with the waves of Tokyo Bay reaching to the very edge of the station. In those days, certainly nobody foresaw that the tiny country station would grow into today’s massive complex. It now services over three quarters of a million passengers daily, making it one of the busiest stations in Japan. In spite of its humble location and looks, Shinagawa Station played a title role in the development of Japan’s railway system. The country’s very first daily train services, which started on 12th June 1872, ran between this station and Yokohama. Yokohama’s foreign settlement had turned into a crucial trading port and was located some twenty kilometers southwest of Shinagawa.

The 6th chapter of the book concentrates on the period from 1880 to 1895 which was a time for extending and better integrating the network across the country. The 6th chapter forms a significant portion of the book [7], (p109-180). The text is well illustrated by postcard views of stations, buildings and track-work. The focus is primarily on the ‘Cape Gauge’ mainlines with only short digressions mentioning the smaller gauge lines which later would become important as industrial lines in the valleys in the mountains.

The 7th chapter covers a period of 10 years from 1895 to 1905. The early part of this chapter highlights the lead in innovation taken by the San’yo as it gradually became a major trunk line. Innovation was essential as the San’yo was something with well established shipping routes connecting the same cities [7], (p183-185).

This period was a time of ‘railway mania’. For example, in 1896 alone, 555 applications for provisional charters were made. Private railways built around 400 miles of railways per year in 1897 and 1898, [7], (p181).

That this was both a time of expansion and innovation is evidenced by the activities of others as well. The Imperial Japanese Government Railways (IJGR) faced intercity competition from the Kansai Railway between Osaka and Nagoya, [7], (p185).

By the end of the Sino-Japanese War, railways “were ever increasingly becoming an integral part of the lifeblood and social fabric of the nation and as the network expanded, the effects began to be felt throughout the realm,” [7], (p187).As the century turned the San’yo Railway Company became increasingly self-confident. They were not afraid to bid for foreign tourist trade: “When this as first appeared in 1904, during the Russo-Japanese War, the progressive line had put in place three steamer routes connecting with Shikoku and a ferry route to Kyushu. It could also state that all its express trains (four in number) were electric-lit, steam heated, and furnished with sleeping and dining cars,” [7], (p197).

During this period, with venture capital in short supply in Japan, smaller towns and industrial concerns took to developing their own light railways. They were known as ‘gyusha kido’ (ox car tramways) or ‘jinsha kido’. They were light railways where oxen were used for motive power and as a result enabled circumvention of the existing statutory framework surrounding railway construction. There was also one example of a logging railway powered by dogs on the island of Shikoku which became known as a kensha (dog car) tetsudo, [7], (p202-203).

The 8th chapter focusses on the short period surrounding the nationalisation of the railways (1906-1912) and is entitled ‘Nationalization and Self-sufficiency’.

“In the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese War, the military emerged as a driving force in Japan, and given its influence on the Railway Council, its views on railway development were increasingly heeded. Preeminent among the railway matters which interested the Ministry of War was nationalization, which was thought would make management and coordination of the railway system much easier in times of war. This added weight to a movement that had been afoot for some time,” [7], (p225)

“With the end of the war, the military, and its political supporters, were not satisfied with the potential for operational integration that a railway system consisting of various private railways seemed to be capable of sustaining. The military successes of the recent war, coupled with the public dissatisfaction with what was perceived to be a less than warranted treaty result and the political situation in China … all combined to tempt Japan to ready itself for even greater acts on the Asian continent. Militarism was becoming ingrained in Japanese foreign policy,” [7], (p225-226)

“If that were to be the course of Japanese foreign policy, a nationalized railway system was seen to be preferable to the one in place. New arguments for nationalization were again brought before the Diet, and the debate renewed.  … Nationalization was seen as a means of preventing railway ownership from falling into foreign hands via stock purchases or mortgaging of assets,”  [7], (p226)

“The military vociferously asserted its dissatisfaction with the coordinating abilities of the various private railways in the past war, but conveniently ignored the fact that many of the delays and inconveniences were not attributable to internecine squabbles between various private railways, but were more likely the natural consequence of a railway system that was still overwhelmingly single-tracked and strained to its limits,” [7], (p226-227).

“An ambitious program of double-tracking all primary routes might have been just as effective a solution. The various arguments pro and con were posited, but in the end, after more than a decade of debate, the vote for nationalization carried in the Diet on March 31, 1906,” [7], (p227).

“The legislation authorizing the nationalization also provided for the continuation of private railways (and creation of new companies) providing local (ie. non main line) rail transport.” [6]

“However, as most such lines would be less (or un)profitable branch lines, the 1910 Light Railways Act was required to authorize construction of lower cost lines, including 2’6″ gauge lines, in order to enable provision of railways to smaller and/or more remote communities. Some of the resulting lines initially constructed to 2’6″ gauge were later re-gauged to 3’6″ where there was economic justification to do so.” [6]

Throughout the book, Free examines the close ties between the development of the railways and the development of the country and the Japanese economy. He shows how the railways: “aided the rapid development of other industries. Initially relying on foreign suppliers and engineers (not to mention cash strapped by the extravagance of British construction methods), the development of Japanese engineering and the eventual replacement of foreign experts and suppliers by ‘home-grown’ ones shows that the long term goal of ‘sonno-joi’ activists years before actually did see the light of day. In fact, Japan turned the tables, being a major exporter of rail expertise and supplies to its Asian neighbours.” [1]

Free also shows: “how the former samurai class managed to stay among the ranks of the elite by using their government buyouts to become one of the biggest investors in railroads. The hand in hand relationship of Japanese industry with the government is shown in the switch from a national railway system to private industry and back again. The increasing dominance of the military in the political sphere can be seen by the growing influence of the army in rail planning decisions.” [1]

” ‘Early Japanese Railways’ is a rare example of a work that combines technical excellence and a plethora of information with a lively writing style that always gives the human element its due. Combined with an excellent graphical presentation of hundreds of rare photographs, advertising material, timetables, maps, woodblock prints, and postcards, the book provides a fascinating glimpse of Japan as it moved from self-imposed seclusion to being the ‘most Western of Eastern nations’.” [1]


  1., accessed on 16th March 2019.
  2. Peter Semmens; High Speed in Japan: Shinkansen – The World’s Busiest High-speed Railway; Platform 5 Publishing, Sheffield, 1997.
  3., accessed on 17th March 2019.
  4. Hirota Naotaka; Steam Locomotives of Japan; Kodansha International Ltd., 1972; p22-25,34-38,44-46&52-54 referenced in [3].
  5., accessed on 19th March 2019.
  6., 19th March 2019.
  7. Dan Free; Early Japanese Railways 1853-1914: Engineering Triumphs That Transformed Meiji-era Japan; Tuttle Publishing, Vermont, 2008.

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