What is the Shinkansen?

The Tōkaidō Shinkansen line connects Tokyo and Osaka. Editorial credit: tackune / Shutterstock.com.
The Tōkaidō Shinkansen line connects Tokyo and Osaka. Editorial credit: tackune / Shutterstock.com.

The Shinkansen, commonly referred to as the bullet train, is a railway system of high speed trains that operates throughout Japan. The first bullet train began servicing the public on October 1, 1964, just before Tokyo was scheduled to host the 1964 Olympics. This first line connected Tokyo and Osaka, completing the trip in just 4 hours, while previous trains required 7 hours. This event is often considered as the moment when Japan fully recovered from World War II rebuilding efforts. Today, the Shinkansen train system runs a distance of approximately 1,717.8 miles and reaches speeds between 150 and 200 miles per hour. This public transportation system is known for its cleanliness, safety, and punctuality.

The Need for the Shinkansen

After World War II, Japan required significant recovery and rebuilding efforts. As changes were made and the economy underwent industrialization, most new industrial and factory job opportunities were located in cities. As a result, thousands of individuals migrated from rural areas to urban settings. As these individuals grew older and began having children, the demand for real estate options increased. Due to the cost of real estate, many families looked to the outskirts of cities to purchase homes. As the population continued to grow, so did city size. Commute times increased significantly, and working individuals spending hours on trains.

Effect of the Shinkansen on the Economy

The Shinkansen train has made it possible for individuals to live outside of the city and still commute to work each day in two hours or less. Several researchers have claimed that the vast majority of inhabitable areas in Japan (only 20% of the country) serve only as suburbs. This ease of transportation and commuting has also given organizations the ability to focus their activities on larger activities, effectively centralizing the economy.

In addition to giving people access to increased employment opportunities, the Shinkansen train also brings tourism to many areas. One of the most common obstacles to the development of the tourism industry is access to tourist attractions. The bullet trains of Japan allow tourists to travel throughout the country and reach an increased number of destinations. This increased tourist activity brings much-needed revenue to areas in the country that were previously inaccessible.

Effect of the Shinkansen on Japanese Cities

Shinkansen has also had a large impact on where people live throughout Japan. This increased interconnectedness has also affected the shape and physical appearance of cities. For example, suburbanization and urban sprawl have occurred along the bullet train lines, rather than in an outwardly moving circular pattern as seen in most cities around the world. Between Tokyo and Osaka, often referred to as the Tokyo Corridor, census results report a population size of over 83 million. This number represents roughly 70% of the entire population of Japan.

In addition to molding cities and urban sprawl into linear, rather than circular shapes, the bullet train has also shaped the face of the inner areas of Tokyo. Generally speaking, local train lines do not connect to the Shinkansen trains, meaning there are not many transfer points. The solution has been to gradually add additional transfer points throughout the lines. As a result, Tokyo has grown vertically rather than horizontally. As more individuals pour into the city on a daily basis, the government has responded by increasing the number of underground boarding platforms. In order to do this, construction has taken place at deeper levels under the city. One example of this is the maglev construction project, designed to connect Nagoya with Tokyo, and is planned to be completed by 2027. Once finished, it will be operated at an average depth of around 131 feet below ground.

Effect of the Shinkansen on Individual Businesses

The Shinkansen has also had a significant impact on the way enterprises and corporations are able to conduct business. Researchers examined the relationship between businesses and their suppliers in a study of just under one million corporations. The results of this research project indicate that the bullet train has also transformed the way business is conducted between organizations and their suppliers. The average distance between a corporation and its supplier is about 20 miles in Japan. Typically, only the largest organizations in a particular place are able to invest in researching and comparing potential suppliers over a large area in order to obtain the most beneficial agreements, including lower priced and higher quality supplies. These organizations are usually the most established and profitable. However, with the advent of the Shinkansen train, this advantage has become more accessible to smaller, less profitable companies as well. Just as it has connected far-away employees with jobs in large cities, the bullet train system has also connected far-away suppliers to companies.

Future of the Shinkansen

Because of the significant impact the Shinkansen has had on the people, cities, and economy of Japan, the country is constantly looking to improve upon its public transportation system. One of the ways in which the government would like to improve the system is by making it even faster. For example, the line that will connect Tokyo to Nagoya is expected to reach speeds of up to 375 miles per hour by using maglev trains. With an average operating speed of 314 miles per hour, this line will connect the two cities in just over one hour. The Japanese public transportation department is also planning to include additional maglev trains throughout the country. One of these lines is the Chuo Shinkansen, which will connect Tokyo to Osaka. When completed, it is expected to cut travel time to 1 hour and 47 minutes from 2 hours and 19 minutes.

Additionally, the government of Japan plans to extend already existing lines to reach greater distances. One line extension plan is on the Hokuriku line, which currently only runs to Kanazawa. After additional railway and trains are installed, however, the service will reach Tsuruga, and eventually the line will make its way to Osaka. The first stage of this project is expected to be finished by 2023. The second stage, however, will not begin until after 2030.


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