Ordinarily, one does not immediately think of railways when Japan comes to mind.

Perhaps the famous bullet train Shinkansen does, but the chugging steam engine is not one of the usual images of tranquility, beauty, giant monsters and flashing blades usually conjured by the Land of the Rising Sun. Yet it does occupy a special place in the Japanese cultural psyche, symbolic of life's journeys and transitions.

The railway arrived in Japan in October of 1872, as part of the Westernizing reforms ushered in by the Meiji Emperor in the wake of the bloody, revolutionary Boshin War in 1868-69. Shook awake by Commodore Perry in 1853, progressives in Japan fought to bring the island into the modern, 19th century and compete with Euro-American powers on their own proverbial turf. Knowledge of railways was not absent amongst the Tokugawa Shogunate. Locomotives had been read about in foreign reports since the 1840's. Cultural mores stalled their importation, however. Prohibitions on movement amongst the populace, requiring checkstops and authorizing papers, made mass transportation an impossibility until the revolution. Thereafter, foreign experts were brought in, foreign technologies studied, and the steam engine introduced. Not surprisingly, the first line stretched between the foreign enclave of Yokohama and Shimbashi in Tokyo.

The first steam engine to be made in Japan would not be put together until 1893, followed a mere two years later by Japan's first electric streetcar in Kyoto. At around the same time, a critical mass of rail companies was reached, fostering the the kind of competition for passengers that drives the creation of a rail culture. In 1898, San'yo Railway brought waiters aboard. Then in 1899, San'yo started first class service with a buffet on its express lines, followed a year later by sleeping cars. The proliferation of rail companies was so great that in 1906, the government nationalized many of them under the banner of Japanese Government Railways. Only local and regional lines were allowed to continue unmolested.

Hankyu Railways serviced the area around Osaka, including a terminus at the tourist destination of Takarazuka. Already famous for its hotsprings, Hankyu president Ichizo Kobayashi felt that something more was needed to draw even that many more visitors. Looking to New York's Broadway and Parisian cabarets for inspiration, he created the Takarazuka Kagekidan in 1914. The revue, which still performs today under the auspices of Hankyu, was a unique form of all-female musical theatre. By 1924 they were popular enough to warrant their own Grand Theatre.

Photo from the inagural Takarazuka performance of Donburako in 1914.

One notable citizen of Takarazuka was a young Osamu Tezuka. As an adult, he would create some of Japanese pop culture's most globally beloved characters, such as Astro-Boy, Kimba the White Lion and Blackjack. Another of those characters was Princess Knight. Tezuka's mother befriended several Takarazuka Kagekidan members and he saw many of their performances, being captivated by the gender subversion implicit in the all-female cast. To this day, it is common and fairly normal for a Japanese girl's first crush to be one of the performers specializing in male roles. These issues were articulated in Princess Knight, one of the first "shoujo manga" comics written especially for women, about a girl born with conflicting impulses towards traditionally masculine and feminine roles. Takarazuka Kagekidan and its competitors also became the backdrop for the Sakura Wars franchise, about a troupe of Kagekidan performers who also use steam-powered battlesuits to fight demons in 1920's Japan. The franchise included video games, manga, anime and lavish Kagekidan-style live stage shows.

Still from a more modern Takarazuka performance of The Elegy of a White Flower from 1951.

Japanese Government Railways (JGR), like railway companies around the world, took upon itself the task of enticing tourists to visit the Island Empire. The government worked with private industry to create the Japan Tourist Association, and one of the results was a series of 14 high-quality tourist resort hotels throughout the country. The Kamikochi Imperial Hotel near Nagano was built in 1933 in the midst of "The Japanese Alps" and sports a National Parks Rustic flavour unique in Japan. Located in the coastal town of Gamagori, the Gamagori Hotel still offers lavish treatment. In a more traditional Japanese style, the iconic hotel now operated by the Prince chain has included the Emperors of Japan in its register.

Another urban hotel was the Tokyo Station Hotel, completed in 1914 along with Tokyo Station itself. The resolve to build the station came in 1896 but construction was not started until 1908 on account of the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars. Like many buildings of the Meiji period, it was built in a more European style utilizing red brick and arguable influences from the main station in Amsterdam. Much of the building was destroyed in the 1945 firebombings of Tokyo, but much has been preserved and the station still serves as busiest station in the city in terms of rail traffic. The first subway arrived in the Far East in 1927, being the Tokyo Metro Ginza Line. Two years before, Tokyo's main line, the Yamanote loop, was inaugurated.


Railways were not merely a mechanism for tourism, but for imperial expansion. It is no coincidence that the nationalization of the railways took place just after the close of the Russo-Japanese War. Doing so consolidated the lines for the purposes of military strategy. The Japanese government was responsible for building the railways in its captured territories, such as Korea, Taiwan, Sakhalin and Northeast China.

The workhorse engine of the JGR (later Japanese National Railways [JNR] and currently Japan Railway Group [JR]) was the D51 engine. Over 1,100 of these "Degoichi" were produced between 1936 and 1951, and were still in use on the northern island of Hokkaido and in parts of Russia until 1979. In the Japanese consciousness, it has become the archetypal steam locomotive.

Another popular engine was the C62, which were built in 1948 and 49, and which were the largest and fastest trains to operate in the country at the time. The engine achieved particular notoriety for being the engine behind Leiji Matsumoto's Galaxy Express 999.


The symbolic attributes of the steam train may be said to have entered the popular consciousness in the 1930's with the posthumous publication of Kenji Miyazawa's A Night on the Galactic Railroad. A melancholy rail journey in the wake of his sister's passing inspired his fairy tale about a pair of boys who take a train trip through the Milky Way, as along a shimmering, crystal river. This incredibly touching story in turn inspired Matsumoto to use a C62 engine as the basis for his own steam train trip through outer space, in which a boy is taken by a mysterious female companion on a self-reflective journey to receive a mechanical robot body.

Filmmakers also made use of the steam train's symbolic attributes. Yasujiro Ozu specialized in contemporary films in the post-war period, his most widely known being Tokyo Story (1953), and frequently involves the visual of a train. A series of languid panoramas of a sleepy coastal village open Tokyo Story, including one in which a charging freight train steams between picturesque tile rooftops. Here once more, the train can represent the linear inevitability of circumstance as conducts the middle class families of Ozu's films to their crises and turning points.

Historically, the shape of rail's introduction to Japan and its development into a tourism industry mirrors that of the West. Unlike the West, steam trains have taken on a symbolic strength that permeates the culture... Melancholy, wistful, an image of the voyage and sadness of life itself.

Top image: First Steam Train Leaving Yokohama by Baido Kunimasa, 1872.

This post originally appeared on Voyages Extraordinaires.