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Plans for a Japanese consortium to construct a shinkansen link between Taiwan’s two biggest cities will showcase Tokyo’s technology and “railway diplomacy.” Both have been running virtually nonstop and on schedule since 1872, when the first line connecting Tokyo’s Shimbashi station to Yokohama opened.

Some alarmist analysts see Japan’s new railway moves leading to a resurgence of Tokyo’s political influence in Asia, even though Japan’s no-war Constitution deprives any such thrust of military protection.

The new line linking Taipei and Kaohsiung — 345 km in about 90 minutes when it goes into operation in 2005 — would cost about $3 billion and would involve giant Japanese conglomerates Mitsui and Co., Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Toshiba Corp. and Kawasaki Heavy Industries.

The decision has been made to award the contract to the Japanese consortium but a European group claims it had been given word earlier that it would get the job. A disastrous accident in 1998 involving a German high-speed train and reconsideration of geographic features on the route were said to have cooled Taiwan on the European entry.

The Kyodo News Agency reported that Taiwan media have said that the decision to grant Taiwan Shinkansen Co. the priority rights was made after President Lee Teng-hui received a promise that would allow him to visit Japan after he leaves office in May. Presidential elections are scheduled March 18. Lee, who graduated from Kyoto University during Japan’s colonial rule of Taiwan, has been unable to visit Japan due to political pressure from Beijing.

Transport Minister Toshihiro Nikai visited China for talks with Chinese officials last week, ostensibly to lobby for Japan’s bid to build a high speed bullet-train link between Beijing and Shanghai, a 1,310 km route that would cost $12 billion. There was speculation that Nikai’s role was also to appease Beijing over Japan’s deal with Taiwan.

The railway 100 years ago came to exemplify Japanese apprehensions of the relationship between modernity in the West and Japan and its empire. Soon the railway’s expansion provided the spine and lifeline of Japan’s colonial empire in Asia and infrastructure of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” which came to an abrupt end in 1945.

The locomotive had emerged in the Meiji period as the symbolic icon of civilization and progress.

“By the end of the Meiji period, the railway was regarded as the pre-eminent agent of modernization,” wrote Carol Gluck in “Japan’s Modern Myths: Ideology in the Late Meiji Period.” In the early decades of colonial rule, this Western import acquired an imperial cachet, as Japan built railways in Taiwan and Korea, and expanded the South Manchurian network taken over from Russia.

There also have been dramatic setbacks. The legendary “Bridge Over The River Kwai,” part of the infamous “death railway” linking Burma and Thailand was one. Japanese prewar hopes to run a train dubbed “Pusan to Paris” from Pusan at the end of the Korean Peninsula through Seoul, Pyongyang and Beijing never materialized. The idea was further set back by the dividing of the Korean Peninsula.

Magazines for railway buffs abound in Japan. There is one that celebrates the possibility of linking Japan to the Asia mainland by way of a tunnel from Fukuoka to Pusan. The line’s strategic aspects are a favorite arguing point among armchair pundits.

In the long run, Japan’s “railway power” could play a role in Asia’s new century that will be more significant than that of China’s missiles.

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