Amid the excitement over the first ever shinkansen from Tokyo to Hokkaido on March 26, this is a great time to reflect on some of the fascinating and tragic history behind this rail link.

The bullet trains will run through the deepest undersea rail tunnel in the world, the Seikan Tunnel, which connects Aomori and Hakodate, Hokkaido. Although 34 workers were killed during the Seikan’s 17-year construction (1971-1988), only 10 percent of travelers between Honshu and Hokkaido use this tunnel, with the majority opting to go by plane. Why then did Japan build this enormous and underutilized tunnel at such great cost?

In fact, the decision to link Honshu and Hokkaido by tunnel was heavily influenced by a major tragedy.

In 1953, the Toya Maru ferry, which ran between Hakodate and Aomori, was disabled by a powerful typhoon and drifted helpless, beaching near Hakodate where it capsized in huge waves. Of the 1,309 people on board, only 150 survived. Four other ferries also sank in the same typhoon, bringing the total loss of life to 1,430 souls. This multiple tragedy spurred construction of the Seikan rail tunnel.

As we enjoy the new bullet train link to Hokkaido, (and I hope to soon!) it is worth reflecting and feeling grateful for the infrastructure that affords us such convenience, comfort and safety.

Looking forward, it is fitting that infrastructure born from tragedy should help heal a more recent one. As the new shinkansen link is comparable in time and cost to air travel, it should greatly increase train passenger numbers and provide some much-needed spinoff economic benefit to the tsunami-devastated Tohoku region. From tragedy comes innovation, hope, and a brighter, better, safer future for us all.

Thomas Ball

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.

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