Shinkansen & the Myth of Progress

by | London, UK

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

tags: art & design, asia, emergence, making sense, semiotics, socioeconomics, technology


What travels with the stealth of a Lexus and at Formula 1 speed and has a hospitality trolley? The Shinkansen, literally meaning “new trunk line” but very quickly dubbed bullet train by Western pundits, is an important semiotic property in Japan. The Super Express is a talisman that keeps Japan moving literally and mythically.

According to Wikipedia: “The Tōkaidō Shinkansen is the world's busiest high-speed rail line. Carrying 151 million passengers a year (March 2008),[4] it has transported more passengers (over 4 billion, network over 6 billion)[5] than any other high speed line in the world”

These sleek trains were inaugurated in 1964 – a blue riband year for the Japanese in that it, very much like the 2008 Beijing Olympics, seemed to set the seal on the Japanese post war resurgence. Travelling at over 210km per hour, it was by far the fastest rail transport then available and must have impressed travelling visitors as to how far Japan had come. Whilst no longer on its own as the fastest train in the world (the French TGV is faster and China have a Maglev which travels at 420kmph, though the Japanese still hold the record for the fastest ever maglev), the Shinkansen is still a paragon of silent speed and service, with spotless safety record.

Japan has a fleet of over 1500 Shinkansen trains that criss cross Japan every day taking Japanese businessmen from Tokyo to Osaka or reuniting families over the Golden Week or Obon holidays. The speed and perfect punctuality of the Shinkansen certainly seem to the outside observer as a reminder of the robust infrastructure underpinning Japan despite the long term recession and the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear radiation leak. It is the most palpable sign of technological prowess in a country that has lost some of its reputation for being vanguardist and visionary. It almost seems as if the Shinkansen train functions as an eternal rebuke to these doubts. It says something that the names of these trains depending on how often they stop on the trunk line, NOZOMI (meaning hope), HIKARI (meaning light) and SAKURA (cherry blossom) represent positive and galvanizing messages to the Japanese passenger and the public at large. The Shinkensen is a project that subject to continual renewal – the trunk line has just been extended into Kyushu and there are plans to build and extension to the most Northern island of Hokkaido as well as to upgrade the Tohoku line to faster speeds.

As goes the Shinkansen line so goes progress in Japan.

What is most noticeable about the representation of the Shinkansen is the idea of forward progress through sleekness and contemporaneity of its plastic design profile.

From the needle like fierceness of the grey and blue 500 series to through the latest pantograph platypus billed 500 series to the outrageous, exaggerated nose cone of the E5, the design of Shinkansens, despite owing partly to aerodynamic logic is becoming increasingly aggressive; each design seeming to outdo its predecessor. The E5 being advertised as “Made from Dream” is actually positioned as more like a transatlantic or private airliner than a train – the seats will be lavishly upholstered and service to match – it is true that Shink travel has the best of flight without the hassles.

Advertising by JR lingers languidly on the flaring and scalloped flanks of the train nose cones. The new 700 series and the coming E5 have become the centerpiece of promotional work that focuses not on where you’d want to travel but simply on riding this train. A pamphlet for a season ticket shows in aerial shot the immensity of the front section – like a sperm whale’s head with the sly concision of the canopy hood set off against the albumen like fuselage looking like something out of Star Wars.

Another JR poster shows two E5s gracefully passing each other against a black background almost like two automated swans gliding on the tracks. Grace and functionality: two underlying values that are most prized in Japanese aesthetics.

The thorax of the beast is very rarely shown. A semiotic perspective would suggest this is because the sinewy, muscular design of the Shinkansen seems totemic of the notion of forward propulsion. Shinkansen is an index for the future or at least a very strong metaphor for forward progress and a belief that the future is bright. On the pamphlet showing the E5 the arrows, pure indexes (as Peirce said, the sign that signifies not be convention but by blind compulsion), relate to the idea of speed but also to the idea of a smart card being a progressive idea for the new generation.

My recent trip shows that the Japanese government and local tourist centres are assiduously promoting domestic tourism. Shinkansen ads in 2012 carry a new slogan that say (Nihon ni Tsunagou – “let’s join up Japan”) and on the flank of a Joetsu line Shinkansen was a message of hope to stricken prefectures of the Tohoku region. though Japan already perhaps the most comprehensive train coverage in the world.

There is clearly a lot of goodwill towards the Shinkansen in popular culture. You can buy Shinkansen chocolates in long tubes at station shops, there is also a book and DVD made for children that goes through the chronology of the Shinkansen, the successive series and how they are assembled with a cockpit view. There is even a Shinkansen museum, I believe in Nagoya, where you can see the original 0 series snub nosed 1964 trains and learn about the background and the original blueprints.

Whilst there has been some disruption to services and may be some trouble on the line ahead, nation Japan does not seem to be hitting the buffers quite yet and the Shinkansen – a bullet (train) that tapers at both ends – is a powerful semiotic force that acts as both persistent proof of this and as a motivating impetus into the future.

 © Chris Arning  2012

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