Protests Against Modernisation: How Japanese Authors Document Transportation Infrastructure

Trains and rail lines feature prominently in Japanese literature on modernization and growth, but writers are often critical of the ways in which new modes of transportation transform the areas around them.  In Murakami Haruki’s introduction to Sanshiro by Natsume Soseki, he describes the parallels between his life and the novel’s namesake, sixty years apart.  In 1908, Sanshiro travels for two days to reach Tokyo by steam train, while Murakami makes a similar trip in under four hours on the bullet train.1 Despite the difference in time and circumstances, their reactions to trains and descriptions of them in literature are strikingly similar.  Both Soseki and Murakami associate trains with the perils and confusion of modernity and the challenges posed by rapid technological change.  These literary depictions are not only allegorical, but reflect the reality of political protest against the consequences of modernizing transportation.

In Murakami’s 2014 novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, the train-obsessed Tsukuru sees trains and stations as spaces of possibility, beginnings, and endings, but the theme of transport is also associated with the character’s personal trauma and struggles with living in a modern world.  In the novel, trains provide snapshots of “modern” life and the struggles which come with it: “There was still some time before the train opened its doors for boarding, yet passengers were hurriedly buying boxed dinners, snacks, cans of beer, and magazines at the kiosk. Some had white iPod headphones in their ears, already off in their own little worlds. Others palmed smartphones, thumbing out texts, some talking so loudly into their phones that their voices rose above the blaring PA announcements… Everyone was boarding a night train, heading to a far-off destination. Tsukuru envied them. At least they had a place they needed to go to.”2 While trains symbolize the character Tsukuru’s internal turmoil, Murakami also uses physical proximity to trains to describes his own personal experiences of living in poverty.  He remembers that “ the National Railways’ Chūō Line ran by just below the window, which made it horribly noisy… We used to have long freight trains running by until the sun came up.”3 Not only do trains represent inner emptiness in his novel, but in his own life they are a physical manifestation of his financial circumstances in the 1970s.

Despite the separation between Murakami and Soseki, both authors associate the noise of trains with modernity, and characterize it as an unwanted inconvenience.  In contrast to Murakami’s noisy home, Sanshiro describes his University campus as being “extraordinarily quiet. Not even the noise of the streetcars penetrated this far.”4 While the expansion of transportation is often presented as a symbol of progress in historical accounts, Murakami and Soseki question whether the benefits of modernized transportation are truly positive for all.  In Sanshiro, a member of the University faculty exclaims, “They’ve built so damned many lines the past few years, the more ‘convenient’ it gets, the more confused I get.”5 His comment reveals the conflict between the convenience of modernization and the disorientation it generates.

The metaphorical associations between new modes of transportation and “confusion” in literature not only reflect the attitudes of certain communities towards government efforts of modernization, but are also effective forms of political protest.  In Nishiguchi Katsumi’s semi fictional account of the Japanese National Railway’s proposal of a new line connecting Tokyo and Kyoto, he describes the reactions of Kyoto residents who “are drawn in at first but gradually realize that they are about to lose their homes.”6 This is a process that repeats throughout history from the introduction of steam trains in 1872, street cars in 1903, and bullet trains in 1964, all of which rapidly changed the areas they connected and crossed.7 These continuous efforts to modernize transportation heavily impacted communities, but often their negative effects are overlooked in official discourse and historical narratives.8

Literary representations of transportation not only demonstrate its symbolic power, but they also document the impact on communities and the attitudes of citizens, serving as a form of protest.  In Sanshiro, “One streetcar line was to have run past the Red Gate, but the University had protested and it had gone through Koishikawa instead.”4 The University’s ability to lobby the government into redirecting the train line demonstrates the influence of powerful organizations to shape infrastructure, while also revealing the places which are powerless to avoid the disruption of their communities.  While the University remains quiet and undisturbed, other communities will be transformed and perhaps destroyed by the “noise” of modernization.  Nishiguchi’s account provides a case study of this situation fifty years later in 1958.  JNR’s plan for the proposed the line connecting Tokyo and Kyoto overlooked those “for whom the personal costs would be highest: people evicted from their homes and workplaces or condemned to life under the shadow of busy elevated tracks.”9 

While literature often seems detached from reality, the views of Soseki, Murakami, and Nishiguchi reveal that negative attitudes towards modern transportation networks existed for more than a century.  Rather than criticizing “modernisation” itself, their works address the human costs which exist in any fast-paced movement of modernisation. They provide insight into the effects of rapid technological advancement on communities with little political power and document the perspectives of those who don’t feature in historical narratives.

  1. Natsume Soseki, Introduction to Sanshiro (United Kingdom: Penguin Books Limited, 2009). []
  2. Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (London: Random House, 2014), 285. []
  3. Soseki, Introduction to Sanshiro. []
  4. Soseki, Sanshiro, Chapter 2. [] []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Jessamyn Abel, “Invisible Infrastructures of Protest in Kyoto,” in Dream Super-Express: A Cultural History of the World’s First Bullet Train (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2022), 20. []
  7. Ailsa Freedman, “Introduction,” in Tokyo in Transit : Japanese Culture on the Rails and Road (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 5-6; Abel, “Invisible Infrastructures of Protest in Kyoto,” 34. []
  8. Abel, “Invisible Infrastructures of Protest in Kyoto,” 20-21. []
  9. Abel, “Invisible Infrastructures of Protest in Kyoto,” 39. []