Off the Rails

Rural train lines, important lifelines for towns across Japan, are increasingly at risk of closing down.

Al Jazeera Correspondent | | Arts & Culture, Science & Technology, Japan, Environment, Asia

Japan has one of the fastest, most complex, and innovative train systems in the world, and train culture is

deeply engrained in Japanese life. 

As Japan rebuilt after World War II, it created a network of high-speed trains, bringing the country together, and linking the urban business centres of Tokyo and Osaka, and helping to establish Tokyo as one of the world’s first megacities. 

Ridership on Japan's rural train lines - once important lifelines for small towns across Japan - has declined as the country's overall population has decreased and the younger generation moved to urban areas. The privatisation of Japan's rail system in the 1980s has meant rural lines are increasingly at risk of closing as transportation shifts to buses and cars. 

Rural northern Japan was already struggling with a dwindling ridership when the earthquake and the ensuing tsunami of March 2011 destroyed train lines along the coast.

Osamu Shimomoto, a driver for the Sanriku Railway in Iwate Prefecture, was driving a train the day the tsunami swept away a large portion of the rail line his train was on. Luckily, he stopped at a place along the track that wasn't hit, and his passengers survived; but the tsunami washed away the stations ahead of and just behind his train. 

Shimomoto says the tsunami changed his life-long relationship with the sea. It took a long time before he could even approach the water's edge, though, eventually, he did make peace with the sea. For him and for the local area, the rebuilding of the Sanriku Railway was an important symbol of recovery. Other lines, however, in the north of the country have not been rebuilt and it remains uncertain whether they ever will be.

The concern about the future of rural lines in northern Japan is a sign not only of the uncertainty surrounding the recovery of the region, but also the important role that rural trains, and trains in general, play in Japanese society. 


Off the Rails: A Journey Through Japan


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