Regional Transport Crisis

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Hiroaki Oshima

    Main guest

    Hiroaki Oshima works for a private think tank conducting research related to the logistics environment and evaluating the actual state of logistics. In response to Japan’s recent lack of truck drivers, he is engaged in consulting work focusing on truck driver safety and how to reduce drivers’ long working hours and improve their working environments.

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March 20, 2018

Regional Transport Crisis

*You will leave the NHK website.

For decades, rail was the dominant form of transport for both people and freight in Japan. But while trains and subways still enjoy healthy ridership in Japan's urban centers, regional rail is another story. Competing forms of transportation like cars, buses, and airplanes, plus Japan's shrinking population—and concentration of the population in major cities—means regional rail lines are facing a crisis. We dive into the details of that crisis, and what rail companies are doing to combat it, on this edition of Japanology Plus.

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Japan's shrinking population is making the operation of regional lines like this one a challenge.

For a first-hand look, host Peter Barakan visits the northern island of Hokkaido with transportation expert guest Hiroaki Oshima. Regional rail in Hokkaido, where the population is sparse outside the city of Sapporo, has seen a decline in ridership over the years. Hokkaido was the setting of a news story that made waves on social media in 2016, when it was reported a station there was being kept open for a single high school student until her graduation. The story turned out to have some errors—for starters, it turns out there were about 10 students riding the train, not one—but it did highlight how dire the situation is for some of these regional rail lines.

Throughout the program, we get a look at regional lines in operation. Look closely at the shot of a Meisho Line car pulling into the station in Mie Prefecture (it appears about eight minutes in) and you'll spot a couple of camera-wielding men at the end of the platform. Train-loving hobbyists like these, who sometimes travel long and far to get a snap of a rare train, are known colloquially in Japanese as tori-tetsu (tori meaning "take," as in photos, and tetsu meaning "train"). These enthusiasts, as well as their counterparts like nori-tetsu (people who enjoying riding trains), oto-tetsu (those who love their sounds), etc., reflect the deep affinity that Japan has for train travel. Closure of local train lines causes practical transportation problems to be sure, but one gets the feeling there is definitely some sentimentality wrapped up in this crisis as well.

(As a side note, Japanese language learners may get a kick out of the notice written on many of the train cars featured in the program. Those who can read katakana syllabary will notice trains operated by a single conductor are called "one-man"—in English, no less. The use of this phrase in Japan extends beyond just trains: for example, concerts played by a single band, with no warm-up acts, are referred to as "one-man live.")

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Host Peter Barakan and expert guest Hiroaki Oshima in Hokkaido.

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 "One-man" (that is, operated by a single driver) is written in katakana on several of the train cars in the program.


Rail companies are employing a number of strategies to stay in operation. We get a look at some of these in the program, including turning train cars into luxury, cruise-style liners to attract those with disposable income, and even selling snacks to subsidize train maintenance.

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One line featured on the program sells special rice crackers to pay for maintenance.

Such attempts are under way throughout the country. One colorful example is a train line in Akita Prefecture that passes by special rice fields, in which multi-colored stalks are arranged into works of art. Another line, which connects Aomori and Akita Prefectures, offers stunning views of the sea—and during less exciting parts of the journey, features live musicians playing traditional Japanese music. And in Wakayama Prefecture, a statin on a 14.3-kilometer rail line has attracted tourists from around the world by appointing a local stray cat as its honorary stationmaster.

Efforts like these appear to be having at least some effect. While a recent survey of 70 local rail companies showed a fall in ridership from 1992 to 2010, ridership among those 70 firms actually began to inch back up starting in 2011—and some regional areas have even seen the opening of new light rail systems using available infrastructure.

As Japan's population shrinks, not every regional line will be able to stay in operation. But as we learn on Plus One, that doesn't necessarily mean the end for sentimental train fans. Guide Masuo Shinohara takes Matt Alt along a former rail line that's been converted into a walking route where one can see many remnants of the line that once was. Regional rail lines whose operation is no longer feasible could certainly do worse than this kind of commemoration.

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On Plus One, Matt Alt visits a historical track converted into a walking route.

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Some regional rail lines may face closure, but Japan's passion for trains means they likely won't be forgotten.

*You will leave the NHK website.