Strategical, no less than business, considerations have been taken into account by the Japanese government in constructing its lines of railway. The great aim was to connect the two capitals, Tōkyō and Kyōto. As a first step, work was begun on the eighteen miles separating Tōkyō from Yokohama as long ago as the year 1870, with the assistance of English engineers; and the line was opened in 1872. Kōbe and Ōsaka were then connected, and other short pieces followed, the inter capital trunk line being delayed by various causes. Japan is not naturally suited to railway construction: the country is too mountainous; the streams-mere beds of sand to-day-are tomorrow, after a heavy rain, wild surging rivers that sweep away bridges and embankments. For these reasons, the idea of carrying the Tōkyō-Kyōto railway along the Nakasendō of the country, which would have been far better in time of war, as being removed from the possibility of an attack from the seaside, fell through, the engineering difficulties proving insuperable. The only alternative was to follow the Tōkaidō, the great highway of Eastern Japan, which skirts the coast along the narrow strip of flat country intervening between the foot of the hills and the Pacific Ocean. This work was completed, and the thousandth mile of railway opened, in the summer of 1889. The total mileage had increased to 4,237 at the end of March, 1903. The most difficult line constructed was that opened for traffic in 1893, between Yokohama and Karuizawa, on the way from Tōkyō to Naoetsu. It leads over a steep mountain pass called the Usuitōge, and the inclination is 1 in 15 for a length of five miles, three miles of which are in tunnels all cut through rock. The train is taken up the pass by "Abt" engines, which have a cogwheel working on a rack-rail laid between the ordinary rails.
Japanese railway enterprise, although started by the government, is now far from being exclusively in official hands. Companies, on the contrary, are numerous, some private, others more or less under government shelter and patronage. The most important is the Nippon Tetsudo Kwaisha ("Japan Railway Company"), which owns the main line running north to Aomori. Next to it come the Kyūshū Railway, and the Sanyō Railway which owns the main line running along the northern shore of the Inland Sea. The total mileage of the various private lines aggregates nearly three-quarters of the whole given above.
Reduced to its simplest expression, the Japanese railway system practically consists of one long trunk line from Aomori in the extreme north to Shimonoseki in the south-west, together with two large branches connecting each capital with the fruitful provinces of the west coast, minor branches to various points in the two metropolitan districts, and local lines in the islands of Kyūshū, Shikoku, and Yezo.
Notwithstanding the natural obstacles to be overcome and the destructive climate, the Japanese lines of railways have been cheaply built, because labour is cheap; and they already pay fairly well. In round numbers, the cost to government since 1872 of construction and equipment has been 125,000,000 yen. The profits on the railways, both government and private, have increased steadily year by year. The net profit to government for the financial year ending the 31st March, 1903, was 9,270,000 yen. The total number of passengers carried during the same period of twelve months over the government lines was 31,897,000; the total freight was 3,200,000 tons. On the private lines the passengers numbered 78,121,000, and the total freight was 12,987,000 tons. The proportion of the receipts per cent on the government lines was as follows:-passenger receipts, 66.54 per cent; goods 31.83; miscellaneous, 1.63. The low proportion of goods receipts, which will surprise persons whose experience has been gained in England, India, or the United States, is easily explained by geographical conditions, Japan's immense coast-line and the lofty mountain-ranges that cut up the greater portion of the surface being reasons that dictate, and must continue to dictate, a preference for water-carriage over carriage by rail. The most formidable obstacle in the way of Japanese railway enterprise is that conflicting interests and local intrigues are apt to render the law of expropriation for public benefit little more than a dead letter. The extension of the Inland Sea Line (Sanyō Tetsudō) was long impeded by this cause, as capitalists could not afford to buy land at the preposterous price demanded by the owners. Perhaps, after all, an instinct of self-preservation sometimes guides these obstructionists. Experience on the Tōkaidō, on the "Pilgrim Line" to Ise, on the way to Nikkō, everywhere in fact, has shown conclusively that though some of the larger cities profit by the railways, and though the empire as a whole profits, their approach has sounded the death-knell of the smaller country towns. In old walking and jinrikisha days, every little town and village along the chief highways was bustling and prosperous. Now their shops are empty, their merry inns deserted; for their former customers are whirled past them without stopping.
We have alluded to the trouble caused by the capricious nature of Japanese rivers. Japan is perhaps the only country in the world where a railway may be obliged to go under a river instead of over it. In the district between Kōbe and Ōsaka and also near Lake Biwa, almost all the rivers tend to raise their beds above the level of the surrounding fields, owing to the masses of sand and pebbles continually carried down by their rapid current. The river-bed thus stands athwart the flat strip of country between the mountain and the sea as a sort of wall or dyke, and the only thing to do is to take the line underneath it by a tunnel, when the wall is of sufficient height to give headway for the train. Every now and then one of these river-banks bursts, the whole country-side is flooded, and the railway department of course put to heavy expense. Apart from such exceptional cases, the recurrence of torrential rains, typhoons, and earthquakes causes havoc which almost every year throws the system into temporary disorder.
The Japanese railways are narrow gauge,-three feet six inches. The rates are extremely low. One may travel first class in Japan more cheaply than third class in an English parliamentary train. Nevertheless the percentage of first and even second-class passengers is small, the two together only forming seven per cent of the entire number carried. The check system for luggage is in force. Sleeping and dining-cars (European food) have recently been introduced on some of the longer lines. On the others-in the absence of refreshmentrooms-neat little boxes of native food, and drinks of various kinds, are hawked about at the principal stations.
Despite such conveniences, a railway journey in this country is apt to be anything but a joy. Owing to some cause not yet explained, the Japanese who, when abiding in their own native ways, are the very pink of neatness, become slipshod, not to say dirty, when introduced to certain conditions of European life. On stepping into even a first-class car, one as often as not has to pick one's way among orange-peel, spilt tea, cigar ends, beerbottles overturned. The travellers are wallowing semi-recumbent along the seats, in untidy habiliments and dishabiliments. We have even seen a man-he was a military officer, and his dutiful spouse assisted him-change all his clothes in the car, though to be sure he availed himself of a friendly tunnel for the more adventurous portion of the enterprise. On another recent occasion, being ourselves somewhat short-sighted, we could not at first make out the nature of the occupation of an old gentleman who had just finished a good lunch. Closer scrutiny showed that he held his artificial teeth in his hand, and was busy picking and wiping them! Then, too, there is inordinate crowding, and whole batches of second-class passengers are, on the slightest provocation, transferred to the first. In fact, the whole thing is queer and unpleasant, unless of course the traveller be a philosopher to whom every novel experience supplies welcome material for meditation. Such a philosopher will perhaps enquire the reason of the stripe of white paint across the windows of the third-class cars on certain lines. It is a precautionary measure adopted for the safety of country bumpkins; for it has happened that some of these, lacking personal experience of glass, have mistaken it for air, and gashed themselves horribly in the attempt to shove their heads through what, in their innocence, they supposed to be that non-resisting medium.
The nomenclature of many Japanese railways is peculiar. The Ō-U line, for instance, is so called because it runs through the northern provinces of Rikuzen, Rikuchfi, and Rikuoku, which together anciently bore the name of Ōshū, and the provinces of Uzen and Ugo. Thus the first syllable of each of these words is taken. The Ban-Tan line, connecting the provinces of Harima and Tajima, receives its name from the fact that the first of the two Chinese characters employed to write the word Harima is pronounced Ban in other contexts, while the first character of Tajima is properly Tan, though not so pronounced in this particular instance. Perhaps this may make the European tyro's head swim, but to the Japanese it appears perfectly plain and simple.
Japan has now its "Bradshaw," under the title of Ryokō Annai, published monthly. The rapid swelling of this useful periodical from half-a-dozen pages to two fat little volumes is a striking index of Japan's material progress.
Book recommended - The Annual Report of the Imperial Railway Department.