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Faculty Spring 2019: Jessamyn R. Abel

Speeding Bullet: A Cultural History of the World’s Fastest Train

Assistant Professor of Asian Studies

Speeding Bullet: A Cultural History of the World’s Fastest Train

On October 1, 1964, Japanese National Railways (JNR) started operating the world’s fastest train, connecting Tokyo and Osaka at unprecedented speed.  Opening on the eve of the Tokyo Olympics, the bullet train became a symbol of the “new” postwar Japan, celebrated in tourism posters, World’s Fairs, and JNR’s promotional materials as the fruit of Japan’s national spirit.  But the new line had a darker significance for those who had been evicted from their homes, had been pressured into selling their land, or were coping with damage to their local environment and communities. Speeding Bullet explains what the train meant to people in Japan and beyond to reveal the dynamic relationship connecting infrastructure with social and economic structures, international relations, perceptions of space, and the re-imagination of identity on the levels of individual, community, metropolis, and nation.  This story of progress through techno-bureaucratic planning on the one hand and exploitation of natural and human resources on the other echoes similar moments in the history of development in Japan and around the world. A cultural history of the bullet train—still the organizing backbone of domestic mobility in Japan and a global model for infrastructural development—illuminates the unintended effects (both positive and negative) of such projects.