In the 1850s, Japan tepidly ended over two centuries of relative isolation. From the 1630s until that time, the Japanese had limited official trade to the Dutch and Chinese. Additionally, both groups were under tight control while in Japan. The Dutch were limited to the artificial island of Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor while the Chinese stayed in Nagasaki’s Chinatown. With the coming of the West came the arrival of the railroad. When American Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan a second time in 1854 to conduct negotiations for a treaty between the United States and Japan, he brought with him a quarter-scale steam locomotive. The Russians had brought their own steam locomotive to the country in 1853 during their negotiations with Japan. This was the very start of the history of railroads in Japan, the beginning of a long trajectory of innovation which would eventually lead to the shinkansen (‘bullet train’) and magnetic levitation.
The Japanese were enthralled. Even before the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the Japanese government (this would be the Tokugawa Shogunate) ordered Western-style steam engines. Before the opening of the country in 1853–1854, educated circles knew of this technology. From the eighteenth century onward, there was an intellectual movement known as rangaku (literally translated as ‘Dutch Studies’ but could be understood as ‘Western studies’). The Dutch were the key source for nearly all Western knowledge coming into Japan. The Tokugawa Shogunate, in the early eighteenth century, partially lifted the ban on importing Western materials into Japan. Basically, they wanted to keep Christian materials out of the country but had no problem with technological information passing through.
The presence of Western knowledge prior to the Meiji Restoration is significant in that it sheds valuable insights as to why it was such a success. It should also be noted that literacy rates in Tokugawa Japan were comparatively high as well. In the early Tokugawa period, cities were on the rise. Castles towns of the warring states era were transformed into regional administrative centers. Tokugawa Japan was an agrarian Confucian bureaucracy. Samurai, warriors who had been rural elites, moved into the cities and were expected to read and be influenced by the Confucian classics. An article in The Japan Times mentions the high literacy rates in the capital city of Edo (present-day Tokyo): “In the Edo Period, literacy rates in the city were about 80 percent for males and 25 percent for females, compared with the national average of 54 percent and 19 percent respectively — excluding the samurai and clergy.” This was the firm foundation on which the Meiji Restoration was predicated. If fact, one could say that the Meiji Restoration itself was merely the latest phase in this much longer process.
In any event, rail transport was introduced to Japan during the end of the Tokugawa period. Political infighting, partly as a reaction to the Tokugawa’s agreeing to unequal treaties with the West, destabilized the Tokugawa Government to the point that it was unable to continue. The last shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu stepped down in 1867, though his supporters did not immediately give up. The young Emperor Meiji was symbolically restored to power after centuries of the emperor being a distant ‘high priest of Shinto.’ In reality, it was his advisers who ran the government. The Meiji oligarchs, some of whom had been to the West (most notably Ito Hirobumi), sent many Japanese abroad while inviting Western experts to oversee developments in Japan.
Railroads had been a curiosity. In addition to Commodore Perry, British and Russian diplomats had railroads sent to Japan to demonstrate the power of steam technology. Tanaka Hisashige (1799–1881), an inventor and entrepreneur who would go on to found what would become the Toshiba Corporation, was fascinated by the steam engine set up by Russian diplomat Yevfimiy Putyatin in 1853. Hisashige was an curious and industrious student of Rangaku. He had used knowledge of Western technology to create various inventions since the 1820s (with the Myriad year Clock of 1851 being among the most notable). After seeing Putyatin’s steam locomotive, Hisashige turned his attention to creating the first steam locomotive built in Japan.
The development of railways in Japan moved beyond the experimental phase in the 1870s. The new Meiji Government enthusiastically supported the building of railroads throughout the country as the government sought modernization and centralization. Tokugawa Japan had been a proto-federal state while Meiji Japan was increasingly centralized in Tokyo. The first commercial railway lined opened between Shimbashi (Tokyo) and Yokohama in 1872.
As one can see from the above woodblock prints, the new technology quickly gained widespread appeal as the subject of artistic renderings. A traditional Japanese craft tradition was being used to celebrate the new technology of rail transport. Japan’s rail industry had gotten off the ground. However, the steam engines themselves would not be made in Japan for another couple decades. It was not until 1893 that the first commercial steam locomotive was made in Japan. Here we can see that the experiments of Tanaka Hisashige were way ahead of their time.