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Speeding Past a Receding World

Illustration of bullet train and mount fuji

This past June, during a three-day research trip across rural Yamanashi Prefecture, a friend and I visited a town called Hayakawa, nestled in the mountains 100 kilometers to the west of Tokyo. One of the least densely populated municipalities in Japan, Hayakawa is home to fewer than 1,000 people spread across 400 square kilometers (150 square miles) at the foot of the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps, the country’s tallest mountain range and one of its few true wildernesses completely devoid of roads and human habitation.

Over the past two years, my inquiry into post-growth cultures and depopulation has carried me to more than a hundred locales across Japan. I added Hayakawa to my itinerary after reading about a settlement here called Mogura, which the map I picked up at the municipal office fondly nicknamed “Machu Picchu.”

After an hour driving up a serene river valley, we turned off the main road and for twenty minutes slowly inched our car up a crumbling switchback shrouded in leaves and dappled with sunlight that trickled through the forest canopy. Eventually we emerged into a sunny clearing, home to a few dozen houses and a shinto shrine overlooking the valley.

This tightly-packed cluster of homes has occupied this slope several hundred meters above the valley floor since at least the 15th century. In 1968, Mogura was still home to 67 families who made their living from forestry and mining, but postwar economic growth caused young people to flock to the cities, and today, only 20 or so homes are still occupied by elderly residents. With the nearest elementary school some five kilometers away and nearly 500 meters below, no children have been born in the community since 1979.

Photo of mountains & villageAs my friend and I walked through the narrow passageways between the decaying homes, I acclimated to the unusual stillness and quiet. A few residents peered at us from inside their windows. Standing on a ridge above the settlement, the only sound we could hear was an elderly woman talking idly, perhaps in conversation with the natural world, as she tended a patch of turnips on the slope below. The scene seemed a fitting allegory, her words dissipating into the folds of the mountains that will soon swallow a half-millennia of human history and return this village to the wild.

photo of alleyLike thousands of other villages, Mogura is on the frontier of human de-habitation and re-wilding that is spreading across Japan; but civilization is not retreating completely from these hills. In December, construction began in Hayakawa on one of the deepest rail tunnels ever built, 1,400 meters below the peaks of the Alps. If completed in 2027, it will form a portion of the $50 billion first leg of a magnetically levitated bullet train known as the Linear Motor Car, or Maglev, that is expected to make the 286 km (178 mi) journey between Tokyo and Nagoya in just 40 minutes. Plans envision extending the line to Osaka by 2045.

It will be the fastest and most expensive rail line ever built, and has been called the “largest national project of the century.” Supporters have made the train a central tenet of Japan’s new growth strategy, arguing that it will give birth to a single megacity of 70 million people and secure Japan’s position at the forefront of the global economy and technological innovation. Opponents say it is an outdated and unnecessary boondoggle.

photo of Maglev train

It may sound as if it has arrived from the future, but the Maglev is anything but new. Despite only beginning full construction this year, the project was originally conceived a half century ago in the 1960s, when Japan’s first bullet train earned the nickname “the Dream Super-Express,” and the country was concerned with overflowing cities, not disappearing villages. At the time, growth seemed endless, its logic of acceleration self-evident.

sketched map of Japan & Maglev routeToday Japan is a different place. After a quarter-century of near-zero economic growth, the country is now confronting long-term demographic decline that will see the population drop from 128 million in 2010 to less than 100 million before the Maglev reaches Osaka.

There are many causes for skepticism, besides the fact that I’ve never heard anyone complain that the current two-hour Tokyo-Osaka journey takes too long. Inflated ridership projections conveniently ignored the impacts of a shrinking population, while environmental assessments glossed over the fact that the excavation of tunnels underneath the Alps will cause substantial environmental destruction and impact groundwater in some of the most pristine wilderness in Japan, in addition to crossing an active and highly dangerous fault line expected to experience a massive earthquake in coming decades. Moreover, few Japanese understand that Maglev trains use about three times as much electricity as conventional bullet trains, and that the system will consume the equivalent of the output of three to five nuclear reactors, despite strong public desire to reduce energy consumption and decommission reactors.

For supporters of the Maglev, however, the thirst for energy is by no means a demerit. Opponents have warned that the Maglev is a Trojan horse for nuclear power: Induced demand will help to convince the Japanese public, still skeptical five years after the Fukushima disaster, that restarting plants and producing more electricity is necessary to sustain the economy.

Similar to the U.S. military-industrial complex, overlapping institutional interests between Japan’s construction firms, energy companies, industrial conglomerates, and local and national politicians perpetuate a logic of unnecessary infrastructure investment, even in the face of shrinking population. The president of the privatized rail company building the line maintains a cozy relationship with the Prime Minister and many leaders in the electricity and construction industries, all of whom have a stake in keeping the economy growing.

. . .

I have crisscrossed every corner of Japan by rail, slowly filling in my mental map of the country in rich detail. My favorite thing about trains is the chance to peer outside and contemplate the world as I pass through, absorbing the gradual change from coastal to mountain and urban to rural as the landscape scrolls past my window and the tide of passengers ebbs and flows at intermediate stops. Every two places—even places as disparate as Tokyo and Mogura—are connected by the landscape in between.

But trains were not created for the contemplative pleasure of the idle passenger. Since their invention, trains have represented the conquest of space, and the Maglev was conceived as the ultimate weapon in modernity’s battle to reinvent—or eliminate—the landscape. It achieves the near-total disembodiment of transportation from geography: Because 90% of the route will be built in tunnels, this vertiginous contraption will provide almost no context or notion of physical space as it whisks passengers underneath the vanishing countryside before disgorging them in new terminals deep below increasingly homogenous megacities. There is no in-between, only destinations; no process, only results; and in this sense the Maglev’s effect on our experience of reality may be more analogous to the instantaneous communication of the Internet than an ordinary train.

History since the industrial revolution is a story of acceleration. I saw a striking ad in a train in Tokyo in 2011 that has stuck with me ever since. The bottom half of the vivid, hyper-saturated image showed successive generations of trains—from steam locomotive to electric train to sleek Shinkansen bullet train—accelerating out of the red furnace of prehistory into the blue sky of limitless progress. Above, the primordial silhouette of Mt. Fuji is followed by a cluster of construction cranes and iconic buildings—Tokyo Tower (1958), the Olympic Stadium (1964), Roppongi Hills (2003), and the SkyTree (2010)—symbolizing Japan’s postwar development until the present day.

ad for Maglev

The advertisement captured the ideology of postwar growth in an eloquent paragraph:

MADE IN DREAM
Back in the day, when Japan changed, the entire world would change. When the dream super-express began, our age accelerated along with it.
‘Made in Japan’ has the power to make dreams into reality. Surely, that power has not been lost today. The only thing we seem to have lost is our confidence. If anything, Japan as a country has grown up a bit. There are new things to work on, like the environment and culture. Nothing can begin if we stand still. Let’s talk again with our heads held high. Let’s start running towards a distant goal.
Japan is about to gain a new sense of speed and comfort.
We will make yet another dream into reality.

This faith in constant motion does not afford one the opportunity to enjoy the scenery and contemplate the present. The Maglev has survived concerns about its dubious utility not only because Japan’s construction-industrial complex stands to benefit, but also because the idea that “nothing can begin if we stand still” is still lodged in our collective consciousness. As Hiraku Shimoda wrote, reflecting on the 2011 ad, “Trains here are made to express a powerful faith in technology, the persistent pursuit of material progress, the state of Japan’s national self-esteem across the postwar continuum, and the urge to keep pushing Japan towards its historical destiny.”1

But after centuries of growth that have pushed our planet to the breaking point, towards what historical destiny is humanity still rushing at 500 km/h? Can this linear narrative of history as the triumph of technological progress over nature survive the wave of depopulation that is swallowing Mogura and now lapping at the shores of Tokyo, or the unfolding disaster of global warming?

As birthrates fall worldwide and we confront the limits to global ecosystems, we are faced with the unavoidable end of growth, even if there is no blueprint for a sustainable post-growth society. This future has already arrived in Japan, yet the nation’s leaders still argue that growth is a prerequisite for hope in the future and for arresting the trend of population decline—if that is the case, then we have little reason for hope indeed. The Prime Minister’s promise a few months ago to boost GDP to 600 trillion yen by 2020—20% more than today—was such baseless fantasy that even the leader of Japan’s largest commercial lobby called it “pure political grandstanding.” In the run-up to the 2020 Olympics, Japan may be going through the last gasp of this growth-above-all politics.

When we begin to think about the shrinking economy, depopulation, and re-wilding not as problems to be fixed but as realities to which we must adapt, we are confronted with the difficult but necessary task of reconsidering all our assumptions about capitalism and progress, starting with the belief that GDP growth is still a meaningful indicator of well-being in rich countries, and that nature is something to be conquered and dominated. Perhaps it would be better to stop brashly trying to grow towards a distant future and to start imagining new ways to live better with what we already have.

This is not to say that things should stay the same. Recognizing that the market economy can no longer grow would open the door to far more radical changes than the tired doctrine of neoliberalism—the reorganization of the economy around social and environmental goods.

Such a shift in mindset opens up a plethora of opportunities to make use of the abundance of the world around us and to find nourishment in the things, such as community and nature, that make us truly happy. I was inspired by many imaginative people on the post-growth frontier in Yamanashi, as I am whenever I travel across Japan: the young farmers who hosted me at their collective and sent me home with a box full of vegetables and local wine, the woman who moved from Tokyo and renovated a 100-year-old farmhouse into a guesthouse, the enthusiastic fourth-generation siblings carrying on a local miso factory, and a young activist working on revitalizing the community in a small city at the foot of Mt. Fuji.

I was encouraged by both the enduring traditional ways of life and the sprouting fields of solar panels—reminders that our current economic paradigm is only temporary, and that adaptation to the world as we find it is possible.

Most of all, I found peace in the deep and eternal forest surrounding Mogura, whose quiet embrace seemed to suggest that nature will welcome us back from our dreams of growth to the abundance of the ever-present now.


Sam Holden is currently a graduate student of Urban Studies at the University of Tokyo. A native of Denver, Colorado, he studied International Relations and Asian Studies at Pomona College. He writes on occasion about his life and ideas on Medium (https://medium.com/@samjapn) and is on Twitter at @samjapn.


Feature illustration by Alicia Brown
Photograph of mountainside, alleyway and map of Japan by author
Photograph of bullet train courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
“Made in Dream” ad original jreast-shinkansen.com


 

  1. Hiraku Shimoda, “‘The Super-Express of Our Dreams’ and Other Mythologies about Postwar Japan,” in Trains, Culture, and Mobility: Riding the Rails, Eds. Benjamin Fraser & Steven D. Spalding, 263-290 (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012), 285.

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