Japan: From Miniature Train to Bullet Train

Matthew C. Perry and the gift of the miniature train to Japan
(view the full image, image credit)

A long time ago, four black ships appeared off the coast of Japan, which had closed itself off from the world and its influences. These ships were from the US, and commanding them was Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who was instrumental in reopening Japan to the rest of the world.

As a result of this, and to promote a goodwill between the two countries, Perry gave various gifts to Japan, one of which was a one-fourth scale model train, in order to convincingly demonstrate the benefit of adopting Western technology:

Perry’s gifts aimed to foster trade and good relations between America and Japan by displaying the goodwill of the U.S. as well as its technological and cultural power. This fully operational Norris Works, one-fourth scale model train, complete with 350 feet of 18-gauge track, engine, tender, and car, represented one of these “triumphs of civilization”, which Perry used to influence the Japanese. Behind the Yokohama reception hall, the Americans assembled and operated the locomotive for the Japanese officials, some of whom rode by sitting on top of the car. (source)

Of course one of the things modern Japan is now famous for is its great rail system, the epitome of which is the world-renowned Shinkansen bullet train.

In contrast, being born and raised in Los Angeles, I’m painfully aware at America’s recent lack of progress in rail transportation, compared to Japan and the rest of the world. Part of this can be blamed on GM and other companies, which in the 1930s and 1940s purchased streetcar companies only to dismantle them. It’s the classic tradition of the big corporation buying up the smaller competition in order to stifle it. Unfortunately, as a result of this corporate selfishness, Los Angeles transportation is perhaps permanently handicapped. And currently it’s nearly impossible to live in LA without owning a car. And one of the wonderful benefits of owning a car is of course participating in the great modern innovation known as the traffic jam.

Thankfully, there are finally concrete plans of bringing a bullet train to California, to span Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Of course all of this comes decades behind the progress of the rest of the world, and far behind Japan, a country which we were so proud to introduce rail transportation to back in the day.

Perhaps Darth Vader, his own mask being Japanese-inspired, said it best: “The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but the learner; now I am the master.”