Capsule: Intermodality and Beyond: For a New History of Mobility in Japan
By Kate McDonald, University of California, Santa Barbara
This post is the first installment of MHB’s capsule series, which is intended to highlight scholarly essays that originally appeared in the print edition of Mobility in History. The author has agreed to revisit the original article and adapt it into a shorter piece for the blog. Links to the original version, available at Berghahn’s MiH website, are located at the beginning and end of the post. -editors
“Intermodality and Beyond: Toward a New History of Mobility in Japan” appeared in Mobility in History 5 (2014). The article considers what the history of mobility has to offer the modern history of transport and social life in the Japanese archipelago. The article begins with an overview of the modern history of transportation in Japan. The second half turns to the possibilities that have emerged from new “other-modal” and intermodal histories.
As in other parts of the world, the concept of an exclusive “Japanese” society defined by a unique culture, history, and geography dates back only to the late eighteenth century. Traditional histories of transport in Japan adopt this historical notion of Japanese-ness as a transhistorical frame, and treat the story of transport as one piece of a larger story of Japan’s modern development. “Intermodality and Beyond” argues that the emergence of new other- and inter-modal histories presents rich possibilities for exploring the history of mobility in Japan as the story of constituting communities through transport rather than the operation of transport on a pre-constituted society. We have reached the point where a paradigm shift to transmodal and transnational histories of mobility is now possible.
General histories and textbooks on modern Japan typically list railroads as one of three technologies that formed the foundation of the modern state in Japan (the others are shipbuilding and the telegraph). The first railway was opened in 1872, between Tokyo’s Shimbashi Station and Yokohama. In 1906, stations and newspapers around the country celebrated the laying of the 5,000th mile of track with pageantry that linked the railway with Japan’s technological modernity and, in the wake of victory in the Russo-Japanese War, the country’s newfound place among the Great Powers (Nihon kokyū tetsudō 1989, 52).
Traditionally, scholars have treated the railway as a key actor in this larger drama of “cultural modernization.” The cultural modernization approach presents the railroad as both the result and the harbinger of widespread social and political change in late nineteenth-century Japan. As the eminent Japanese railway historian Harada Katsumasa argues, for the price of a ticket, the railway offered the “right of mobility” to all, in sharp contrast to the previous era, when modes of mobility had been restricted by status (1998, 2).
The cultural modernization approach treats the railway and its effects as one stage in a universal historical process of development. Two modes of critique have challenged this treatment of the railway. The first, represented by the work of literary scholar Maeda Ai (2004), argues that the railway signified not a step toward a universal “civilization and enlightenment” or value-neutral “cultural modernization,” but rather the state’s embrace of capitalism and the mobility of commodities. The railways reshaped mobility in the service of capitalism and imperialism. A second critique argues that there was no preconstituted “Japanese society” waiting to experience cultural modernization. Rather, these accounts, such as that by James A. Fujii (1999), shows how the concept of a Japanese public emerged from the novel milieu of the streetcar and the rail carriage itself.
Out of the critique of what Shimoda Hiraku calls the railroad as “Japan’s modern synecdoche” (2006, 263) have come “other-modal” mobility studies. A principal intervention has been to move the study of mobility out of Tokyo and out of the twentieth century. Historians of Tokugawa-era (1600-1868) travel have demonstrated that mobility did not begin with the modern period but rather constituted a key element of the Tokugawa political and social system. Other scholars have probed the history of urban mobility in Japan’s so-called “second cities” of Osaka, Sapporo, Kanazawa, Niigata, and Okayama. A second area of new research is the study of mobile communities – groups that self-define or can be defined by how they move rather than by their abstract geographic or temporal location. Scholars have turned to bicycles, rickshaws, and automobiles to explore how different transport modalities and inter-modalities constituted different kinds of communities in prewar and postwar Japan (LeBlanc 1999; Saitō 1978; Steele 2012).
The confluence of the new railway history and other modal transport history suggests that the history of transport in Japan is on the verge of a paradigm shift. Writing in 2009 for Mobility in History, Gijs Mom, Colin Divall, and Peter Lyth argued that mobility history is best understood as a project that will bring transmodal and transnational perspectives to the study of history. While scholars of transport in Japan have yet to embrace a mobility studies agenda, the critical mass of monomodal studies of transport in Japan can serve as the basis for future studies of mobility from an intermodal perspective. To fully engage the mobility studies project, however, we will have to use an intermodal approach to discover new, mobile communities that can serve as the subject of our histories. Future research should bring to light the rich and multivocal cultures of mobility that have shaped social life in and beyond the Japanese archipelago.
To access the full version, available online in the Mobility in History print edition digital archives, follow the link.
Fujii, James A. “Intimate Alienation: Japanese Urban Rail and the Commodification of Urban Subjects.” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 11, no. 2 (1999): 106-33.
Harada Katsumasa. Tetsudō to kindaika. Tokyo: Yoshikawa kōbunkan, 1998.
LeBlanc, Robin. Bicycle Citizens: The Political World of the Japanese Housewife. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
Maeda Ai. “Panorama of Enlightenment.” In Text and the City: Essays on Japanese Modernity. Edited by James A. Fujii. Translated by Henry D. Smith II. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.
Mom, Gijs, Colin Divall, and Peter Lyth. “Toward a Paradigm Shift? A Decade of Transport and Mobility History.” In Mobility and History: The State of the Art in the History of Transport, Traffic, and Mobility. Edited by Gijs Mom et al. Neuchâtel: Alphil, 2009.
Nihon kokuyū tetsudō. Nihon kokuyū tetsudō hyakunen shi tsū shi . Tokyo: Nihon kokuyū tetsudō, 1974.
Saitō Toshihiko. Jinrikisha. Tokyo: Sangyō gijutsu sentâ, 1979.
Shimoda Hiraku. “’The Super-Express of Our Dreams’ and Other Mythologies about Postwar Japan.” In Trains, Culture, and Mobility: Riding the Rails. Edited by Benjamin Fraser and Steven D. Spaulding. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006.
Steele, M. William. “The Speedy Feet of the Nation: Bicycles and Everyday Mobility in Modern Japan.” Journal of Transport History 31, no. 2 (2012): 182-209.