Tokyo, Ishioka, and Hokota, March 28 and April 4-5, 2009
Old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork—I love such things. These scenes made me a painter.
Let the train take the strain
Saturday, March 28, marked the first day of nationwide discounting on the expressways, whereby drivers with vehicles equipped with a electronic toll collection device (some 77% of all vehicles are so equipped, apparently) will essentially be able to drive from anywhere to anywhere in Japan for a flat Y1,000 toll at the weekend and on national holidays. It’s a little more complex than that—in the Tokyo metropolitan area and the Kyoto-Osaka-Nagoya sprawl there are additional, albeit reduced, charges, but still the discounts on offer, which will last until spring 2011, are very substantial. The official line is that the government began planning the discounts last summer as the price of gasoline spiralled ever higher; that the plans were not iced as gas prices came down has I suspect more to do with the desire to combat the (anyway increasingly unelectable) DPJ’s policy of abolishing the tolls completely and, incidentally, adding the Y35trn in debt on the books of the Japan Expressway Holding and Debt Repayment Agency onto the national government’s debt pile. A trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon… The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism (MLIT) has “allocated” Y500bn (about $5.17bn) for the toll cuts, reports The Japan Times, by which I suspect the rag means “anticipates Y500bn less in revenue”. I did a quick once-over of that figure with the calculator and it looks reasonable, although I had thought it would be optimistic. Of course, with this kind of scheme, there’s the inevitable crowding out of the private sector—West Japan Railway, for example, slashed the fares on its lucrative Sanyo shinkansen line between Osaka and Fukuoka, which subsidizes its many loss-making lines, by around 40%, an irony that will be revealed later. Economic crises naturally put environmental policy on the backest of back-burners: I wonder if anyone in government calculated what the net negative CO2 impact of the toll cuts was likely to be. Not to mention the extra physical stress put on the expressway system: sitting in a jam on the elevated expressways that carve through Tokyo and that were mostly built around the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, I shiver as they sway with the changing weight of their loads. The photos of the sections of the (much more modern) elevated expressways that collapsed in the 1995 Hanshin earthquake are enough to convince that they are the very last places you want to be when the big one hits. Likewise, did anyone ponder, I wonder, the impact on Japan’s current account balance, increasingly in deficit: the boost in oil imports that will result, with zero or negligible contribution to exports. That the discounts are open only to people like me and millions of others with electronic toll collection devices has caused some grumpiness and a boom (my how Japan loves its booms, however increasingly sad they are) in sales of said devices, and a scarcely noticed but parallel opening up of expressway entrances and exits only open to vehicles equipped with the devices. The government’s goal appears to be to have the device penetration rate somewhere above 90% very soon so that it can make redundant almost all of the toll collectors and speed the passage of traffic though the snake-swallowing-a-boar profiles of the tollgates.
No matter (or perhaps more properly “whatever”), the toll cuts seem to have been popular, in contrast to the Y12,000-Y20,000 stimulus handout that is supposed to be popping through the letterboxes of the land any day now, although one wonders why. Perhaps some of the answer lies in the language adopted for the near-cash handouts: “teigaku kyofukin” (fixed-sum benefits), which understandably makes everyone feel like they’re living on welfare. Not that the toll cuts aren’t merely a different kind of welfare, but at least they come wrapped with the promise of a bargain, which people find hard to resist.
On the Friday before the toll cuts were introduced, the increasingly Orwellian NHK News anticipated heavy traffic, but on the Saturday evening they reported that although flow volumes were up 50%-100% at various measuring points, congestion was no more severe than on a normal Saturday. Quite how the laws of physics were defied in this way went unreported. The official line now is that the measure is designed to boost regional economies, and goodness knows they could do with it. I can see a measure of sense behind that explanation, although from breathless NHK News accounts of long queues at restaurants serving sanuki udon, a specialty of Kagawa Prefecture on Shikoku, and interviews with a family who had driven several hundred kilometers from Nagoya just to slurp down some udon, the cost of the gasoline for this kind of jaunt is going to far exceed the Y1,200-Y2,000 injected into the local economy from a meal for four at some hole-in-the-wall udon place. Let’s hope that people will also take advantage of the discounts to fill up the provincial ryokan inns and minshuku guesthouses, too, for some real regional spending.
I decided in my occasionally contrarian way that the discounts provided a perfect point of arbitrage onto Japan’s railway system for the next trip down the benjo, which was anyway to be to a recently forsaken railway. The Kashima Tetsudo line ran between two smallish towns in southern Ibaraki Prefecture until almost precisely two years before I boarded the 10:30 Fresh Hitachi No. 17 at Tokyo’s Ueno station on the Joban line bound ultimately for Takahagi, right at the top of Ibaraki and 163km away, but due to deliver me to Ishioka in the south of the prefecture and 80km from Ueno, in just 55 minutes. Some but not all of the East Japan Railway E653 trains that run the Fresh Hitachi route were made by Hitachi Seisakusho, the subject of our previous installment; I didn’t have the nous to find out whether either of the two that I rode were.
This was the longest train ride I’d taken in Japan in nearly a decade, which shows both how little I have been venturing out of my cocooned existence inside the Yamanote line in central Tokyo and how much I adore my Honda S2000. Just getting to Ueno station, which is far from my normal beat, and to the train itself, involved a Monsieur Hulot-like collision with the complexities of the rail and subway systems: tickets swallowed up because I was using the wrong exit gate, several minutes of anxiety at Akihabara station as the Yamanote line platform I needed seemed to have disappeared into the ether, and complete bafflement at how to buy tickets for the Fresh Hitachi from the ticket machine at Ueno.
Finally settled into my seat, I was free of the fretting and able to marvel anew at the wonders of Japanese trains; from a seat in an E653, Japan feels like a very comfortable and comforting place to be. The “shisa kanko” (pointing and calling, as it’s dully called in English)
of the pale-green liveried cleaning team, who turned the train around (almost literally—they reverse the direction of every seat so no one has to face the discomfort of riding backwards) in twenty minutes, performed as a group, was truly a sight to behold. “Yoshi!” they chant in unison at the culmination of the shisa kanko – “everything’s OK!” The interminable series of recorded announcements soothe like aloe, especially when delivered by the dulcet disembodied feminine tones of almost perfect British received pronunciation delivering American English (“cars five through eight”). The woman wheeling a cart down the aisle, selling snacks on the way out and omiyage souvenirs on the way back, and the perfection of her bow on the way in and out of every carriage—what a world we are away from, say, a First Great Western intercity service pulling out of London’s Paddington station. The awe that washed over me at the speed with which we threaded our way through the vast sprawl of northeastern Tokyo made me feel, in a wholly pleasant way, like I was fresh off the boat again.
And yet, and yet; at Ueno there were the first telltale signs of decay. The platform next to the one from which we departed had been abandoned, the rails removed, leaving only the ties in place.
The train was only half-full on the way out, perhaps a third-full on the way back, passenger load rates that would have railroad managers in other countries breaking out in a cold sweat, although I’m willing to concede that the expressway toll cuts may have been partly to blame. Mesmerized, I gazed intently out of the window for entire duration of the journey, and on the way back realized, as a house here or a bicycle there looked strangely familiar, that I’d digested huge chunks of the landscape in the intensity of my gaze.
Down on Shutter Street
Disembarking at Ishioka, the first priority was food, so I headed down the shotengai, the commercial streets that lead off almost all stations of any size. I had chosen Ishioka as a destination not because I expected the town itself to be a symbol of desolation, but simply because it seemed the easier of the two towns that were once linked by Kashima Tetsudo line to reach. I was shocked, therefore, to find the shotengai here too in a state of near-complete devastation, with at most a quarter of the shops and small businesses left open and the rest mostly either shuttered, empty but unshuttered with forlorn “Tenants wanted” signs in the windows, or most poignantly of all, left much as they had been on their last day of operation. I found this unagi eel restaurant, with its weather-beaten tanuki raccoon-dog a reminder of jollier times, particularly affecting.
From the relative newness of the carpet, it looks as though this place may have been one of the last to fall. As I was setting the photo up, a gaggle of elementary school kids appeared out of nowhere doing a quiz that took them around town. One of the girls eyed me for a moment before exclaiming “Gaikokujin da!” (It’s a foreigner!) Perhaps her pause was caused by her crossing off a mental checklist of my features—curiously pinky pale skin, check, oddly round, deep-set eyes, check, strangely un-black hair, check, yep must be one of them, then. This was a real throwback of an encounter, as no child has had the temerity to state this particular slice of the bleeding obvious to my face since my early days in Japan in the rural mountain fastness of Nagano Prefecture, and served as a reminder, as if one were needed by this stage, that although I was less than an hour away from Tokyo, we were not in Kansas anymore, if you’ll forgive me the geographically mixed metaphor.
I felt bad in a way about taking snaps of the shotengai; it felt strangely like being some spoiled multimillionaire on one of those staged hunting trips in which the quarry is caged and released only into the crosshairs of his waiting rifle, so palpable was the encircling bleakness, but I snapped on nonetheless. Nothing sums up the all-pervasive reek of decline better than this next photo.
If you’re even moderately familiar with the evolution of post-war Japanese architectural styles, it’s apparent that the building is not that old—I would date it at mid-to-late 1980s. From the sign on the right, it is apparent that it used to house, or was at least built to house, 18 businesses, of which five are left. The one left on the second floor is a coin-operated laundry, hardly an encouraging sign of prosperity, and which doesn’t even have a name, the sign reading merely “coin laundry”, while the others are an izakaya pub, “Sabado Night”, a club, “Irodori” (colourful), a pub, “Yoro” (sunny road), and “Okaeri” (welcome home), which to judge from the foaming beer glass logo is some kind of pub or a “snakku” (tiny bars usually run by women who banter with the customers). Someone put up a sign more recently, center-left of the photo, to reflect the much reduced tenant list, but since the sign was erected, another two outfits have folded and their names have been removed. I would guess that these are the only places left in downtown Ishioka in which you could get drunk outside the home, and I’m willing to bet that all four of them seat no more than a dozen or so customers each, so even if they were full every night, which they patently aren’t, no more than fifty or so people in a town of 80,000 would be in a downtown bar of an evening. Speaking as a bar owner myself, there’s something deeply depressing about this picture.
A cake shop operated by a company called Fujiya is the only outlet owned by a firm with a nationwide presence left in the shotengai.
Fujiya was hit by a scandal over its use of expired ingredients in January 2007
and subsequently collapsed into the arms of a bakery company. The confectionery reds and sickly pinks, as well as the artifice and gaiety of the Peko chan mascot, only served to underscore the drabness and misery of the rest of the shotengai, which the locals refer to as “Shutta dori” (Shutter Street).
Shutter Street’s centerpiece was once a five- or six-storey Seiyu general merchandise store. Seiyu was acquired by Wal-Mart in 2002 after years of woe and losses, losses that Wal-Mart has proven unable to stem. Here’s a March 31 article from the Nikkei.
Seiyu Still Struggling Following 7th Straight Net Loss In ’08
TOKYO (Nikkei)–Supermarket operator Seiyu Ltd., which is under the umbrella of U.S. retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc., reported Monday a parent-only net loss of 25.79 billion yen for the year ended December.
This seventh straight year of red ink was due largely to an extraordinary loss from the shuttering of some 20 stores.
Same-store sales effectively slipped on the year, in part because of its low-price campaign not gaining momentum until autumn. Even though discounted prices weighed down operating profit margins, Seiyu managed to log an operating profit of 156 million yen by slashing personnel and other expenses.
Since last autumn, Seiyu has stepped up Wal-Mart-style discounting. On top of adopting a price-matching policy, by spring it had cut prices on more than 3,000 food, household goods and other items.
Consumers tightening their belts even further have responded to the lower prices, helping push up previously lackluster same-store sales for four straight months through February. But the recovery in sales has been limited to food products, with clothing and household goods — which take up much retail space — still sluggish.
“A turnaround at our large supermarkets” is vital for Seiyu’s recovery, a company official says. The company announced last autumn that 100 or so of its supermarkets would be renovated. It also plans to reduce the amount of space rented to outside tenants and to exploit Wal-Mart’s purchasing power to expand sales of electronic appliances and toys.
The state of the escalators just visible through the shutters suggested this Seiyu had been closed a long time, and indeed the Webidence available reveals it apparently closed as early as 1988, even before the Bubble burst.
There were three restaurants to choose from for lunch, a soba/udon joint and a Chinese, both of which were in a state of such decrepitude that even this culinary adventurer with a cast-iron stomach did not dare darken their doors, and a Lotteria, a deeply downmarket burger chain.
Inside Lotteria, sour-looking women in their thirties and forties with used-up faces, old before their time, sat dotted here and there in ones and twos, picking uninterestedly at french fries between puffs on cigarettes. On a slightly brighter note, in a corner a couple sat inspecting a Prius brochure from the Toyota dealer across the street. I ordered randomly and was treated to the most disgusting meal I have ever had in Japan, quite possibly in my life: tepid, cardboard fries and a chicken teriyaki burger so slathered in industrial mayonnaise that the chicken tried to make a run for it at the first bite. The toilet was tiny and putrid. I left in a hurry.
So what has happened to the shotengai of provincial Japan? Is it essentially that like the Kashima Tetsudo line, they were felled by motorization? Certainly on its outskirts, along its main arterial roads, Ishioka has a number of big-box retailers and pachinko parlours that are surviving and in some cases look as if they are thriving, although some of the places along the strips have shut up shop, too. Yet I wasn’t sure that I completely bought the motorization story. The timing struck me as adrift; motorization would have been far advanced by the late seventies, I thought, but I suspected that the decline of the shotengai only began in the mid-nineties, after the collapse of the Bubble, and became precipitous only in the last decade or so. Total passenger revenues peaked on the Kashiwa Tetsudo line in 1978, admittedly, but were still a reasonably robust 86% of their peak as late as 1993, when they had been flat or mostly rising for five straight years off a 1988 low. It’s only from 1995 that the year-on-year declines in passenger revenues become remorseless. It may be, I mused, that it takes a generation or more of vehicle ownership to get used to the drive-in Starbucks concept of living in your car and using it for every conceivable purpose. Population decline, though not pronounced, off a 1995 peak, may also have played a part, as may have the more general graying of society: Isihoka’s demographic profile is not much different from Japan as a whole, but that is of course as gray as any nation gets. Ishioka also abuts the much larger Tsukuba, Japan’s planned “Science City”, which no doubt offers a more rewarding retail experience; indeed Ishioka’s Japanese Wikipedia page alludes to the leaching away of shoppers to its neighbour.
Unsatisfied with the tentativeness of this conclusion, I went and checked the numbers, and was astonished to find that I was completely awry on the motorization of Japan. Motorization seems a curiously neglected subject, given the impact that it has had on developed nations, the impact that it is having in emerging nations, and the impact it is likely to have even on the bottom economic quintile of nations. Study of it in academia appears to be divided among disciplines as diverse as urban planning, environmental engineering, sociology, and anthropology, with each bringing their own agendas and cultural baggage to the study. Motorization doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page, for crying out loud! No one appears to agree at what level of wealth it begins—I’ve seen per capita GDP at PPP figures of $2,000, $3,000, and $6,000 bandied about—nor what the ownership threshold (vehicles per capita or household) might be for determining that it has begun. The understandable underlying assumption seems to be that, once it has begun, it is simply irreversible, although I suspect there are nations out there where it has halted or even gone into reverse for many decades (Argentina?) I also suspect that the emerging giants of China and India are never going to get to the motorization levels of the West, even with the inevitable demise of the internal combustion engine. China because it will get old before it gets rich, on present evidence at least, India because urban population density rates are car-unsustainable and because the collective political will to build the necessary infrastructure, even if it were possible, is missing. The first foolish mistake of forecasting is to extrapolate from current trends, of course, but those were my tentative conclusions. We have strayed a long way from Ishioka, however.
I won’t root out the precise population statistics for Japan, as they’re not absolutely intrinsic to the argument, but Japan’s population went from roughly 100mn in 1965 to 120mn in 1985 to its almost certain peak of 127.5mn in 2006. The number of passenger vehicles on the road rose from 2.3mn in 1966, the earliest year for which I have numbers, to 7.3mn in 1970 (up 3.2x in four years), 16.0mn in 1975 (up 2.1x in five), 22.8mn in 1980 (up 42.5% in five), 27.0mn in 1985 (up 18.4%), 32.9mn in 1990 (up 21.9%), 43.0mn in 1995 (up 30.7%), 51.2mn in 2000 (up 19.1%), and 56.3mn in 2005 (up 10.0%). What jumps out from the numbers is that the two oil shocks put a real brake on motorization, although from the five-year data you can really only see it in the 1980 and 1985 slowdowns. What amazes me is that Japan’s parc (industry shorthand for the total number of vehicles owned, from the French “parc automobile”) more than doubled between 1985 and 2005. That then has to explain a lot of the decline of the provincial shotengai, coupled with the bursting of the Bubble.
What perplexes me, though, is that motorization is something all developed nations have gone through in the last 50 years, with the exception of the US, where of course it occurred much longer ago, and yet most towns and cities in most countries have retained at least some degree of vibrancy in their centres, while this is manifestly not the case for provincial Japan. Ishioka’s shotengai should have been full of niche retailers, restaurants, and nightlife establishments that are not suited to the out-of-town model (and indeed there was one, a pine furniture emporia), but it is not, and with Japan’s real GDP back at the 1996 level by some accounts and poised to fall, I would say, back
to the level of the mid-1980s, it is clear that it will not be for many years to come, either.
With these disconsolate thoughts coalescing, I turned my attention to the real object of my quest, the Kashima Tetsudo line. How did I stumble across this hugely obscure semi-rural railway line? Well, I’ve always had a gothic thing going for ruins, and at this point in 2009 I thought nothing would embody the diseased state of the nation more than a walk along some recently grubbed-up tracks. Some idle Internet searches for “haisen” (abandoned railway line) led somehow to this highly disturbed website.
(Be sure to scroll down a fair way for the full effect). I guess it’s lonely being a train “otaku” (geek), even in one’s natural spiritual home of Japan. Although reports are filtering through these days that it’s acceptable to come out of the anorak closet.
From that moment on, it was love at first sight—with the line, I stress, not the anatomically correct doll. The Kashima Tetsudo ticked all the right boxes: most crucially, it had only recently closed. Much derelict infrastructure is still removed with reasonable swiftness in Japan, even today. The line was long—28km—but not too long. It was relatively close to home. Wonderfully, it was so marginal that it had never been electrified and had been run for its entire life with single-carriage diesels. It looked like it had a story to tell. And so it proved.
Requiem for a railway, Part 2
Walkin’ the line
All trace of the Kashima Tetsudo platforms at Ishioka station is gone, the platforms replaced by a vast, barren, and largely empty car park; it took me a moment to orient myself from the bridge across the tracks and decide which way the line had exited the station. Then I spied an enticing grassy curve rising away from the south side of the station, and I was off.
The first part of the line, from Ishioka to Hitachi Ogawa, opened on June 8, 1924, when my father was six months away from being born; the last train ran on March 31, 2007, almost exactly two years after his death. By the time it was fully open, on May 16, 1929, it linked two not particularly consequential southern Ibaraki towns, Ishioka and Hokota, which currently has a population of around 30,000. It was originally planned to run as a pilgrimage line to Kashima Shrine in Kashima, some way south of Hokota and home to a monstrous steelworks and more recently a hugely successful J-league football team, which goes some way to explaining why it is called the Kashima Tetsudo line when it goes nowhere near Kashima. For reasons lost in the mists of time, these plans were abandoned, and a wharf was erected at Hama station, halfway down the line, on the banks of Japan’s second largest lake, Kasumigaura; the line was then extended north up to Hokota, reversing course from the southerly, Kashima-bound route that had been intended, in anticipation of freight demand from the tobacco farms that were flourishing in the region in the 1920s.
The grassy curve led quickly up to the first of a fair few obstacles, a bridge that had been taken out, leaving only a pair of thin steel girders.
Indeed, it turned out that all the short bridges spanning streams and rivers had already gone. From whence, I wondered, came that particular zeal. The ancient steel could not have had any commercial value, could it? Was there any point in destroying the continuity of the now desiccated flow of the abandoned line? I sensed then, and felt subsequently vindicated, that the remnants of the route would have made a fine path for cyclists and walkers. All that would have been needed was a touch of ballast and track removal and a light smearing of asphalt, just enough to get an unsophisticated mountain bike across the obstacles. Provide space for a couple of modest bike rental shops at either end and hey presto, you have a small business owner with a handful of employees plus a valuable resource for neighbourhood dog-walkers, joggers, and plain old flaneurs. Keeping the railway going would have been preferable, but if that was not to be, why not preserve the collective memory in this way?
Alas, this is Japan, where aside from a few clued-in urban hipsters, bicycles have a grievously utilitarian image, with undertones perhaps of a suspicious male hostility to their majority female ridership; last year there was a spate of news reports about how inattentive or text-messaging cyclists were ploughing down and maiming or even killing pedestrians. There’s no excuse for irresponsibility when you’re in charge of any piece of fast-moving metal, even if it only weighs 25kg, but there was no serious debate about how the bicycle might be a friend in the fight against urban congestion, let alone global warming; instead it was made a temporary media whipping-boy in a way that the automobile would never be.
The first bridge that had been taken out I bypassed with a 10-minute detour and was soon back on track, only to falter at a more solid concrete bridge across a suburban feeder road, replete with “Tachiiri kinshi” signs (“No entry”, or if you prefer a more literal translation, “Entry forbidden”). I was growing increasingly conscious that my pilgrimage was one huge act of trespass and acutely aware that a phone call from a mobile from just one of the under-passing cars could have had the police, who no doubt have little to do in Ishioka, on my case. But really, would anyone bother? So on I strode, and soon was approaching Ishioka Nandai, the first, and in some ways the saddest, station on the line.
Back in the 1980s, Ishioka was developing as a dormitory suburb for the surrounding towns, above all Tsukuba, and Ishioka Nandai station opened on June 16, 1989. Over the course of its more than 80 years, various stations opened and closed up and down the line; Ishioka Nandai was the last to open. How wonderful it must have felt back in the early summer of 1989, how full of promise the future must have seemed. The houses backing on to the cutting leading up to the station indeed looked solid, recently built, and prosperous.
For the first time but not the last, I found myself wondering how the lives of the people who lived in the most intimate contact with the line, those whose homes abutted it, felt as the line fell silent, as they were no longer woken by the first train of the morning and lulled to sleep by the last train of the night.
The station buildings at Ishioka Nandai, in their modest way, betray all of the exuberance of the Bubble, especially when compared with some of the halt-like huts that would follow later; they would not have disgraced a much busier line. The petals of a couple of winter rose bushes drifted down to dust one of the abandoned platforms. Outside the station by where commuters once parked their bicycles, a faded sign, addressed perhaps to drunken revellers returning from a night out, cautions that riding off on someone else’s bike is theft. “Don’t make them sad!” To bike owners, it advises anti-theft registration and double locking. The solitary bike remaining, a sticker on the rear mudguard revealing that it belonged to a high schooler, was unlocked.
On a concrete pillar a sign lingered advertising a concert by the Kashima Tetsudo Support Band, Sound Wrap, on the last day of the line’s operations.
On another pillar, a map of the replacement bus route and its fares. I was drawn to the texture and the traces of the taping and the smiley face of the JMO Crew.
Soon after Ishioka Nandai, the first intact rails I encountered. The rails made walking a little more effortful as I reduced my gait to match the distance between sleepers, spent much of my time with eyes fixed firmly on the track. I wasn’t entirely alone all the time though; from time to time someone—a teenage boy, a housewife—would appear further up the tracks and then, after a few minutes, disappear without trace. People were quietly adjusting the rhythms of their lives to the absence of the line. At the next station, Higashi Tanaka, two boys were playing and chatting on the tracks.
Had they ever ridden the trains, I wondered. Quite possibly not, and even if they had, they would probably have been too young to have any recollection of it as adults. In this and myriad other tiny ways is the collective memory eroded over time.
The line by now was running parallel with Route 355 out of Ishioka, a busy highway lined with the roadside retailers, restaurants, and pachinko parlours that had ripped the heart out of Ishioka’s downtown. At the next station, Tamari, was the first passing point on the single-track line. The fading paint on the logs of the waiting room and the childish toothlike caricature of the train appealed.
On the stations rolled—Shin-Takahama, Shikamura—and in closed the greenery. The line left Route 355 behind and entered a more rural environment, saturated with the muted hues of a late Japanese winter and laced with one-track farmers’ roads.
Herons and egrets took off lazily from beside paddies while deep in the undergrowth Japanese bush warblers cleared their exquisite pipes.
Eventually the line descended gently to where Hitachi Ogawa station had once stood; nothing left now, just a wide swathe of grass and a crude blue shed to shelter the few bus passengers.
On the other side of the line rotted a dozen or so junked cars, among which was an old friend, the British Motors Corporation Austin Drawing Office Number 16, to give it its full, august name, better known in the incarnation in the picture as an Austin 1300.
Things fall apart
My grin was deep and broad on making this discovery. While, say, a Model T Ford or a Jaguar E Type would have surprised more, as I have occasionally spotted ADO16 variants in Tokyo, there could be no more perfect encounter, no more potent symbol of industrial might and decline, this weekend of all weekends, as the Presidential Task Force on Autos was, even as I was trying to prise open the doors on this Austin 1300, preparing to throw the first ceremonial shovelful of soil over the deep, deep hole into which two-thirds of the US auto industry had dug itself, as global auto sales continued to fall off a cliff, and as the Japanese auto industry was within a couple of days of closing out the most disastrous fiscal year in its history.
While there are no shortage of cars that helped to wreck the British car industry—the Austin 1100/1300’s successor, the execrable Austin Allegro, springs to mind—the ADO16, although it has its fans, has a totemic claim to be one of them. But first a little background.
The ADO16 had a distinguished set of parents: Sir Alec Issigonis, the designer of the Mini, was responsible for the concept, Pininfirina for the styling, and Alex Moulton for the sophisticated Hydrolastic suspension system. The first ones rolled off the production lines at Cowley in the summer of 1962 and it was Britain’s best selling car, in its various guises, for much of the 1960s and early 1970s: in 1965, at its zenith, it took a scarcely credible 14.3% of the market on its own. Although about 1.3mn of the 2.3mn produced were sold in the UK, the ADO16 was one of the models on which the global aspirations of BMC and later British Leyland were placed: it was produced, often in CKD (completely knocked down) form, in an astonishing variety of countries, including Australia, Italy (by Innocenti), Chile, Ireland, South Africa, Rhodesia, Yugoslavia, and Spain (by Authi). It stayed in production in Britain until the summer of 1974, in Spain until 1975, and in South Africa until 1977. In its own not insignificant way, it contributed to the motorization of the UK and the rest of the planet.
On the surface the ADO16 looks like a success story, and indeed in 1971, the last year it was the best-selling car in Britain, British Leyland had risen to be the third-largest automaker in the world, behind GM and Ford. And yet it had—or was given—many of the vices that would ultimately destroy the British auto industry. It took badge-engineering to new heights of absurdity, appearing in almost identical Austin and Morris guises to keep the still competing dealer networks of the two marques happy, as well as in Riley, MG, Wolsely, and Vanden Plas variations, and was indeed the last vehicle to wear the Riley and Wolsely nameplates, which were extinguished in 1968/69. It was a rust-trap, apparently because BMC management had so much faith in Alec Issigonis that they ignored advice from the panel beater, Pressed Steel Fisher. While parts of the design were advanced, the A series engine had debuted in 1951 and lasted until the final Mini in 2000. In its 1,098cc variation, found in the Austin 1100, it lasted almost unchanged from 1962 to 1980, and in its 1,275cc variation from 1964 until 1980. Although the ADO16 was given two facelifts, one in 1967 and another in 1971, it remained essentially the same vehicle throughout its 12-year production life (aside from the 1966 estate). This was intentional, apparently, according to Austin-Rover Online:
By August 1963, BMC’s chairman George Harriman was stating to the press that the ADO16 would be in production for at least ten years. This, he said, would give the additional advantage that the customer’s investment was not swept away by a new version coming out within a year or so of his purchase.
I cannot see the logic for an automaker in the rejection of planned obsolescence. The ADO16’s rival for the crown of best-selling British car, the Ford Cortina, debuted in 1962 and was overhauled in 1966 and again in 1970. Even though it had a hit on its hands, in the early days BMC could not keep up with demand, as it was refusing to axe models such as the Morris Minor (1948 debut) and the Austin A40 (1958 debut). The arrival of the 1275cc engine was chaotic, taking more than two years and resulting at one point in the MG, the performance version, being equipped with exactly the same engine as the rest of the range, which probably made it slower than the more spartan Austins and Morrises. A hatchback, which the vehicle desperately needed, was toyed with but never put into production. No attempt was seemingly made to shoehorn a larger engine into the anyway spacious engine bay. An all-synchromesh gearbox, which the Cortina had had from launch, only debuted in late 1968.
The replacement for the Morris 1100/1300, the Marina, hit the showrooms in spring 1971, the replacement for the Austin 1100/1300, the Allegro, in spring 1973. Writing in the Times the day the Allegro was launched, journalist Clifford Webb summarized what had been going wrong in this part of the British Leyland empire and penned the obituary for the ADO16:
It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of Allegro to the fortunes of British Leyland. The C-class sector now accounts for something like one million sales a year in Britain. Two years ago Austin-Morris was taking up to 30 per cent of this class. By March 1972, they were down to 23 per cent and in the first three months of this year had fallen to only 18 percent. This decline was due largely to falling demand for the 1100/1300 although inability to produce sufficient cars in boom conditions was a considerable contributing factor. Since the early 1960s the older model has been the backbone of Austin-Morris…but during the past two years demand has become more concentrated on the top-end of the C-class sector with motorists insisting on 1,500cc engines and above. At the same time they want higher standards of trim, increased passenger and luggage space, improved driving position and reduced noise levels. Despite umpteen facelifts the 10-year-old 1100/1300 was unable to meet these changing fashions.
Most criminally of all, the ADO16, like its little sister the Mini, was never profitable; unprofitable at the price point at which it was sold, the warranty claims seemingly cost BMC a fortune, so by the time Leyland took over in 1968 there was next to nothing in the pipeline and the main plants, Cowley and Longbridge, were in dire need of renovation. On its creation, British Leyland redefined bloat, with 190,000 employees and a nonsensical 48 manufacturing plants, as well as a fast deteriorating management-union relationship.
Once things fall apart in organizations as unwieldy and complex as automakers, they often do so with devastating swiftness: though it may have been the world’s third-largest automaker in 1971, British Leyland’s UK market share, which had been a stable 40% or so since its creation, cratered in a single year to 33.1% in 1972. The market contracted sharply in 1973, due to the Yom Kippur War, the Arab oil embargo, and the energy crisis, and British Leyland ceded further market share. Strikes proliferated, warranty costs mounted, the Marina and the Allegro were performing disastrously, losses escalated and the company was forced in mid-1974 to seek a £150mn overdraft from the City, which grew increasingly alarmed and called in the Department of Trade and Industry in November for talks, talks in which British Leyland candidly revealed that it would exhaust its overdraft by January 1975 and was unlikely to be able to obtain further funding. Secretary of State for Industry Tony Benn addressed the House of Commons on December 6, 1974, just six months after the last UK ADO16 had left the factory, announcing a £50mn package of emergency aid, and British Leyland was a ward of the state.
There are elements of what with hindsight seems like incredible delusion in the press in early December 1974: as Tony Benn was preparing to bail out British Leyland, its chairman Lord Stokes was flying to Cairo for negotiations on building an assembly plant for Arab markets. On his return on December 9, the Times carried this brief article:
When Lord Stokes was asked at Heathrow on his return from Cairo last night if he would be making a statement about British Leyland within the next few days, he replied:
“I should not think so. What is there to make a statement about? I think everyone is getting excited over nothing.”
The American auto industry’s long descent to oblivion started later—the origins lay in the befuddled reaction to the 1973 oil crisis—and has been more protracted, but it shares many of the same features: badge-engineering, too many brands, too many plants, pained management-labour relations, poor reliability, dated technology, bureaucratic corporate cultures, and the distinct odor of overweening complacency. The final death knells have come with similar swiftness, too: few would have foreseen in 2005 that General Motors and Chrysler would be essentially bankrupt by the end of 2008, although there were a few prescient souls out there.
Where does that leave the Japanese auto industry in March 2009? It has avoided many of the sins that best the Anglo-Americans, but then again who would have forecast in August 2008 that Toyota would be poised to post its first ever loss in FY3/09? The industry here has its own special set of problems, too: several small and marginally viable makers, such as Mitsubishi, Mazda, and Subaru, a domestic market beset by structural decline, an overreliance on the US, and the South Koreans nipping at its heels, as well as the challenges facing automakers everywhere in the twilight years of the internal combustion engine, the replacement of which will be the most revolutionary thing that will have ever have happened to the car and which could well completely redraw the competitive landscape. Absent the auto industry—in 2006, Japanese companies were responsible for producing roughly one in three of all the vehicles made on the planet—and the economy would be on its knees.
But I’ve digressed far enough already. Return with me to the Austin 1300 softly rusting on the banks of Hitachi Ogawa station. It’s a Mark II, which was made from 1967-1971, and I can even date it more precisely, as the chrome automatic gear selector it had gave way to a black one in early 1970. Researching my fabulous find, I stumbled across some things I had only been half-conscious of before, Japan’s ADO16 craze of the 1990s, which of all this country’s multitude of crazes, ranks as just about one of the oddest, and the mock-ADO16s made by a handful of specialist coachwork firms to cash in on the bonanza.
The last of days
Forcing myself from automotive reverie, I sauntered on, to encounter this sweet scene of solitude at the bridge over the Sonobe river.
The detour was straightforward and I soon found myself at the next station down the line, Ogawa Kokoshita (“Ogawa below the high school”). The sanctioned graffiti reads poignantly, from left to right: Kashitetsu (the familiar name for the line) Support Group, Ogawa High School, March 2005 / Race to the future! Kashima Tetsudo.
After almost brushing revenues of Y500mn ($5mn) in 1993, versus the 1984 peak of Y527mn, the decline became remorseless and accelerating, with revenues down to Y383mn in 1999. The biggest crisis was yet to come, however, and to explain it requires a bit of a detour. Some 5km or so north of the line at the nearest point is a Japan Air Self Defense Force facility, Hyakuri, the only JASDF base in the Kanto area allowed to fly fighters. The base has an understandable thirst for fuel, and for many years it was supplied via the railway line and a pipe that ran from Enokimoto station, which we’ll come to later. The pipe grew obsolete over the years, however, and revenues from fuel supply collapsed as the JASDF switched to road tankers, falling from Y120mn in 1998 to nothing in 2002, by which point the overall line revenues were down to Y236mn, more than halving in less than a decade. It was clear that once the revenue from the fuel supplies dried up, the writing was on the wall. The operator Kashima Tetsudo was supported by its parent Kanto Tetsudo, as well as by the local governments along the line, who in September 2002 approved a five-year business plan and promised Y200mn ($2mn) in support over the course of it, and by the prefectural government, and the line limped on. In July 2002 the students of Ogawa High School were instrumental in forming the Kashitetsu Support Group, which brought together eight junior high and high schools along the line, and the group started a petition drive and fundraising activities, which would win them an award from the MLIT in October 2003 for revitalizing regional railways. Spurred on by this initiative, a local NPO and citizens living along the line started the Kashitetsu Blue Band Project in November 2005, selling blue wristbands for a mere Y100 at the bigger of the line’s stations and at local supermarkets. By now the tone was growing desperate: “Save Kashitetsu!” say the banners advertising the wristbands. But what really mattered was ridership and revenues, and there was no sign of improvement in either, with passenger numbers falling from 903,000 in FY3/03 to 776,000 in FY3/06 and revenues down from Y237mn to Y206mn over the same period. Meanwhile, Kanto Tetsudo was running into problems of its own, with another of its railways being hit by the 2005 opening of an express line from Tsukuba to Tokyo, and it decided in early 2006 that it would no longer subsidize the line after FY3/07. Determining that without the support of its parent, the line was no longer viable, Kashima Tetsudo filed a notification of closure with the MLIT on March 30, 2006. Efforts were made down to the wire to rescue the line, but to no avail, and it closed a year and a day later. There was to be no race to the future for the Kashima Tetsudo.
Almost overcome with despondency by the plaintiveness of the high school’s graffiti, with an already swollen Achilles tendon starting to ache, and with dusk soon anyway to gather, I decided to call off the walk down the line for the day and wend my way back to Hitachi Ogawa by the road. Then across the paddies I spied one of the Kashitetsu’s diesel cars.
Kiha 432 was built in 1957 and by the time it made its last run in 2007 it was one of the oldest pieces of rolling stock in use in Japan, although bested by a discovery further down the line. For the first 15 years of its life it ran on a line in Toyama Prefecture, until that closed in 1972, and was transferred to the Kashima Tetsudo. Built in the days before air-conditioning swept Japan and the world, there was apparently no room on board for an AC unit, and as people grew softer and summers got hotter, its use was increasingly restricted to the winter months. There’s something adorable about Kiha 432: it’s almost like a child’s drawing of a train, the artful colour scheme gives it a grin, and the red-and-cream livery is reminiscent somehow of British trains of the 1940s. Slap a slightly more anthropomorphic face on Kiha 432 and I’m sure there’s a home somewhere in the world of Reverend W. V. Awdry awaiting. It’s now living out its retirement in an absolutely appropriate place—the back yard of a care facility for the aged.
Back at Hitachi Ogawa station, I boarded an ancient, wheezing, and juddery bus back to Ishioka. The bus replacement service runs largely along the clogged Route 355 and it attracts many fewer passengers than the train because of the unreliability of the timetable, which, irony piled upon irony, has probably pushed even more people into their own cars. I was the sole passenger for much of the trip back, and there were only four of us disembarking at Ishioka station. With the rest of the line still to travel, I resolved to return the following weekend, this time by car, to see if southern Ibaraki looked any more prosperous from the road.
Requiem for a railway, Part 3
“I’ll never get you”
I arrived in Ishioka the next Saturday at lunchtime; at least there were places to eat scattered along Route 355. I settled on a Yumean, a “Washoku (Japanese cuisine) dining” chain and a known quantity.
Yumean is one of a dozen or so restaurant brands operated by a firm called Skylark, by far the biggest operator of this kind of roadside “famiresuto” (family restaurant), with around 3,800 outlets nationwide (of which 250 or so are Yumean branded) and annual sales of around $4bn. It was once listed but taken private in a strange little $3bn deal in July 2006 described generally as an MBO but actually nothing of the sort, whereby the family of the founder, Kiwamu Yokokawa, sold all but 3% of their 20% stake to Nomura Principal Finance, a division of the Nomura investment bank, and British private equity firm CVC Capital Parners, which has stakes in everything from Samsonite to the Danish post office, who hoovered up the minority shareholders and together ended up with a 97% stake. They must be ruing the day.
Skylark made a net loss of around $100mn in FY12/06, which widened to about $130mn in FY12/07. Nomura and CVC ousted Yokokawa in a boardroom putsch in August last year and in December the new boss, Makoto Tani, announced a private placement of Y50bn worth of shares with Nomura, raising Nomura’s stake to 78% from 62% and presumably thereby stiffing CVC, although the Nikkei is far too polite to mention such a thing. A tepid restructuring plan was announced, too, with roughly 5% of the restaurants to be closed and another 5% or so to be converted to Gusto brand eateries, the most downmarket brand in the portfolio. In March this year, Skylark reported that its net loss doubled to around $260mn in FY12/08, with sales hit by high gasoline prices and margins crimped by expensive ingredients.
The Yumean at which I ate lunch twice at over the weekend was clearly in distress: on the Saturday the 104-seat restaurant was at most a quarter full, while on Sunday when I arrived at the midday peak I was the ninth customer in the place. The location was hard to fault, right in the heart of the strip leading out of Ishioka. Was it the menu?
There was no shortage of competitively priced fare: the daily changing bento lunchboxes on the left are a mere Y599 ($6) pretax, as are the signature favourites on the right. The problem may lie in the rest of the menu, where prices start at Y799 ($8) and ascend to Y1,099 ($11) for the seafood and steak donburi rice bowl dishes at the bottom. In contrast, there’s almost nothing over Y1,000 on the lunch menu at Gusto, and most of its staple grills are Y689 to Y789. The odd Y100 here or there might not sound like much, but when you’re only earning Y700-Y1,000 an hour, as for instance the staff at Yumean most assuredly are, then every Y100 counts.
What were thriving on the outskirts of Ishioka were the pachinko parlors; three of the four to be found in a 500m radius were packed. The car park was especially crowded at the Pearl Shop Tomoe parlour, where gaudy wreaths signified new machines: the machine replacement cycle is key to a pachinko parlor’s success.
I wonder, when the dust finally settles on the rubble of the Japanese economy, whether the only vestiges of life left will be found in pachinko parlours, convenience stores, and mobile handset outlets. Even the roadside economy is fraying at the edges, mostly taking down the small businesses first: around Ishioka there are many boarded up mom ‘n’ pop ramen joints and other restaurants, dry cleaners, and hairdressers.
I returned to Hitachi Ogawa to start the second leg of the trip and couldn’t resist revisiting the Austin. I was pleased with the way the montage induced by reflection came out in this shot of the interior, with the boomerang of the spoiler from the neighbouring Subaru Impreza and tumbles of straw appearing to invade through the window.
After Ogawa Kokoshita, the line converges with the northeastern banks of Kasumigaura, the second largest lake in Japan. With a surface area of 220km2, it’s small by global standards, although not by Western European ones, being bigger than Lake Como, for example. It’s also an ecological disaster area. The Hitachigawa tidal gate, completed in 1963, cut the lake off from the sea in the name of desalination and turned what had once been a brackish body of water into a near freshwater lake. It has been hard hit by eutrophication and associated toxic algal blooms, so much so that it came to attract the nickname “the lake of death”. It has also been almost entirely encased in concrete revetments and levees, leaving scarcely any reedbeds. The commercial fish catch peaked in 1978 at 17,487MT and is now around 2,000MT-3,000MT. Carp aquaculture once flourished around the lake but was wiped out by the Carp Herpes Virus in 2003. Freshwater pearls were also once cultivated but the industry seemingly surrendered to Chinese competition in 2006. Today Kasumigaura presents a joyless spectacle: to be sure, fisherfolk dot the banks, but having sucked most of the natural life out of the lake, people might at least use it for watersports and recreation, yet there are scant few pleasurecraft of any description out on it. The prevailing sense I get that it is now regarded as an inconvenience, and if the money was there to drain it and make it go away, that would be the preferred solution.
The weatherbeaten greens and blues of the fishing boats, some sprouting weeds, in the tiny harbour at Momoura caught my eye.
The gnarled cherry coming into blossom in the station car park at Momoura would have looked perfectly at home in a Muromachi period sansui painting.
Inside the station building, below the no longer rotating electricity meter, was a teenage girl’s heartfelt graffiti.
“I still love you. But it’s not me in your eyes, is it? Someone else is there. I’ll never get you. I realize that, but I can’t give up on my dream. Mai”
Another hand had corrected her fairly atrocious grammar and orthography. It felt good to realize afresh that it’s not just foreigners that have problems with “wa”, “ga”, and other Japanese particles.
The passenger management railings by the station building were to my mind as beautiful as any Rothko.
Is there any thing sadder than a playground with no players?
Momoura turned out to be my favourite of all the stations along the line; I’d be perfectly happy to while away my days in the house behind the gnarled cherry. I would have liked to have lingered awhile, but time was pressing and I had to make Hokota by nightfall.
I sped through the next two stations with barely a pause until I reached Tamatsukuri, probably the largest distinct town (though with only a population of around 13,000) at any point on the line. There was nothing left of the station, just the platform and a sandy, grassy expanse. There was a lone taxi driver waiting, more in hope than expectation, to pick up a fare off the bus replacement service, and to my surprise he summoned me over.
“That’s a late model Honda S2000, isn’t it?”
“Yes, that’s right”.
“I’m pretty keen on cars. That’s a nice car you’ve got.”
“That’s the first late model S2000 I’ve seen, is it new?”
“No, I bought it in 2003, and I think the late model came out in 2002.”
It was completely the wrong thing to say, and I knew it as soon as I had blurted it out. Never have I felt so conscious of my relative wealth, of the $500 shoes I was wearing, of the sports car next to which I was standing.
“Oh,” he said, crestfallen. “Mind if I take a look around?”
“Please do.” Anxious to change the subject, I asked him what I ask all talkative taxi drivers. “How’s business?”
I’ve had replies longer than that, but they have never amounted to much more than elaborations of that single word, even in Tokyo, even in the brighter days of, say, 2006. The Cabinet Office’s Economy Watchers’ Survey, which tracks the sentiment of taxi drivers and other trades in the front lines of the business cycle and turns them into diffusion indexes, logged the third month of sharp gains for the coincident index in March, but these surveys doubtless have a metropolitan bias and very little to do with towns like Tamatsukuri.
We exchanged a little more idle talk about the car but I was beginning to feel a little awkward and told the taxi driver I’d take a short walk around town.
There were barely any commercial premises of any description still open in the shotengai; even the police station, a modest bungalow, was in dire need of a lick of paint. A florist that specializes in funeral arrangements was bustling, though, and the gravestone maker was open for business.
At the organized retail level, Tamatsukuri supports a single supermarket and a single convenience store. Getting slightly lost on the edge of town, I turned tail, and feeling thirsty, pulled into what I thought was a no-name “conbini” (convenience store), only to discover that it was a cake shop. Duh! No matter, there was a general store of some description across the street. I crossed the road and pulled back the sliding door to find myself in a dim and dusty concrete-floored shop with shelves of the most primitive kind stacked meagrely with tinned food and cheap snacks and sweets, a couple of half-empty commercial refrigerators whirring to one side. It could have been Thailand. A couple of “gomen kudasai”, the Japanese way of summoning an absent party, brought out from the back of the shop the proprietor, who was probably in his early 70s. Pleasantries were exchanged while I bought a couple of bottles of chilled tea, and it occurred to me that while Japan’s relative economic peak may have come in 1989, for people like this the high-water mark of prosperity came much earlier, perhaps the mid-70s or even the mid-60s—certainly this store had seen scarcely any meaningful investment in the last 40 years, and there are many like it across Japan.
From Tamatsukuri the line turned inland, away from Lake Kasumigaura, toward the next station, Enokimoto, from where the fuel pipe used to run to the JASDF base. There’s no trace of it now.
Next station up was Kariyadomae, and this proved to be the hardest of all to pin down. After leaving Kasumigaura, the line runs over higher ground between it and another lake, Kitaura. This higher ground is a grim lattice of stands of plantation pine and greenhouses, and the fading light of an early April day did it no favours.
I drove around in what I thought might be circles, apparently getting no closer to Kariyadomae, for about half an hour, before fighting against my deeply male map-reading instincts and pulling in at a golf course to ask for directions. The Shiraho Golf Course was definitely on its uppers. There was a smattering of men in late middle-age leaving the fairway, although they were not a great deal more animated than the collection of stuffed mammals in the lobby. I knew I was really close to the station, so I thought the first person I asked, who was in charge of rental clubs, would be able to direct me there without any brouhaha, but I was wrong. It took eventually the collective efforts of five people to draw me the simplest of maps to get me to the station. Perhaps the Kashima Tetsudo wasn’t that loved, after all, I speculated, if people living and working so close to it had no idea where it was. But then I set off down the network of muddy puddled and potholed single-track roads to get to Kariyadomae and I began to realise why no one knew where it was. The hamlet around the station comprises about 30 houses, one of the smallest settlements I’ve ever seen in Japan. It nestles in a shallow valley and looks almost picturesque. The station was a standard halt, and because of its inaccessibility, it’s the one station on the line no public transport serves any longer.
Time was by now fast running out, and the next two stations got the scantiest of glances. Onward to Hokota in the gloaming and the end of the line. There were two diesel cars left at Hokota, one of them KR-505, made specifically for the line by Niigata Tekko in 1992. A poster in one of the KR-505 windows revealed that someone—the author’s name is not mentioned and the best I can come up with in an Internet search is that the author is a woman called Mai who goes by the moniker of “Mama Goose san”—has written a collection of short stories about the closure of the line and what happened thereafter. Signs indicated that the trains and what remains of the infrastructure at the station are being maintained by the Hokota Station Preservation Society, which turns out to have a very well kept blog, although at times it is distinctly officious in tone (“the preservation society undertakes dangerous work, so please be alert to the danger of injury or accident”). The society’s website and other searches uncovered a little thicket of other blogs on the Kashitetsu.
The other diesel car at Hokota was Kiha 601, which has an extraordinary story to tell.
It was built in 1936 by Kawasaki Sharyo, a division of Kawasaki Heavy Industries and still a major force in rolling stock manufacture, its products in use from Singapore to New York, Ireland to Taiwan. Kiha 601 worked various routes on the pre-privatization Japan National Railway for many years, finally pitching up on the Kashitetsu in June 1968. By the time it reached its 70th birthday in 2006, it was the oldest train in active service on a regular line in Japan and the sole pre-war train still running. After the line closed, the preservation society petitioned the local council to turn the station into a “railroad park”, but were turned down, and a private individual bought Kiha 601 and has loaned it to the preservation society.
A sign beside the carriage, titled “Whisperings of Kiha 601″ narrates its life from the train’s perspective: “I’m now 72 and I’d like to go on living with the people of Hokota right here.” I normally find this kind of anthropomorphism cloying but on this occasion I was moved by the depth of the passion that so many people obviously have for the line.
Requiem for a railway, Part 4
A night in Hokota
That was it for me and the Kashitetsu, but the journey was not quite over yet. I had been planning on returning to Ishioka to spend the night there, but I’d caught the sun in the course of the day, it was coming on to rain, and a chance series of discoveries in the center of Hokota—a fabulously pink hotel, a liquor store still in business, and an outlet of cheap izakaya chain Tsubohachi, all within walking distance of each other—persuaded me to see what a Saturday night in Hokota might have to offer.
My expectations had been guided so low that I was surprised how many enterprises were clinging on down the main street. Besides the hotel, liquor store, and izakaya, there was a smartish looking electronics store, a sporting goods retailer, a couple of cafes, a handful of restaurants, and a few other merchants, although it was readily apparent that many of them were doing very little trade. I parked up in front of the Hotel Sawaya. The marble-lined stairs up to the lobby and front desk hinted at a not-too-remote prosperity.
The cavernous lobby was sepulchral in its silence; there was no one at all about, not even behind the front desk. A few shouted “gomen kudasai” elicited the appearance of a well-groomed middle-aged woman after a minute or two. We settled the price of the room and the registration formalities.
“Not many customers today?”
“The weekdays are what count here. Businesspeople. We don’t get many staying at the weekend. We’re not a tourist destination. There’s nothing in this town.”
“There’s nothing in this town,” she repeated wistfully, betraying no trace of “okuni jiman” (pride in one’s native place). I know, I thought, that’s why I’m here.
“I’m interested in the Kashima Tetsudo line.”
“Oh, that’s all gone now.”
“I know.” A pause. “Do people miss the train?”
“Oh yes! It’s so inconvenient for us now. Before you used to be able to get to Tokyo in a little under two hours. Now that you have to go up to Mito to catch the Joban line it takes much longer. And it’s more expensive.” A pause. “Where have you come from anyway?”
“Ah, things are alright down there, aren’t they?”
“You can really feel the decay around here, I’m afraid.”
“Yes. The further away from Tokyo you get, the worse it is.”
“Incidentally, when was the hotel built?”
“Well, it was built at different times. This lobby area was built in Heisei 7 .”
A final pause.
“So there’ll be no breakfast in the morning. The restaurant’s shut at the weekend.”
I took the functioning elevator—I suspect the other was turned off at the weekend to save electricity—to my fourth-floor room, which was perfectly acceptable, although the air was a touch fetid, and then set out to see where the youth of Hokota were to be found.
The problem with this mission, as I was fully aware, was that there were very few youth of Hokota to find. Put a demographic bar chart of Hokota up against one for Japan as a whole, and Hokota’s 20-40 year old generational cohort is significantly below the national average. It starts to overtake the national average around 45, and is strikingly ahead of the national average for the 70-80 age group. With no institutions of tertiary education of its own and none for a good few miles around, many people in their late teens leave, and many never return.
But I persisted in my quest. From the hotel window I spotted in the distance a giant illuminated bowling ball on top of a warehouse-like box of a building, and set out in the drizzle for that. The downstairs part of the facility turned out to be a pachinko parlor, almost entirely deserted. Upstairs there were a dozen or so bowling lanes, of which one was in use, a handful of table-tennis tables, of which two were occupied, and a miniature arcade with about 20 machines, all of which were idle. Maybe it’s too early, I told myself, after all, it’s only 7.30pm and the place is open until 3am.
I wandered back up the main drag to the Tsubohachi.
There was a cluster of eateries around the Tsubohachi: a ramen joint (two customers), a truly forlorn kaiten-zushi (conveyor-belt sushi) restaurant (one customer), an Early Birds Hamburger restaurant (no customers), and a tiny non-chain izakaya, which had some customers but whose precise number would have been impossible to determine without going in.
I settled onto a sticky plastic zabuton cushion in the Tsubohachi, a chain of which I have fond if distant memories from my early days in Japan, although I hadn’t been in one for at least a decade. This particular one was scruffy, unkempt, and had seen better days; much the same could be said for the waitresses and waiters. There were only two other customers in the open area, although voices and laughter could be heard coming from private rooms deeper in the restaurant’s recesses.
Tsubohachi has 430-odd restaurants across Japan; although it is unlisted it does disclose its income statements on its website, which do not make for happy reading.
Sales Recurring profit Net profit
FY3/05 Y15.8bn Y503mn Y259mn
FY3/06 Y15.2bn Y721mn Y279mn
FY3/07 Y14.3bn Y343mn Y183mn
FY3/08 Y13.2bn Y141mn Y81mn
No wonder it’s starving its more marginal restaurants, as the Hokota outlet must surely be, of investment.
The beer was so cold it had ice-beer-bergs floating in it; still, they know what their customers like. I toured some of the izakaya staples: edamame (soybeans in the pod), mame aji karaage (deep fried baby horse mackerel), daikon salad, asapara maki (asparagus rolled in bacon), and some yakitori, washed down with umeshu (plum liquor), with a bowl of ochatsuke (rice steeped in green tea) to finish. The food wasn’t as good as I remembered but that was of no real consequence.
The restaurant’s open area gradually filled up over the course of the couple of hours I was in there, much to my relief. First to join me were a couple of twentysomething women, whose familiarity with the waitstaff suggested that they were regulars. I immediately took a liking to them, perhaps because within minutes of arrival they were making arrangements for a taxi at 1.30am, when the restaurant shut its doors, and were plainly going to be making a night of it. Attagirls! But their preemptive ordering of a taxi reminded me of one more headwind that nightlife in rural Japan has had to face: the crackdown on drink-driving.
The back of the Tsubohachi menu asks the patrons whether they came by car. If they plan on going home by car, the menu goes on to say, the staff will refuse to serve them alcohol. More brightly, it suggests that drivers try one of its wide range of nonalcoholic drinks.
The Road Traffic Law was revised in 2002, cutting the permissible blood-alcohol rate and allowing for the prosecution of anyone who doesn’t prevent someone known to them to be drunk from driving as an accessory if an accident is caused, hence the warning on the back of the menu, although how enforceable this provision is remains open to doubt. The tougher law helped to cut the number of DUI arrests by 60% between 1999 and 2005. Then in the summer of 2006 a young man driving drunk over a bridge in Kyushu rear-ended an SUV occupied by a family of five, toppling it into the waters below; the parents survived, the children, aged 4, 3, and 1, did not. The script could almost have been written for a media uproar. The prosecutors demanded 20 years, the driver got seven and a half. He had a blood-alcohol level of 0.25mg, which would have been exactly on the legal/illegal border prior to 2002. Spurred on by the media frenzy, the National Police Agency cracked down further on drink-driving, and by late 2006 the fatal traffic accidents caused by drunk drivers were down by around half year-on-year. In September 2007, the Road Traffic Law was toughened again, with the maximum prison sentence raised to five years from three and the maximum fine to Y1mn from Y500,000 (for over 0.25mg; the penalties between 0.15mg and 0.25mg are less severe) and newly providing for fines or prison terms for anyone who provides a vehicle or alcohol to a drunk driver while knowing them to be a driver, as well as for passengers of drink-drivers.
All fair enough, and fortunately our Tsubohachi was located directly above a taxi firm; there’s no condoning drink-driving or any reason to oppose stiffer penalties. I think there’s still just about space, though, to lament what the consequences have been for already vulnerable purveyors of cheer in rural communities.
As I brooded over this, more diners poured in and the restaurant took on a cheerful demeanour, filled with banter, cackles, and frivolous half-drunken conversations, exactly as an izakaya should be. There was at least one beacon of light in Hokota, dimmer than it might have been but a beacon nonetheless.
I stumbled out around 10pm. The Early Birds Hamburger joint was already shut (well, they were early birds), as was the kaiten-zushi place. The ramen shop still had two customers in it, though not the same ones as two hours earlier. I strolled back to the hotel along the main street, now entirely bereft of pedestrians, and supped on a beer from the minibar in the room while listening to the rain fall potsu potsu, slowly, methodically, in big heavy drops, on the rusting corrugated steel roofs of the houses immediately below the window and on the tarmac down on main street, where the occasional passing car would make a plashing sound as it passed.
That was quite enough for one day; there was one last piece to fit in the jigsaw, but that would have to wait for the morrow.
No whiter elephant?
The Hyakuri Airbase is the home of the 302nd and 305th tactical fighter squadrons of the 7th Air Wing of the JASDF. Once known as Hyakurihara, it was built by the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1937 and played an indirect role in the Kikusui kamikaze missions of spring 1945. Kamikaze pilots trained at Hyakurihara were transferred to bases in southern Japan for their final missions. The Kikusui campaign by some accounts caused the US Navy its greatest losses of the war, although this is disputed. After the war, Hyakuri was cleared as a staging post for returnees from Manchuria and elsewhere, finally reopening as a JASDF base in 1966. In 2000, it was decided to convert the base to joint civilian use and the base is now being positioned as the third international airport for the greater Tokyo area. It seems likely to be given the name Tokyo Metropolitan Ibaraki Airport. Construction of the passenger terminal started in 2008 and the airport is due to open in March 2010 after anticipated total expenditure of around Y54bn ($500mn). The MLIT demand forecast is for 807,000 users a year immediately after opening, falling to 690,000 a few years later. It will serve the usual domestic destinations—Sapporo, Osaka, and Fukuoka, for example—and low-cost carriers (LCCs) are also actively being solicited, as takeoff and landing charges will be 30% cheaper than at Narita and Haneda. So far, Asiana has announced a flight a day to Incheon, South Korea’s main international airport, and is planning three flights a week to Gimhae, serving Pusan, in the south. Malaysian LCC Air Asia X is also reported to be looking at flights to Kuala Lumpur. Other LCCs supposedly mulling flights include Cebu Pacific Air (presumably to Manila), Viva Macau, Hong Kong Express and Jetstar Airways of Australia. The prefecture is expecting an additional 100,000 tourists a year and a Y30bn boost to the local economy.
I hate to bring rain cascading down on the airport planners’ parade, but the demand forecasts have a stench of unreality about them. The population of Ibaraki Prefecture is a shade under 3mn (2.96mn as of October 1, 2008), a fair percentage of which live in the southern third, which is as close or closer to Narita than it will be to Ibaraki Airport, and a further, smaller, percentage of which live in the northern third of the prefecture, where the new airport may face competition from Fukushima Airport to the north. The prefectural population is declining, slowly for now (down 0.2% in the year to October 1), but barring demographic miracles, that pace of decline is bound to pick up. The demographic profile of the prefecture closely mirrors that of the nation as a whole, and so of the 3mn people, at least 600,000 are over 60 years old, not taken collectively a group of people in this country likely to be very interested in flying anywhere that, say, Cebu Pacific Air flies. So we are perhaps looking at a core catchment area of 2mn people and falling, whose incomes are at best stagnant and probably declining. (The latest statistics I can find on prefectural incomes are from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications’ Statistics Bureau website, which indicate that Ibaraki’s prefectural income per capita peaked in FY3/98 at Y3.13mn and fell to Y3.02mn in FY3/01, Y2.90mn in FY3/04, Y2.83mn in FY3/05, and Y2.80mn in FY3/06, before rising slightly to Y2.84mn in FY3/07, down by a shade under 10% in less than a decade and destined to fall further in the recession-wracked years of FY3/09 and FY3/10). The planners thus seem to be anticipating that, allowing for incoming foreign travellers, a fifth or so of the people in the core catchment area will use the airport every year. All this in the face of ongoing expansion plans at Haneda, which is soon to get a third terminal and fourth runway, and a new line connecting Narita with central Tokyo in 36 minutes instead of the current 51 minutes. Hmm.
I wouldn’t be so skeptical about the numbers if Japanese airport planners did not have serious form when it came to airport construction boondoggles, the most notorious of which is Kansai International Airport, built on a man-made island and plagued with subsidence nightmares from the beginning. Neighbouring Fukushima Airport is a case in point: passenger numbers peaked in FY3/00 and have been declining ever since; by 2006 they were at just 38.0% of the original demand projection. The airport lost its Japan Airlines flights to Osaka, among others, in January 2009, and it currently serves only four destinations—Sapporo, Osaka, Seoul, and Shanghai, with ridership on the Sapporo flight perilously low and the Seoul flight apparently sustained by South Korean golfing demand. I don’t imagine that the recent collapse in the value of the won will have done that route any favours.
Ibaraki Airport has another fundamental problem: it’s in the middle of absolutely nowhere. The two nearest towns are Ishioka on the Joban line and Hokota, which has another station on the Oarai Kashima line, a strictly provincial route linking the prefectural capital of Mito with the steelworks town of Kashima on the coast. Both towns, however, are about 15km from the airport and the current road infrastructure in the vicinity of Hyakuri is of distinctly rural quality. Which is where the Kashima Tetsudo comes back in, as there have been plans put forward to turn the stretch from Ishioka to Hitachi Ogawa into a road exclusively for buses and use existing roads from Hitachi Ogawa to the airport, for a journey time of around 25 minutes. Nothing seems to have come of these plans since they were last reported in the media in late 2007, and there is certainly no sign of construction activity along the tracks. I suspect negotiations between the Ishioka city government, which wanted the remaining infrastructure for free, and Kanto Tetsudo, which wanted the city to buy it, have gone nowhere.
It was with some of this in mind that I struck out the following morning for the Hyakuri Airbase, which proved a little hard to find, although there is ultimately no hiding two 2,700m runways. On the way I came across the construction site of the new terminal building.
Eventually I made it to the main gate of the airbase. Cautious about photographing military facilities, I first asked for permission to snap the gate. Permission was readily granted and I sensed an expectation on the part of the JASDF personnel that I would be coming inside. What would there be to see if I came on base, I asked, and was told that they were allowing public access to view their cherry blossoms, which were approaching full flower. I needed no second bidding and found myself parking up on the grass of a huge quad, perhaps 400m square, in the middle of the base, the perimeter of which was lined with cherries.
Though the prohibitions were onerous—no alcohol, no leaving the quad—and the security was tight, there was something of a festival atmosphere brewing already, only half an hour after the first visitors had been let on base, with kids playing football in the shadow of the radar.
As I wandered around the quad under the cherries I was struck by the surreality of the experience—never in my life would I have imagined doing “o-hanami” (cherry blossom viewing) on a JASDF base—but also by its perfect congruity. The kamikaze pilots that took off from Hyakuri and many other bases in 1944 and 1945, most never to return, were known as sakura (“cherry blossoms”) for the brevity and supposed beauty of their lives. Of the four subunits in the kamikaze special attack force as it was initially constituted, one was called Yamazakura (“mountain cherry”), from a poem by the 18th century scholar of classical Japanese, Motoori Norinaga.
Asked about the soul of Japan
I would say that it is
Like wild cherry blossoms
Glowing in the morning sun
One of the purpose-built, rocket-powered, and bomber-launched kamikaze attack planes was known as the Ohka (“cherry flower”), and an Ohka corps was indeed formed at Hyakurihara in October 1944 before being soon moved elsewhere. There are no traces of wartime Japan at Hyakuri these days, although there is a memorial to the Ohka in nearby Kashima.
The handful of aircraft on display at the airbase are all post-war US fighters, mostly made under local license, such as this Mitsubishi F-104J Starfighter from the 1960s, nestling in among the cherries.
The Starfighter was made under license from Lockheed: the JASDF wanted the Grumann F-11 Super Tiger, but Lockheed lobbied the Japanese government very effectively, lobbying that with later aircraft contracts descended into bribery and brought down one of Japan’s most celebrated post-war prime ministers, Kakuei Tanaka, in 1976.
I was struck as I strolled around the base by the contrast between the decay and disorder outside and the prosperity and order inside; although the JASDF’s budget is not large by international standards, it felt as though it was being very comfortably provided for, a feeling reinforced as two F-15J fighters ($30mn or so apiece) took off in quick succession and split the sky apart; a reminder, if one were needed, that the Hyakuri Airbase is not just about cherry blossoms and kids playing football.
As I got back to the car, a JASDF official was taking my license plate details; embarrassed to be caught, he started talking loudly to his companion about car parking arrangements. I can’t say I was surprised—I felt like a spy, so it came as no shock to be treated as one. I left the base, drove the wide, empty perimeter roads south for a while before peeling off toward Ishioka and home. My journey was done.
Was it now clearer what had killed the Kashima Tetsudo line? I think so: it was a fatal combination of motorization, depopulation and demographics, and a moribund local economy. Motorization we have already largely dealt with; here I only note that Ibaraki is one of the most heavily motorized prefectures in Japan, ranking 7th out of 47 by number of vehicles per household (1.625) and 4th by number of people per vehicle (1.679), as of end-March 2008, due to its relative wealth and low population density, and it has the single most motorized city as measured by vehicles per household of anywhere in Japan—Chikusei, with 1.935. Depopulation does not really show up in the figures, because the only census data I can get my hands on is at the city level, which show that Ishioka’s population is down only a few percent from a 1995 peak and that Hokota’s population has been essentially flat for 15 years. The line passes through two other “cities” (really only agglomerations of towns and villages put together recently to make administration cheaper), Omitama, where the population is down very slightly from a 2000 peak, and Namegata, where it is down by around 10% from a 1985 peak. The line’s stations from Momoura to Enokimoto are in Namegata, and it was indeed here that rural depopulation felt the most acute, with many houses around the stations abandoned. I was loath to take pictures of them in general, feeling as if it was an act of intrusion too far, although I made an exception for this (I would say not long) deserted dwelling just by Hama station.
The towns and villages along the line would have been its lifeblood; it’s hard to imagine anyone from Ishioka having much cause to go to Hokota, but easy to see why people living along the line would have wanted to go to Ishioka. The bigger rural demographic picture dragged the line down, too: about 30% of Namegata’s population, I would guess, is over 60 and probably, not too put too fine a point on it, doesn’t get out and about much. The economy we have also largely covered. Going back to the prefectural GDP statistics, though, it’s interesting to observe that while Tokyo was getting steadily richer over the decade from FY3/97 to FY3/07, going from per capita GDP of Y4,272,000 to Y4,820,000, and some other prefectures such as Shizuoka and Aichi were holding their ground with roughly flat GDP, Ibaraki was even falling behind its neighbouring prefectures of Gunma and Tochigi, where the GDP declines were much milder. It dropped to 23rd in the prefectural rankings from 17th and ended up in FY3/07 with just 59% of Tokyo’s per capita GDP, versus 72% a decade earlier. In this and manifold other ways have economic disparities between Tokyo and the rest of Japan, city and country, town and village gapped wider over the last 10 years.
Could the Kashima Tetsudo line have been saved? Not having been minutely involved in the rescue process, that’s a hard question to answer. In its last year of operations, it made an operating loss of a trifling Y2.1mn ($21,000), but that number was distorted by the last-ditch efforts to save it and by train buffs flocking from all over Japan to ride the rails one last time. I would guesstimate that in the two preceding years it was losing very roughly $1mn a year. Not a huge sum for a prefecture with gross prefectural product of Y10.95trn in FY3/07. I suspect there was an absence of political will at the prefectural government level to divert spending from other areas deemed, rightly or wrongly, more pressing.
The related question, should the line have been saved, is I think an easier one to answer. It strikes me as sheer folly, in the first decade of the 21st century in the face of the twin threats of global warming and peak oil, to be closing any part of the public transport infrastructure, even one that by the end was barely carrying 2,000 people a day. In wilder flights of fancy I wonder whether it might have even have been possible to have extended the line up to the new airport. Certainly that would have cost a fraction of the total sum that will have been spent on the airport by the time it’s finished. Less ambitiously, could buses not have been run to the airport from Hitachi Ogawa? If the line had been provided with the funds to get it through the difficult three years until the airport was opened, surely it would have got at least a small shot in the arm from airport traffic.
There’s a non-economic argument on gross national happiness grounds to be made, too, given how many devotees the line had and how plain their affection is to see. How glum they must have been made. Glum too, the people living along the line, deprived of the whistle roar and carriage clank that might have had them checking the kitchen clock as they washed the rice for dinner to see which train it was, deprived the hum of industry in its old-fashioned sense. Glum too, the students at Ogawa High, who as they pass by the station at Ogawa Kokoshita are reminded of how their “senpai” (seniors) tried in vain to save the line. Glum too, people like the taxi driver at Tamatsukuri, whose lives daily intersect with level crossings where caution is no longer required, with grass-strewn platforms, and with wastelands of weeds where once stations lay, every encounter a jolt serving to remind of a modest prosperity that once was and will never now return. And glum they will remain, too, for many years to come, for although many of the stations and much of the tracks have been demolished or removed, there will be no construction along the line that will cause the traces that do linger to vanish, no concrete poured, no foundations laid, and no buildings topped out, as the level of economic activity that would have buoyed that construction has forever ebbed away, so it will be left to the sun and the wind and the rain to rust the girders of the bridges, to smooth the ballast into pebbles, and to erode the benches and the platforms into nothing, and it will be left to the bamboo, to the pines, and to the seven grasses of autumn to sidle in, seed, and reclaim their now rightful territory, until the miasma of gloom is finally lifted from the land.
The Kashima Tetsudo Memorial Museum opened in Hitachi Ogawa on April 19.
Kyodo News reported around April 22 that so far Ibaraki Airport has attracted just one carrier.
Asiana Airlines so far the only airline planning to fly into Ibaraki airport
MITO —With about one year left until the opening of Ibaraki airport, South Korea’s Asiana Airlines is the only carrier so far that has decided to fly into the airport.
The Ibaraki prefectural government boasted that its campaign to promote the airport, scheduled to open in March next year, as the third in the metropolitan area after Haneda and Narita airports has proved effective. But the airport is still relatively unknown and has faced reluctant airlines financially damaged by the global economic crisis.
Ibaraki airport is under construction at the Hyakuri base of the Air Self-Defense Force in the city of Omitama. Next to the existing 2,700-meter airstrip, a new airstrip of the same length will be built at a cost of about 55.3 billion yen.An airplane with a capacity of up to 383 people can land at the new airport, making direct flights to Kuala Lumpur possible. It takes about an hour and a half by car from the center of Tokyo to the airport.
‘‘Ibaraki airport has some advantages over Haneda and Narita that could attract customers,’’ said Asiana Managing Director Hyun Dong Silk at a news conference Feb 2, when he announced Asiana would fly one flight daily from Incheon to Ibaraki airport.
Ibaraki airport is farther from downtown Tokyo than either Haneda or Narita airport. But the local government insists that the airport is so small that it would take an hour less at Ibaraki than at Haneda and Narita for customers to move from check-in counters to boarding areas, which would make up for the disadvantage of distance.
In the metropolitan area, where many people use public transportation to go to airports, Hyun said that a free parking lot at Ibaraki would attract different kinds of customers, such as those who prefer to use cars. He said, ‘‘Ibaraki airport might create a new pattern of international travel in the area.’’
Ibaraki Gov Masaru Hashimoto said at a news conference Feb 24, ‘‘Our airport will supply the demand for international flights to Tokyo.’’
Another senior prefectural government official said, ‘‘We are relieved that the airport has come to be recognized in the metropolitan area.’’
Despite such optimistic views of the airport, some people in the airline and travel industries are still skeptical about doing business at Ibaraki airport. An analyst at a major travel agency in Tokyo said, ‘‘There are many people who don’t even know where the airport is. Without gaining publicity in the metropolitan area, it cannot be ‘the third airport’ there.’’
Even Asiana’s Hyun seemed worried about the lack of publicity, saying, ‘‘The name ‘Ibaraki’ indicates just a local airport. To emphasize that it is located in the metropolitan area, I want the airport to have ‘Tokyo’ in its name for international customers.’’
At his request, the local government plans to advertise it as ‘‘Tokyo Metropolitan Ibaraki Airport’’ to the South Korean market.
The prefectural government estimates the number of passengers of domestic flights in the initial year at about 800,000, while daily flights between Incheon and Ibaraki would bring less than 80,000 a year. It is still vital for the government to attract more airlines to the airport.
Malaysia’s AirAsia X was initially thought to be the first airline that may come to Ibaraki. But, according to prefectural government officials, it has become cautious about moving into Ibaraki because the global financial crisis has given the airline a hard time raising money to purchase planes.
Meanwhile, the prefectural government has been trying to promote the airport to domestic airlines. A prefectural official said, ‘‘Our taxpayers need domestic flights rather than international flights. That is why we are building this airport.’’
But the situation surrounding the domestic airlines is becoming worse.
Last year, major domestic airlines decided to stop or reduce services to some local airports. It is possible that Ibaraki airport will have to open without any domestic flights, quite rare for a local airport.
‘‘We are making every effort to attract domestic airlines, but it seems to me that this situation is not going to change anytime soon,’’ said Gov Hashimoto.