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Harnessing Technological Prowess for Japan’s Recovery

by Sheila A. Smith
July 7, 2011

Full service is restored to JR East Tohoku Shinkansen line on April 29, 2011 following the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011.

A bullet train arrives at JR Sendai Station after full service is restored on April 29 to the JR East Tohoku Shinkansen line following the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011. (YouTube User Karibajct)

As politicians in Tokyo continue to flounder in their efforts to look forward, it continues to impress upon me the importance of understanding what is going right in Japan’s recovery effort. Last time I shared a story that reflects the ability of individual Japanese to innovate and cope during the crisis. Today it is a story of Japan’s technological prowess—harnessed in the service of social need—that I want to share with you from my recent trip to Tohoku.

For many Japanese and non-Japanese alike, nothing symbolizes Japan’s technological wizardry more than the Shinkansen, Japan’s high speed “bullet” train. Since it first impressed the world during the 1964 Olympics, the “bullet” train has gone through numerous upgrades and transformations, and has a spotless record of zero fatalities.   

But for those in Tohoku, the Shinkansen is more than a fast train. It is the region’s lifeline. The Shinkansen’s return to Tohoku after the disaster interrupted operations on March 11 was met with great emotion, and symbolized the beginning of the painful journey to restoring life in the northeast. 

What seems less appreciated is what actually happened in the midst of the earthquake. When the 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck at approximately 2:46 pm on March 11, the miracle was that no major structures carrying the Shinkansen were destroyed. Viaducts were reinforced against earthquakes, and these held even in the face of Japan’s largest recorded earthquake.

JR East runs the 882-mile Shinkansen networkfrom Tokyo to Shin-Aomori in the north, and west to Nagano, Niigata, Shinjou and Akita—nearly double the 456-mile Amtrak Northeast Corridor connecting Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. The company runs 310-415 trains, carrying about 241,000 passengers, daily.

Even more incredible is the precision of JR East’s early earthquake detection system. When the coastline seismometer detected the first wave of seismic activity emanating from the epicenter offshore, the JR substation shut power to the entire Shinkansen system. Emergency brakes were then applied to all trains. At the time of the March 11 quake, two trains running at about 170 mph (270 km/hr) through the Sendai area were directly exposed to the 9.0 earthquake’s vibrations. The power supply to these trains was cut 9-12 seconds before the first wave arrived, followed by the application of their emergency brakes. The largest vibration hit the Shinkansen trains about 70 seconds after their emergency brakes were applied, and JR East estimates that by that time their speeds had dropped to 63 mph (100 km/hr). The sensitivity of this early warning system allowed a rapid drop in speed, and a smooth halt for the two trains immediately subjected to this tremendous earthquake.

Twenty seven trains ran up and down the JR East Tohoku Shinkansen line at the time of the earthquake: fifteen were heading north to Shin-Aomori and twelve were heading south to Tokyo. In addition, 670 conventional trains were in operation on the JR East tracks.

Friends of mine were in a train halfway between Tokyo and Sendai, and told me of their nearly twelve-hour wait in the stopped train before they were evacuated along the tracks to a nearby shelter. Calm and quiet, the passengers waited for word on what had happened, but only learned later of the extent of Japan’s calamity.    

Yet not one passenger on that line was hurt; not one person lost their life. No Shinkansen trains were derailed. Station staff and train crew led all passengers to emergency evacuation areas before the tsunami arrived.   

Damage to the JR East lines was extensive, however. 1,200 sites on the Shinkansen line were damaged, and around 4,400 sites on the conventional lines were affected by the earthquake. Additional damages were incurred as frequent aftershocks of magnitude 5.0 or more continued to affect the train lines. The tsunami damages were considerable on the seven lines along the coast that were directly hit by the wave (about 1,730 sites were affected by the tsunami alone).

But the JR East’s crisis management and recovery effort was quick, and effective. 8,500 employees worked each day to return the Shinkansen to operation, and within 49 days of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the Tohoku Shinkansen arrived back in service to a community desperately in need of assistance.   

Sendai station master Hideaki Watanabe proudly greeted the first train to return. From the photo above, clearly the people of Tohoku welcomed back the rapid rail system that sustains connections between the Tokyo metropolis and the rural northeast. But it was the technology and the commitment of Japan’s much admired Shinkansen operators that speak to the broader strengths of Japan. Precision and the pursuit of perfection are the hallmarks of Japan’s modern industry, and the Shinkansen reflects the technological resources available to Japan’s recovery.     

But most impressive is not simply the amazing technology that allowed Tohoku to avoid further loss of life than might be expected, but rather the JR East’s story—like many stories one finds in post-March 11 Japan—reflects Japan’s capacity to organize that technology in support of a society that seeks to go further and do better at each step of its way forward.   

This is the spirit that ought to lead Japan’s recovery.

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