The Shinkansen experience

Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
My View - The Sun Daily
April 4, 2018

MENTION "bullet train" and the word Shinkansen comes to mind. The phrase "bullet train" was born out of the high-speed and ergonomic shape of the train translated from the Japanese description. The idea captured the world's imagination in 1964 when Japan launched the world's fastest train on the Tokyo to Shin-Osaka (515km) line after heated political debates and resignations leading to a "new trunk line" (which is what Shinkansen means) specifically named New Tokaido Line. It remains the world's busiest route and has not stopped expanding. In 2015, a new train set (the 7 series) set a record as the fastest in the world.

While the US was busy gunning for the Moon in the 60s, Japan had its feet firmly on the ground providing mobility solutions for millions of people. If you think that this is just another technological marvel that Japan is noted for, think again. It has grown into a culture that has far surpassed the technology.

Historically similar to the invention of the steam engine in Europe, it too brought many ruptures notably in economic terms that helped Japan surge forward as a community with bold innovative mindsets. After all the pioneering "architects" were aircraft designers during WWII. The stark difference is that the speedy train is cleaner in all counts. So much so others are imitating and competing while Japan continues to lead. And other technologically less capable nations also desire it for some reason.

While all these are commendable developments, it is the easier part. More challenging is to emulate the experiences that make the Shinkansen a cut above the rest. It is not just about being top-speed and efficiently so, but more to be culturally connected and relevant to all things Japanese that others, especially the non-Japanese, would find hard to match. For another, one would be hard pressed to cite an example where a transport organisation apologises to its commuters because the train left the station 20 seconds early. This can only happen in Japan as it did lately which at once reaffirmed the "on time" and "meet need" promises differentiating it from other railway experiences worldwide.

Such is the standard accultured by the Japanese where technology and cultural values are fused and practised side by side seamlessly. Travelling on the Shinkansen makes this apparent right from the moment passengers queue. The etiquette and impeccable service make the journey a restful and secure one. More so in the silent coach that tolerates no unwarranted sound even as faint as flipping a page. What more whispering into a phone because it invades the privacy of others. This is frowned upon on all Japanese public transport.

All these acts are difficult to follow if not culturally embedded as habits the way the Japanese have done it. Otherwise it becomes a farce that misses the features central to the Shinkansen experience reducing it to a frivolous technological ride sans the human touch. Along with it comes several disturbing acts as seen during the MRT launch. We forgot that technology is for people and put technology before people.

This should be noted for the southbound HSR project. Can the "fusion" be achieved as the Japanese have impressively shown? Or are we going to see other unacceptable behaviour like beating the queue. In short, have all these been thought through in formulating the type of training or is it just about technical transfer. How about the socio-cultural aspects which can be undertaken by local institutions working with the technical vendors.

Japan has a wealth of experience based on the Look East Policy that took off in the late 1970s, and kept fresh through trust and relationships built over more than 30 years. Under the policy, one cannot help recognise how much the exchanges benefited the youth leaders, academics, professionals and also those from other Asean nations. All these are pluses that underscore the understanding forged with Japan as both countries enjoyed 60 years of cordial diplomatic relationship since Merdeka in 1957 – incidentally the same year the bullet train was first mooted. And speaking about "trust", Japan again stands out relative to others that are either embroiled in massive corrupt practices or bizarre socio-political intrusions.

Malaysia must therefore set its sights high to ensure that similar Shinkansen-type experiences will be sampled by our commuters as the hallmark of a truly advanced nation come 2020. The Japanese dubbed theirs as the "super express of dreams" attributed to "the wisdom and effort of the Japanese people" as engraved on the launch plaque on Oct 1, 1964 just before the Tokyo Olympics.

How different will ours be?