Queen Victoria (1837-1901)
Japan’s First Railway (1) : As Japan’s ruling shoguns resist the tide of progress, a Nagasaki-based Scottish entrepreneur steps in.
Japan’s First Railway
Part one

With acknowledgements to ‘Dawn of Japanese Railways’ by Eiichi Aoki, Japan Railway & Transport Review No. 1 (pp. 28–30); and ‘Nagasaki in the Meiji Restoration’ by Sidney DeVere Brown (University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh).

The story of Japan’s first railway is bound up with the story of the country’s emergence from two centuries of self-imposed isolation. It is a tale in which the British played an important role, from engineer Edmund Morel to Thomas Glover, the Scottish merchant and railway enthusiast who took considerable risks to forge Japan’s lasting ties with the British Isles.


A locator map of Japan (modern borders) showing some of the places in this story.

A map showing places mentioned in this story (click to enlarge).

FOR over two centuries, Japan isolated herself from the rest of the world, a policy vigorously pursued by the Tokugawa Shogunate that had sidelined the Emperors.* But from 1853, zealous American, Russian and British merchants and their modern wares were grudgingly admitted into selected Japanese ports.

During a visit to Nagasaki that year, Russian admiral Yevfimiy Putyatin wowed Japanese officials with a live-steam model locomotive,* and American naval captain Matthew Perry showed off his own miniature railroad in Yokohama.* In 1865, Nagasaki resident Thomas Glover, a Scottish shipbuilding and coal-mining magnate working for Jardine Matheson, dared to set up two hundred yards of narrow-gauge railway on the city’s waterfront.* But the Shogunate was unmoved.

Change was on the way, however, and Tom Glover was key to it. He had already supplied guns and even a steamship to Nagasaki rebels keen to restore their Emperor as a British-style constitutional monarch, and smuggled twenty pro-Imperial samurai out on Jardine Matheson’s ships to London, for a British education.*

* The Tokugawa Shoguns (military dictators) ruled from 1603 to 1868, the Emperor having nominal authority but no more than a ceremonial function in practice. The ideal of isolation (‘sakoku’, literally ‘closed country’) was keenly felt: see our post The Bearded Foreigner.

* On how the British brought the first railways to Russia, see our post Russia’s First Railway. Admiral Putyatin’s model engine, together with a well-thumbed Dutch textbook, were used by Japanese engineer Tanaka Hisashige as a template for building his own working model steam locomotive in 1853: see a picture at Wikimedia Commons. It was the first working steam locomotive made by a Japanese person. The company Tanaka (his surname) founded subsequently became known as Toshiba.

* Miniature railways are alive and well in Japan today: see the Shuzenji Romney Railway in Niji-no-Sato (Rainbow Park) in Izu, Shizuoka, which has close ties to the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway in Kent and the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway in Cumbria.

* It was 2’6” in gauge, the same as the Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway; the engine, named ‘Lord Wellington’ and nicknamed ‘The Iron Duke’, was imported from England via China, where it had been on display for an Exposition in Shanghai. See ‘Scottish Samurai’ by Alexander MacKay, and ‘At the Edge of Empire’ by Michael Gardiner; some of the details differ from those on Wikipedia.

* These samurai were typically naval cadets, who had attended naval training schools such as that established in Nagasaki in 1855 – the Shogunate was supported in this by the French, supplying arms and expertise. Like more modern opponents of capitalism and industrialisation, the Shoguns made an exception for their military.

With acknowledgements to ‘Dawn of Japanese Railways’ by Eiichi Aoki, Japan Railway & Transport Review No. 1 (pp. 28–30); and ‘Nagasaki in the Meiji Restoration’ by Sidney DeVere Brown (University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh).

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Picture: Via Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. View original
Shinagawa Station in about 1897, with a train pulling away from the platforms on Japan’s first commercial railway line, opened in 1872. Shinagawa was the first stop after leaving Shimbashi (later Shiodome) Station in Tokyo, followed by Kawasaki, Tsurumi, Kanagawa and finally Sakuragicho Station in Yokohama. The loco is one of the ten J150 tank engines imported from the Vulcan Foundry in England, by this time slightly modified.

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