Opening of the Chikatetsu (Tokyo Underground Railway), December 1927.

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First Subway in the Far East

“The first underground railway to be constructed in the Far East was opened in December between Ueno and Asakusa, Tokyo, a little over one mile in distance. It has since been working to the complete satisfaction of all concerned, there being on the average more than 50,000 passengers daily patronizing this sage and swift transit service.

“An extension on the line from Ueno to Sudacho is now under construction. This extension work was started in July and is expected to be completed in November (1928).

“When the extension is realized, the entire line will be about three miles long. It will next be extended to Shimbashi and ultimately to Shinagawa.

“The construction of the subway system between Ueno and Asakusa cost the company owning it about 6,200,000 yen.”

The Young East, February 1928

Ginza Line, 1927. Interior of the Type 1000, the first carriages of the Tokyo Underground System, with dignitaries on board, including the system’s founder, Hayakawa Noritsugu (second on the right, seated). The carriages were modeled after New York City subway rolling stock in terms of mechanism and performance. The carriage bodies were constructed of steel, and largely fireproof with other safety-oriented features incorporated into its design. To prevent collisions, the rail beds were equipped with the ‘trip cock’ Automatic Train Stop system (ATS), an electro-pneumatic device that halted a train if it tried to run a red signal. The technology was considered so indispensable that it was still being used on the Ginza Line as recently as 1993 and on the postwar-constructed Marunouchi Line until 1998.

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Tokyo’s first subway, c. 1930.

“Underground trains appeared in London in 1863, Paris in 1900 and other major cities in the decades around the turn of the century. While Japan’s first overland railway was inaugurated in 1872, joining Shiodome (Shimbashi) with Yokohama – the subway took another 55 years, and it might have been even longer if it weren’t for an ambitious businessman named Noritsugu Hayakawa.

“… Hayakawa worked for several railroads in Japan before embarking on a tour of Europe and North America to study rail and port infrastructure, during which he was struck by London’s extensive subway. He became convinced that in order to grow into a world-class city, Tokyo needed its own underground. In Japan, the capital was already known for its jam-packed streetcars.

“‘The congestion of tramways can be neutralized only by the establishment of high-speed railways — namely, elevated railways or underground railways,’ Hayakawa said in an interview in August 1927 with the this newspaper, then named the Japan Times & Mail, which described him as “the man through whose initiative and ability the problem of traffic congestion in Tokyo will be solved.”

“Hayakawa spent two years studying subways in Europe and the North America. At the museum, visitors can view his silk top hat alongside evidence of his journeys: On display are his traveling trunk, passport and letters to his wife that bear stamps and stickers from cities such as Paris, Zurich and Montreal.

“After he returned to Japan, Hayakawa began drawing up plans for his subterranean dream. The challenges were myriad. Experts told him the ground in Tokyo, which fans out across several river deltas, was too soft and saturated with groundwater. Japanese engineers had no subway experience. And then there was the cost of ¥6.2 million, which is about ¥3.7 billion today, according to the Metro Cultural Foundation. Hayakawa and his supporters established the Tokyo Underground Railway Co. in 1920 and began lobbying the city government, business leaders, railway experts and foreign visitors for investment.

“Meanwhile, Hayakawa set about determining the course of the future subway by surveying the burgeoning metropolis at the ground level. For six months, in rain and shine, he walked the streets of Asakusa, Ginza and Shinbashi and took note of the passing pedestrians, rickshaws, trams, cars and trucks.

“To determine the most crowded intersections, he had his wife prepare a supply of white and black beans. When he saw a pedestrian go by, he put a white bean in his left pocket. When an automobile drove by, he put a black bean in his right pocket. The left pocket soon bulged, and through this one-man survey Hayakawa was able to get a rough idea of where people were congregating in the metropolis. The most congested — and, therefore, potentially profitable — parts of Tokyo would serve as the subway’s route. An initial plan to build from Ueno to Shinbashi, already a rail hub, was scrapped in favor of a line from Ueno to Asakusa, the bustling entertainment district surrounding Sensoji Temple.

Ginza Line, 1927. Ueno station entrance on opening day.

“… On Sept. 27, 1925, construction finally began on a 2.2-km tunnel running between Ueno and Asakusa, which was referred to by the name Kaminarimon, the iconic gate of Sensoji Temple. Okura Doboku, the forerunner of today’s Taisei Corp., was tasked with the job. Its elderly founder Kihachiro Okura insisted that it be built by Japanese workers, but at least one German engineer was recruited and Berlin’s U-Bahn, which opened in 1902, served as a model along with the London Underground and the New York subway. Construction cost ¥4 million per mile, which would be roughly ¥2.4 billion today.

“Two years and three months later, on Dec. 30, 1927, after several delays, the initial section of the present-day Ginza Line opened as the first subway in Asia.

Ginza Line, 1927. Unlike buses or trains, the Tokyo subway did not use conductors collecting tickets. Passengers bought 10-sen tickets from a vending machine and deposited them into an automatic ticket gate.

“The four-station line carried as many as 53,000 people per day. In fact, it was so congested that passengers queued all the way from Ueno Station’s ticket gates up to the street, past Ueno Park to Ueno-Hirokoji down the road. Even though trains departed every three minutes, there were waits of up to two hours. To board, passengers had to plunk a 10-sen nickel coin, which was one-tenth of ¥1 [US$0.05 in 1927], into a box attached to an automatic wooden turnstile at the platform gates. Then they could finally squeeze into a carriage for the five-minute trip.”

“Heart of Gold: The Ginza Line Celebrates Its 90th Birthday”, by Tim Hornyak, Japan Times, December 16, 2017

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