New Scholarship on Japan’s Linear Chūō Shinkansen and Remaining Avenues for Critique

 Justin Aukema

19 January 2022

(Originally published here)


In this essay, I discuss Japan’s Linear Chūō Shinkansen (hereafter LCS), also called the Maglev, which is currently under construction. The project is led by Central Japan Railway Company (JR Tōkai in Japanese; hereafter JR Central), a private company. It’s total estimated cost is a whopping 9 trillion yen (approx. 900 billion USD). The Japanese state has promised to cover 3 trillion of this in government subsidies and low-interest loans. Proponents praise the LCS for its high technology. But independent experts and members of civil society have fiercely criticized the project for being a waste of taxpayer money and for its negative impacts on the natural environment. My analysis aligns squarely with the latter assessment. The LCS is projected to be a disaster on multiple fronts. And, amidst declining population and train ridership, there is minimal demand for a new high-speed rail. This is especially true in the Tokyo-Osaka route where the LCS is being built but which is already serviced by the current Shinkansen. 

Yamamoto Yoshitaka, Reassessing the Linear Chūō Shinkansen in Light of the 3.11 Nuclear Disaster and the COVID-19 Pandemic (2021)

To illustrate the problems with with the LCS, I draw mainly from Yamamoto Yoshitaka’s 2021 work, Reassessing the Linear Chūō Shinkansen in Light of the 3.11 Nuclear Disaster and the COVID-19 Pandemic (Rinia chūō shinkansen o megutte: genpatsu jiko to korona pandemikku kara minaosu). Much of this essay is in fact an introduction and review of Yamamoto’s work. At the same time, I also add my own analysis to fill in what I see as some gaps in Yamamoto’s criticism. In short, Yamamoto attributes the LCS project to “technological nationalism.” He says that Japanese business elites and politicians want to build the train in spite of its obvious dangers and costs simply because they want to prove that Japan is the most technologically advanced country. He also attributes the LCS to an outmoded growth paradigm that was dominant for much of the postwar. Toward this end he advocates a need for de-growth strategies. While I agree with Yamamoto’s assessment and conclusions, he lacks an explanation of how profits are achieved under contemporary capitalism. This results in there being room for refinement of his critique of the LCS. Thus, I preface my analysis of his work with a brief discussion of this point.

Profits under contemporary capitalism

We are in an era of slow to zero growth. In this situation, capitalism can no longer draw the bulk of its profits from production. Rather, it has to turn to other means such as financialization (Durand 2014; Tooze 2018) or reinterism (Christophers 2020). Capitalism is also increasingly relying on the state to secure corporate profits. This was observed most dramatically in the 2008 financial crisis when the US Federal Reserve bailed out banks around the world to ensure the value of the USD and, thus, to save global capitalism. And it was seen in Japan three years later during the 3.11 Fukushima nuclear disaster when the Japanese government covered Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) losses. States have also been increasingly willing to print money and run ever higher fiscal deficits to give subsidies and bailout money to private corporations. Indeed, many corporations and even entire industries now rely entirely on state backing to remain profitable. There are numerous downsides to this. First, it encourages private companies to take risks that they normally otherwise wouldn’t since they reason that the state will come to their rescue if things go sour. Second, such government subsidies are simply giant corporate handouts. Although many observers confuse such government involvement with nationalization, it is in fact the opposite. It is a continuation of the same privatization that has occurred under neoliberal regimes for the past three decades. If anything, it is a bastardization of nationalization where the state plays an increasingly instrumentalist role in the process of capital accumulation. Most importantly, this has only negative effects for average people and workers, since state subsidies come from taxpayer money. They should be seen, therefore, for what they really are: a form of robbery and upward transfer of wealth rather than a strengthening of the public sphere.

How does this relate to the Linear Shinkansen? Well, it all comes back to the 3 trillion yen government giveaway to JR Central. Much of the profits in financial and state-subsidized-capitalism are made before operation and even sometimes building of a project begins. What happens is that capitalists draw up plans for a project. The more large-scale and grandiose the better. They then work to attract private and state investment capital. Once they have secured this capital, or better yet, a subsidy or loan from the government ensuring them a promised amount, the capitalist waits for the value of the obtained capital to exceed the anticipated project costs. This can happen through falling commodity prices or a myriad of other events. When this happens, the capitalist has two options. She can either go ahead and build the project, perhaps even operate it, with an eye to selling it later. Or, she can sell the project contract before it begins operation. In either case, if the above conditions have already been met the capitalist/investor has already made their profits purely in the realm of speculative finance and exchange. In this regard, the 3 trillion for JR Central is crucial. Not to mention the generally positive effects that government subsidies have on corporate stocks, a large portion of the companies’ losses and even their profits have already been made at the time the subsidy is secured.

Yamamoto makes many excellent points in his work, and it is probably one of the best introductions to the issue of the Linear Shinkansen. But he fails to elaborate the above mechanism of contemporary capitalism in its critique. Other critical scholarship on the LCS, to my knowledge, seems to follow similar lines of criticism, focusing on former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s personal failings and corruption (Aoki and Kawamiya 2017). Admittedly, I have not conducted my own independent research on the history and economics of the LCS project. Therefore, I will draw on Yamamoto’s work almost entirely to elaborate on these areas. My addition, instead, comes in the form of knowledge of outside works on postwar and contemporary capitalism. I hope, therefore, to illuminate some additional aspects of the problem, therefore, by placing the issue of the LCS in this broader context. 

Background to the Linear Chūō Shinkansen

The novelty of the LCS is that it uses very powerful magnets (superconductors) to float the train car and to reduce friction. This allows the train to potentially obtain speeds of up to 500km/hr, or about two times the speed of the current Tōkaidō Shinkansen. This technology, however, is not new. It already existed from the 1960s and 70s in Japan. Japan Rail (JR) inherited the tech when the company was privatized in 1987, and it began testing prototypes in 1997. JR Central then developed plans to build a maglev train line from Tokyo to Osaka. The line would cut the time of travel between the two cities from about 2.5 hrs on the regular Shinkansen to just 1 hour. At the same time, JR Central planned an entirely new route through the center of the Japanese archipelago and which would cut deep under the pristine and preserved wilderness of the Southern Alps. A large majority of the trip would be in underground tunnels. The Japanese government approved the project in 2011 and construction began in 2014. The first part of the route, from Tokyo to Nagoya, is planned to start operation from 2027, while the second stage of the journey to Osaka is expected to begin operation in 2045.

This is in spite of the fact that the LCS is projected to be a hugely unpopular financial and environmental disaster. In the introduction to his work, Yamamoto details some of the myriad problems: it will destroy the Southern Alps, it will damage surrounding prefectures’ water supplies, its planners have admitted that it won’t make them any money, and no one is going to ride it anyway since Japan’s population is in decline. And what will Osaka-bound riders on the maglev do for the 18 intervening years between 2027 and 2045 when only the portion to Nagoya is operational? They will have to transfer trains to the regular Shinkansen which means they won’t end up saving any time on their overall trip. The list of problems goes on. In 2011, the government surveyed public opinion of the LCS. Of 888 total responses, 648 were outright opposed and only a mere 16 were fully supportive (12). Yet despite these obvious problems, former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō threw 3 trillion yen at the project in 2016, while business and political elites, and the mass media have silenced any criticism. The project is now a “national strategy” for Japan, says Yamamoto, while the media promotes the “myth of safety” and downplays the LCS’ dangers (14, 17).

The LCS and nuclear power

The LCS is expected to use massive amounts of power. Experts estimate that it will use approximately three to five times the amount of energy per person as the current Shinkansen. The only power source that can provide such large amounts of energy is nuclear power. So, as Yamamoto stresses in Chapter 1, the entire LCS plan is predicated on not only Japan’s continued use of nuclear power but also possibly even its further expansion.

Yamamoto explains the technology behind the LCS and why it needs so much power. JR Central and LCS supporters try to downplay the train’s massive energy consumption. But an investigation of the tech behind it reveals that it’s a power hog. The electromagnets on the train track need constant energy as the train passes over them. Meanwhile, the onboard magnets (train side) use superconductors, so only a burst of energy is required before departure. Superconductors are basically really cold magnets that conduct energy. By really cold, I mean absolute zero (-273C). The super low temperature ensures that there is minimal to no heat loss through the energy transfer (i.e. they are super efficient). But the problem is that in order to get that cold in the first place, superconductors need to be constantly surrounded by liquid helium which requires tons of energy. Furthermore, there are not many helium deposits in the world, and none in Japan, so Japan has to import it at an expensive rate. However, these costs and energy consumption ratios are rarely calculated into JR’s models when it promotes the LCS. On top of this, if even a little bit of liquid helium leaks from the superconductors, they cease to be superconductors, and the linear stops dead in its tracks. JR downplays the risk of this, but in fact it happens with superconductors all the time and even happened on a JR test run in 1999.

How much energy does the LCS use? In 2011, the government put the figure for just the Tokyo to Nagoya leg of the journey alone at 740,000KW/hr at peak time. This is essentially the same output of the second reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Thus the linear requires nuclear power. And JR has basically admitted this. Former JR Central chief, Kasai Yoshiyuki, said after the 3.11 disaster that Japan needed nuclear power and that the “fate of the nation” (ctd. 47) rests on its use.

But why would JR and the government want tech that uses more power in the first place? After all, aren’t we living in the age of ecologically “smart” and “efficient” appliances? Don’t we need to reduce our consumption to fight climate change? In fact, Japan’s energy demand-consumption has been declining since the 1970s oil shocks and especially from the 1990s. Makes sense for a country with a declining population. But this presents a problem for the capitalist model of growth. So, in order to artificially stimulate growth, the government has been throwing money at power companies to actually boost power output and to build new power plants. All this excess power, furthermore, requires new outlets of use; that is to say, it requires more demand and consumption. The more power-hungry the better. And this is where the LCS comes in: it’s exactly the big, wasteful project that the inflated power companies need. The irony of this is that the government and JR promote the LCS as being “high tech,” “clean,” and “efficient.” The reality is the total opposite. Privately, though, the ruling class has admitted the truth. In the 1980s, big power company CEOs admitted they had an oversupply of energy and thus needed new outlets of use. And the government admitted post 3.11 that part of its push to restart nuclear plants was so that the LCS construction could move ahead (52-3).

The myth of a population 60 million megalopolis

Publicly, LCS advocates and planners say that the train will revitalize local economies and help decentralize the population from its overconcentration in Tokyo. They also say that the LCS will create a megalopolis of 60 million people between Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka. But in fact the reality is the opposite. This is clear already from examining the effects of the current Shinkansen. Instead of being a boon to local economies, it centralizes the population in Tokyo and works through the straw effect to suck capital from the periphery. It doesn’t rectify the rural-urban structural divide that exists in Japan but rather makes it worse. 

Another argument LCS proponents use is that having a second train line between Tokyo-Osaka will make Japan more resilient in times of disaster. And Japan certainly is a disaster-prone country. But actually this projection doesn’t match reality. The LCS can’t carry goods but only people; and goods are what really matter in the time of an emergency, such as an earthquake. Actually, the most important infrastructure in times of disaster is local train lines. This was proved after the 3.11 disaster, when the Shinkansen was down for ages, but local train lines were reopened relatively quickly. Thus, Yamamoto says, “low tech is more resilient in times of disaster than high tech” (65). This statement seems intuitively correct even for non-experts. So, rail companies and the government should focus on improving existing local lines that people actually rely on rather than building bloated new ones that no one is going to ride.

Will the LCS benefit local economies? The answer is no. This can be inductively proved by examining the effects of the current Shinkansen, and particularly where it has been recently extended on new lines to rural areas or where new stations have been created. What actually was observed there was the straw effect. The new station area created space for outside, foreign capital and big businesses to move it but it actually pushed previously existing local businesses out of the area and put others out of business permanently. This is thus a kind of neo-colonial extractivism that is a fundamental part of capitalist imperialism: new space is created for big business to relieve their problems of overaccumulation and deadlock through expansion into the periphery. This was observed in the case of the previous Shinkansen, where outside companies set up shops inside the JR station and put those outside of the station out of business. Also, the nature of the local economy changes, too. Kanazawa’s Ōmichō Market, for example, was transformed from serving local customers to catering to tourists. Nevertheless, local elites and politicians continue to present the LCS as the saving grace for flailing local economies. 

Other problems with the LCS

A major problem with the LCS is that it threatens multiple prefectures’ water supplies. This is because when it cuts deep through the Southern Alps, it will likely disrupt many aquifers that are the sources of some of Japan’s major rivers. Japan is surrounded by water. But it is actually a water-poor country. There are few lakes and aquifers. Most of the water supply is replenished through rain water that often comes in heavy rains. But much of this runs off through rivers to the ocean. This is why dams and man-man reservoirs are so important in Japan. One of the key rivers expected to be negatively affected by the LCS is the Ōi River. A JR survey estimated that the LCS would cause 2 tons less water to flow into the Ōi River every second. This would affect the water supply of 620,000 people in eight cities and two townships. And it would have adverse effects on industry and hydro power in Shizouka especially, where, Yamamoto writes, it is literally a “matter of life and death.” Indeed, Shizuoka’s governor, Kawakatsu Heita, has become a local hero for opposing the project, even though it has won him powerful enemies in the business world and national government (Asahi 21 June 2021).

Another problem is the huge environmental damage the LCS will cause to Japan’s pristine Southern Alps. Digging the enormous tunnel under the mountains will require 10 million dump trucks over 10 years, says Yamamoto. This means 3,000 dump trucks going in and out of the area hauling away dirt every day. And this is just to haul away dirt. When construction is factored in, the number could reach 8,000 trucks a day. 

The tunnels themselves are also highly problematic. In 2000, the central government revised national law so that builders could dig tunnels under private property without the owners’ permission if it was below 40 meters or 10 meters below the ownership rights. Aside from running roughshod over the concept of private property, presumably a hallmark of liberal-democracy everywhere, is it even a smart idea to build tunnels under areas where many people live? The answer is no. Much of the first sections of the LCS coming out of Tokyo will pass under heavily residential areas. But in 2020, another tunnel for a new highway being built in Tokyo collapsed, opening a gaping hole in the earth above in a heavily populated area. Needless to say, surrounding residents and homeowners were not happy when their houses were suddenly rendered worthless and unlivable. But this was precisely the aim of the government in revising the 2020 law. It wanted to find a way to dig the LCS and other tunnels without having to get the landowners’ permission or even having to compensate landowners. The level of anti-democratic corruption in this regard is astounding. In 2018, JR Central demanded that a large high-rise apartment building in Sagamihara City be torn down since its underground foundation would run into the newly planned LCS tunnel. Astoundingly, JR asked the City to compensate residents with public funds! This is not to mention that the planned LCS tunnel will also cut across two active fault lines in one of the most earthquake prone nation’s on earth.

Then there’s the problem of money. At first, JR Central was going to pay the estimated 9 trillion in building costs by itself. But then in 2016 PM Abe promised them 3 trillion of state funds. In fact, the government had to revise the laws to do this, since it is presumably normally not ok for the government to just hand over huge sums of money to private corporations. To make matters worse, Abe and JR Central head, Kasai, were good friends. This leads Yamamoto to label the government handout as a case of “nepotism” (101) of the worst order. The 3 trillion was a non-collateral loan and gave JR a 30 year grace period to begin repayment. It also had an incredibly low, fixed interest rate of 0.8%, resulting in 500 billion yen less money in interest than if it had been loaned from a private bank. Moreover, because it is a fixed-interest rate, this amount could actually be higher due to future inflation.

Private bankers and experts have all said that 3 trillion is way too much money to loan any single private company. Not to mention the fact that most experts predict the project will end in financial disaster. JR’s business model won’t create new demand, but will simply suck passengers from the existing Shinkansen. JR says that 103,000 passengers per day will ride the LCS. But simple addition of current Shinkansen passengers and airplane passengers on the same route proves this is unrealistic (106). JR’s model is predicated on growth in demand; yet this, too, is totally contra to the reality of population decline and decreased tourism due to COVID19.

Ok, so let’s recap. The LCS is going to be a financial and environmental disaster. And when the Asahi asked in 2013 if people wanted it, the majority said no. So why build it in the first place. Yamamoto responds by saying it comes down to “technological nationalism” (118). The LCS is an international competition to advertise Japanese technology and to see who can build the fastest train. And most of this nationalism, says Yamamoto, is directed at China, which already has maglev trains in operation. This is a thorn in the side of Japanese nationalists and elites, according to Yamamoto. Moreover, this nationalism has blinded them to overlook obvious safety concerns. Elites are not even thinking about average people who will ride the train at all; they simply want to beat China at the speed game.

Now, I mostly agree with Yamamoto’s analysis. But there are some problems. First, as mentioned, he fails to see that most of the profits under contemporary capitalism are already achieved through investments, stock prices, speculation, and subsidies often before any actual building or operation begins. This is the true meaning of the 3 trillion handout. It’s not just nepotism, it’s actual, real, hard-cash profit. Second, there are some problems with the nationalism thesis. Nationalism has actual appeal to much of the working class. Thus, if JR and the government pitch the LCS as necessary to make Japan number one or a leader in technology, there is a very high chance that this alone will be convincing for some of the working class. And, it’s even likely that many Japanese elites are convinced by this rhetoric and line of reasoning as well, since they themselves are often unaware of how capitalism works and the origins of profits. Third, there is an element of truth, though, to Japanese elites’ insistence on building the LCS quickly. However, this is not due simply to nationalism, but rather, as Marx explains in Capital, the amount of relative surplus value to be gained from improvements in productivity and technological advancements is limited by time. In other words, new technology will allow those who get their hands on it first to make profits over their competitors for a time. But as soon as the technology becomes widespread and is adopted by the entire industry, for example, then this advantage will be lost. Thus, for these reasons, while I agree with Yamamoto’s conclusions, I disagree with his reasoning. Giant corporations and elite politicians in Japan want to build the LCS not simply because of abstract nationalism, but rather because it is very concretely profitable for them.

The LCS in the COVID-19 era

Yamamoto devotes the last chapter of his work to examining the effects of COVID-19 on the LCS. This chapter feels hastily assembled and becomes disorganized in the latter half, so I will limit my discussion of it here. Basically he says that COVID has been a game changer, because now even less people ride trains. For instance, between April and June 2020, JR Central’s ridership was down 73% and its earnings down 79%. This was the worst performance of any rail company in Japan. In fact, JR and other rail companies were already in trouble. The privatization of JR in 1987 led the company to put profits over people. It shuttered train stations that weren’t profitable even though people depended on them for their livelihoods and neglected to conduct necessary repairs on its current train fleet in favor of building new, grandiose projects like the linear. This led to major accidents such as the terrible 2005 crash on the Fukuchiyama Line where 107 were killed and 562 injured. 

The fundamental source of the problem is that railways are an essential public service but they are being privately operated for profit. People rely on local lines the most. But since these aren’t as profitable, JR has successively been shuttering them or making them unstaffed, reducing the number of trains, etc. This worsens the problem of depopulation in the countryside and rural-flight, as well as the structural rural-urban divide. So, Yamamoto argues convincingly, that the solution is not to build new train lines between big cities that no one is going to ride anyway, but to invest in updating the infrastructure on local train lines. If train lines and infrastructure were improved people wouldn’t need to leave the countryside and may even move back. This would be a true economic revitalization. 

Yamamoto then discusses the need for degrowth strategies. But since these have been better covered in other works, such as Saitō Kōhei’s 2020 Hito shinsei no “Shihon-ron, I will skip over his analysis here. 


Yamamoto Yoshitaka’s 2021 work, Reassessing the Linear Chūō Shinkansen in Light of the 3.11 Nuclear Disaster and the COVID-19 Pandemic is probably one of the best, most accessible recent works on the topic. It’s clear from his work that the LCS will be, and already is, a disaster on multiple fronts. In this essay, I summarized Yamamoto’s book as an introduction to the issue. I also added my own analysis, which I felt to be missing from Yamamoto’s study, on the nature of how profits work under contemporary capitalism. Ultimately, my analysis strengthens Yamamoto’s findings. At the same time, I hope this will point to new avenues for critique. Namely, contemporary Japanese scholarship has mainly argued that the LCS will be a financial disaster. This is true. But such studies base their reasoning on simple projected cost-revenue comparison. This seems to show that the project will spell ruin simply because it won’t be profitable to JR Central and others involved. But as I argued, many profits under contemporary capitalism are made through investments, stock prices, the securing of contracts, and subsidies and thus are independent of the total building and operational costs. Now, my analysis is based simply on observation of the mechanisms of global capitalism under neoliberalism and especially since the 2008 financial crisis. However, my biggest weak point is that I have not verifiably proved how these mechanisms concretely work in the case of the LCS. To do this, actual data analysis of JR Central’s finances, its cash payouts to CEOs and stock holders, and its overall business model etc. are still necessary.


Aoki, Hidekazu and Kawamiya Nobuo. “End Game for Japan’s Construction State - The Linear (Maglev)

        Shinkansen and Abenomics. The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, Vol. 15, Iss. 12 (June 2017).

Christophers, Brett. Rentier Capitalism: Who Owns the Economy, and Who Pays for It? Verso, 2020.

Durand, Cedric. Fictitious Capital: How Finance is Appropriating Our Future. Verso, 2017.

“Maglev holdout wins 4th terms as governor of Shizuoka.” Asahi Shinbun, June 21, 2021.

Saitō, Kōhei. Hito shinsei no “Shihon-ron. Tokyo: Shūeisha, 2020.

Tooze, Adam. Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World. Penguin, 2018.

Yamamoto, Yoshitaka. Rinia chūō shinkansen o megutte: genpatsu jiko to korona pandemikku 

        kara minaosu. Tokyo: Misuzu shobō, 2021.

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