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Helping Asia advance at bullet speed

Interview - February 28, 2019

In this interview with The Worldfolio, Naoto Miyashita discusses how Japan will expand exports of its world-famous Shinkansen bullet trains to other parts of Asia, where economic growth and a growing middle class is fueling demand for Japanese-quality transport solutions.



In 1964, the Shinkansen running on the Tokaido Shinkansen high-speed line astonished international observers. More than 50 years later, the Japanese transportation system is regarded as a world leader in terms of safety, reliability and punctuality. How do you explain this success?

Japan’s world-famous transportation system owes its success to a cultural trait: punctuality. Punctuality isn’t just part of our business culture, it is also present in our everyday lives and habits. Anyone who worked for a Japanese railway company will tell you that the importance of being on time has been drilled into us. Respecting a set schedule requires precision, and (even) being one minute late is unacceptable. This cultural trait dates back to more than 100 years and it is still present in today’s society and railway system.

When we first manufactured railways some 100 years ago, they were initially national services, publicly owned and managed by the government. The government was strict with the standards that needed to be in place and truly emphasized reliability in all steps of the manufacturing process. Furthermore, Japanese people hold craftsmanship in high esteem and we pay a meticulous attention to details. As our civilization first found its roots in agriculture, we have developed excellent collaborative skills and we have a natural predisposition to work in groups.

Of course, there are many other cultures around the world that boast similar characteristics. However, owing to Japan's isolated geography as an island nation, these skills have continued to develop in a concentrated manner. In recent years, we've been importing and learning different quality control systems, such as the ISO, from Europe and America. However, it is important to note that effective control system regulations do not guarantee that the product itself will be of high quality.

Another unique point of the Japanese Spirit is the ability to develop and transmit technological heritage from master to apprentice. Our passionate mindset, our attentive nature and our commitment to transfer our skills to the next generation are all parts of the ethos of the Japanese mentality.


Throughout the years, your company has exported its trains to international markets. What are the main challenges you have faced when dealing with overseas projects?

When it comes to railways, locality is a crucial point and we must proceed with manufacturing according to local circumstances. For example, we can't simply export, or copy/paste, something made in Japan to Thailand. For that same reason, you can't just copy/paste a car that is made in Europe and have it run on the streets of Japan. Railways are developed alongside the culture of the land. The safety standards, transport culture and commitment to punctuality vary in every country. Train manufacturers must remain flexible and adapt to local realities.

We experienced this need to adapt when we worked in Thailand. As it imported material, cars and norms from the EU, the city of Bangkok developed its infrastructure based on the European model. Because Bangkok was basing all its transport culture on norms we weren’t accustomed to, we faced many challenges. Therefore, we adapted our product and service-offering to satisfy our clients. By maintaining a steady communication with our customer, we were able to understand and apply the regulations they required.

Interestingly enough, the biggest difference between European and Japanese norms is the amount of paperwork involved. Certain basic documents involved more than 160,000 pages! In Japan, the amount of time it takes to design the product is equivalent to the time needed to draft the paperwork. That's how different our cultures are. In Japan, the paperwork is limited to 5,000 pages no matter what we make. Even without the 160,000 pages of documentation, we are confident that we will create a high quality product. However, we had to face the reality that no matter how high the quality of our product was, they still needed to see 160,000 pages. In the railway industry, cultural and national differences must be acknowledged, identified and dealt with. The success of our exporting activities relies on our ability to adapt, even if that means writing 160,000 pages!


Can you tell us more about your operations in America?

Meeting American standards and norms is the hardest part about our US operation. According to USA regulation, two-thirds of our workforce must be composed of American citizens, and two-thirds of the components we use must be made in USA. Since we have not developed suppliers in USA, we have to consider this part a lot.

In our field, 60% of costs come from buying ingredients. Consequently, we have a multitude of vendors and suppliers. To manufacture high-quality products, we rely on the production standards of our suppliers. The same observation can be made with Japan’s car industry. Automotive makers put their lives on the line to ensure that quality standards are met by their suppliers. This relationship between suppliers and large brands has increased the overall level of our manufacturing ability and it represents one of the greatest strengths of the Japanese industry.

Interestingly enough, despite the high-quality technology that Japan boasts, we face difficulties when exporting our products to the world. The specificities of our “Monozukuri” are shrouded in a veil of mystery and we are unable to accurately portray our strengths. In reality, when you inspect the trains and railways that are in-use here, without a doubt, they are of high quality. But when it comes to exporting our products to the world, we have to meet various national standards and norms set by each country. When analyzing local standards, you see that it might not turn out to be the highest quality of products. To succeed in expanding overseas, we need to better document and accurately express our strengths in a way that can be understood.


In 2018, India pledged to purchase 18 bullet train from Japan in an effort to construct the country’s first high speed train railway connecting Mumbai and Ahmedabad. In recent years, we have seen similar bids throughout Asia. What will be your international strategy to tap into such demand? What other markets show the highest growth potential for J-TREC?

As train manufacturers, we are considering developing towards nearby Asian countries. The drastic economic growth of Asian countries has led to ultra-fast urbanization. Consequently, the railway services and transport infrastructure are yet to catch up and there is a need for development.

On the other hand, in Europe, the great multitude of railway tracks represents a huge market for us. However, the culture is different and the market is historically competitive. Nevertheless, there are niche fields in the European market that we can tackle.

Nineteen years ago, we exported about 100 trains to Ireland. We were the first Japanese maker to export an entire train to Europe. The quality of our vehicle was prized by the Irish and even in 2013 after more than 10 years since exporting, we received a Golden Spanner award from Irish Railways. We received this trophy because our trains had very few break downs. We always discuss with the Irish Railway staff how well-built our trains are.


East Japan Railway recently unveiled the ALFA-X, Japan’s next-generation bullet train. Can you tell us more about this project and the advantages it will bring in comparison to current Shinkansen lines?

Right now, the fastest Shinkansen runs at 320 km/h at its highest speed in Japan. For the future, our objective is to push the top-speed to 360 km/h while maintaining environmental standards. Furthermore, we will soon be able to run our Shinkansen all the way to Tokyo and Sapporo. Today, Tokyo-Sapporo is the most travelled air-route in Japan. If we're able to succeed in having the Shinkansen run from Tokyo to Sapporo, we will be able to bring airline users to the Shinkansen.

There are some firms including Kawasaki Juko, Hitachi and J-TREC involved in the development of this next generation Shinkansen. Kawasaki and Hitachi are taking care of the body of the train. We are in the process of redesigning the train’s interior. Speed increase will cause louder noise disturbance so we need to create interiors that can muffle transportation sounds. If everything goes well, our new model will be running in May.


In 2017, you participated in the TRAIN SUITE SHIKI-SHIMA project as a member of JR East grope. TRAIN SUITE SHIKI-SHIMA is a cruise train that is designed by Japanese industrial designer Ken Okuyama. Why was this project important for J-TREC?

TRAIN SUITE SHIKI-SHIMA is a cruise train that JR East has introduced in order to disseminate the charm of East Japan area to the world and to support the reconstruction of the areas affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake by sightseeing. It started operating on May 1st 2017. This train was designed to be the most beautiful, luxurious and comfortable possible. TRAIN SUITE SHIKI-SHIMA was a very difficult structure that has never existed before such as installing diagonal pillars. Needless to say that it was extremely challenging to produce and we had a lot of trouble technically. However, we are very proud to be involved in manufacturing such a train.

"photo credits: JR East"

While it was not much of a profitable operation, it represented a truly interesting project for us. Having the ability to boast such a project is fashionable and contributes to our brand image.


In 10 years, what objectives would you like to have accomplished?

My first objective is to make J-TREC advance. In the Japanese railway market, each operating firm is likely to customize their trains. Therefore, standardizing train production has become impossible. To make our industry progress, we are trying to centralize all technological and manufacturing operations to a common platform. This means that the parts used will remain the same while the outer surface continues to change, regardless of the operating firm.

Because of this divergence in standards, production orders occur on small volumes tailored to each train company’s requirements. But when you have small volume and limited quantity, the costs grow inevitably higher.

For commuter trains however, a large quantity is necessary. When it comes to these 20 meter wide trains, they're almost entirely interchangeable! What we're trying to do is to keep our base costs down by creating a technology where all the parts are standardized and interchangeable.

There are 3 different Sustina models that are standardized and inexpensive. One is S24 (20 meters wide with 4 different doors for each car). Another is S13 (18 meters wide for 3 doors). The other is S23 (20 meters wide for 3 doors). We're calling it the Sustina series. Just like airplanes, we're trying to sell our train cars as a series of products, such as the S24 series. Our challenge is to judge whether this will be accepted by the market. We hope that the railway operators accept and are satisfied with it.

“S24, Keio Corporation,Series 5000) ”

“S13, Toei Transportation, Series 5500)”

A second objective is to expand overseas. Today, Japan suffers from a decreasing demography and overseas demand we are reliant on increases. We have excellent capacities and track record with commuter trains. We want to export our Sustina Series to the densely populated urban centers of South-East Asia.