Contributed by Brian Rasmussen

Ukiyo-e Artists Documented Japan’s Early Railways, by Brian Rasmussen June 2024

On September 12, 1871, the first Japanese railway opened between Tokyo’s Shimbashi Station (also spelled Shinbashi, later renamed Shiodome) and Yokohama – the Takanawa Line. Initial construction and operations were done under British technicians. The first locomotives and passenger and freight cars were second-hand and of British colonial design ( with cylindrical smokestacks. Later, American-style inverted-cone smokestacks also were used, according to ukiyo-e prints.

These types of motive power continued to be used until at least the mid-1880s. The most prolific artist of trains was Hiroshige III (pupil of the great Hiroshige I), nicknamed “Railway” Hiroshige due to his designing at least 26 railway triptychs and 25 single sheet train prints (author’s research). Other artists who designed railway prints include Fusatane, Ikkei, Kunimasa (Baido), Kunimatsu, Kunisada III, Kuniteru I and II, Kunitoshi, Kunitsuru, Kyochika, Nogawa, Sadahide, Shigekiyo, Yoshitori and Yoshitoshi. As photography was seldom used for documentary purposes in early Meiji Japan, these designs offer the most detailed look at Japan’s early railways.

Locomotive drive-wheel arrangements were usually 0-4-0 (or 0-6-0), meaning no small leading wheels, four (or six) large powered and coupled driving wheels on two (or three) axles, and no small trailing wheels. Rolling stock ran on narrow-gauge track, which was (incorrectly) thought better suited to planned future mountainous routes. It was common for a particular train’s makeup to have both passenger and freight cars.

A few railway prints even included a table of times and fares. However, designers sometimes took artistic license. For example, train crews are usually portrayed with Japanese physiognomy but in fact crews initially were European. Likewise, sometimes no locomotive fuel tenders – essential for operation – are shown in these prints. That may partly be explained because some prints were issued before the first line opened.

This article displays nine railway designs from the author’s collection (photos by the author; size oban unless noted).

By the mid-1880s, trains’ novelty had passed, as the print-buying public turned to other topics such as the Imperial Family and new, Western-style buildings such as the Twelve Storey. But Meiji railway prints are fun, historic and often affordable collecting niche, as there are more than 85 designs from which to choose.

In 2019, construction of the Takanawa Gateway Station in Tokyo’s Minao neighborhood uncovered a 770-meter section of the 1871 Takanawa Embankment line. In 2021, part of the Embankment – with an 80-meter bridge and Japan’s first railway signal – was designated a national historic site.