Right now in general release there’s a Japanese movie called “Railways” about a 49-year-old electronics company executive who chucks his high-paying job in Tokyo to move back to his hometown in Shimane Prefecture and realize his childhood dream, which was to be a train driver. In doing so, he not only becomes closer to his family but closer to “life,” whatever that is.
Such a wish-fulfillment fantasy is a cinema genre unto itself, but the ambition to drive a train seems to have special significance in Japan, especially among men who grew up during Japan’s postwar economic miracle, when the nation’s train network became the life blood of that miracle. Since the privatization of the Japan National Railways in 1987, more and more lines have been going bankrupt, victims of the rise of automobile culture and the decline of the population in general. One line in Chiba Prefecture, however, has tried to extend its life by tapping into the very nostalgia that defines “Railways.”
Last March, Isumi Tetsudo, which is headquartered in the town of Otaki near the east coast of Chiba, solicited new drivers, but with a catch. “Do you want to make your childhood dream come true,” the advertisement said, adding, “and through your own ability?” By “ability” the company meant that the men chosen would have to pay ¥7 million each for their own training, which would take from between 14 and 24 months. The maximum age was 59, and the applicants had to be shakaijin, meaning that they were already — or, at least, had been at one point — full-time employees of a company or government office. During their period of training, the new drivers would be paid the minimum wage, and once completed they’d be hired as “contract” workers, meaning they would not receive benefits.
According to the Sankei Shimbun, six men answered the ad, and four were eventually selected to be trainees. They come from Chiba, Tokyo, Saitama and Hiroshima, and range in age from 42 to 51. One of them told the newspaper that he wanted to “make my dream come true in the last half of my life.” It may be a shorter life than he thinks. Despite the fact that Isumi Tetsudo is now ¥28 million richer, the company is still on the verge of bankruptcy. The president, who himself quit his job as an airline executive to take over the tiny third sector railroad (26.8 km comprising 14 stations), has implemented a number of creative ways to bring money in, including selling the names of stations to sponsors (Dental Support Otaki Station) and adopting characters from the popular Swedish-Finnish storybook “Moomin” as mascots in order to sell more railroad-related souvenirs. But the Wikipedia entry for the line states that a decision will be made sometime in August as to whether or not the line will be closed down. The fiscal report for 2009 saw “no chance for recovery.”
Which is a shame, and not just for those four fledgling Casey Joneses. Isumi Tetsudo is perenially named by railroad freaks as one of the loveliest lines in all Japan. Though it’s short, it snakes slowly through the hills and rice fields of eastern Chiba, which remains pretty much untouched by development. For ¥1,000 you can buy an all-day pass that lets you disembark and reboard as much as you want, and Ohara, where the line starts, is only about 75 minutes by express train from central Tokyo. Those new drivers are likely to be the last of their kind. In a 2008 survey of elementary school kids who were asked what they wanted to be when they grow up, “train driver” didn’t even make the best 10, though 40 years ago it would have been at the top. Isumi Tetsudo is sort of the last of its kind, too, so if you get a chance, check it out. It may not be around much longer.