JAPAN'S RAILWAY DIPLOMACY REVIVES IN TAIWAN

JAPAN'S RAILWAY DIPLOMACY REVIVES IN TAIWAN

Plans for a Japanese consortium to construct a Shinkansen, or ''bullet train,'' link between Taiwan's two biggest cities will showcase Tokyo's technology and railway diplomacy.

Both have been running virtually nonstop and on schedule since 1872, when the first line connecting Tokyo's Shimbashi station to the port city of Yokohama opened.Some alarmist analysts see Japan's new railway moves leading to a resuscitation of Tokyo's use of political power and influence in Asia. That's so even though a no-war constitution deprives any such projects of military protection.

The new line should enable travelers to speed between the capital of Taipei and the Port of Kaohsiung, 214 miles apart, in about 90 minutes when it goes into operation in 2005.

It is expected to cost an estimated $3 billion, and to involve giant Japanese conglomerates Mitsui and Co., Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Toshiba Corp., and Kawasaki Heavy Industries.

The decision has been made to award the contract to the Japanese consortium, but a European group claims it had been given word earlier that it would get the job.

However, a disastrous accident in 1998 involving a German high-speed train and reconsideration of geographic features on the route were said to have cooled Taiwan on the European entry.

The Kyodo News Agency reported that Taiwan media have said that the decision to grant Taiwan Shinkansen Co. the priority rights was made after Taiwan's president, Lee Teng-hui, received a promise that would allow him to visit Japan after he leaves office in May. Presidential elections are scheduled March 18.

Lee, who graduated from Kyoto University during Japan's colonial rule of Taiwan, has been unable to visit Japan due to political pressure from Beijing.

Japanese Transport Minister Toshihiro Nikai visited China for talks with Chinese officials not long ago. His ostensible purpose was to lobby for Japan's bid to build a high-speed bullet train link between Beijing and Shanghai, an 800-mile route that would cost $12 billion.

There was speculation that Nikai's role was also to appease Beijing over Japan's deal with Taiwan.

The railway 100 years ago came to exemplify Japanese apprehensions over the relationship between modernity in the West, Japan and the empire.

Soon the railway's expansion came to serve as the spine and lifeline of Japan's colonial empire in Asia. It provided infrastructure for the ''Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,'' which came to an abrupt end when Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945.

The locomotive had emerged in Japan's Meiji period as the symbolic icon of civilization and progress.

''By the end of the Meiji period, the railway was regarded as the pre-eminent agent of modernization,'' wrote Carol Gluck in ''Japan's Modern Myths: Ideology in the Late Meiji Period'' (Princeton University Press).

In the early decades of colonial rule, this Western import acquired an imperial cachet, as Japan built railways in Taiwan and Korea and expanded the South Manchurian network taken over from Russia.

Railroads also have provided dramatic setbacks for Japan. The legendary bridge over the river Kwai, part of the infamous ''death railway'' linking Burma and Thailand, was one.

Japanese hopes to run a train from Pusan to Paris, extending from the tip of Korea, through Seoul and Pyongyang, and connecting at Beijing, never materialized. It was set back further by the post-World War II division of the Korean peninsula.

Magazines for railway buffs abound in Japan. There is one that celebrates the possibility of linking Japan to the Asia mainland by way of a tunnel from Fukuoka, Japan, to Pusan, South Korea. The line's strategic aspects are a favorite arguing point among armchair pundits.

In the long run, Japan's ''railway power'' could play a role in Asia's new century that will be more significant than that of China's missiles.

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