Downtown Nagano, Japan next to Nagano Station
Downtown Nagano, Japan next to Nagano Station. (Source: Creative Commons)

When Walter Maxey was a boy, it was his job to tighten the bolts before anyone got in the car. This was in the 1950s in southernmost Japan. The roads were just crude rock gravel back then, brutal enough to dislodge any steel bolt and turn an outing into a routing.

Professor Trent Maxey with his family in Kagoshima Trent Maxey, associate professor of Asian languages and civilizations and history, is Walter’s son. The family lived in Kagoshima, 800 miles south of Tokyo, a place full of palm trees and an active volcano; the professor’s parents and grandparents were Christian missionaries there. By the time he left for college in America in the ’90s, the local roads had radically improved. They were smooth and plentiful, fanning far out into the countryside. 

Roads had become a lifeline, after all: in the ’80s, when the railroads were privatized, most train lines far from Tokyo were discontinued. “I grew up where the car is not an option,” explains Maxey. “So I had an intuitive sense of how economic growth and success were tied to automobility.”

“Automobility”? The term has revved up among scholars over the last decade: it focuses on the social construction of movement through the car, arguably the most iconic artifact of the 20th century. For Maxey, automobility is also autobiographical—and the vehicle has become his vehicle for analysis. Thus his book in progress, with the working title Automotive Modernity: The Politics of Mobility in 20th-Century Japan. (Maxey is pictured here with his family on a visit to his hometown of Kagoshima.)

Scholars on cars in Japan have largely leaned industrial, explains Maxey—they have pumped out analyses of how the world’s auto industry was changed by Japanese exports from Toyota, Nissan and the like. “But almost nothing has been done about how the car shaped the culture in Japan,” he says. “I was tired of intellectual historical ideas that float in ether. So I challenged myself to find out about how physical things shape how we experience ourselves.”

Samurai Warrior Astride Horse (woodblock print), Utagawa Yoshikazu (source: Mead Art Museum, Amherst College)
Samurai Warrior Astride Horse, Utagawa Yoshikazu (source: Mead Art Museum, Amherst College)

Maxey begins the book by examining how, for centuries, Japanese modes of transport were regulated to keep status distinctions. Only samurai were allowed to go on horseback, for instance. During the isolationist Edo era (1603–1868), Western inventions like wheeled vehicles were banned. After the ban was lifted, the jinrikisha (rickshaw) was introduced in 1869, doubling individuals’ range of mobility and therefore helping to open up societal interactions.

Given Japan’s mountainous terrain and island setting, water transport was still more practical than the wheeled kind. But the super wealthy began importing cars around 1910, driving them mostly in the cities. Japan has no domestic sources of petroleum (it was reliant on coal then and uses nuclear power now), and so the trading houses subsidized imported gasoline.

Illustration of a car carrying a Geisha causing an accident Meanwhile, the roads were bad—made worse after 1923’s Great Kanto Earthquake—and so were the drivers. Accidents multiplied. In 1925, one newspaper reported that cars ferrying geishas in the evening generated the most collisions. In other words, the driving rich were mowing down the pedestrian poor.

In response, driving schools began and even launched their own journals—one named Motor, the other Speed. Speed also published novels (like Jidosha no koi, or Automotive Love), while Motor put out a novel where a country boy is run over by a capitalist car owner named Tomiyama (literally “mountain of wealth”), who redeems himself by helping the boy become a licensed driver. (An illustration from Jidosha no koi is pictured here.)

Maxey loved finding odd ephemera as he researched: musical jingles about road trips, for example, and little matchbox cars used as calling cards at nightclubs. But the civilian car era came crashing down as Japan embarked on its long war years, from the early 1930s to 1945, and motor vehicles were reserved for the military.

After World War II concluded, and the American occupation began, GIs heading stateside sold their used jalopies to the locals. And manufacturers began retrofitting their companies to produce cars. Toyota, for instance, had begun as an automated knitting machine business.

In the early 1950s, nearby Japan supplied vehicles to the U.S. for the Korean War and Vietnam War, which helped jumpstart Japan’s postwar economy. In the mid-1950s, Japan embarked on a highway-building spree, and citizens adapted to a “car society” (kuruma shakai). Indeed, car ownership surged well into the 1980s.

"Cars on the Highway" by Eugene W. Smith (source: Amherst College Collections Database)
"Cars on the Highway" by W. Eugene Smith (source: Amherst College Collections Database)

But since then, you might say history has turned a 180: Maxey reports that, today, Japan has reached a nadir in car ownership, a function of crowded cities and high fuel prices. The government has discouraged use by imposing stiff taxes on car sales and mandating that all owners have legal parking spaces—not an easy feat in teeming Tokyo. It’s too hard to afford both a home and a car, and so the car has taken a back seat. Indeed, many Japanese are currently “paper drivers” (pepadoraiba): they have a license but no vehicle. 

“The car has now become a signpost of economic and demographic decline,” writes Maxey. Young urban Japanese don’t drive; it’s mostly older, rural citizens still behind the wheel, because they are “coerced” to drive in order to get around.

“The car used to be an aspiration, but now it is a bit of a millstone,” says Maxey, who keeps exploring Japan’s automobility beyond its nuts and bolts.

Nihon fūkei senshū, Kagoshima Sakurashima by Kawase Hasui
Nihon fūkei senshū, Kagoshima Sakurashima by Kawase Hasui (source: Wikimedia Commons)