Exotic Japanese material 4: Uniform button from Old Japan Rail Company
You may have read our previous blog post on Japanese School Uniform Second Button which we use for our watch strap design. This time, we would like to introduce another type of uniform button from Japan, which has a rich history and heritage, something that has shaped modern Japan, and has since been discontinued since 1987 when the Old Japan Rail Company transited to its new name in the new era of train transportation.
Nippon Railway came into existence in 1881 as the first private railway company in Japan. As the company was formed to assist in expanding the national railway network, it received strong backing from the government. The first railway tracks were constructed between Shinbashi and Yokohama during the start of the Meiji period and by the end of the period, railway tracks across most of the country have been completed.
Another method Nippon Railway used to expand railways was via acquisition of other companies. In 1906, the entire operation of the company (1,385km of railways as of 1906) was purchased by the Japanese government under the Railway Nationalization Act.
The design used in the uniform button of Nippon Highway is that of a train driving wheel, symbolizing the train and railway itself. The design was not only used in uniform buttons, but also on caps of train conductors and engineers as well. Another design widely featured on caps was the paulownia tree, one of the family crests of the imperial family of Japan.
Not only are Japanese trains affordable and convenient, they have also transformed the culture of Japan in many ways. Railways have been and are still the most important means of passenger transportation in Japan, ever since the late 19th century. Japan pioneered the shinkansen or bullet train, a high-speed train running at speeds of up to 320km/h. The development of trains has led to a romanticization of train culture among train enthusiasts (a.k.a. train otaku or tetsudou otaku) who are into photographing or riding trains. Some would also be interested in train uniforms or model trains.
Another important factor behind the romanticization of trains is the ekiben, the station lunchbox. Ever since the first station lunchboxes became a huge success at Utsunomiya station in 1885, many stations countrywide soon followed and made lunchboxes featuring local specialties. Ekiben are complete meals and would contain rice, seafood, meat, and/or vegetables.
Japanese trains embody a significant aspect of Japanese culture – punctuality. Rail officials would hand out “late slips” to delayed commuters so that they can hand the slips over to their companies to explain their situation. Punctuality is taken so seriously to the point that early departures are equally worthy of an apology.
However, off-schedule trains are highly unusual unless an accident or an earthquake occurred and the Japanese train system is generally efficient and excellent. The tourism and business industries have a reciprocal relationship with the train system, with numerous rail passes available for tourists and most companies paying for employee train passes for workers. Trains have now become an irreplaceable part of Japan and Japanese culture, for both locals and foreigners alike.
We hope that through this post, you can further appreciate the meaning behind the design of the train uniform button and see how far the development of Japanese trains and train culture have come.
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