The International Steam Pages

Preserved Steam in Japan, 2015
The National Railway Museum

This one of a number of reports about Japan. See also:

James Waite writes:

Japanís National Railway Museum was established in a large and lavishly laid-out building at Omiya in the northern outskirts of Tokyo in 2007. It replaced the old Tokyo Transportation Museum near the centre of the city. Steam locomotives form only a small part of the collection but the six which are there are especially notable as they include several of the countryís oldest machines. For more information on the exhibits check out (link broken by 29th October 2017).

Railways came late to Japan, largely due to isolation from the outside world imposed upon the country by its rulers for some 200 years until the 1860ís. After this ended the government soon embarked upon railway construction. Japan was far from being an industrialised country and needed help from outside. The government looked to British expertise for railway construction on Honshu, the largest island, to the US for Hokkaido, the most northerly of the four main islands and to Germany for Kyushu in the west.

Edmund Morel, a British engineer, arrived in March 1870 with a brief to built a line between Tokyo and Yokohama. He had previously worked on a railway project in New Zealand, a mountainous country like Japan, and it was probably his experience there which led him to recommend that Japanís railways should use the same 3ft 6in / 1067mm gauge. He threw himself into the task with immense energy, setting up his office in Tokyo on 22nd March and carrying out the first survey of the route only three days later. He recognised the need to give the Japanese training from the start so that they could take over responsibility for all aspects of their railways as soon as possible. He died little more than one year later at the age of only 29 after contracting pneumonia, probably brought on from exhaustion and overwork. By then he had married a Japanese lady. Sadly she died a few months later though she did live long enough to witness the opening of the railway in 1872. They are buried together in the foreigners cemetery overlooking Yokohama harbour. Their tombstone is carved in the shape of a railway ticket.

The railwayís first locomotives were 2-4-0Tís, all British-built but to a number of different designs and by different builders. The locomotive generally regarded as the first was built by Vulcan Foundry (614/1871) and eventually became JNR no. 1. In April 1911 it was sold to a small private railway in Kyushu and when it was withdrawn in 1936 it was bought for preservation. Itís now a key exhibit close to the museumís entrance, coupled to what looks like a very early coach. Close by is JNR no. 1292, a Manning Wardle 0-6-0ST (815/1881). For more information on this locomotive and its sisters see (link broken by 29th October 2017). Another of the early 2-4-0Tís from the Yorkshire Engine Company is preserved at the Ome Railway Park, an open air museum in the north western outskirts of the city and a third (from Sharp Stewart) is at the Meiji Village museum in Nagoya. Two more, from Avonside, found their way to Taiwan and one is preserved in the February 22nd Park near Taipei station.

The US influence on the early railways is represented by 2-6-0 no. 2 ďBenkeiĒ from the Hakkaido Coal Railway, one of two similar locomotives supplied by Porter (369/1880). They were the first US locomotives to run in the country. Itís coupled to an ornate and unmistakably US-built bogie coach. No. 1 ďYoshitsuneĒ has also survived and was exhibited at the Osaka Transportation Museum until it closed. It has now moved to Umekoji. Yoshitsune was a famous general in the Japanese army and Benkei was his faithful servant. Seven similar locomotives arrived later and four were also named after other people associated with him (see

Japan possessed three classes of 0-6-6-0 Mallets, used mainly on the Tokkaido main line through the Hakone pass between Tokyo and Nagoya. Twenty four came from Alco, eighteen from Baldwin and twelve from Henschel. No. 9856 (Henschel 11663/1912) is the sole survivor (see, link broken by 29th October 2017). Like the three earlier locomotives it was for many years an exhibit at the old museum. Sadly it was sectioned many years ago though maybe if it hadnít been selected for this ruthless treatment it would not have survived at all.

Finally there are two Japanese-built Pacifics. No C51 5 is Hamamatsu 5/1919. The C51ís were one of the first Pacific classes and the first locomotives to be built in what Japanese enthusiasts call the ďGolden AgeĒ. Their 5ft 9in driving wheels were the largest ever used in the country and were adopted in order to keep down the locomotivesí reciprocating forces, considered an important feature at the time. Two hundred and eighty nine of the locomotives were built. No. C51 5 is a very elegant machine but, curiously, is tucked away right at the far end of the museum beyond the numerous modern exhibits. The loco was an exhibit at the Ome park for many years from 1962. During the night of the 12th September 1982, it was pushed over a cliff below the park by a mudslide caused by a typhoon and was badly damaged. Youíd hardly know it now and its restoration the following year must have been very skillfully carried out. It moved to the Omiya museum in 2007. 

The C57 class dates from 1937 and lasted well into the last years before the end of steam in 1975. Sixty four were still in service three years earlier. C57 135 (Mitsubishi 285/1940) is displayed in the centre of the museum and looks very impressive indeed. It hauled the JNRís last passenger train which ran on Hokkaido on 14th December 1975 Ė reportedly with more than 2,000 passengers squeezed into its eight carriages and watched by another 25,000 people at the lineside.

One unfortunate feature of the museum is that thereís no guidebook for sale in any language and so itís hard to find out much detail about the exhibits. Many heritage operations regard guidebooks as being useful money earners and I canít help thinking that the museum is missing a trick here. That aside this is an excellent museum. It doesnít house the countryís principal steam collection, many more locomotives being on view at the Umekoji museum, converted from an old roundhouse in Kyoto. Nonetheless itís well worth visiting. It is close to Tetsudohakubutsukan station, a little to the north of the large station at Omiya, and there is a fair-sized, though not enormous, car park. Itís far enough away from central Tokyo for road traffic not to be much of a problem there. It closes on Tuesdays except when Tuesday is a public holiday when it closes on the following working day instead.

In addition to the Ome park the Tobu Transport Museum, run by the private Tobu Railway, looks as though itís also well worth visiting though I havenít been there. Itís home to two Beyer Peacock 4-4-0ís and thereís another similar locomotive at the Ome park.

There arenít many books about Japanís railways in English. One exception is ďSteam Locomotives of JapanĒ by Naotaka Hirota and published by Kodansha International Ltd. in 1972 (ISBN-13: 978-9172660502. Itís an excellent book by any standards, a model of its kind and indispensable reading for anyone interested in the countryís railways. Itís been out of print for years but is usually available on the second hand market. A useful companion volume is ďSteam in JapanĒ, a volume of colour photos mostly from the early 1970ís, written and published by Frank Stenvall in 1980 (ISBN-13: 978-0870111853).

Vulcan #1

Manning Wardle 1292

Porter #2

Henschel Mallet 9856

C51 5

C57 135

Nearly all of one side of the museum is devoted to housing several imperial coaches behind a glass screen. Most are relatively modern bogie coaches. This is one of two much older ones, and the only one that lent itself to photography as I could press my lens against the glass end panel.

The museum's foyer houses the front end only of of D51 426. However, less than a mile down the road is the railway's Omiya works, and outside it stands a complete D51 in the shape of D51 187. This was a day of rain of biblical proportions and the loco, under its smart shelter, was considerably drier than me!"

Rob Dickinson