Their rail network is like a spider web and also wondering how most of the lines are at-grade or eleveted excluding Tokyo Metro/Toei Subway lines, even though the suburbs are very dense with buldings. Did they clear out the buildings before building the rail lines or was it planned into it? A comparison would be something like the Shanghai Metro but their network is mostly underground, and it's a metro, not a commuter rail. Tokyo rail network Also they built most of the rail lines without having them underground which I find pretty impressive considering their cities are dense with buildings. To clarify my question, how did they manage the compromise between rail design and existing urban desity. Also my question refers to the commuter rail built, not the metro/subway lines.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Mar 21, 2020 at 15:19
  • Am I trying to make a different answer which was different from the OP's new edit and the OP is hoping for? What do you mean by "commuter rail?" I think almost 60-70% of Tokyo and surrounding prefectures) use underground paths daily when they go to their office. I am going to stop updating unless the knowledge or the scope of the OP becomes much clearer. (Please note, I can not enter the chat since I am sorry I got a temporary ban at Japanese SE.)
    – user12387
    Mar 21, 2020 at 23:03
  • @Kentaro Commuter rail as in not the Tokyo Metro/Toei Subway lines but the Keisei line, Yamanote line, etc.
    – ray314
    Mar 22, 2020 at 7:34
  • So your scope is about the elevated, upperground commuter lines, could you please names the lines of which you would like to know the history about? Do you know by the way that the Keisei line mostly covers the Chiba prefecture? It extends from Ueno, the upper Tokyo to Narita International airport. I am also afraid to say, if you are concerned with the technical engineering, here would not be the place you should ask. I think. Than you.
    – user12387
    Mar 22, 2020 at 22:50
  • I found a site link [ kajima.co.jp/gallery/kiseki/kiseki47/index-j.html ], where when the first Japanese railway line was constructed, what kind of an engineering problem was debated or occurred, and what kind of "political" as well as Japanese specific geopolitical issues was debated. Would you like the information as such?
    – user12387
    Mar 22, 2020 at 23:07

2 Answers 2


It appears that the answer to this question has more to do with Japans history rather then Tokyo's recent development into a mega-city.

A Brief history

The capital of Japan changed from Kyoto to Tokyo, then Edo, in 1868 to symbolize the transition of power from the traditional Shogun to the new Emperor Meji. With this shift in power Japan as whole began to rapidly industrialize with the help of foreign influence. One of the key symbols of industrialization at the time was having a developed transportation network, which Japan happened to lack. Emperor Meji ordered the construction of Japans new infrastructure and in 1870 the first Japanese railway was opened connecting Tokyo to Yokohama(Additional source).

From here Japan continued to rapidly expand its railway network to connect many of its already large cities with government support. Keep in mind that these railways were being built at a time when Japan had an authoritarian government and no existing infrastructure to compete with. Additionally the population of the area was significantly less then it was today. The greater Tokyo area at the time only had roughly 5 million people vs the over 40 million it homes today. Graph showing the population growth in Tokyo and the Greater Tokyo Area Because of this development style and the current state of Japan at the time, Japans railroads actually became the foundation for urban development. As railroads went up around the Tokyo area and more people began to live there, more residential areas were constructed around the existing train infrastructure. Thus many of the lines that you see today in the Tokyo area and much of Japan have existed there since before the deelppment of the highly populated area that exists today. This explains why the Tokyo area today has many above ground lines in comparison to other large or mega cities.

In Modern Tokyo

In the Modern Tokyo area, post World War 2 to now, many of the existing train lines have remained in the places that they were since they were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With weak eminent domain laws in Japan, the expansion of new railways in already existing residential zones is nearly impossible, but given that many important zones were developed around the railroads themselves this has rarely been viwed as necessary. In fact during its redevelopment phases following the war Japan wanted to alter some of its existing infrastructure networks, but lacked the means to do so. Instead Japan and the Tokyo area have pursued a policy of land readjustment to deal with some of the inefficiencies in the city. This lead to many state planned and sponsored railroads as the rail industry remained in the governments hands until the 1980's.

Additionally the train companies that are opening new lines, are heavily diversified companies that have divisions in real estate, commerce, banking, etc.. Giving them the ability to create new economic centers around their railroads thus incentiveizing citizens to use and live near existing or new railroads.


To summarize many of the Tokyo area trains were built prior to the areas development into a mega city. Instead the mega city was built around the existing railways. Many of the lines were built under an authoritarian government that had the power and resources to will into existences hundreds of thousands of miles of railways in Tokyo and across Japan. Today many of the new railroads that are opened in the Tokyo area are opened outside the major cities or very near existing lines without the need to clear existing buildings and operated by a multitude of private enterprises. Thus they have no need to compromise between the existing urban structures and the usage commuter rail lines. Furthermore Wikipedia says it best,

The development of Japan since 1872 is analogous to that of its rail network. Over this period, railways became the most important means of transport – especially for the movement of passengers – and they retain this role in the larger cities today. With many suburban cities having been developed by railway operators, the unchallenged importance of rail is something unique in the world.

  • "Many of the lines were built under an authoritarian government" many if not most rail lines are private and were built by private companies, not by the government.
    – Greg
    Apr 2, 2020 at 15:01
  • I was not saying that the current, physical rails were built by an authoritarian government. Just that the actual routes and locations of the rails were at first determined by the authoritarian government of Japan. I am well aware that the current lines are operated and maintained by various private enterprises. I will revise my answer to include this clarification. Apr 2, 2020 at 15:31
  • I am not sure even that is true. The companies developing those railways are also owners of the land around, where they build department stores, housing etc, and they have their own area development plans that are in line or not with the plans of local government.
    – Greg
    Apr 2, 2020 at 17:46
  • If you were to follow some of my included sources you would be able to read about how the rails have come to develop from their government run origins into private hands. The following two articles in particular will offer you the history of Tokyo famous Yamanote line, one of the oldest in Japan. deepjapan.org/a/4472 and japanistry.com/yamanote-line Apr 2, 2020 at 20:48
  • Really not that different from, say, the Main Line (en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philadelphia_Main_Line).
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 2, 2020 at 21:06

I found the direct answer. (To be updated later).


Yes, the government bought the houses and demolished (by today's JR East).

Hereunder the text under the quote in bold italic is the translation.

From this statement of the Board Of Audit Of Japan.


First, you need to understand that before 1987, all the railways were nationalized. (So-called Kokutetsu).

Regarding the kokutetsu Osaka construction department's payment to Mr.Fukuda who resides at Ooyamazaki village Otokuni county, Kyoto, which totals 15,010,420 yens on April and May 1961 in order to extend the Tokaido bullet train lines(operated by today's JR East) was not appropriate because the land the construction department bought was part of Mr.Fukuda's residence, only minimal, but the department paid the amount as a compensation for Mr.Fukuda's to move his whole residence

So, yes, Kokutetsu, aka today's JR east, paid the compensation fee in order to extend their lines.

Thank you.

  • 3
    This answers WHY the rail system was built, but the question is about HOW it was build.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 21, 2020 at 3:39
  • 2
    Sorry, this doesn't answer my question as I'm looking for how was the rail system built.
    – ray314
    Mar 21, 2020 at 4:12
  • 1
    @gktscrk Thank you for your advice. I will go rewriting if I found such a proper site.
    – user12387
    Apr 2, 2020 at 5:56
  • 1
    @gktscrk According to a site, the great earthquake had a "great impact", totally changing the schedule and not only railway lines but also the road maps the government had planned before the earthquake, so that my above answer might have something to do with the earthquake. But rewriting takes a huge toil. Kindly wait or understand. Thanks.
    – user12387
    Apr 2, 2020 at 6:59
  • 1
    @gktscrk In addition to that, thanks to the U.S "effort"(joking), Tokyo became flat by the U.S bombing, so I might be able to say, Tokyo's map experienced 2 total changes which had great impacts on the railway maps. (which further complicates the matter.)
    – user12387
    Apr 2, 2020 at 7:05

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