Japan is a country comprised of four major islands and numerous minor islands. It is configured as a crescent shape and situated to the east of the Asian continent in the Northwestern Pacific Ocean. Of its 378,000 square km of land, about 70% is comprised of mountainous terrain. It is inhabited by more than 120 million people.
It is a country that has achieved harmony between its traditional culture from ancient eras and its modern society with advanced technology. Yet, Japan’s fascinating natural environment is one that changes from season to season. The history of land transport in Japan began over two thousand years ago and can roughly be categorized into the following four eras: 1) Age of People and Nature (ancient times until the Meiji Restoration in 1867), 2) Age of Modernization (from the Meiji Restoration until the 1950s), 3) Age of High Efficiency Networks (from the 1950s to the present day), and 4) Age of Optimal Maintenance and Management for Maximum Utilization of Existing Roads.

l. Age of People and Nature (Ancient times until the Meiji Restoration in 1867)

l) The Ancient Foundations of Modern Japan

The oldest written record of roads in Japan appeared in a Chinese history book from the 3rd Century called Gishiwajinden. At that point in time, Japan was in the process of unifying the country under the Yamato Dynasty. People travelled on foot or horseback for hundreds of years until the Meiji Restoration, when Japan opened its doors to the modern nations of the West late in the 19th century, which resulted in modern conveniences becoming available and then prominent in Japan.
Unlike in China and the European countries, horse-drawn carriages never fully evolved in Japan. The historical lack of use of horse-drawn carriages could be due, in part, to the country’s terrain which is mostly mountainous and criss-crossed by numerous creeks and inlets.
After the Reformation of the Taika Era (645 C.E.), an elaborate central government system, characterized by emerging administrative and judicial institutions, was established. A new road network was developed at this time that connected Honshu (the largest island) to Shikoku (the smallest of the four main islands) and then continued all the way down to Kyushu (the southernmost and third largest island).
This nationwide public road network was called “Seven Roads”, and was composed of Tokaido, Tosando, Hokurikudo, San-indo, San-yodo, Nankaido, and Saikaido (‘-do’ in Japanese means ‘road’). After bitter struggles with the rough terrain of the country, the Seven Roads were completed and in later years were used as the prototype for highways and roads. Almost all of the Seven Roads routes were used as arterial railways during the Meiji Era (~1868 C.E.) and then expressways that opened after 1964. In short, ever since the Seven Roads were first established during this age, they have continued to serve as the backbone for transport routes in Japan.

Numazu-juku as depicted by Hiroshige
Source: National Diet Library

Nihombashi in the Meiji Era
Source: National Diet Library

2) User-friendly Roads Can Be Traced Back to Early Times

Along with the establishment of the Seven Roads came another system called “Ekiba, Tenma” (Post Horse System), which eventually became the modern international word “Ekiden” (a relay road race). In this Chinese-originated system, an “Eki” (meaning station) was located at each interval of 16km along a road and would provide necessary services for the officials and people of high rank who travelled that road on their journeys. Approximately 400 “Eki” were developed across the country. In the mid-8th century, a number of fruit trees were systematically planted along the Seven Roads, which eventually led to the tree lined roads of today.
Later, in the 16th century, a road signage system called “Ichirizuka” was established by referencing a similar practice from ancient China. This system can be viewed as the Asian version of the Roman milestone-system. After the Edo Shogunate was established in 1603 C.E., the Ichirisuka system was transformed when ample facilities were created and the 5 Major Highway System, radiating from Edo (the old name for Tokyo), was formed. The Shogunate specified that the five major highways should be about 11m wide and secondary roads should be 5.5m wide. The roads were to be filled with gravel and cobbles to a depth of 3cm and topped with sand after treading them down.
Sir Rutherford Alcock, the first British Minister to visit Japan, wrote about his visit at the end of the Shogunate era, saying, “Their highways, the Tokaido, the imperial roads throughout the kingdom, may challenge comparison with the finest in Europe. Broad, level, carefully kept and well macadamized, with magnificent avenues of timber to give shade from the scorching heat of the sun, it is difficult to exaggerate their merit."

3) Road Construction with a Consideration for People and Scenery

Japanese people frequently traveled, to such a degree that foreigners were astounded by how far and how often they traveled in comparison to themselves. The Japanese did not hesitate to travel because there were such excellent road facilities and services even back then.
In the middle of the Edo Era (1690 C.E.), Englebert Kaempfer, a German doctor who came to Japan to work for a Dutch trading house, wrote: “An unbelievable number of people travel the highways of this country every day. The reason for this is the high population of this country, but another reason is that, unlike inhabitants of other nations, the Japanese travel extremely often.”1
The Hakone Road was already paved by 1680 C.E. Sir Ernest Satow, a British diplomat who came to Japan at the end of the Edo Shogunate (mid-19th century), wrote in his book, “A Diplomat in Japan,” about his astonishment at the pavement there: “Next morning, we started at half-past six to ascend the pass which climbs the range of mountains by an excellent road paved with huge stones after the manner of the Via Appia where it leaves Rome at the Forum, and lined with huge pine trees and cryptomerias.”
Unlike the Via Appia, Japanese surface transport routes were developed primarily for people and horses, because horsedrawn carriages were not common prior to the Meiji Era (~1868 C.E.) For this reason, roads were usually in good condition since damage caused by traffic was not severe and maintenance was relatively easy to complete. Road cleaning and other regular maintenance was not performed by the Shogunate or the government of feudal clans, but by roadside residents on a voluntary basis. This implies that there was a general understanding that roads were not the exclusive property of the overlords, but considered to be “public property”.

1 “Geschichte und Beschreibung von Japan”