A hammer -- yes, that low-tech tool -- helps mold noses of Japan's bullet trains

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 28, 2010

KUDAMATSU, JAPAN -- No objects in Japan embody sleek design and cutting-edge technology like the noses of bullet trains. Decades of computer-aided engineering have gone into those curvaceous snouts.

It is a shock, then, to learn that they are banged out -- one piece at a time -- with a hammer you can buy at the Home Depot.

The banging happens here in Kudamatsu, a small factory town at the southern end of Japan's main island. Eight craftsmen use hammers to bend and twist thin sheets of aluminum, which are then welded together to create the graceful swoops of metal that cover the front of a bullet train.

With diligence and good muscle memory, it takes a young man about 10 years to really know what he is doing with a hammer, to be able to intuitively sense from the sound and feel of a hammer's blow how each aluminum sheet is taking shape.

It is manufacturing as performance art. There are no manuals. Perfection is never possible. One learns by banging. Over time, it makes you hard of hearing.

That's what Kiyoto Yamashita says, and he ought to know. Fifty-six years ago, when he was 17, he created the only company in the world that makes bullet-train noses with hammers.

Six generations of high-speed trains later, his company -- now run by his son, Tatsuto -- is still unique. It has just finished banging out a prototype for the E-6 series, the latest bullet-train design for the East Japan Railway Co.

The elder Yamashita was swinging a sweet hammer back in the early '60s, knocking dents out of bumpers in a Kudamatsu auto body shop, when engineers from the local Hitachi train factory came looking for someone who could fashion a metal box that would fit on a steam locomotive.

He hammered and welded together such a good box that Hitachi remembered him when Japanese National Railways was in a rush to build high-speed rail in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

As a subcontractor to Hitachi, Yamashita made prototypes for the first bullet train, Shinkansen. He built a company that thrived as high-speed passenger trains became a key factor in Japan's postwar economic rise.

Shinkansen trains have carried more than 7 billion passengers without a fatal accident. They are fast and getting faster -- up to 200 miles an hour for the latest series, which will debut in 2013. They are also comfortable, elegant and energy-efficient, and they run on time.

The nose of a bullet train is not particularly well-suited to the expensive and highly specialized mass-production machinery that molds and cuts metal to make hundreds of thousands of cars, trucks and toasters. The number of high-speed locomotives built for each bullet-train series in Japan is quite limited, from 40 to 120.

In Yamashita's small factory, metal workers pound together a new nose every week or so. There are other ways to make one, but Yamashita's method is flexible, reliable and relatively cheap. When engineers demand sudden design changes, the company does not have to rebuild elaborate machines. Workers simply pound out new shapes.

The company estimates that it has built noses for about 30 percent of all the bullet trains in Japan, as well as high-speed trains in China, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

"The most cost-efficient way of transferring computer-assisted 3-D design to metal is with a hammer," said Tatsuto Yamashita, who, unlike his father, never spent much time swinging a hammer.

"My father told me that if I took over the business, it would go broke," he said.

So the son moved away from Kudamatsu, attended business school in Tokyo and worked in Australia and Europe. His parents invited him back home three years ago to run the company.

Since his return, his most urgent concern has been finding more men -- and perhaps women -- who are willing to learn the craft of metal shaping. Most of his current workers are on the far side of 50, and it will take a decade for newcomers to acquire enough skills to replace them.

"We cannot keep up with demand," he said. "It is not easy to find people to do this work because most Japanese have never even heard of this skill."

Hoping to increase awareness, the company has built cellos and violins out of hammered aluminum and dispatched them as recruitment tools to exhibitions and events across Japan. The instruments are sleek, handsome and light, but they sound tinny.

"We are working on that," Yamashita said.

The company hopes to lure a world-famous cellist to perform with one of its instruments, which Yamashita thinks would be a sure-fire recruiting gambit.

"Please tell Yo-Yo Ma he is welcome anytime," Yamashita said.

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

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