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Ex-Seikan Tunnel worker has 'no regrets now' as first bullet trains pass under sea

Toshio Kadoya stands in front of a tunneling machine used in the Seikan Tunnel construction, at the Seikan Tunnel Museum in Fukushima, Hokkaido, on March 22, 2016. (Mainichi)

An 81-year-old man who was part of the 24-year construction of the Seikan Tunnel connecting Shiriuchi, Hokkaido, and Imabetsu, Aomori Prefecture, is thankful to finally see bullet trains speeding beneath the Tsugaru Strait.

Thirty-four people died building the 53.85-kilometer undersea tunnel, opened to traffic in 1988 and the longest tunnel in Japan. And on March 26, as regular service launched on the Hokkaido Shinkansen Line, former construction worker Toshio Kadoya was there on the Shiriuchi side to watch the first train pass through.

Kadoya was born in and lives in the town of Fukushima, Hokkaido. He was a fisherman before he joined the tunnel project in 1965, working on advance drilling on the Hokkaido side, surveying and technology development.

The work was exploratory and beset with difficulties. The large, Swiss-made tunneling machine sank into the ground and got stuck as it was boring through the soft earth, and whenever the team dug forward they would be drenched by water leaks. In at least one year of the project, they advanced less than 100 meters.

"It was like trying to dig out sand with your hands," Kadoya recalls.

Out of the 34 people who died, three were colleagues of Kadoya. A boss who had thought highly of Kadoya's diligence died after being caught in a landslide, and a friend from Kadoya's hometown was run over by a work vehicle. Both of these deaths occurred early on in the construction. Then, in 1980, the third death happened when a well-liked worker under Kadoya was caught up in a tunneling machine.

"I couldn't say anything to his wife and newborn child, crying as they held onto his body at the hospital," Kadoya says. Unable to do anything else, he focused on the dig.

Then, on Jan. 27, 1983, came the day that the tunnel would at last break through to the other side. Kadoya's team was allowed to prepare the final blast opening the way from the Hokkaido side. Then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone detonated the charge via a telephone line from the prime minister's office, and as the rock wall fell, cheers arose.

"I still can't forget that moment," says Kadoya, who was carrying pictures of his colleagues who had died in his shirt pocket.

Afterwards, Kadoya continued to work on tunnel projects around Japan, until he retired in 1998. Currently he serves as a volunteer guide at the Seikan Tunnel Museum in the town of Fukushima, where he tells visitors about the trials faced in the tunnel's construction.

"The Seikan Tunnel was built through sadness, and to create a path for the bullet train. Twenty-eight years after the tunnel opened, finally a bullet train is traveling through it. I have no regrets now," Kadoya says, closing his eyes tightly as he remembers the past.

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