Photo/IllutrationThe site of the Japan Meteorological Agency’s Kakioka Magnetic Observatory in Ishioka, Ibaraki Prefecture, looks like a stock farm, but no iron-made parts are used. (Noriyuki Shigemasa)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

ISHIOKA, Ibaraki Prefecture--An old-fashioned brick building sitting in an expansive field could be mistaken for the headquarters of a secret society plotting world domination in a fictional story.

It is actually a government science observation center, but it still has had a disruptive societal effect.

The observatory is the reason that Ibaraki Prefecture, which is very close to Tokyo, is often not deemed part of the metropolitan area. And it is the reason commuters in the capital often have to change trains for no apparent reason.

The Japan Meteorological Agency’s Kakioka Magnetic Observatory stands on a 70,000-square-meter plot in the Kakioka district here, about 10 kilometers west of the Ishioka Omitama smart interchange, exclusively for vehicles compatible with electronic toll collection systems, on the Joban Expressway.

The site, which looks like a stock farm that disconnects the Tokyo and Ibaraki regions, dates back to the Taisho Era (1912-1926).

About 30 staff members at the facility collect data to develop countermeasures against magnetic storms, create maps and charts, forecast earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and conduct geophysical research.

Akira Yamazaki, a senior researcher at the observatory, said the facility was set up there “reportedly because the area was expected to never be urbanized.”

Geomagnetic observatories must be built on flat regions far from mountains or oceans and where the magnetic effects of electricity from nearby facilities can be blocked, according to Yamazaki.

Products containing iron are banned at the observatory because they could influence the geomagnetic studies.

The electricity from train operations could negatively affect data gathering.

In fact, the observatory used to be located in Tokyo, where Japan’s first constant monitoring of geomagnetic activity started in 1883. But it had to be relocated when a municipal railway was introduced in the city.

The observatory was moved to the rural region in Ibaraki Prefecture in 1912 largely because there were no railroads nearby.

But now, many trains run in Ibaraki Prefecture. The solution to the electricity issue was to use alternating current (AC) train cars.

Most trains operating in Tokyo and elsewhere outside Ibaraki Prefecture are based on direct current (DC). DC-powered trains are suitable for use in areas where a large number of trains are needed to meet mass transport demands, but electricity leaking from them can reach areas dozens of kilometers from the tracks.

The government requires trains running between central Tokyo and Ibaraki Prefecture to be able to operate on both AC and DC so the leaked electricity will not affect geomagnetic studies at the Kakioka observatory.

Trains from Tokyo have to change the current mode when entering Ibaraki Prefecture. Lighting on cars on the JR Joban Line used to be turned off when the train passed the switching spot between Toride and Fujishiro stations.

In 2016, all old train cars were replaced with new ones mounted with batteries, making it impossible for passengers to be aware of the current change. But the AC-DC switch is still necessary, and it causes inconveniences for passengers.

Operations of AC-DC trains are restricted because of the difficulty in planning train schedules if they are used in mutual operations with DC trains on the same tracks.

For example, such mutual operations exist for the Joban Line and Tokaido Line.

However, the Tokaido Line uses DC trains, so passengers heading northeast must exit at Toride Station and switch to an AC-DC or an AC train because the section beyond the station is for AC-use only.

Southbound AC-DC trains on the Joban Line now stop at Shinagawa Station in Tokyo.

Although they could go farther to Yokohama on the Tokaido Line, East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) needs the AC-DC trains to return as soon as possible to Toride Station for use on the AC-only section.

Increasing the number of AC-DC trains is not considered cost-effective because these trains are more expensive to operate than DC trains.

If DC-only cars were allowed to operate in the prefecture, passengers would be able to use one train for rides connecting Kanagawa Prefecture and Ibaraki Prefecture.

But a JR East official said introducing such trains “would be difficult as long as the observatory is there.”

Calls have grown to relocate the source of the problem, but no action has been taken.

“Relocation would have a severe negative impact, such as making it impossible to compare newly obtained data with figures from the past,” Yamazaki said.

He also said geomagnetic monitoring is of global importance these days.

A wider railway network helps cities and towns attract new residents. The Tobu Tojo Line was connected directly to Yokohama Station five years ago, and areas in Saitama Prefecture along the line have since grown in popularity.

Despite the obvious benefits, Ibaraki Prefecture must continue operating AC cars, making it difficult for the region to promote interactions with Tokyo.