Japan’s Stressful Morning Rush and What the Government Is Doing About It
We're talking jam-packed trains every morning in Tokyo.
Welcome to the coping with cross-cultural challenges series.
In this series, our writers share their experiences of living in the land of the rising sun. Among the wonderful stories of learning the language, discovering hole-in-the-wall gems, and the occasional strange and interesting encounters, everyone experiences a sad reality—that living abroad is not all sunshine and rainbows. Having gone through the highs and lows, our writers share their experience of dealing with the challenges of living in a culture that’s not their own.
The Morning Rush in Tokyo
A lot of people—if not everyone—have probably seen the viral video of people getting pushed into a full train like a can of sardines. If you haven’t, try searching for it! True story: I had a friend who worked part-time pushing people into trains.
Some might think, “why not just wait for the next train?” Well, everyone has their reasons, and thankfully, this does not happen all the time (or at least to this degree). Besides the point, what is clear, though, is the severity of Tokyo’s rush hour.
What usually happens during rush hour
As far as I’ve experienced, the rush hour in Japan’s metropolitan areas doesn’t equate to jam-packed roads, but rather jam-packed trains. It didn’t seem like much of a problem at first, knowing that trains in Japan are timely. I always thought it was better to be stuck in a train full of people for a certain duration than being stuck in traffic for an uncertain time. However, slowly I found myself dreading the morning ride to work for these reasons:
1. The mass of people.
This cannot be stressed enough. It starts from entering the train station. People would start trickling in, forming lines to get through the ticket gates. Just getting into these lines is a challenge in itself.
If you find yourself running late, or trying to catch a train departing at a certain time, it might be difficult to do so because getting into the trains is a huge obstacle. The trains get packed, so sometimes you would have to wait for the next train to be able to ride.
Finally, you get on the train, and you find yourself in an awkward and rather intimate situation of being pressed against people you’ve never met. During the summer season, an added bonus of sweat, grime, and the occasional unpleasant olfactory sensation make this a more difficult situation. Although it may sound easy (#firstworldproblems), having to deal with it every day can be tiring.
2. Slower trains
Morning train rides feel longer than the ride home. Finding out that Japan made a ranking for the slowest trains during the morning rush validated that it wasn’t all an illusion. This does not necessarily mean that train lines are constantly delayed, but rather it could be that train companies schedule the trains to have leeway as a buffer against delays caused by the morning rush.
3. Full parking lots
This might not apply to everyone, but people who ride bicycles to the station might have a difficult time finding a spot to park their bikes. People who hold back on renting out a monthly parking space might have to do an impromptu hunt around the train station for a parking space for their bike.
It might not seem like a lot, but adding these to the daily grind—work, house chores, etc.—the morning commute would gradually become a mountain of a problem that a lot of people would have to overcome every day.
However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and the Japanese government has started to provide ways to deal with the rush hour, especially with the anticipated influx of people during the Olympics in 2020.
What is being done:
Japan has consciously been putting an effort to address the age-old problem of the rush hour, mostly by mitigating the sheer amount of people through spreading them out in different times across the day. Here are the ways Japan is changing the morning commute.
1. Free Food
Some subway lines have given free food to people who ride the trains earlier in the form of food stubs. While other train lines created a point system for those who ride earlier, which can also be exchanged for food.
2. Reserved Seats
Some train lines made a reserved seating system. You can pay an extra amount to add a reserved seat to the regular price. This will allow people to have a guaranteed seat every time they ride the train. Although these seats come with a price, it provides a small window for people to destress during the busiest times of the day.
3. Jisa Bizu (Literally, time difference business)
Hatarakikata Kaikaku has been a buzzword in Japan for quite some time, it literally means, work-style reformation. The Japanese government is spearheading this new style of working in Japan which involves teleworking, remote working, or working from home. Other forms of change are applied by some companies in the form of flexible working hours.
While some companies give liberty to their people to work closer to their homes, remotely or even at home, others are allowed to push their working hours later in the day to avoid the morning rush. All of which are efforts to allow people a better commuting experience.
As these are all relatively new, not a lot of people have adjusted, or they are unable to implement these things in their daily routines. This is why it is difficult to say if there have been any changes to the morning rush. However, giving it some time, we may see a different kind of morning in Japan with much less stress, and hopefully, one that will help people come to work with a smile rather than a furrowed brow.
Beating the morning rush in the cities can get frustrating, and most of the time the attempt can be futile. Japan has been trying to address the situation for years, and as it is a problem that has existed for a long time, it will take its course long before it gets resolved.
What I personally try to do is take it as it is, but in a positive light, instead of bringing myself down by dreading the morning train. Having experienced a different kind of rush hour from my home country, I think that Japan’s rush hour is much more tolerable comparatively. However, if like me you are also in a slump, we can take advantage of the morning freebies or any of the alternative options in the meantime. We can only hope that in the future, we will be able to have a stress-free commute.
(14 August 2019)