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OFF-PEAK JAPAN

The pandemic is weakening the office’s grip on Japanese commuters

Passengers wearing protective face masks are seen amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at Tokyo Metro's newly-opened Toranomon Hills Station in Tokyo, Japan June 6, 2020. REUTERS/Issei Kato
Reuters/Issei Kato
Looking ahead.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Crowded trains have always been part of life in Tokyo. The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t put an end to that—but it’s offering a glimpse of a future when they might no longer be spilling over.

In the weeks since the government lifted the state of emergency in the entire country on May 25, life is quickly returning to normal in the Japanese capital’s train stations. So packed are Tokyo’s trains, for example, that anxious commuters are posting photos of cramped carriages on social media with the hashtag “crowded train.”

According to data (link in Japanese) from Japan’s transport ministry, as of June 22, the level of train usage during peak hours in the Tokyo metropolitan area—which covers almost 40 million people—has reverted to about 65% of the level in late February, when the government first announced policies to combat the spread of the pandemic. In the Kansai region, which covers the western cities of Osaka and Kyoto, the levels have resumed to 79%. Considering congestion rates on some of the busiest train lines could reach almost 200% during peak hours in “normal” times, the current levels still assure a very uncomfortably snug commute.

Japan’s railway network—which since 1987 has been entirely privatized—is at the center of life for most Japanese. While the tangle of overlapping train lines on a Tokyo transport map may seem impossibly daunting to a first-time visitor, the capital’s inhabitants have learned to seamlessly weave between trains going above and underground, switching between about a dozen rail operators multiple times within a single journey with ease. Much of Tokyo was also rebuilt in the post-war period around the existing train lines, making not just trains themselves, but the amenities surrounding them such as department stores, restaurants, and hotels—which are often owned by the rail operators themselves—also central to peoples’ lives.

The network suffered huge drops in passenger numbers during the worst of the pandemic, as not only commuters stayed home, but also students and the record numbers of tourists who have flocked to Japan in recent years. The sharpest decline in train ridership came after the government announced a state of emergency for seven prefectures and metropolitan areas on April 7. Though passenger numbers are recovering as commuters mostly go back to work, train companies recognize that long-term change is afoot in Japan.

One railway executive believes that the pandemic is, in fact, ushering in the kinds of lifestyle changes that he anticipated would have taken longer to take hold in Japan, such as working from home and a shift of life away from the capital city region, home to over a quarter of people in the country. He even has a bold prediction for a city that’s known for its images of people being pushed onto overflowing trains, and tired commuters catching shut-eye during early and late-night train journeys.

“In five to 10 years time, it’s possible that there won’t be crowded trains anymore,” said Yuta Hashimoto, who is in charge of new business development at Keikyu, which operates train lines connecting Tokyo to surrounding areas such as Yokohama and the seaside towns of Kanagawa prefecture, and to Haneda Airport. What’s going to drive those changes is that more companies and people will become comfortable working from home, or stagger their commutes to avoid peak hours.

In fact, there had already been a push underway in the last few years by the national and Tokyo governments to normalize trends such as working from home (“teleworking,” as Japan calls it) or avoiding peak commuting, in order to relieve congestion, and improve efficiency and work-life balance. Some railway giants, whose stations have always been destinations as much as departure points, had even begun developing their own versions of co-working spaces in response to the government’s exhortations, setting up capsule offices (link in Japanese) around busy train stations to draw in commuters waiting for rush hour to end, or who weren’t quite ready to dive into working from home.

The outbreak of the pandemic forced companies and employees to suddenly experiment much more swiftly with these practices, but the rapid revival of commuting in the last few weeks suggests that any work revolution brought about by the coronavirus pandemic in Japan will take some time to percolate.

Parissa Haghirian, a professor of management at Tokyo’s Sophia University, is not surprised by that at all. Many Japanese workplaces, she said, are “not built for independent work… most processes are built in a way that you have to meet.” Companies will take time to recalibrate their work processes, and also learn to trust employees to work autonomously.

Among those who have already left the commuting grind, and are likely to continue to do so, are employees at telecommunications giant NTT Docomo, which said it plans to keep half its staff working remotely after this month. Hitachi, a maker of electronic appliances, said that next year (link in Japanese) it plans to allow employees to work from home half the time where possible. Cosmetics giant Shiseido is shifting to a more skills-based system (link in Japanese) of allocating employees and new hires to jobs, in order to hire the best talent regardless of their physical location. Some smaller companies have closed their Tokyo offices (link in Japanese) entirely to save on costs to go remote.

Masahiko Yasuda, who works in human resources at a cosmetics company, used to travel 1.5 hours one way each day to commute to his job in Tokyo. His company will allow people to continue working from home indefinitely, and he said he will “never use the train during peak hours again.” He did have to go into the office a couple of times, however, in order to use the company hanko, or the official company seals, used to stamp corporate documents, that keep many Japanese workers tied to their physical workplaces.

Even as people return to work en masse in Japan, the memory of working remotely and avoiding the dreaded daily commute is something that will stay with them, said Rochelle Kopp, who founded a consulting firm that helps companies with intercultural communication in Japan. “Tokyo rush hour trains are no fun. You can’t do anything about that, that’s part of your life. But working from home gave a lot of people a break from that, and having to go back to it is not that easy.”

Japan has managed to keep the spread of coronavirus largely under control without resorting to strict lockdowns and quarantine requirements, and most business activity has resumed, though dozens of new cases are still reported each day. To reduce the risk of the virus spreading, train companies are taking measures such as providing live data visualizations (link in Japanese) of congestion levels at major stations to reduce the number of people gathering in one place. There is also discussion (link in Japanese) over whether trains should keep their windows open to ensure good ventilation even during the summer “plum rains,” or whether the existing air-conditioning systems can circulate air sufficiently to keep it coronavirus-free. At the individual level, mask use is already high.

Until a vaccine becomes widely available or the coronavirus disappears, it’s likely that Japanese companies and employees will have to continue to transition in and out of remote work, further normalizing the practice. People may even realize that there’s no need to be based in crowded, expensive Tokyo altogether, said Hashimoto.

Keikyu, he said, should prepare for the eventuality that one day more people will be doing a “reverse commute” revolving around places such as Miura, a quiet seaside town about 1.5 hours from Tokyo: “I think people would love to work there.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Parissa Haghirian’s place of work. It is Tokyo’s Sophia University, not Waseda University.