The Challenges of Commuting in Tokyo

Jan. 18, 2016

Taking the train during the rush hour in Tokyo is a traumatic experience suffered by millions of commuters every day; so-called "salarymen" and women commuting to work in dark suits swarm in their masses to one of the 769 train stations* and bus stops, wait in long queues, cram themselves into overcrowded carriages, fight for breathing space whilst being crushed further into the carriage by uniformed "oshiya" in white gloves, and stand, squashed, often for over an hour on their daily commute. Mornings and evenings. The Japanese have a term for this daily challenge: "tsukin jigoku" (commuter hell).

Railway networks in Tokyo carry 40 million passengers daily with an average overcrowding ratio of 166%*. It is often said in jest that a train is only really full when, with arms pinned at your sides, you can lift your feet off the ground and remain standing. It is unfortunatley not far from the truth, especially in the case of bad weather or a passenger accident.

This morning, Monday, 18th January, Tokyoites woke up to 6cm of snow, strong winds, and sleet. Even those setting off to their underground stations extra early in their macs and wellies were faced with massively overcrowded departure halls and queues leading hundreds of metres out of the station itself. Most lines were affected by major transport disruptions with some passengers needing up to four hours for their usual 45 minute commute. Such conditions can wreak havoc in the capital which is unaccustomed to snow and ice.

Many were unable to pass through ticket gates, notably at Shinjuku, Shibuya and other major stations. The snow temporarily brought bullet train services on the Tokaido Shinkansen line to a crawl, caused suspensions of operations of limited express trains connecting Tokyo and Nagano, and cancellations of more than 140 domestic flights.

Japan's relatively conservative corporate culture does not allow flexitime or work from home, leaving many resigned commuters to wait for their trains, sending emails or messages to their employers to warn of the delay. 

Over the next 24 hours up to 80 cm of snow is forecast to fall in the Tohoku region, 60 cm in Hokkaido, Hokuriku and Tokai areas and 40 cm in the Kanto-Koshin region, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency.


*Tokyo Metropolitan Government 2012 ANMC21 Project

Photos provided by Chiara Jannetta and Garry Donaghy