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Dear railway commuters : be glad you’re not japanese !

(version en français de cet article)

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The greater Tokyo metropolitan area, which is spread over 3 prefectures has a population that is estimated to be over 36 million. That means the greater Tokyo area is home to 25% of Japan’s population on an area of approximately 13,500 km2. Every day, approximately 2,400,000 people commute into center of Tokyo for work or school. These impressive figures show what could be a chaos in public transport, but in reality, that’s something well ordered. Japanese culture, very particular, helps to manage such a traffic …

Tokyo, a big megapole (picture Marco Verch via license Flickr)

Japan’s first railway (28.9 km) was opened in 1872, 47 years after the first steam railways in Great Britain. It was built by British engineers and ran between Shimbashi and Yokohama with a journey time of 53 minutes stopping at six stations.

The first station of Tokyo is the Shinjuku station. It was opened in 1885. It was previously a stop on the Akabane-Shinagawa line (now part of the Yamanote Line). The opening of highway lines – Chuo, Keio and Odakyu – resulted in increased traffic through the station. Subway services at the station started in 1959.

An other station, the main station of Tokyo, is located near Kōkyo, the imperial palace, and the district of Ginza. The station is the terminus of Shinkansen in Tokyo. It was designed by the architect Tatsuno Kingo, and was commissioned on December 18, 1914. It was destroyed during the Tokyo bombings in May 1945 and largely rebuilt in 1947, it was fully restored in 2012.

Since then, other stations have been built all over the country. When you speak about railways stations in Japan,you enter another world. What is supposed to be chaos is actually a well-ordered movement, a conception of things improbable in our Latin and American cultures.

The Tokyo Main Station, operated by JR East and JR Central, is an impressive 1,000-feet long (304 meters). It’s the busiest station in Japan in terms of number of trains per day (more than 3,000); 350,000 passengers pass through its turnstiles on a daily basis. The station also reportedly earns more revenue than any other station in Japan. It has 14 lines, including the Tokaido Shinkansen, the most heavily traveled high-speed rail route in the world.

The trains operating in Tokyo are involved in a mass migration movement, as we know them in all the major cities of the world. But in Tokyo, everything seems more crazy than elsewhere. Tokyo’s rush hour moves the populations of whole countries within the confines of the city boundaries every morning and evening. According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism the hourly number of passengers increases to nearly 80,000 during morning rush hour. It is a mass migration movement where the density of people on the trains is close to the practical maximum to the point any train ride becomes uncomfortable. For example, 3.5 million people use the station each day, making it the busiest station in the world in terms of passenger numbers.

The Shibuya Toyoko Line (picture Joi Ito via license Flickr)

How to find one’s way in the maze of Japanese train stations?
The Japanese railway stations are not great monuments of architecture. Here in Tokyo, there is no Calatrava or architecture agency, but many sobriety. We don’t find these huge new stations as in China, which are very recent and take advantage of the drastic update of the Chinese railway. In Tokyo, the train stations were built over the decades, with the increase of the traffic.

The example of the Shinjuku station is really a incredible collection of separate stations run by seven different companies, all connected together by a myriad of passageways and tunnels. From early morning till late at night incessant streams of people of all ages and types hurry along who knows where. Most foreigners find the place scary, but unaccompanied schoolchildren six year olds can be seen passing through on their way to school, completely unfazed by the tumult around them.

An western resident told: « I used to like riding trains in Japan and even thought it was interesting to watch how everybody manages to navigate all the train lines. Not so much anymore. Sure, compared to most other countries it works, but the crowds… People everywhere. » Another user adds: « While I never felt ‘lost’ the harfest part i found was when coming out of large Stations, even though my guide book told you which exit to take some of the large stations have upwards of 25 exits and finding the one you want is tricky especially with the volume of people, we just decided to ‘get out’ of the Station and see where we were exactly. »

The famous ‘train stuffing’
Taking the train during the rush hour in Tokyo is a traumatic experience suffered by millions of commuters every day. This is where the London commuters must be happy with their daily life, comparing with Tokyo! We all know these famous pictures of the « pushers » on the subway or the suburban trains. It’s not a legend, it’s a reality (see video). A whole population seems to be rushing to one of the 769 railways and bus stations, 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, The train is so stuffed with people that you feel like you could not even breathe or move inside the train compartment. 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% ! Japanese commuters must deploy a refined art to push themselves and enter a train. It looks like a kind of a challenge to reach a rate of 200%. This video must be watched until the end, so much is it explicit …

Bad temptations…
If this daily compression never degenerates into conflict, it causes however another problem which increases dramatically. ‘Chikan’, the Japanese term for ‘groping’, a catch-all term that covers groping, sexual rubbing and surreptitious mobile phone photography. This become a real scourge in the Japanese city. This is obviously not difficult to understand. Japan’s problem with chikan is widespread. In surveys conducted by train companies, as many as 70 percent of young women say they have been groped, mostly on commuter trains. So much so that on some lines, railways were obliged to restrain somes cars with access only for women. According the Japan Times, figures from the Metropolitan Police Department show that 1,750 cases of groping or molestation were reported in 2017, of which 30 percent occurred between 7 and 9 a.m. during the morning rush hour. More than 50 percent of sexual harassment cases occurred on trains, the report says, with a further 20 percent occuring in train stations. The Japanese police now send civilians workforces to the most affected lines and have allowed the arrest of ‘gropers’, sometimes specialized gangs.

Answer to the problem of ‘Chikan‘…

Despite this, the Tokyo authorities are trying to demonstrate that the city is one of the safest cities in the world. It is obviously recommended that tourists avoid rush hours to visit the city. For those who are in Tokyo for business, it’s something else. Better to choose a hotel not too far from your meeting place. Tokyo also has a network of buses and a flotilla of taxis, but most travellers find that the trains cover all their transportation needs. The incredible interweaving of rail and metro lines has proved its relevance in one of the largest megacities in the world.

Ressources

History of the Tokyo station

Shinjuku Railway Station, Tokyo

Tokyo’s rush hour by the numbers – Ramon Brasser

Shinjuku Station – An Unmissable Tokyo Experience

The Challenges of Commuting in Tokyo

Cultural Shock in Japan when commuting by train

Train Chaos: How to Master the Japanese Train System

9 ways to survive the japanese commuter train – By Alex Sturmey

The Amazing Psychology of Japanese Train Stations

‘Chikan,’ the Japanese term for groping, is increasingly being recognized abroad

Circular line of Yamanote (photo Andrew K. Smith via flickr)

 

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