The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

The average morning commute in Japan’s biggest cities is rarely an enjoyable experience and can often be a downright miserable daily test of endurance. Another traveler’s elbow in your ribs, crushed toes, or damp bodies squashed together during the rainy season are all guaranteed to put even the most mild-mannered of commuters in a bad mood before the working day has begun.

A survey of 2,000 commuters in Tokyo and Osaka, conducted in 2016 by market researchers Macromill, Inc., determined that more than half spend in excess of one hour commuting by train five mornings a week, and 95 percent said they feel stressed as a result.

The primary cause of that stress is overcrowding, and the primary reason for that is the belief commonly held by Japanese companies that workers should be at their desks by 9:00 a.m.

A Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism study in fiscal 2015 found fully 44 percent of the commuters living in Tokyo’s 23 wards were aboard trains at 8:00 a.m. on weekdays. For those coming into the city from farther afield, for example from Saitama and Chiba Prefectures, the figure climbed to 60 percent.

Recognizing the problem, Governor Yuriko Koike in July 2017 launched the pilot program of the municipal government’s Jisa Biz campaign—the word jisa meaning “time difference”—in an attempt to “reform the commuter rush.” Under the slogan, If you change the morning, every day changes, the campaign is designed to make getting to and from work less of a chore and increase productivity among individuals and companies.

Photo: 江戸村のとくぞう (Own work) (CC BY-SA 4.0) via Wikimedia Commons

The foreign business community has broadly welcomed the drive—although the local offices of global companies point out that they have long since implemented a range of measures designed to make workers’ lives significantly easier.

“Japanese companies are known for their long working hours, with packed trains a remnant of the nation’s period of rapid growth backed by mass production and mass consumption,” said Seikei Itoh, head of communications for Unilever Japan KK. “The key to achieving successful change is in altering people’s mindset.”

“Unilever is absolutely committed to diversity, and we are playing an important role in encouraging people to think more carefully about how they work,” he added. “[We are] changing the need for them to put in long hours in the office at the same time as improving productivity.”

As far back as 2005, Unilever Japan introduced a flexible working system, with employees permitted to work from home for up to eight days a month in 2011. The company brought in a Work from Anywhere and Anytime (WAA) policy in July 2016, enabling staff to put in the required hours at any time between 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. from wherever they are: at home, in a café, in a library, or standing up in the street.

The intention, Itoh said, is to encour­age employees to be healthier and more productive as they pursue the lifestyle they want.

Fully 88 percent of the company’s 400-plus employees in Japan have taken advantage of WAA, with 28 percent saying their work hours have been re­duced and 66 percent expressing belief that their productivity has increased. In total, 64 percent said WAA represented a positive change in their day-to-day working lives.

“As we have facilitated discussion of work styles, we are now encouraging society to tackle the issue,” Itoh added.

Unilever welcomed the first Jisa Biz campaign by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in 2017, which ran for two weeks until July 25, and supported the first day of operations by handing out free bottles of Lipton tea and pots of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to weary-looking commuters.

Under the initial phase of the Jisa Biz program, train companies laid on extra trains in the earliest hours of the day, which helped employers permit their staff to stagger the times they arrived at the office.

Some companies opened their cafeterias earlier, allowing employees to have breakfast after arriving at the office, while others made efforts to promote telecommuting.

More than 260 companies have signed on to the Jisa Biz initiative. These include All Nippon Airways Co., Ltd., Panasonic Corporation, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation, Pfizer Japan, Inc., and Microsoft Japan Company Limited. And on the first day, Koike visited Shinjuku-nishiguchi Station on the Toei Oedo Line in western Tokyo to promote the program. Tokyo officials say they hope the first version of Jisa Biz helped to promote discussions of working styles in Japan and they hope to hold a similar two-week trial scheme every year.

Ultimately, the hope is that attitudes at companies and among workers will change sufficiently that Jisa Biz becomes second nature, in much the same way as the national government’s Cool Biz campaign—which promotes more comfortable attire—has caught on during the sweltering summer months.

There are, however, limitations to the physical changes that can be carried out in Japan’s cities. This is despite Koike’s comments to the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly in September 2016 that “commuting in overcrowded trains could be slowing society’s momentum.”

One solution that Koike has put forward is the introduction of double-decker train carriages, which are already being used on many long-distance bullet trains and in limited numbers for first-class passengers on lines that transit the capital.

Train operators have warned, however, that instead of easing congestion, carriages with an upper and lower level might instead cause additional delays. This is because the only access doors are at each end of the carriage, and it takes a lot longer for passengers to embark and disembark than from conventional carriages with four or six doors.

For trains on the most congested routes, such as the Yamanote and Chuo Lines, that would simply be un­workable, the industry says.

Koike has taken advice from Hitoshi Abe, president of trans­port­ation consultancy LightRail Co., who has an alternative proposal for double-decker carriages. The plan is to have two levels but no connecting stairs. Instead, each level would have doors that open on a two-story platform, providing quicker and more efficient access.

Renovating stations to accommodate the new carriages would be expensive, Abe admits, but still much cheaper than constructing new elevated tracks over existing lines to meet demand.

The easiest solution to overcrowding, foreign companies insist, comes back to increasing the options in employees’ work schedules.

“Coca-Cola System has been at the forefront of improving the working environment of its employees,” a spokesperson for Coca-Cola (Japan) Company, Limited said. “We have super-flex hours, telecommuting, and various types of leave to fit the modern family, including paternity leave, family-care leave, and Premium Friday.”

Staff are encouraged to work remotely in the open spaces that surround the company’s headquarters and to cycle to the office. Showers have been installed to allow them to freshen up again after arriving.

“Our various initiatives for creating a better workplace are designed to get the best out of our employees and make an easier environment in which to work,” the official said. “The system has been successful in improving the quality of life of our employees, while also optimizing their job performances.

“We believe employees should bring their best selves to work, so it is important that we provide an environment that is welcoming, productive, and allows them to be their best.”

Isaac Uchiyama, senior business development and communications manager for Allen & Overy LLP, said it is critical to the company’s operations that employees in its Tokyo office operate on flexible schedules.

“As a global law firm, we have a flexible work policy rolling out called iFlex,” he said. “There are already many offices using this working time arrangement, and the firm is committed to enabling people to work flexibly—from home, from client locations, or on the move.”

While iFlex has not yet been officially implemented in Tokyo, Uchiyama says many of the key tenets are already in place.

“For lawyers, whether in a domestic or global law firm here in Japan, working late or early is part and parcel of the requirements of their careers—so they naturally work flexibly,” he said.

As a consequence of the measures in place, Tokyo’s Jisa Biz has had minimal impact on Allen & Overy so far, Uchiyama said. He added that the government’s measures to date do not appear to have had much positive impact.

“I would say there has been no significant impact whatsoever,” he said. “In fact, the trains all seem to be just as congested as they used to be. And it is important to note that the working population of Tokyo continues to increase, so even with polices such as Jisa Biz in place, unless more resources are dedicated to alternative operating or working methods, there will not be a noticeable difference.”

Masaru Morimoto, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan Transportation and Logistics Committee and staff vice president of Delta Air Lines, Inc. in Japan, has applauded both the city’s Jisa Biz campaign and the steps already taken by foreign companies here to make employees’ commutes more bearable. Yet more can be done, he said.

“Companies should not just rely on the Jisa Biz campaign, but should look to diversify working setups, such as by introducing work-at-home policies and flextime, reducing the frequency of morning or evening meetings, and moving their offices to the outskirts of Tokyo,” he said. “These initiatives would improve companies’ working environments and attract a new generation of employees.”

Unilever’s Itoh says he cannot abide the morning commute and goes out of his way to avoid it.

“Personally, I have no desire to waste my energy and endure the boredom of an overcrowded commute by public transport,” he said. “So, every morning, I walk to work.”

Julian Ryall is Japan correspondent for The Daily Telegraph.
It is important that we provide an environment that is welcoming, productive, and allows them to be their best.