One of the first things foreigners visiting in Japan will notice is the fact that, unlike most major cities around the globe, Japan does not have a 24 hour bus or train service.
I wrote a popular post a couple months back about tips and advice for taking the Last Train in Tokyo. This maddened rush of squishing against drunkards, stale air, and no personal space can get on the nerves of even the most steel hearted and “chill” foreigner. But since then, I’ve done a lot of wondering. Why don’t trains in Japan run all night long? Or more specifically:
Why doesn’t Japan have a 24 hour bus or train service?
Quite honestly, it doesn’t make much sense. So I decided to do a bit of research.
Why I don’t understand it:
With an estimated population of 32 million residents in Tokyo, this city is busy. And by busy, I mean “Oh my God, there’s people everywhere”. I lost all ideas of personal space when I got to Tokyo, especially when riding the trains. And especially when I’m riding the early morning on last trains.
Which begs the question, why are there last trains? Each line and train route is different, but most of them run their “last train” around midnight. If you miss this train, you’re left with a couple options – none of them very fun. You can sacrifice a couple days’ worth of pay and take a freakishly expensive taxi home. Or you could stay in one of the many “cheap” hotels downtown, which often end up being shady Love Hotels. Or you could hit up a bar and drink with other dejected salarymen who missed the last train. Or you could rent a private manga café booth or karaoke booth and try to sleep until the morning.
Why not skip the problem altogether and just keep trains running all night? I’m not talking about the same “every 2-3 minutes a train arrives” kind of thing they do during rush hour, I’m saying even just allowing trains to run on the most popular lines, like the Yamanote Line or Chuo Line, every half an hour could help a lot of people out. Especially those people too drunk to make it to the original last train.
However Japan doesn’t do this. Furthermore, a recent poll done by Yahoo! Japan shows an overwhelming 58% of Japanese people in Tokyo do not believe 24 hour busses or trains are necessary.
Why I kind of DO understand it:
I’m just going to repeat what I said before. 58% percent of people in Tokyo do not believe a round the close bus or train is necessary. 22% said Japan should offer (even if it’s only limited) 24 hour train and bus options.
The explanation was surprisingly simple.
Most people agree that the last train is necessary because it enforces a sort of “National Curfew.” You see, Japan has this unfortunante problem with Karōshi (過労死), which literally means “death from overwork.” In Japan, working yourself to death is actually a medically recognized way to die. Common symptoms of karoshi (working yourself to death) are a heart attack or stroke. In fact, death statistics for karoshi are reported separately from “normal” heart attacks or strokes.
How does this relate to the last train? The last train enforces a mandatory curfew. A lot of my Japanese friends have complained their companies do not pay for overtime (or pay something like $1 an hour for overtime). Apparently that can be “technically” legal in Japan; new employees are often suffering from unreasonable and unfair overtime rules.
“But,” my friend told me, one day when we were out shopping in Shinjuku, “I get to go home at 11pm every night. I have to catch the last train.”
She lived off of the Tokyo Metro line, which is known for having an earlier last train than some of the JR line trains. She actually enjoys living about an hour and a half by train from her company, because that means she gets to leave “early” even during overtime. Her company can force her to do a lot of things, but missing the last train isn’t one of them.
I don’t think the Japanese system of the last train is going to change any time soon. At this point, the economy is irreversibly tied to the fact that at any one time, maybe 2% – 4% of company employees miss the last train. Karaoke bars, manga cafés, bars, and Love Hotels survive on these desparate patrons who just need somewhere to crash for the night.
Even if people suddenly decided they wanted a 24 hour, all night, train service in Japan, I don’t think the economy would let them.
But who knows? I might be wrong.
I just really hate the last train.
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