Taking A Trip To ''Hell'' And Back In Japan's Overfilled Trains

Posted Apr 5, 2002 by Lars Nicolaysen
TOKYO (dpa) - Faces are pressed up against the carriage windows as the mass of bodies heave through the compartments every time the train slow downs on the approach to a station.

Here and there, there's a quiet sigh as trapped passengers behind are pushed away by the pressure from further within.

These are everyday scenes in Tokyo's "tsukin jigoku" - or "commuter hell" - as Japanese term the daily struggle of millions of commuters making their tortuous journey in overfilled trains to their workplace in the capital.

"I wonder myself how I could have put up with such inhumane conditions for so many years," complains Kazuo Hachio, a businessman. He moved away from the hectic capital to the comparatively leisurely island of Shikoku several years ago. "I'm happy that I escaped the tsukin jigoku." On some routes in the Tokyo area in the rush hour, the compartments are filled to double their official capacities.

At transfer stations like Yoyogi Uehara it's a common sight in the morning and evening to see enthusiastic conductors in blue uniforms and white gloves running from compartment to compartment pulling arms, backs and bags from the door areas as quick as they can.

In Tokyo, a city of 12 million people, the trains run every two minutes in the rush hour. "But it's wrong to say we cram the people into the trains," explains one railway employee, "we are just helping them to get to work on time."

The railway companies are currently working on ways to relieve the situation for its passengers although this is easier said than done. The government's declared aim is to reduce compartment capacities to 150 per cent, reported top-selling daily "Asahi Shimbun" recently.

That would still mean passengers having to rub shoulders but it may reduce the number of people who have to be treated for breathing problems, wrote the paper.

The daily push and shove in the trains serving the Tokyo region is so extreme that you can barely move a millimetre.

"I can smell the breath of old men next to me," complains one 32- year-old woman. "That stink of noodle soup, alcohol and cigarettes - I can't stand it."

An increase in indecent assaults prompted one train company in Tokyo to introduce women-only carriages. That wasn't only welcomed by the women since an increasing number of men are accused unjustly of sexual harassment in the overfilled trains. Many men are so nervous of making the wrong move and appearing suspicious that they stand with the arms stretched up above them the whole trip.

Most Japanese have no other choice than to put up with the daily "commuter hell". Horrendous property prices here and in other population centres such as Osaka have forced many Japanese to move to the distant surroundings to achieve the dream of their own little house.

Unfortunately, the dream has huge drawbacks with four hours and more spent commuting back and forth every day. And experts are doubtful as to the extent of efforts to improve matters for travellers.

They say that it is scarcely feasible to put more trains on the tracks. And the idea of attaching more carriages to the trains is a non-starter because of the limited length of station platforms.

One company, JR Higashi Nihon, decided to introduce carriages 15 centimetres wider than the previous model and with more space for passengers. But this solution is not possible everywhere again because of space restrictions. Attempts to coax people into travelling outside of rush-hours also produced disappointing results.

If that weren't enough, several rail companies appear loath to pump more money into the networks, justifying their reticence with Japan's low birth rate. Tokyo rail operator Seibu, for example, measured average capacities in its trains seven years ago at 184 per cent. In 2000, complains the company, it was "only" 159 per cent.