Documentary : Commuter's Wild Ride : Tokyo's crowded trains are legendary. Push aboard with Masaaki Tozawa for his 90-minute nightmarish trip to work.


Masaaki Tozawa, a 34-year-old office worker, is just your average Tokyo commuter.

He rises with the roosters at 6:20 a.m. and is out the door by 7:03 to begin what seems to an outsider to be a torturous, 90 minute, three-train, mostly standing-room-only journey to his office just 15.5 miles away. It's another hour and a half coming home at night to the small apartment he shares with his wife and two small children in this quiet, clean, bedroom community northeast of the capital. He rarely makes it before 7:30 p.m.

The distance is about the same as the trip from Baldwin Park, or Lakewood, or Hermosa Beach to the Los Angeles Civic Center. But there are no expressway links, and on the rare occasions when Tozawa drives, the commute takes more than two hours.

It seems that everybody rides the train to work here--which, as a reporter who accompanied Tozawa on his journey the other day discovered, is both the problem and the reason that the Tokyo commute has become something of an international trademark.

Tozawa lives in Kamagaya because this is where his employer, Japan Pulp & Paper Co., maintains one of the company-owned apartment complexes it built for employees. Tozawa's flat is a 660-square-foot, third-floor walk-up with two small bedrooms, a dining-living room, kitchen and bath.

It is smaller than the average, but the rent compensates for that--the equivalent of $20 a month. That compares to the $122 a month that his employer pays for Tozawa's commuter pass.

Buying an apartment or a house is virtually out of the question, the office worker says. A typical house he passes each morning on his walk to the railway station--newly built, two stories with tiled roof, three bedrooms, and a sliver of garden--just sold for the equivalent of $400,000, or more than 10 times the $39,000 or so that people at Tozawa's assistant-section-chief level typically earn.

But banks will rarely lend more than five times an applicant's annual income on a mortgage. And even vacant land can be prohibitively expensive.

So Tozawa sets out each morning, newspaper under his arm, for the train station.

On this particular day, when he arrives at 7:15 a.m., the platform is almost empty. But when the train pulls in, there are already a dozen or so commuters who have had to stand.

"Wait until we get to Matsudo," Tozawa says. "There it's a question of whether you can even get on."

He gets lucky this day, and when someone else gets off, he grabs the empty seat for part of the first leg of his journey. Seated, he dons a Walkman headset, and unfolds his newspaper. More passengers get on at every stop and, as the train nears Matsudo, they crowd the aisles. About a third listen to Walkmans. No one talks.

At Matsudo station, where Tozawa transfers, he moves toward the door. As it opens, he is pushed out by the crowd behind. No one apologizes.

It's now 7:40, and on the platform where Tozawa will catch his next train, thousands of commuters are lined up four abreast at the places where the train's doors will open. Hundreds of others come pounding down the stairs.

The train arrives, and waiting commuters at the front are literally rammed through the opening doors by the surge from the rear. The last few enter the car backward, wriggling far enough inside to get a hand on the door frame and using that leverage to wedge themselves in. The trains are air conditioned, but there's no room for air to circulate below neck level. Tozawa seems unfazed. "I guess I'm so used to this I don't think of it any more," he remarked.

At 8:05 the train pulls in at Nippori Station, where Tozawa makes his last change, to the Loop Line around the center of Tokyo. The platforms seem hopelessly crowded. In the train, it's even worse.

Each train car was designed for 120 people--56 seated and 64 standing with overhead straps to help them keep their balance. But this one is filled with at least three times that number.

The pressure of bodies is intense. Faces drip with perspiration. No one can move enough even to pull out a handkerchief. Stoic silence prevails.

Thoughts stray toward a recent policy speech in Parliament by Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu--one in which he advocated measures to reverse Japan's declining birthrate. One can't help but wonder how many years it has been since the prime minister rode a commuter train.

At 8:20 the train stops at Kanda Station, Tozawa's final destination, and he is popped out like a cork from a champagne bottle. He walks to the office, five minutes away, where he takes off his suit coat to find his shirt drenched with sweat.

His workday, in principle, is from 9 a.m. to 5:15 p.m.--7 hours and 45 minutes, with 30 minutes for lunch. But on this day, as on most, he is busy until after 7.

On the way home, the trains are much less crowded. Tozawa says that although the commuters come into the city at pretty much the same time in the morning, they return home at different times.

"The most crowded train is the last one," he notes.

Until six years ago, when he and his wife, Kayoko, were married, he often took the last train, or, when he missed it, spent the night in a hotel near the office. Rail, subway and bus service stops at midnight, and after that taxis are the only public transportation available.

Still, Tozawa's trip back to Kamagaya is standing-room only, and the air conditioning is not operating at all. He finally gets home at 8:25 p.m., 12 hours and 22 minutes after leaving. "It's a relief to get here," he finally concedes.

Tozawa used to work not only Monday through Friday, but every other Saturday as well. Japan Pulp & Paper Co. implemented a five-day week only last April. Now, he says, he devotes his weekends "entirely to the family; we often go for drives into the countryside."

His wife, a former schoolteacher, rarely goes into Tokyo alone. The last time, she says, was 2 1/2 years ago. The family went into the city together only twice last year.

Still, the Tozawas say they like Kamagaya. "There is a park nearby where the children can play. And the elementary school is only a 10-minute walk; the junior high school 15 minutes," he says.

"The air is fresh and cool here, and it's very quiet," Kyoko Tozawa adds. "There is a cemetery next door."

Tozawa, who played the saxophone in a college band, relaxes occasionally with amateur musician friends who collectively rent a studio to play jazz. He and Kayoko met at a college dance party.

"I wanted to dance, but all he did was to invite me to have a Coke," she recalls. Five years later, she gave up her teaching job in northeastern Japan to marry him.

One cloud on the horizon is Japan Pulp & Paper's "company housing retirement age." Like other Japanese employers, it assumes that by age 42, a worker should have saved enough money to acquire housing of his own and that he must therefore give up his company-owned and subsidized quarters.

"But no one that age is able to save enough money to buy a home now," Tozawa complains. He is likely to inherit his parents' home some day, but otherwise, he comments, "I, too, would have given up hope of having a place of my own." Tozawa and some of his fellow workers are trying to negotiate a higher age limit for company housing.

Meanwhile, the Tozawas concentrate on the good things about their life. Like most Japanese, they hardly ever discuss commuter problems, much less regard it as a political matter.

But there's a hint of change in the air.

A national census next October for the first time will ask commuters how much time they spend getting to work or school. And on June 19, Japanese lawmakers established for the first time a nonpartisan lobbying group to push for the construction of a new commuter line.

It would go from Tokyo to Tsukuba, supplementing the Joban Line that Tozawa uses.

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