Virus releases Tokyo commuters’ silent scream

Much fun has been had in recent days over footage of Daisuke Iwata and Koichiro Horiuchi riding a scream-inducing rollercoaster in silence. A condition of reopening the Fuji-Q Highland theme park in the Covid-19 era (and the purpose of their rictus-faced demonstration) is that visitors must emulate their feat to avoid spreading thrilled exhalation into the slipstream of fellow passengers. “Please scream,” concludes the park’s new slogan, “inside your heart”.

The two corporate suits, respectively the presidents of the theme park and of the rail and bus company that owns it, are almost menacingly serene in the three-minute video. G-forces, discomfort and stress may be working mischief on their souls, but good sense, consideration for others, resignation and self-discipline win the day. They look, in other words, like pretty much every Tokyo rush-hour commuter

The rollercoaster’s carriages may be smaller and its tracks steeper. But every working day pre-Covid-19, around 8m people in metropolitan Tokyo spent an average 80 mins miserably wearing the same impassive mask: squeezed on to trains at over 200 per cent capacity and collectively suppressing silent screams. 

Yet the pandemic has a habit of inverting things. Covid-19 may be calling on roller-coaster riders to fall silent, but for commuters, it is giving voice to decades of grievance. Many Japanese companies adapted to lockdown better than most white-collar workers (and some chief executives) had expected, when lockdown and remote working became inevitable in March. But it has worked, perhaps, too well. 

Polls taken over the past couple of months have shown a surprisingly large (over 60 per cent in some surveys) proportion of respondents in no hurry to resubmit themselves to the obeisance of the office and the contortions of the commute. Tokyo, suggests Kotaro Tsuru, a labour market expert, has awoken from its commuting nightmare and entered a state of what he calls “permanent shock” at how non-essential these journeys might actually be. 

Others believe that a rejection of commuting that might have played out over a decade has been accelerated by the virus to a few months. The punctuality, scale, cleanliness and all-round excellence of Japan’s rail services is not the point. Tokyo’s commuting experience, in all its indignity, is largely disliked because it is the pathology of a far greater malaise: inflexible workplaces, hectoring bosses, presenteeism and an inability (pre-Covid-19) to trust people to work remotely and unsupervised. That most permanent employees’ daily commute is paid for by their companies, which in turn receive a tax benefit for doing so, adds a sense of diminished agency. 

“People are asking themselves what they were doing all those years. They are realising: ‘We spent so much time commuting, and it was useless. We can work at home with no problem’,” says Prof Tsuru.

It may seem obvious. But the gathering anti-commute movement has a subversive flavour, an articulation even of something fundamental. From the great boom days of the 1970s and beyond, rail commuting has been entwined both with Japan’s sense of itself and how the outside world perceives it. Images of white-gloved station staff forcing people on to trains — though outdated — have endured as icons of dedication and endurance to an unspoken national good. But its centrality to daily life goes even further: the rail commute is a major economic force. Its conditions and length demand distraction and cocooning. It is no coincidence that the Walkman, Gameboy and Tamagotchi virtual pet evolved in this market, or that, today, Japan is the highest spender on smartphone games.

The question now is whether the heartfelt answers to surveys have any bearing when the virus is finally controlled and companies start champing for a return to the old normal. Some are convinced a tipping point has been reached, and that over the next four years, rail networks in major Japanese cities will see 30 per cent drops in customer numbers. Others suspect that the trains will re-pack and the anti-commute scream, though audible now, will go back to being silent and in the heart.

leo.lewis@ft.com