Tokyo and the Bullet Train

Lots of interesting material in this piece on Japan’s bullet trains and how they have shaped the economic geography of Japan:

Meanwhile, the bullet train has sucked the country’s workforce into Tokyo, rendering an increasingly huge part of the country little more than a bedroom community for the capital. One reason for this is a quirk of Japan’s famously paternalistic corporations: namely, employers pay their workers’ commuting costs. Tax authorities don’t consider it income if it’s less than ¥100,000 a month – so Shinkansen commutes of up to two hours don’t sound so bad. New housing subdivisions filled with Tokyo salarymen subsequently sprang up along the Nagano Shinkansen route and established Shinkansen lines, bringing more people from further away into the capital.

The Shinkansen’s focus on Tokyo, and the subsequent emphasis on profitability over service, has also accelerated flight from the countryside. It’s often easier to get from a regional capital to Tokyo than to the nearest neighbouring city. Except for sections of the Tohoku Shinkansen, which serves northeastern Japan, local train lines don’t always accommodate Shinkansen rolling stock, so there are often no direct transfer points between local lines and Shinkansen lines. The Tokaido Shinkansen alone now operates 323 trains a day, taking 140 million fares a year, dwarfing local lines. This has had a crucial effect on the physical shape of the city. As a result of this funnelling, Tokyo is becoming even denser and more vertical – not just upward, but downward. With more Shinkansen passengers coming into the capital, JR East has to dig ever deeper under Tokyo Station to create more platforms.

Hat tip: John Welborn.


I doubt it's the bullet train that made Tokyo bigger, but the "Capital Effect", as is well known (as governments get bigger world wide, the capitals prosper).

Trivia: the Japanese are so herd driven they will not go to the beach after August, even when it's hot outside (source: article in the Guardian). Another example of Asian inflexibility, well known if you live here, and increasingly true in the USA as well, as populations become stratified.

I think it is more complicated than this. When I lived near the beach in Japan, I saw more Japanese in recent years at the beach in the first two weeks of September even though the big crowds are over. Ten years ago and their were mostly foreigners in early September.

The Capital Effect doesn't seem so powerful when it's also driving the non-capital Kansai to be one of the world's five largest cities.

And Nagoya and Fukuoka have also blossomed to join the world's largest cities by draining their increasingly gray and empty countrysides.

No, I'm pretty sure that Japanese, like Aztecs, just love living in a city much more than the countryside and build great, liveable cities that attract huge populations.

Herd-driven? Check. Inflexible? I don't know about that. How common is this really?

Need an edit button. Intended to include at least a little more time-relevant video.

I've lived in Japan for a long time and have never seen nor experienced this. When in Tokyo, the worst for me was weekend night packed trains. One time a guy was mad at another and tried to hit him but the train was so packed all he could do was move his fist up and down. I'm sure it was quite frustrating for him.

Funny anecdote. Thanks Todd.

This article is extremely uninformed. The bullet train is viable because Japan imposes extremely high tolls on highway traffic - it usually costs about the same price to ride the shikansen as it does to take a car the same distance. That's also one of the big reasons why Tokyo is such a densely populated city - whether you drive or ride the train, it's extremely costly to commute long distances into the city (we're talking $300+ per day round trip). Tokyo isn't a huge metropolis because it's easy to get in and out as the article claims. It's the opposite - long-distance commuting is very, very expensive and basically impossible for most Japanese.

@Philip--good point, that's why the intercity highways were so deserted when I visited. But it also explains the Capital Effect. If it costs $300 a day to travel to and from Tokyo (about the same as a taxi cab ride to the airport from downtown), then there must be money to be made for some rent seekers. And that money comes likely from the government and corporations that do business in the capital. Networking effects if you want to be charitable.

You mean drivers pay for the roads they need in Japan?

They don't tax property owners without cars to build and maintain the roads so other people can drive by and throw out trash for me to pick up and pay to dispose of?

And that means public transit makes a profit!?

Horrors! No welfare for car drivers in Japan.

Yes, well, in the U.S. drivers would be covering the costs of the interstate highways too, if a substantial fraction of gas taxes weren't siphoned off to subsidize mass-transit. As for local roads and streets paid for, in part, by local and state property and income taxes -- non-drivers need those too (for bikes, buses, cabs, mail-delivery, etc, etc). Not owning a car doesn't mean not needing and using roads.

Phillip: I agree, the article is extremely uninformed. I have no idea, for instance, how Tokaido Shinkansen with yearly ridership of 140 million per year — that is less than 400,000 per day — 'dwarfs' local lines, of which there are a couple of scores around Tokyo, with typical daily riderships around 1 million per day per line (ex: Seibu Ikebukuro line). Also, Shinkansen is rather expensive compared to regular trains. A monthly commuter ticket for an 1-hour commute on a regular train costs about $170, whereas a monthly Shinkansen commuter ticket from Mishima to Tokyo (a little under 1 hour, 120 km) costs about $900. No ordinary worker rates a perk that big. Also, while it is true that the rail gauges of Shinkansen and regular trains (including local express) are incompatible and thus there are no single-platform interchanges, Shinkansen stations usually have excellent connections to local lines. Okay, maybe you have to walk 3-4 minutes (ex: Fukushima St., Mishima St.)

As an aside, the Grauniad sure has guts burping about 'famously paternalistic corporations'. I hear UK's government pays not only train fare, but everything else for a great lot of people, and generally minds a lot of other people's business. Japan's Social Security payments — seikatsu hogo — are barely sufficient not to go hungry.

Ray Lopez: you don't need rent seekers to explain the capital effect. Returns to improved inter- and intra-company communications are quite sufficient. Also, you may be misunderstanding the figure Phillip gave. $300 is the cost of a Tokyo-Osaka round trip on Shinkansen. Japanese taxis are famously expensive, but train fare from Narita Airport to Tokyo is less than $15.

The U.K. (and to an even greater extent, continental Europe, and to an even greater extent than that, Scandinavia) function on a basically social-democratic model in which many major categories of consumption are provided by the government.

Japan, in contrast, operates principally on a neo-feudal, Prussian style model, in which employers provide a much more than minimal share of consumption needs for their workers. Rather than social security, employer based pensions, permanent employment for a significant share of the workforce in lieu of unemployment insurance, employer provided/controlled fitness and recreation activities, and even employee housing for many workers (although not health care as in the U.S.) are provided through employment.

The U.S. is moving towards a more atomistic and post-neo-feudal system, basically a libertarian regime, in which individuals receive almost no employer based consumption and government provides less and less as well. Mandatory health insurance through health care exchanges is the new norm with family based health insurance purchasing decisions, rather than state provided health care (for non-senior citizens, and the non-poor) or employer provided health insurance. The individual level IRA has replaced the employer based defined benefit plan. U.S. workers aren't expected to reserve time to do morning exercises with their co-workers or to share drinks with their co-workers on a mandatory or near mandatory basis.

In the UK fringe benefits, like free meals, first class travel, a car are very important because of the high marginal tax rates. If they pay you money you have to pay taxes on it, but fringe benefits are not taxed. At least that was true in the 1970s when I worked for a UK firm. I assume it is still true.

I took several long-distance buses in Japan, because it was a lot cheaper than the bullet train.

My brother recommended I would possibly like this blog.

He was once entirely right. This post actually made my day.
You can not imagine simply how much time I had spent for this information!

How long is a (median?) American commute? e.g. Big city with lots of public transport (NYC?), big city with little (LA)?, etc, etc. has some information, but it just gives averages, without specifying mean or median.

San Francisco is at 32 minutes. Most of the large cities cited are between 30 and 40 minutes (each way).

Public transport commutes are the slowest -- NYC has the longest average commute time in the U.S.

Given that there are consistently positive economic returns to scale in large urban areas, but sometimes negative quality of life effects with living in a large urban area (crime, noise, traffic, etc.), a policy that concentrates work activity in Tokyo, while dispersing residential areas very broadly, makes all sorts of sense.

I work in Japan and the standard of providing commuting/housing allowances standard for full time jobs is very strange (I think employment law requires this to some extent). I don't know if this is universal, but rather than provide some stipend, my employer pays out some formula for expected commuting costs and pays a large fraction of housing costs up to some limit. Both policies incentivize living as far away as possible in the most expensive house possible in order to maximize one's income. It seems so obviously backwards, but no one questions it or how it distorts housing markets, increases pollution (and nuisances associated with longer commutes and bigger houses), etc. It's almost exactly how health insurance is treated in the USA now (untaxed income; employer mandate) so it's not like Japan is alone in making this mistake.


Just out of curiosity, since you don't understand Japanese, how can you say that no one questions it?

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