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Tokyo-area train commuter figures dropped only slightly under 2nd virus state of emergency

People are seen heading to their workplaces from JR Tokyo Station in the capital's Chiyoda Ward on March 22, 2021, the first weekday after the second coronavirus state of emergency was lifted. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

TOKYO -- The number of people taking greater Tokyo area trains on weekday mornings under Japan's second coronavirus state of emergency fell only slightly from the seven months after the first state of emergency was lifted in late May 2020, according to a transport ministry report.

    The limited effectiveness of the latest state of emergency, from January to March this year, stands in stark contrast to the vastly reduced morning commuter numbers under the first emergency in spring last year. Experts say that the muted impact could be due to the public growing used to the state of emergency.

    Many people were seen around Tokyo's Marunouchi business district on the morning of March 19, the last weekday under the second state of emergency.

    "There are clearly many commuters," said one 44-year-old man from the capital's Shinjuku Ward on his way to work. He worked from home during last year's state of emergency, but had to use his own computer and mobile phone, and paid for his own communications costs. And though his company decided to introduce a new system to provide aid, it didn't happen in time and the man said had no choice but to commute to the office five days a week during the second state of emergency.

    A 53-year-old woman from the Tokyo suburban city of Hachioji, who said she spends about the same number of days working from home as at the office, also expressed worry that "commuter trains may get even more crowded as the declaration is lifted."

    The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism tallies the number of people exiting via automatic ticket gates during weekday morning peak hours at the Tokyo area's major hub stations operated by East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) and large private firms. If the daily tally recorded in mid-February 2020 were deemed 100%, the average figure for weekday mornings under the second state of emergency (between Jan. 8 and March 17, with tallies for March 18 and 19 undisclosed) stands at 62%. When viewing figures by month, the percentages stand at 61% for January, 62% for February, and 64% for March.

    However, the average of weekday morning passengers during the first state of emergency from April 8 to May 25, 2020 was just 37% of the February 2020 figure. In other words, commuter numbers under the second state of emergency are 1.7 times those seen under the first.

    Meanwhile, weekday morning commuter volume in the period between the states of emergency -- from May 26, 2020 to Jan 7, 2021 -- was 68% of the February 2020 baseline -- just 6 points higher than the average during the second emergency declaration.

    Behind these figures is teleworking schemes not taking hold at companies. According to research by the Japan Productivity Center, 32% of workers in Japan worked remotely in May 2020. By October, that had dropped to 19%.

    Takayuki Harada, a clinical psychology professor at the University of Tsukuba, pointed out, "The state of emergency declaration last spring was the public's first experience of such an event, and it brought a strong sense of worry and fear, keeping them on their toes." Meanwhile, he said that the lack of any confirmed infection clusters traced to packed trains had caused the public to gradually turn optimistic about commuting by rail, and Harada says he believes this attitude continued through the second state of emergency.

    "The custom of going to the office while being swayed back and forth on the train is firmly rooted in Japanese people. The national government has taken measures based on the premise that the public will obey them rationally, but it needs to think of policies while considering human nature realistically."

    (Japanese original by Yoshitaka Yamamoto and Kim Suyeong, City News Department)

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