The number of people who commute using shinkansen bullet trains from rural areas to central Tokyo is said to be on the rise.
Local governments suffering a loss of working generations in their communities to urban areas are providing assistance to such commuters to encourage them to settle in rural communities. And some companies in the metropolis are also supporting the trend to encourage flexible working styles.
Shinkansen commuters can sit back and relax while reading or doing other activities, although commuting time may be extended.
“I wanted to start doing work that can promote my hometown while continuing in my current job,” said Yahoo Japan employee Shinichiro Sumiya, 33, explaining why he started commuting by bullet train.
Sumiya relocated to the town of Yuzawa, Niigata Prefecture, in January 2017. He commutes to Tokyo by shinkansen on weekdays and participates in community development activities on weekends while helping his parents’ Japanese-style lodging business.
Sumiya leaves home at 6:55 a.m. and arrives at work shortly after 9 a.m. Non-reserved seats are always available and he reads books or practices English conversation using his tablet device. He wants to master interpretation between Japanese and English, anticipating a rise in the number of foreign tourists visiting his hometown.
Yahoo Japan is supporting shinkansen commuting by providing up to ¥150,000 in monthly subsidies. That covers his shinkansen train pass for three months, which costs over ¥430,000. The company also gives its staff options about where and how many hours they work.
In another example, a 59-year-old male civil servant, who now lives in Saku, Nagano Prefecture, began shinkansen commuting to Tokyo six years ago after moving to the mountainous town.
“Both my wife and I love the mountains,” he said.
“We always wished to live in the Shinshu region,” the civil servant added, using a term that refers to Nagano Prefecture.
In the past, he would commute for about 40 minutes on a crowded train, but now he says, “I can sit for an hour and 20 minutes, spend time on my music hobby and sleep when I’m tired.”
His commuting expenses are partially subsidized, but he has to pay about ¥70,000 a month out of his own pocke, as his shinkansen fees exceed subsidies.
He said there is also an unexpected positive effect from the change in his lifestyle. He said his productivity at work has increased, as he aims to get home early now.
According to East Japan Railway Co., there has been an increase of ¥1.8 billion in the sales of shinkansen commuter passes in the five years from 2013, and sales continue to grow.
A tax system amendment in fiscal 2016 has also helped promote the trend. Firms subsidizing employees with their long-distance commuter pass have been given some tax exemptions.
In addition to Yahoo Japan, SoftBank Group Corp. is also providing financial support. The telecom giant covers all shinkansen commuting expenses.
The company said the move was aimed at avoiding transfering employees away from their families, and assisting those with family members in need of nursing care.
“Our efforts target the promotion of flexible ways of work — such as balancing work with childcare, and teleworking,” a SoftBank official said.
Local governments in rural areas are also seeing a golden opportunity to reinvigorate their communities.
The municipal government of Yuzawa, where Yahoo Japan employee Sumiya lives, provides a maximum of ¥50,000 a month in shinkansen commuting subsidies for up to 10 years.
Other municipalities are also taking similar steps.
The Oyama Municipal Government in Tochigi Prefecture believes such subsidies are effective in preventing the exodus of younger people, while encouraging parenting generations to move in. A official at the Kumagaya Municipal Government in Saitama Prefecture said that city’s subsidies were also aimed at “stopping population decline.”
Long-distance commuting on bullet trains, however, could face a serious challenge when natural disasters occur.
Preparations are required as it is difficult to secure alternative means of commuting and restore transportation facilities in a short time.
Another hurdle is who pays the money.
In many cases, only big companies can afford such subsidies. And sometimes employers change their subsidy policies and employees find themselves paying out of their own pocket, according to local government officials involved with promoting shinkansen commuting.