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With the second state of emergency now lifted, commuters are beginning to return to work in the same numbers as before.

While one might reasonably shudder at the thought of being crammed into a congested train twice a day as they might have before the first state of emergency was declared in April 2020, there’s a noticeable air of optimism creeping into conversations on social media.

Some are almost pleased to see crowded trains in the morning, suggesting that it could represent a significant turning point in the fight against COVID-19.

“The Keihin-Tohoku Line is really crowded this evening,” Yuichiro Takahashi posted on Twitter. “Before COVID-19, this was normal. It has taken a long time, but maybe our days of self-quarantine are over.”

According to the Mainichi Shimbun, the state of emergency that was issued in Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures in January was largely ineffective in reducing the number of commuters each day.

Statistics compiled by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism since January show that trains have been operating at more than 60% capacity over the past three months.

This is almost double the number of commuters — 37% — catching the train to and from work when the first state of emergency was declared in April and May last year.

Domestic companies have generally been slow to implement effective protocols for working remotely, with many now abandoning efforts altogether.

Figures compiled by Japan Productivity Center show 32% of the workforce had switched to remote work by May 2020. Five months later, this figure had dwindled to 19%.

Some suggest workers have become too accustomed to state of emergency announcements, arguing that people are growing tired of government restrictions surrounding their movements.

“The Japanese see tremendous value in catching a train to work,” Takayuki Harada, a professor at Tsukuba University, tells the Mainichi Shimbun. “The government operates on the assumption that the Japanese will listen to them and act rationally, but they should take into account that human beings are ultimately practical creatures.”

Harada implies that urging people to work from home isn’t a realistic approach to solving problems related to daily commutes.

One simple solution, he says, could be to stagger working hours so that rush-hour crowds can be distributed more evenly across other times of the day. Both JR East and JR West are testing a system in which train users can opt to have their fares converted to cash points if they manage to avoid times when trains and stations are congested.

An Asahi Shimbun report suggests that such a system will potentially slash costs for rail companies as well as commuters and the employers paying for their transportation fees.

“Hopefully, this will create an opportunity to rethink the rush-hour train and Japanese society as a whole,” the article says.

Real estate company Able says the average commute time for people in the greater Tokyo area remains steady at 59 minutes one way.

Last summer, some analysts predicted that the congested Tokyo commute would become a thing of the past and that, in 2021, many employees would be working from home and other remote locations.

Such views might have been a little presumptuous in hindsight as congested trains are, in fact, alive and well in the Tokyo metropolitan area. These days, however, some of us are able to avoid them at their worst.

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