Here
and
Now

opinions

Last train blues

53 Comments
By Jesse Veverka

I just got back from a trip to New York and Seoul, both huge cities with extensive train systems and world-class nightlife. Whenever I visit those places and go out late with friends, I never worry about getting home. If it’s too far to walk and we can’t catch a train or a bus, there are always taxis.

But, of course, when I am back in Tokyo, it’s a different situation entirely. The city’s vast area coupled with its expensive taxis mean that either I make sure I get that elusive last train home or I plan on spending the night out.

I say “elusive” because whenever I try to rely on catching the last train, I always seem to miss it. Tokyo’s combined train and subway system is, after all, the most extensive metropolitan railway in the world, and because each station’s last train is at a different time, the exact timing and route can be as unique as some of the otaku walking around Akihabara.

Even if you make the train, it’s pretty much guaranteed to be packed. Watching exasperated platform attendants trying to squeeze way too many people onto a car in Shibuya after the doors haven’t been able to close for the tenth time because some guy’s briefcase just won’t quite fit is quite humorous — unless, of course, you yourself are also trying to get on that train.

All of this makes me wonder: why is there even a last train to begin with? Why not run the system continuously?

No doubt economics is an issue — trains are expensive to operate, and in the wee hours, when ridership is minimal, JR and other lines might lose money on their routes. But if that’s the case, why not just do what NYC does and reshuffle the system so that the central lines with the highest ridership remain in operation? Aside from late-night revelers, there are plenty of people who work night shifts — nurses, police, shopkeepers, airport workers, financial traders, and so on. In that way, providing 24-hour service would actually economically support productive activity. Even if the train company didn’t make a lot of money, leaving some lines open would seem to be of overall benefit to society. As it is, JR already runs not-so-profitable daytime routes in some regions just for this very reason.

But like beauty, “social benefits” are a function of one’s perception. I spoke to several of my Japanese friends about it, and was surprised by their consensus that the last-train system is actually a good thing for social order. As the thinking goes, by creating a functional curfew, the last train forces society’s most valued members — salarymen, students and single women — to go home by a certain time. In other words, the last train is a statement on national morality.

Hmm. For a country where social respect is dependent on how early one takes out the garbage, I can see a certain logic in this argument. But what about the social vices that are encouraged, at least in part, by the existence of the last-train system? What about the all-night bars where the salarymen who didn’t make the last train can drink till dawn? What about the internet cafes where students can read manga while getting tweaked-out on caffeine and cigarettes, only catching a few hours of fitful sleep because they couldn’t make it home? And don’t even get me started on the love hotels.

You see, I have increasingly come to believe that, as odd as it sounds, some people actually like “missing” the last train because it gives them an excuse to stay out. Perhaps this is, at least inadvertently, another one of those Japanese social devices, often difficult for Westerners to understand, that serves to create a “face-saving” out for otherwise unacceptable behavior: “The last train made me do it!”

On the other hand, maybe it really is just all about the money. Let’s say that the last train system were to be abolished. What would happen to all the bars, internet cafes and love hotels? Their business would probably fall off a cliff. I don’t know about Japan, but at least in special-interest-based America, you could bet the “love hotel lobby” would be doing their best to keep JR from running all night. The cynical side of me wonders if something similar is afoot here.

Maybe those of us who really want to see the enactment of a 24-hour system should form our own group to promote all-night trains as the morally and economically sensible thing to do. For example, we could propose a 50% surcharge on fares after midnight and use the proceeds for a socially responsible cause, like education. Now all we need is a clever name for our lobby.

Jesse Veverka is a film producer and co-founder of Veverka Bros Productions (www.veverkabros.com), with offices in Yokohama and Ithaca, NY.

This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

53 Comments
Login to comment

For a country where social respect is dependent on how early one takes out the garbage

Aha! So maybe THIS explains mother in laws 4am garbage sorting when she came to visit last week! The noise was unbelievable!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The dash for the last train is the quickest way to get sober, though it doesn't prevent hangovers. The problem with Tokyo taxis is not just the expense, but the fact that many of the drivers don't have a clue about finding destinations. But at least they seem to have stopped refusing to pick up stranded foreigners who've missed the last train.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

A 24 hour line operation may not be feasible due to maintenance and diagnostic issues but Sydneysiders seems to have alleviated this problem by offering overnight buses that travel along the same metro station routes

0 ( +0 / -0 )

No no no, we can't drag Japan into first world status! What would we have to b!tch about then?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

WORD!!! I love Japan, and coming from A part of the USA with basiclly no trains and subways, I love the trains and subways here. Even in my little country town with its 30 year old train it is a blast to ride, and a beautiful ride into the capital city. I have to say my biggest disappointment when I travel around japan is exactly what this guy is writing about. When my friend come they all expect to go out on the town till 3 am in Tokyo. I have to explain to them, we have a 11pm bedtime because we have to catch the last train to our hotel. We are hitting the town in essentially the biggest most bad A$$ city in the world, and we have to start on our way to the hotel at 11PM?!?!?!?!? I get that it would be really expensive to run 24 hours, but they already run 18-19 hours!!!! And like the article said, and like I have experienced, the LAST train is ALWAYS packed! so lets say they have just ONE more train after that. its safe to say that train would have a good number of people on it, therefore making it a profitable run for that train. Why cant they have a limited service for trains. every hour instead of 10 min. I would rather wait for 55 minutes for a train, than pay 100 million yen for a taxis so i could actually enjoy a night out on the town and not just an afternoon.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I live in Christchurch New Zealand, what is train?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

If the trains ran 24/7, then 3/4 of the taxi drivers would be out of a job!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I'm told they do maintenance in the off hours. I remember being on the NY and Seoul subways - they're busy but don't compare remotely to the Tokyos system, so I don't think it would work.

Anyway, what hedonist worries about last train, which runs after midnight? I don't think this can be a serious problem for many!!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

From my understanding, the police want people off the streets and home in their beds during the late-night, early morning hours. This reduces the crime rates thereby making less work for the police. I can remember a time in the pre-convenience store era when you could get rousted by the cops just by walking down the street at 2 or 3 in the morning.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

This is a fairly self-centred and not well thought out commentary piece. The commentator has not mentioned trackwork in any of this. When does he expect maintenance to be done if a 24 hour operation is in place? If 24 hour operation is in place then certain lines may need to be closed for a week or more at a time to carry out the same amount of maintenance. Take your pick for inconvenience.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

If services need to be closed in order for track maintenance, then when do other cities with 24-hour train services, such as New York, carry out their maintenance?

I think the concept of not having trains run 24 hours a day was to maintain the illusion of a well-ordered society, in other words, one in which every one goes home at a reasonable hour.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Late night trains would encourage commerce. Period! Let's look at examples.

Movie theatres could run one more late show for people who work until 7pm and can't make the usual urban last show of 7:30 or so.

Restaurants that now have last order at 10:30 can carry on much later and still get staff and customers home.

More people like me would go out to late night events if we knew we could get home. So more money for the restaurants we would go to first, the venues and event spaces we would go to and maybe even bars or clubs we might drop into on the way back.

Look at Hong Kong's late night markets and the sheer numbers of people out to enjoy the city at night. Tokyo could do this with some areas launching their own night markets from say 10-12 or 1am.

I don't think love hotels, manga kissa or bars would suffer. People will still stay out and make late nights of it. Look at NYC or many other cities with thriving 24hr worlds.

Taxi's may take a hit. Granted.

As for train costs. Just reduce the number of trains per hour and run a select number of lines. The city should help support this with some breaks for the rail companies who provide this service.

As for cost. We already pay massive amounts to ride the trains in Japan compared to just about anywhere else. They must be doing just fine financially. And I think the late periodic trains will be packed anyway.

Try it out for 6 months and let's find out.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Brainiac at 09:58 AM JST - 26th October If services need to be closed in order for track maintenance, then when do other cities with 24-hour train services, such as New York, carry out their maintenance?

Another reason why Japans rail system is the safest in the world. They do checks and repairs every single night. NY is seriously lacking on maintenance, it's a known issue.

Agreed mrsynik, this article is not "journalism" as much as it is an opinion column.

The comment about "most expensive railway in the world" is a clue as too how out of touch the writer is.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I just went and checked the Seoul metro website and it seems that the timetable is very similar to the Tokyo timetable: it most definitely is not running 24 hours a day.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

inakaRob

When my friend come they all expect to go out on the town till 3 am in Tokyo. I have to explain to them, we have a 11pm bedtime because we have to catch the last train to our hotel.

Huh? Where in Tokyo do you stay that last train is 11pm? Even Tokyo Metro is a bit after midnight. Many of the lines start at around 5am, so if you're staying out until 3am it's a whole 2 more hours till first train.

Almost every train system in the world shuts down for a few hours at night - they must get maintenance done sometime, you know - I doubt it's that much of a cost issue to run a few trains on limited schedule. The social order issue is a good point - especially on weekdays people need to get home to get at least some sleep.

I think the trains are fine here, but the taxis are ridiculous. I don't have a problem with them getting to my destination (they pretty much all have navis now) but my god are they expensive. They must cost at least 2x/km any taxis i've ever taken in another country.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

News York Metro runs about every 30 minutes in the early morning. They must do maintenance between trains...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Seoul's train system is definitely not 24 hours. It runs a similar schedule to that of Tokyo's. Plus if you want to get a taxi there after the last train, prepare to be totally ripped-off. Your taxi driver probably pile in as many random customers too. Even stop along the way to pick more up. Be prepared for your driver to be drunk too.

World-class nightlife is also highly questionable.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Good riddance to the taxis, I say. They clog up the roads as it is. I bet around 60 to 70% of all cars on the road in Tokyo at night are taxis.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

less taxis the better, they are consistently the most dangerous and arrogant drivers on the roads

0 ( +0 / -0 )

London has an extensive network of buses running 24/7. Tokyo could easily implement such a scheme.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I went and checked the London Underground timetables and they don't run 24 hours. The first and last trains are similar to Tokyo...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

infrequent night busses (every hour or 90 minutes) going across town would be a great help. If you could get 80% of the way home using these, then a taxi fare wouldn't be such a bad thing for the remaining 20%

0 ( +0 / -0 )

then when do other cities with 24-hour train services, such as New York, carry out their maintenance?

Tokyo has its own unique situation. You can't compare other cities with it.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

"Tokyo has its own unique situation. You can't compare other cities with it."

Sounds to me like New York is unique. My quick investigation reveals virtually every metro system shuts down in the wee hours of the morning for maintenance.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

As knackerz mention, night buses are the way to go. Doesn't make sense to have the trains/subways run all night. Night buses would be packed and pay for themselves. More people would stay out late, which would boost nighttime businesses. Taxis would still have a similar amount of customers, because those who can afford to take a taxi would. These are mostly the same people who take them now.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Has Mr. Veverka actually riden a train outside of downtown? One thing you notice is that as soon as you are outside the downtown (for the sake of argument, outside the Yamanote Loop Line), houses and apartments are right next to the tracks. The noise is this is the main reason trains have to stop around midnight. Why not run subways all night? Most people don't live where the subways go, ao they are no help getting home.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I think nightbuses would be ideal.

I always grab the last train. Thankfully it's only packed for the first fifteen minutes and then everyone gets off and I can sleep in an entire seat by myself, haha. It's kinda nice.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I went and checked the London Underground timetables and they don't run 24 hours. The first and last trains are similar to Tokyo..

I said buses, not trains. They run all night in London, and you can use even use your 1-day travel pass.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Oh yeah, sorry! I missed that the first time....

0 ( +0 / -0 )

far too practical to be implemented

certainly only a key line or two would be a major benefit, however

then again the railway workers would have to sign off on it and they already "work" so many hours.

If the train system did have a late night option i know I would stay out later not worrying about last trains...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

i don't think they can run the trains cause of the noise as they do run thru residential areas quite close to houses. it would also put a lot of taxi drivers out of work. btw, if you think the fares are too high you can negotiate. i had a friend who used to live near yokohama and would just go down the line of taxis waiting in roppongi at 3am and ask them to take him for 5000yen and he would always find someone, except during bonenkai season.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I have heard the same as fds---it is seemingly a matter of all metro trains being so close to homes, that they just don`t run trains 24/7 so people can sleep. For me, it is a 15,000 yen ride home from downtown Tokyo if I miss the last train, so I agree with at least having a Night Bus. Midnight is to early to go home on a weekend...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

There is a night bus Mon - Fri from Shinjuku heading out into the western suburbs. It leaves at around 1.30 am or something. There usually arent many people on it. I think an hourly night bus would be a great idea. I live central now but remeber how frustrating having to cut nights short was.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

How much are they going to pay the driver to commandeer a bus full of loud mouth drunken,spewing,looking for a 'blue',dont know and dont care where to get off thrill seekers and, the guy riding shotgun ?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I have often wondered about this... Is it some kind of deal between the railway companies and taxi companies? I asked a Japanese friend and he said if the trains didn't stop around midnight, some salary men wouldn't have a reason to leave the office! so perhaps it does serve some social function.

I found myself sitting at the train station last night at 4:00am waiting for that first train. I don't think it's necessary for trains to run all night long, but it would certainly be nice if they ran just a bit later, like 2am. It would give people more options, probably increase late-night business, and be easier for those who work night shifts.

I'm so used to staying out til 5am on the weekends now. I still get the same feeling of 'beating the night' and a lack of sleep kind of buzz which is nice. Also can sometimes catch a beautful sunrise. But I don't think it's really a good thing cause the next day is pretty short.

And yeah, sometimes, I must admit that although I consciously want to catch the last train, I'm a secretly a little happy when I've missed it and then have to stay out all night having fun with friends. It also relieves me of the decision of when to go home. Plus, it's feels like bonus free time!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I have been asking this question since my student days in Tokyo back in 1967. Why don't they run some limited, spaced transportation all night long? And my Japanese friends and families said the same thing then: people need a "last train" in order to enforce some discipline in their lives. Women might "run wild" if they did not have a curfew/'mongen' and a "last train" to control hidden lust, etc.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I don't think limited trains would work at night, at least not one every hour. If you have to catch two trains, you'd be facing a long wait for the first one and a 30 minute (on average) wait for the second. The links are always going to be a problem.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I can see the pros and cons of running the night trains. I'd be prepared to pay a premium for a once-an-hour limited service.

However, I love the hilarious "We must stop the trains at midnight to keep social order" argument!

I spoke to several of my Japanese friends about it, and was surprised by their consensus that the last-train system is actually a good thing for social order. As the thinking goes, by creating a functional curfew, the last train forces society’s most valued members — salarymen, students and single women — to go home by a certain time. In other words, the last train is a statement on national morality.

I'd love to meet the people who have this opinion, they sound like a barrel of fun. NOT! Hey, lets just shut down all bars, clubs, restaurants, love hotels, 7-11s etc TO MAINTAIN THE SOCIAL ORDER! Must be in bed by midnight, you know. They're havin' a laugh!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

this guys last article for metropolis, his attempt to film in Yasukuni was also an entertaining read

0 ( +0 / -0 )

At least the Yamanote should run 24 hours. That would be a real money saver since 14 million people live within 5,000Yen cab ride from it. Otherwise it could be anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 per ride.

To be on the fair side, the last trains are running later every time, and the first trains earlier. My last train is out on the move until way past 1:30am, and the first train is just before 5am, so it's only a couple hours downtime.

The only time i miss the last train is beacuse i want to, which supports the other argument in this article...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

At least the Yamanote should run 24 hours. That would be a real money saver since 14 million people live within 5,000Yen cab ride from it. Otherwise it could be anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 per ride.

Don't get your math. From what station to what station on the Yamanote by taxi does it cost 20,000 yen? I don't think it would cost 10,000 yen between any two stations.

If they were going to run trains 24 hrs on limited lines, the choices are easy: Chuo/Sobu, Keihin-Tohoku.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Anything to reduce the number of taxis. Here in Osaka they take up to two lanes parking on the street! The most useless taxi drivers ever I swear. Even in my little town outside the city, the local taxi driver's have to be given directions. Maybe Kansai International wouldn't be in debt(along with JAL) if the people could actually travel to their destinations when they arrive late.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

"I'm sorry, but I missed my last train. Can I stay at your place?"

That question was the start of many a good night back-in-the-day. If the trains start running all night, they're going to ruin one of the J-girls' best excuses for sleeping over.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Japan is prone to earthquakes, big and small, obviously they need to check the tracks frequently.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

A 24 hr. subway service in Japan is just too logical. The system has been set and nothing will change.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Wow this is ignorant.

Taxi companies.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

promote all-night trains as the morally

thing to do. muah. This is not Baptist country honey buns. And we do not need Ithaca morals here either. Go out earlier and get home sooner. I like it for surfing purposes.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Pawatan: "otherwise" meaning that if there was NO Yamanote line then on average people would have to pay 10,000-25,000 Yen per taxi ride. I live out in the sticks, so from Shibuya to my station its an easy 25,000Y, but from Ikebukuro its 6,000Y.

A circular line is the most logical when it comes to having only one 24 hour line. That way you cover all corners of Tokyo, including all major shinkansen stations. In terms of maintenance it's the easiest. There's also plenty of redundant track running along that route, so it's easier to run the checks and do the maintenance.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

i think it is because they do servicing of the tracks at night as you know Japanese very big on upkeep, much better than western countries who let their infrastructure rot

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Maintenance and noise reduction at night are two good reason why JR shouldn't operate 24 hours. Opening the train station 24 hours is going to result in every inch of the stations smelling like urine like NYC.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I'm sure if there was money in it, someone would do it. Hey, do I smell a business opportunity?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Electric bikes are the key, except of course if it is raining. cause carrying an umbrella while riding is illegal, and we do not want to do anything illegal do we?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

DBung can you tell me more about this bus?? I live in tachikawa and it could be very useful

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites