Tokyo Metro Off Peak 1

With a population of over 37 million people, the Greater Tokyo  Area is the most populous city in the world.

So what is it going to be like when the Olympics come to Tokyo next year when the 2020 Tokyo Olympics takes Tokyo by storm from July 24 to August 8. That’s when an expected 650,000 spectators are expected to arrive, so there are legitimate concerns for the average city denizen, who can’t get tickets to the Show and just wants to get to work on time.

I see three major acts by both public and private institutions to decrease congestion in Tokyo during the Olympics next year: shifting of public holidays, restrictions on the Tokyo expressways, and encouragement of changes to commuting behaviors.

Public Holidays: Tokyo is the Land of the Public Holiday. There are so many, I get stressed in June because there isn’t one, let alone two or three like we have in January, May, September, October and November. With hopes of easing congestion in Tokyo around the beginning and end of the Olympics, “Marine Day” is being moved a week later to Thursday, July 23 (day before opening day), while “Sports Day” (traditionally in October) will be moved to Friday, July 24. Additionally, “Mountain Day”, will shift a day early to Monday, August 10, the day after the closing ceremony.

Restrictions on Expressways: Drivers were frustrated to find they could not access the highway where they wanted to on July 24 and 26 as the Tokyo government enacted a large-scale highway test by closing some 30 entry points to the Metropolitan Expressway, including entrance and exit points near event locations, for example those near the new National Stadium and the site of the Olympic Village. They had hope to reduce traffic on the expressways by 30%, but traffic only diminished by about 7%.  That has put more momentum behind plans for congestion pricing, where rates to enter the highway may rise by another 1,000 yen between 6 am and 10 pm.

Flex-Time: If you work for a global multi-national, particularly a technology company, then “work anytime, anywhere” is a cultural norm. Except for technology companies in Japan, the cultural norm may likely be, “if I don’t see you, then you’re not working, are you”. In other words, the idea of measuring performance on output, not on how many hours you are at your desk, has become a talking point among government officials and leaders upon passing of the “hatakaki-kata kaikaku kanren ho,” or the Act to Overhaul Laws to Promote Workplace Reform.

More specifically to the Olympics, the government is encouraging tele-work, and commuting during off-peak hours. The government is running a trial from late July through early September this year in which 2,800 employees at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government office were given laptops so the can work outside the office once a week during the times this year when the Olympics and Paralympics will take place next year. (One day a week only? Well, it’s a start.)

Tokyo Metro Off Peak 4
Tokyo Metro ad explaining the gold, silver and bronze-level points you get depending on when you commute to work on their trains.

If you take the subway in Tokyo, you will see the ubiquitous posters of Tokyo Metro marketing their Pasmo Card and its point system. Take their trains and accumulate points and prizes! And from July 22 to August 2, and August 19 to August 30, you can get bonus points if you take their trains from 7~7:30 am (25 points!), 7:30~8:00 am (15 points), and 9:30~10:30 am (10 points).

“This is a chance to make telework a legacy of the games that will take root” in society, Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko was quoted as saying in The Japan Times.

As Hemingway wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

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Opening Ceremonies 1964_Bi to Chikara
Opening Ceremonies 1964, from the book, Bi to Chikara

In Japan, my birthday used to always be a national holiday.

Two years after the Tokyo Olympics staged their grand opening ceremony on October 10, 1964, the Japanese government declared 10/10 a national holiday. When I lived in Tokyo from 1986 to 1994, my birthday was always a day off. Very often, schools all over Japan would hold sports festivals for their students and families, a significant cultural phenomenon in Japan.

In 2000, this holiday called Health and Sports Day was moved to the second Monday of October, to ensure that Japanese get that day off, so this holiday often falls on a day before or after October 10. This year, the second Monday is October 9.

With the start of the 2020 Olympics scheduled for Friday, July 24, government officials are considering a change in the law to make that day a national holiday, according to Asahi. Doing so would decrease the car and mass transportation traffic significantly, and allow people and vehicles related to the Olympics to move more efficiently that day, in addition to making it easier to implement security plans.

The government is considering a few options:

  • Make July 24, 2020 a public holiday, but not to make it an annual holiday
  • Move the public holiday held on the second Monday of October to July 24 (No!)
  • Move the public holidays of either Mountain Day (August 11) or Marine Day (third Monday of July) to July 24.
  • Create an additional annual public holiday on July 24 (That would get my vote!)

Japan has a reputation for being a workaholic culture, with the perception that people tend to log long hours at the office. In some companies and in certain departments, that is certainly the case. To the credit of the Japan press, they call out the worst companies (ブラック企業 burakku kigyō) for their culture of ridiculously long hours. And if you work in HR in Japan like I do, then you know that many companies have vacation utilization rates of 50% or less, ie: if you have 20 days of leave, you take only 10 days or less that year.

National Holidays in Japan

But the truth of the matter is, as residents here know, Japan has a high number of public holidays – officially 16 – more if you count the unofficial days off companies give their employees after New Years. As I understand it, only countries like India, China, Hong Kong, Colombia and the Philippines have more.

Because there are so many holidays, many clumped together so that Japanese can take as long as a week off twice in a year, many Japanese feel they can’t use up all their vacation days even if they wanted to. When I moved from Tokyo to Seattle, I felt this difference viscerally, shocked at how few public holidays there were in the US compared to Japan.

Japan is a public holiday paradise, and I hope that the government chooses to make July 24 a new and permanent holiday.

But please don’t touch my Health and Sports Day in October. It’s my special day.