Tokyo Commuter Hell

Tokyo commuters

My corner of photojournalism isn’t exactly front-line war reporting. But I think this story was about the closest I’ve come to being physically assaulted in Japan so far.

Two years ago I was writing about the Tokyo transport system (pdf) and went out to get some rush hour train photos. (Only just uploaded the pics to my archive – hence this post).

Conveniently, I live close by the most crowded rail route in Tokyo.

crowded commuter train

It was a miserable wet winter morning, which as well as making everyone really depressed, means the trains are noticeably busier. Considering how angry people look in the pics, I’m glad I took the photos during the morning rush hour when everyone was sober.

This guy wasn’t happy about me taking his photo . . .

commuter on a train

Nor were the people in this train. I was pinned against the far door and was holding the camera against the ceiling. I didn’t have the nerve to use flash (!) so there’s lots of digital noise.

packed commuter train

The Japanese transport companies calculate crowding as a % of the trains official maximum capacity, ie when all the seats and standing spaces are taken. The line I take into Tokyo has a rush hour crowding rate of 220% – which is why people can sleep standing up on the way to work.  It’s also why the line has the most chikan in Tokyo.

Things could be worse though – this is what I wrote in my story:

Though overcrowding is still a big problem, there is a surprising lack of protest from commuters, something perhaps explained by the history of the network. Imagining trains more packed than those of today might be difficult, but crowding actually used to be much, much worse. Pity the commuters of the ’50s and ’60s. Then, the average rush hour train was packed to over 300 percent capacity. “There were injuries when the carriage windows broke,” says Itoh.

Heres a link to all my Tokyo commuter photos

All the gory details are here (pdf)

16 Responses to “Tokyo Commuter Hell”

  1. billywest says:

    That station employee chillin’ next to the door in the second picture has a bit of a grin on his face, doesn’t he?

  2. Laura says:

    I will no longer complain about rush hour on the TTC in Toronto again.

    I will no longer complain about rush hour on the TTC in Toronto again.

    (Repeat 200 more times as required)

    Wow, just Wow! To survive that I’d have pretend I’m all alone in a pencil case and wait for my stop.

    You are brave for taking those photos!

  3. Mike says:

    Nice photos. I like the angles they show ^^.

    I’ve been in a couple of rush-hour crunches myself – once or twice on the way to the airport with a full-sized hiking rucksack. The people around me weren’t pleased when i said I was getting off the train…

  4. Steph says:

    Looks like the L train to me.

  5. Ryan says:

    If Godzilla would attack Tokyo now and hit the rush hour commuter trains it would probably wipe out half of Tokyo’s population.

  6. […] photos of a crowded rush hour commute on Tokyo’s trains from Tony McNicol, one of the contributors to the Japan Photo Gallery here at The Nihon […]

  7. ThePenguin says:

    Contrary to the general impression you get from the media, it’s not that it’s like that all of the time on every train line in Tokyo. If you can time your commute to miss the peak of peons heading for some arbitrary 9am deadline it’s usually pretty uncrowded, at least in the sense that there might still be standing room only but not as crowded as to force you into direct body contact with other passengers.

  8. Michael says:

    Dude I would totally buy a shot if I didn’t have to live through it… I am moving back to Tokyo next month. I’ll be the guy in the middle of that pack, gasping for breath!

    ThePenguin is right though… it really depends on when you take a train. Company’s are starting to stagger the work hours so that the commute isn’t so bad. I heard a new term though recently: mini-rush

  9. Tornadoes28 says:

    That looks like fun. Did this a couple times. Not fun. How can they do that every day.

  10. That is pretty intense.

  11. Thanks for linking me by the way and you have some nice shots on there. really like these from the rush hour, often wanted to do it myself but it takes some nerve to pressa shutter in there and then ride with the angry people for at least another 20 mins or so, Well done. The angles are great, there is a real feeling of tghe breathless lack of space. Off to look further through your blog now. Talk soon I hope.

  12. tony says:

    Hi Damon (and all)

    Not sure I’d have the nerve to do it again – at least not the same way. Would be interesting to take shots using a telephone in a rush hour station though. Head and shoulder or full face shots of stressed commuters.

    I often wonder why Japanese people put themselves through this every day. Do they really have no choice?


  13. Hiya Tony was hoping to run into you last night at the FCCJ, saw your pic on the wall though and hope to meet up one day. Anyway how do you feel about the trickle down effect of of Artist portrait rights to the public? like in the UK there is a lot of misinformation spread about photographers` rights with many people believing that it is illegal to take pictures of people without their permission. It is not illegal to do so in the UK and as far as I know here is the same, certainly the Nichiobi Cameramen with their Photojournalistic fantasies seem to think not, but there is a growing awareness, and a poster campaign to reinforce this, that your face is your property if you`re celebrity and the worrying insinuation that ordinary people (not just schoolgirls in bikinis on the beach snapped for perv mags that are ironically freely sold) have rights to privacy too.
    Would it be difficult to take these pics now because people are more agressively protective of their rights or officials are stricter in stations etc.

  14. One Night at an Internet Cafe in Tokyo (a recommended experience) | Taylor Davidson says:

    […] network of stations crammed into the area. Of course, the system has to work: how else would the masses driving Japan’s economy plunge into Tokyo every […]

  15. cookie says:

    What line is this? I have…the same problem every day TT_____TT

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