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How Has COVID 19 Affected Transportation in Japan? An Introduction of Japanese Statistics

by Shuntaro Okimoto

The impact of COVID 19 on the transportation and tourism sectors is significant, and no one knows when the pandemic will end. I live near Washington, DC, so I feel the impact on this region every day. On the other hand, how has my home country of Japan, on the other side of the globe, been affected?

The virus, which has caused us suffering, is the same around the world, and Japan, like the United States, also has modern and functional transportation modes, such as railroads, airplanes, and cars. Is the impact on transportation in Japan similar to that in the United States? Or instead, has the coronavirus impacted the transportation sector differently between the United States, which has a vast continent, and Japan, which is a small island country surrounded by the sea?

By introducing the latest statistics issued by the Japanese government, I would like to give you a chance to ponder this topic.

All Japanese data used in this document was provided by the Japanese government, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism:

(in Japanese only)

I browsed the following pages to find US data:

“Monthly Transportation Statistics” (Bureau of Transportation Statistics)

1. Rail Passengers

The number of rail passengers has decreased since March, and in April and May it was 54% of the number from the same month the previous year. It recovered slightly in June, reaching 70% of last year’s number. According to the Passenger km, which is data obtained by multiplying the number of passengers to the distance traveled (shown by the orange line in the graph above), the drop is larger than the data for the number of passengers (shown by the blue line). This is because the number of passengers traveling long-distances is significantly decreasing. Passengers on the high-speed railway in Japan, called the Shinkansen, have recovered only to 20% in July, and the latest release by the railway company suggests that this trend will continue at least until August.

This data is shocking. As you may be aware if you are familiar with Japan, the Japanese love taking the train very much. In urban areas, such as Tokyo, there are extremely convenient urban railroads and subways, and many businessmen working in Tokyo commute by rail every weekday. Also, during long weekends, they go far away using the Shinkansen that connects cities. If you visit Japan, you will probably ride several trains.

The reason why passengers disappeared from trains, which have a strong presence in Japan's domestic transportation system, is that the government issued a state of emergency on April 7th, which restricted commuting to offices and restrained people from traveling for holidays. (Currently, the state of emergency has been lifted.) Japan's leading railroad companies (many of which are completely private companies) announced their financial results for the April-June quarter in mid-August, but all the companies were in the red.

In the United States, the number of intercity rail passengers has almost disappeared since the latter half of March, and in June it recovered to only about 7% of the same month last year. Urban rail passengers fell to 10% year-on-year in April, but then recovered to 24%. Passenger growth has recovered faster in Japan, probably because of the difference in the presence of railways.

2. Air Passengers

Air passenger numbers on Japanese carriers were at their worst in May, and have started to get a little better since then. Domestic passengers in June have recovered to 20% year-on-year, and this recovery trend is expected to continue. On the other hand, attracting international passengers continues to be in a difficult due to continued immigration restrictions and self-isolation by countries around the world. In the United States, domestic flights in June accounted for 22% year-on-year, and international flights in the same month accounted for about 5%. The recovery of US and Japanese air passengers is about the same.

Japanese air carriers are facing a very difficult situation, just as air carriers in other countries are.

Although they secure cash through frequent borrowing, there is currently no direct government support for air carriers, such as the subsidies found under the US CARES Act. Regarding, the COVID 19 pandemic and its impact on air passengers, I wrote another report in April with more detailed information. If you are interested in reading it, you can access it from the link below.

3. Buses and Taxes

This is passenger data for buses and taxis in Tokyo. The number of passengers riding taxis decreased sharply until May. It can be said that it is currently on a recovery trend, rising to 50% year-on-year in June. The number of passengers riding fixed-route buses in July in the United States was about 50% compared to the same month of the previous year, and the recovery is slower than in Japan, which has numbers of over 70%.

4. Logistics

The impact on logistics is different from that of passengers. The effect of the pandemic on domestic logistics is small, and it has instead invigorated some logistic industries. The increase in door-to-door package transportation is thought to be due to the increase in the use of online shopping during the pandemic. Less-than-truckload freight shipping (LTL) is used for the transportation of small freight, or when a freight doesn’t require the use of an entire trailer. Looking at the impact of trucks on logistic transportation from the perspective of LTL and general motor trucks, there has not been much of a negative effect.

The impact on logistics for other modes has also been small compared than that for passengers. The decrease in air cargo is thought to be due to the decline in passenger flights.

In the US, the impact on logistics and passenger transportation is the same. What is noteworthy about US freight transport is that air cargo in June exceeded last year's levels both domestically and internationally. For domestic flights, it has been more than 10% higher than last year since April.

5. Travel Agencies

The Japanese government has been focusing on policies to attract foreign visitors to Japan. However, from March to July, foreign visitors have almost disappeared to about 0.1% year-on-year. In addition, domestic tourism has declined since March in Japan. As a result, travel agencies are in great trouble.

To improve this situation, the Japanese government started a policy of subsidizing domestic private travel in July. Some people are concerned about the spread of infection by this measure, but the positive effects of increasing the number of people traveling domestically has begun to appear. In the third week of September, which is when I am writing this article, Japan has four holidays, and some reports suggest that the most people have enjoyed traveling at this time than since the pandemic began.

I discovered that Japan and the United States, whose lands are completely different in size and shape, have been similarly affected by the pandemic. Especially in the field of transportation, even if the movement of people has extremely reduced, the movement of goods has not reduced very much, or may have even been partially invigorated. The traffic modes in both countries will remain changing their operation even in the new normal.

We will continue to monitor the impact of pandemics on transportation in Japan and the United States. If you have any questions about the current state of transportation and tourism in Japan, please feel free to contact us.

September 2020

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