One of the components of Japan’s embattled lifetime employment system that remains firmly in place is compensation for commuting costs. In almost every other industrialized country, full-time employees pay for their own transportation to work, but in Japan your employer pays, regardless of how far you live from your workplace. It’s a great deal and certainly Japanese workers take if for granted.
However, it does have its drawbacks, at least for those who don’t work full-time. For one thing, this money is not taxed. Companies can declare it as an expense, but the government does not treat it as taxable income or benefits, unless the worker spends more than ¥100,000 a month for transportation. As a reference, someone living in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, would spend ¥83,000 a month to take the Shinkansen to central Tokyo to work every day.
In a sense, we are all subsidizing these workers’ commutes, which means we are subsidizing the public transportation or automobiles they use to get to work. These costs are also reflected in the prices of goods and services. In addition, the practice of subsidized commutes has fueled past real estate booms in suburban areas, since people who lived far away from their jobs didn’t have to worry about commuting costs (commuting times are quite another matter and warrant a separate study of a more psychological nature). If everybody was a full-time worker it would all be fair, but the ranks of part-time and contract workers are increasing, and they get no such benefits.
The attitude toward commuting by private car, however, does seem to be changing. Unlike benefits for public transportation commutes, benefits for automobile commutes tend to be fixed regardless of how far the commute is or how much fuel is consumed. Now, some companies and public offices are compensating employees who commute to work by bicycle. The Toyohashi city government in Aichi Prefecture, for instance, has added an allowance for workers who bike to work: ¥4,600 a month if you travel between 2 and 5 km, and ¥7,100 a month if you travel more than 5 km. At the same time, Toyohashi has reduced the allowance for car commutes to ¥2,000 a month for less than 5 km and ¥4,100 for more than 5 km.