Labor Report from Meiji Japan (18)
Street Car Service in Tokyo
Hongo, Tokyo, Japan, August 23, 1898.
One of the most interesting sights that greets the vision of western travelers upon their arrival at Shimbashi depot of this capital city of the Far Eastern Empire, is a group of cars stationed on a double track of rails running through the streets along the depot. Each of these cars is 12 x 9[feet] in size, with platforms on both ends, and drawn by two mules. On the front platform there stands a driver, with rein in one hand and whip in the other, dressed in uniformed European cloth. On the rear platform a conductor is stationed, with a leather bag by his side hip, strung down over his shoulder. These are the cars in service of the Tokyo Horse Car Company, the only street car company we have in this city of one and a quarter million population. Not that these cars present any peculiar attraction themselves to western travelers, but their presence side by side with the "jinrikisha"-- a cart drawn by a man, with seat accommodations for one or two passengers, and representing, as it does, the ancient system of street transportaion in this country--is in such contrast that they naturally draw attention of foreigners.
Aside from the passing interest these cars will draw from foreign visitors, still more interesting is the story of the immense business success of this street car company and its disgraceful treatment of its patrons and employes.
Commencing its business in June, 1882, with a capital of $150,000 and its line extending over three miles on principal business streets of this city with Shimbashi as its starting point and terminals at Asakusa and Uyeno parks, this company enjoyed most prosperous business from the outset. According to the report published by the Government Bureau of Statistics this company was able to declare 3 per cent. divided for the first half year of its existence, a period which is considered to be a losing time for all undertakings. This favorable condition continued for years. Its dividend never falling below 14 per cent. per annum, while 1886 it declared a dividend of 21 per cent., and in 1895, 26 per cent. The climax of their extraordinary high profit was reached when it made a dividend of 35 per cent. for six months ending May, 1898. This last dividend was the largest ever made by any stock company existing in this country. It is usual with our industrial and commercial companies to declare an annual dividend ranging from 10 to 20 per cent. but they never attained so high prosperity as to be able to earn 35 per cent. net profit. While this company enjoying so large a profit during all its existence and monopolizing a greater part of our principal streets (it should be noted that our streets are generally so narrow that there are left only a few yards on both sides of the double track of rails for walking space for pedestrians), it is naturally assumed that this company improved its service as years went by. But such is not the case. Indeed, it is almost incredible to be reminded that this company made no visible improvement on its service during all the years of its existence. True, it has increased the number of cars from 31 to 102 during the past seventeen years; but this was done only to meet the growing number of passengers, so as to increase its revenues. There is nothing so convincing a proof of this disgraceful treatment of its patrons by this corporation as the fact that it has never reduced its car fare. The fare charged by the company at the commencement of its business is one-half of a cent per section, and there are fourteen sections on its line, each section having a mileage of about one-quarter of a mile. This rate still holds good at present. Moreover, this company never made any improvement toward promoting the comfort of its passengers. Owing to the scarcity of cars in service, crowding of its cars was and is common feature, and the phrase "packed like sardines" is illustrative of the condition. Nor can this be otherwise, since it is the purpose of the company to fill up thirty six persons into a car with flooring space of 108 square feet, and this is done while it has seat accommodation for eighteen persons only. When after ten years of patient endurance on the part of its patrons a cry is raised against this overcrowding, the company calmly took a step to run so-called first class car since last January, in addition to the service, charging exactly double the fare charged for second class passengers. But this went only to serve "other customers", a better class of common people who did not patronize the service heretofore owing to its crowded condition.
To a great majority of its patrons, the double charge stands as an effective barrier and they are left to patronize crowded second-class cars as they have done during the last ten years. As there are no other means of streets transportation in existence except the jinrikishas, which being too expensive for the common people, the patrons of the horse-car system are compelled to silently bear the disgraceful treatment of the company, and they must so bear until the company should choose to improve its service. We are glad to mention in this connection that our city council has already decided to run its own street cars by electric power, and plans for its actual operation are now under consideration of its special committee. Until this proposed municicipal street transportation comes to a reality, will the people of this city ever enjoy an improved system of street transportation, and they are now longingly looking toward its nrealizatio.
Turning our attention to the way this company treats its employes we find it to be more merciless. While exacting from its employes sixteen long working hours per day, this monster corporation pays out so little in compensation that its employes are having a very hard time to eke out their existence. It is regulated by rules of the company that compensation of a driver and conductor are to be determined by the receipts of the car they were assigned (note, the company is actually putting premium to crowd a car). The rate thus allowed to a driver or conductor is 4 per cent. of the gross earning or 4 cents on every dollar. Daily earning of an employe thus determined is entered in a book of the company, and at the end of every month it is paid out minus 23 cents as a monthly charge for the uniformed hat and clothes lent by the company to each of its employes. Under this arrangement a driver and conductor is able to earn only $ 6 per month on an average. It is remarked by a humorous observer that the lot of a car driver or conductor is worse than the mules owned by the company in this respect: "That the mules are assured of their meals by the company but some of the employes often go without theirs", and there is much truth in this saying. Be it said to the credit of the employes, however, they have made several attempts on their part to strike the shackles off disgraceful exaction made by the company, but every one of them failed to attain its purpose. Owing to the work requiring hardly any skill the supply of labor is always in excess of demand, and this over-supply of labor makes all attempts to better their condition almost futile. It is to be hoped that a union of the employes will be formed at an early date and bring the labor market under its control, presenting, at the same time, a solid front to the company. This is the only means of salvation, and to this end the sympathy of our organized workers is at present directed.
American Federationist,V, No.8 (October,1898)