Japan’s system of senior transit passes stands at crossroads

The Yomiuri Shimbun
An elderly person heads toward a bus in Sakai.

As Japan continues to become grayer, municipal governments are looking into the cost of senior discount passes that allow the elderly to ride mass transit at reduced fares.

The Tokyo metropolitan government and all 20 ordinance-designated major cities responded to a Yomiuri Shimbun questionnaire in April. While Tokyo is not looking to change its system, 60% of ordinance-designated cities said they had made revisions to or abolished the passes.

Senior passes have been introduced since the 1970s, mainly in urban areas where mass transit is convenient. Though the idea behind the passes is to encourage senior citizens to proactively participate in social activities, the fiscal burden on the municipal governments subsidizing the fares has been increasing.

According to the questionnaire, the Kobe, Nagoya, Niigata, Osaka and Sapporo municipal governments have already revised their systems by, for example, setting upper limits on usage of the pass.

City governments of Kawasaki, Kyoto and Yokohama replied they were considering revising their systems, while Chiba, Hamamatsu, Hiroshima and Shizuoka abolished their systems in 2007 or later.

On the other hand, the Tokyo metropolitan government and six cities — Fukuoka, Kitakyushu, Kumamoto, Okayama, Sakai and Sendai — have not considered revising their systems.

The two remaining ordinance-designated cities, Sagamihara and Saitama, have never introduced the senior pass system.

For the above municipal governments with the senior pass system in place, the aggregate fiscal burden is ¥76.9 billion, according to the current fiscal year’s initial budgets.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A sample smart card for elderly people in Sakai to ride municipal buses for ¥100 each journey.

The highest amount is Tokyo’s ¥19.9 billion, while five city governments including Osaka each shoulder more than ¥5 billion.

According to the central government’s statistics, the population 65 or older was 8.87 million in 1975 and increased to about 36.03 million in 2020.

Many of the municipal governments that have revised or abolished the pass system cited the rise in their fiscal burden along with an increase of elderly users.

In February, the Nagoya government set an upper limit on using the pass at 730 times a year. Before, usage had been unlimited. One person had used the pass more than 2,000 times a year, for an amount equivalent to ¥400,000. Thus, with fairness in mind, the city government sought to reduce the frequency.

Yokohama residents 70 and older can buy a pass in accordance with their income levels for free unlimited use of buses and subways, a system the municipal government is considering revising. The system was introduced in 1974. Back then, the number of senior pass users in the city was about 70,000, but this has increased to about 400,000 today. The Yokohama city government’s fiscal burden for the system has ballooned by 47 times, to ¥13.6 billion this fiscal year.

As the estimated number of Yokohama residents age 70 or older will increase from about 760,000 in 2020 to 900,000 in 2041, a city government official expressed alarm.

“It is possible that we will be unable to maintain the pass system,” the official said.

The Tokyo metropolitan government, however, is not considering revising its senior pass system.

“Though we notice how large the fiscal burden is,” said an official of the metropolitan government, “there are many opinions that the pass system contributes to elderly people’s motivation in life. So the system has great meaning.”