In 2005, the Japanese government made a promise that would only be fulfilled when those involved would be quite elderly indeed. Amidst a rush to privatize the nation’s extensive highway system, it was stated that the country’s infamously expensive toll roads would be made free by 2050. Now, the House of Councilors has voted to extend that already once-delayed date – all the way to the futuristic year of 2115.
For visitors to Japan, the country often seems to function based entirely on an extensive and well-maintained rail system. Trains, subways, monorails, and shinkansen play an intrinsic part in daily life and commerce in Japan; at the same time, however, an equally extensive series of roads and expressways blanket the Japanese archipelago. Once out of the various metropoles of Japan, cars become increasingly necessary for daily life, and are used broadly for the transport of goods. One can drive along national expressways from Aomori in the north to Kagoshima in the south.
But while these roads are generally high-quality and well-maintained, they come with a hefty price. Japanese toll roads are some of the most expensive in the world. As of 2022, the average price per kilometer was ¥24.6. For a standard single car, the four-hour drive from Tokyo to Nagoya costs ¥7320 in tolls alone. ($52.63 or €49.14.) While these high prices are generally unpopular, there was at least the idea that, one day, the tolls would cease. Now, that’s not really something many can hope to see while they’re still spry enough to drive.
Toll Roads are Here to Stay?
Japan’s massive system of highways and expressways arose in the 1950s, as car culture developed during the economic recovery of the post-war period. The Japanese government took on massive loans to finance these megaprojects; tolls were initiated almost immediately with the intention of collecting enough fees to pay for each road. However, the system pools all fees into a single fund used for the entire highway network. This means that even after individual roads have been paid for, tolls continue to be taken from said road’s users. The pool scheme is deemed necessary since the system includes ever-increasing, low-trafficked roads in the mountainous countryside that would never be able to pay for their own construction.
Prime Minister Koizumi’s cabinet began looking into privatizing the expressways in the early 2000s; the plan went through in 2005 amidst a good deal of debate. A series of joint-stock companies, all of which the government owns controlling shares in, now run the expressways of Japan. At the time, it was believed that the companies owed around 4 trillion yen in debt for highway construction. Once this amount was paid off, the toll roads would convert into free expressways. The government believed this could be done by 2050.
However, come 2014, the government altered its plans. Now, it said, the amount would be repaid by 2065. Nearly a decade on, and the date is a good half-century later.
Concrete Under Duress
Maintaining Japan’s 10,000+ kilometers of concrete expressways is an expensive ordeal. The island nation is infamously prone to natural disasters; expressways must be earthquake-proofed, their safety checked and re-checked. Heavy rain, acidity, and more play their roles in adding wear and tear. Safety is the name of the game in Japan, and huge sums are spent ensuring Japan’s vast road system remains worthy of Japan’s drivers. (It helps that concrete is also a huge business interest in Japan.)
The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism’s move to extend the toll roads’ longevity comes amidst Japan’s rapid depopulation. Just as Japan’s society ages, so does its infrastructure. Upkeep on roads to depopulated countryside locales will need investments beyond what Japan’s shrinking tax base can handle.
The 2012 Sasago Tunnel Collapse is a stark reminder of the need for infrastructure vigilance. The three-mile-long tunnel is part of the Chūō Expressway linking Tokyo and Nagoya; on December 2, 2012, some 150 concrete slabs fell from the tunnel’s ceiling, crushing the cars below. The disaster claimed nine victims, making it the worst roadway accident in Japanese history.
The Sasago Tunnel Collapse became the impetus for increased infrastructure checks. Such checks are part of why the government is pushing back the date for the stoppage of toll-takings. Still, these points may have to be made in a salient manner in order for the populace to accept this especially expensive change of plans.
What to Read Next
Kyodo. (5/31(水) 10:49). 高速道路、有料2115年まで 半永久化へ改正法成立. Yahoo! Japan News.
(2023/01/17 11:55). 2065年から無料が…高速道路「2115年まで有料」. TV Asahi News.
Mizutani, Fumitoshi & Uranishi, Shuji. (2006). Privatization of the Japan Highway Public Corporation: Policy Assessment. European Regional Science Association Conference Papers. 6.