Tokyo-based op­er­a­tor Hato Bus has po­si­tioned it­self as the pre-em­i­nent force in on-road pub­lic trans­port in the sprawl­ing city

Tokyo-based op­er­a­tor Hato Bus has po­si­tioned it­self as the pre-em­i­nent force in on-road pub­lic trans­port in the sprawl­ing city


With more than 1000 em­ploy­ees, Hato Bus is no small deal. It is one of the big­gest bus op­er­a­tors in Ja­pan, ser­vic­ing mainly the Tokyo area; its sight­see­ing buses run more than 200 ser­vices in a sin­gle day.

Hato Bus sight­see­ing busi­ness divi­sion cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer Yoichi Mat­sui says the in­tro­duc­tion of its lat­est ‘Astromega’ dou­ble- decker sight­see­ing bus model about five years ago has al­lowed for more pas­sen­gers, giv­ing them all a bet­ter view of the world-fa­mous Tokyo sky­line.

This par­tic­u­lar model had never been used be­fore in Ja­pan, but Mat­sui was de­ter­mined and quickly set about ne­go­ti­at­ing the safety stan­dard for con­form­ity to Ja­panese on-road reg­u­la­tions.

“The do­mes­tic bus makes did not pro­duce a dou­ble- deck bus, so I sourced one from Europe called the Astromega,” Mat­sui says.

ABC went for a spin in one of th­ese Bel­gian Van Hool beauties and it soon be­came ap­par­ent just

how se­ri­ous the Ja­panese are about pro­vid­ing good cus­tomer ser­vice and driv­ing buses with man­ual gear­boxes.

Each bus­load of peo­ple is greeted with a bow from the at­ten­dant, who keeps an eye on things at the main stops and as­sists any pas­sen­gers who might need a hand; or a push, as the case was with my kind Ja­panese host, jour­nal­ist and in­ter­preter Takuro Ha­mada, who re­lies on his wheel­chair to get around.

With so many staff mem­bers on hand, it takes un­der a minute for him to alight and have his chair locked se­curely into place with the use of a wheel-lock­ing sys­tem on the lower deck.

The multi-lan­guage guid­ance sys­tem is help­ful and gives the lis­tener an in­sight into the sig­nif­i­cance of the places you visit as you go along. I’m told that the num­ber of pas­sen­gers on this ser­vice alone will ex­ceed 140,000 this year and is cur­rently grow­ing at an as­ton­ish­ing rate of 20,000 pas­sen­gers every year. With the 2020 Tokyo Olympic fast ap­proach­ing, Hato Bus will be a key con­trib­u­tor to the huge task of mov­ing spec­ta­tors, ath­letes and their fam­i­lies and me­dia to the var­i­ous events. Tokyo it­self is a hot bed of con­struc­tion at this time – the sight­see­ing bus takes us past the site that is be­ing trans­formed into the main vil­lage, as well as a huge num­ber of brand-new ho­tels and func­tion venues that are now emerg­ing.

Mat­sui says Hato Bus will work with a num­ber of other bus com­pa­nies when the Olympic Games are on, and while that will be a big job, the crew is ex­cited about the chal­lenge and eco­nomic ben­e­fits this will bring to a huge num­ber of busi­nesses in the city.


Hato Bus was founded in 1948 and is now over­seen by pres­i­dent and CEO Ya­sushi Naka­mura. Its ma­jor share­holder is the Tokyo Metropoli­tan Gov­ern­ment (38 per cent), fol­lowed by JTB Corp, Tokyo Metro Group (23 per cent) and Isuzu Mo­tors Group (10 per cent). While it started out small more than half a cen­tury ago, it has now grown to a com­pany with huge an­nual rev­enue.

In ad­di­tion to the sight­see­ing tours, its main busi­ness in­cludes char­ter bus ser­vices and ve­hi­cle main­te­nance. An­other as­pect of the busi­ness is city ser­vices, and the Tokyo Metropoli­tan Gov­ern­ment granted Hato Bus author­ity to op­er­ate a part of the reg­u­lar route ser­vices in the city of 10 mil­lion peo­ple with its 23 wards.

The greater Tokyo metropoli­tan area is much larger and has a pop­u­la­tion es­ti­mated to be more than 36 mil­lion.

Thirty- seven per cent of its busi­ness com­prises sight­see­ing tours in in­ner- city Tokyo, 19 per cent is tour­ing to sub­urbs, 19 per cent is pub­lic route ser­vices, 11 per cent pro­vides trans­port for ho­tels, 9 per cent is char­ter, and 5 per cent is ve­hi­cle main­te­nance.

Hato Bus also runs ho­tel trans­port ser­vices and has in­ter­ests

We ex­ceeded 1 mil­lion pas­sen­gers in 2012 and this will in­crease

in real es­tate. Its as­so­ci­ated com­pa­nies in­clude a ferry known as Sealine Tokyo that con­tains a fa­mous restau­rant, and the large ves­sel can of­ten be spot­ted in Tokyo Bay. The wider Hato Bus Agency en­com­passes ad­ver­tis­ing, in­sur­ance, pub­lish­ing and se­cu­rity agen­cies.

Hato Bus in­no­vated in the 1980s with the in­tro­duc­tion of dou­ble- decker sight­see­ing buses way back in 1982, and it now has no less than 13 dou­ble deck­ers in its for­mi­da­ble fleet.

The or­gan­i­sa­tion was us­ing mostly Droeg­moeller in those days with a few Kaess­bo­her­ers thrown in for va­ri­ety.

In about 1992, Hato Bus started in­tro­duc­ing a few Volvos into the fleet and it has re­cently gone back to pur­chas­ing brand-new Van Hool ve­hi­cles with ‘Sca­nia en­gines’.

“The num­ber of pas­sen­gers is in­creas­ing,” Mat­sui says.

“We ex­ceeded 1 mil­lion pas­sen­gers in 2012 and this will in­crease more in the lead up to the Tokyo Olympics. The open top bus tour is very pop­u­lar and the num­ber of pas­sen­gers is in­creas­ing year by year.”


There are three main bus man­u­fac­tur­ers in Ja­pan: Isuzu, Hino and Mit­subishi.

Mit­subishi Fuso ceased to pro­duce dou­ble- decker buses in Ja­pan in 2008 and was un­able to recom­mence pro­duc­tion, so even­tu­ally Mat­sui went to Europe to see what he could find for im­port that might be suit­able.

“The Ja­panese mar­ket can­not sus­tain the pro­duc­tion of dou­ble- decker buses for the lo­cal mar­ket alone, and the huge re­search and de­vel­op­ment costs to meet US and Euro­pean reg­u­la­tion and left-hand drive make busi­ness in­fea­si­ble and less com­pet­i­tive in com­par­i­son with Euro­pean man­u­fac­tur­ers,” Mat­sui re­veals.

He met with Alexan­der Den­nis in the United King­dom and Neo­plan in Ger­many in 2011, but they more or less re­quired a 1000-bus com­mit­ment and were un­able to pro­duce a pro­to­type that would meet Ja­panese de­sign re­quire­ments to start with.

“It is rather se­vere; the bus safety stan­dard of Ja­pan re­quires a max­i­mum width of 2.5 me­tres, a length of 12 me­tres and a height of 3.8 me­tres,” Mat­sui ex­plains.

The big­gest hur­dle was the de­vel­op­ment cost of a bus that was 2.5 me­tres wide, rather than the ‘usual’ 2.55m width, which is the Euro­pean and Aus­tralian stan­dard.

Hato Bus had bought a few Van Hool buses back in 1997, so the or­gan­i­sa­tion ap­proached the lat­ter to see if it would be will­ing to build a nar­rower bus that could legally op­er­ate in Ja­pan.

By 2013 the an­swer had come back that Van Hool could build a bus to Ja­panese de­sign stan­dards, but the plan hit a slight snag when it was dis­cov­ered that the usual MAN en­gines used in most Van Hool buses was likely to fail a Ja­panese heavy ve­hi­cle emis­sions test. For this rea­son an al­ter­na­tive Sca­nia en­gine was sourced and the rest, as they say, is his­tory.

Sca­nia Ja­pan was also able to ful­fil the ser­vice and sup­ply of re­place­ments parts into the fu­ture, which es­sen­tially gave Hato Bus the con­fi­dence and as­sur­ance it needed to pro­ceed.

It took five years, but the first Van Hool Astromega was de­liv­ered to Hato Bus on April 25 last year and they are now the pride of the fleet – even more so for the ef­fort it took to get them into the coun­try – and now there are three of th­ese brand-new ve­hi­cles help­ing vis­i­tors to Tokyo en­joy the sights.

“We are get­ting very good feed­back from our pas­sen­gers and they are very easy to op­er­ate for the driver,” Mat­sui says.

Th­ese buses have a range of im­pres­sive fea­tures, in­clud­ing a col­li­sion dam­age mitigation break, lane de­vi­a­tion alarm equip­ment, and an air tyre pres­sure mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem.

About 80 per cent of other buses in the Hato Bus fleet have now been retro­fit­ted with pneu­matic, French-man­u­fac­tured LDL air tyre pres­sure mon­i­tor­ing sys­tems.

Hato Bus has since mod­i­fied the ve­hi­cles to be fully wheel­chair ac­ces­si­ble, in part by re­mov­ing some of the seats on the lower deck to in­stall a wheel­chair-se­cur­ing wheel lock in the floor.

The high pop­u­lar­ity of dou­ble deck­ers in Ja­pan is no dif­fer­ent to any­where else in the world. The ob­vi­ous one is the abil­ity to trans­port more pas­sen­gers per bus, but also us­ing an ar­tic­u­lated bus on Ja­panese high­ways takes more time to be ap­proved in terms of reg­u­la­tion.


Af­ter the sight­see­ing tour, ABC vis­ited the Hato Bus de­pot in an in­ner-sub­urb of Ōta, where we learned about some of the chal­lenges that so many metropoli­tan Ja­panese op­er­a­tors face in 2017.

One of those is space. Flat land that can be de­vel­oped is be­yond scarce and the Ja­panese build nei­ther houses nor com­mer­cial build­ings on moun­tains. With all that growth, it is only a mat­ter of time be­fore the de­pot reaches its max­i­mum ve­hi­cle ca­pac­ity. A few po­ten­tial so­lu­tions have been iden­ti­fied and this is an is­sue that Mat­sui is cur­rently pon­der­ing.

The de­pot it­self has a full spray booth and the work­shop staff also do re­pairs on buses from other com­pa­nies. About 60 per cent of the work they do is on other op­er­a­tors’ ve­hi­cle main­te­nance and 40 per cent is on Hato Bus- owned ve­hi­cles.

We are get­ting very good feed­back from our pas­sen­gers

Hato Bus has a strong fo­cus on men­tor­ing and train­ing its staff to de­velop their skills, al­low­ing them to con­trib­ute and reach their po­ten­tial. There is a short­age of qual­i­fied me­chan­ics not just in Tokyo, but right through­out Ja­pan. So Hato Bus has taken the ini­tia­tive by re­cruit­ing ap­pren­tices in their last year of high school.

“In re­cent years the short­age of me­chan­ics has been a sub­ject and our com­pany’s mid- ca­reer re­cruit­ment is also se­vere now,” Mat­sui says.

“Although the new grad­u­ate of the vo­ca­tional school was em­ployed un­til now, it be­came im­pos­si­ble to se­cure very much. So I cre­ated a leaflet and have em­ployed high school grad­u­ates for last year on­wards.

“Although be­com­ing a se­cond- class me­chanic takes five years, it has be­come nec­es­sary for us to do this and I now have three ap­pren­tices who have come in un­der this model.”

The motto that hangs in­side the work­shop in clear view to all roughly trans­lates into English as “I aim at zero fail­ure on the street”.

While leg­is­la­tion only re­quires a full ve­hi­cle in­spec­tion every three months, Hato Bus does a thor­ough check up on all buses once a month and more-ba­sic rou­tine checks even more reg­u­larly.

The fleet now stands at 136 ve­hi­cles: 92 Isuzus, 31 Hi­nos, 10 Mis­tubishi Fu­sos and three Van Hools. Some of th­ese have a slop­ing floor, the re­sult of yet an­other Hato Bus-man­u­fac­turer col­lab­o­ra­tion, which gives pas­sen­gers bet­ter vis­i­bil­ity even from the back of the bus, among other ben­e­fits.

This fea­ture is some­thing also be­ing con­sid­ered for in­clu­sion in fu­ture bus mod­els com­ing from Van Hool into Ja­pan.

Af­ter meet­ing with count­less op­er­a­tors around Aus­tralia and New Zealand, it was fas­ci­nat­ing to visit a Ja­panese op­er­a­tor and to gain an un­der­stand­ing of op­er­a­tion con­di­tions, mar­ket forces and reg­u­la­tions that op­er­a­tors face there.


This page top to bot­tom: Hato Bus pub­lic re­la­tions of­fi­cer Kaai Aida (left) and cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer Yoichi Mat­sui; Cute liv­ery; Tokyo sky­line

Above: A few in the fleet

Left: The work­shop

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