A severe shortage of truck drivers in Japan is forcing ocean carriers and freight forwarders to delay the pick-up of import and export cargoes from key ports, including Tokyo and Kobe. One carrier warned the delays could get worse as imports increase ahead of next year’s Tokyo Olympics.
Outlining the severity of the problem, Hapag-Lloyd said in a customer advisory last Friday: “The current dwell time for import containers at Tokyo port exceeds 10 days and we expect this situation to continue for the coming months.”
“Under these circumstances, we encourage you to consider taking delivery of your containers directly from the ports,” the carrier added. It also recommended shippers switch future shipments to direct discharge or load ports instead of using off-dock delivery or carrier’s haulage.
Hapag-Lloyd said the worst affected spots were trucking to and from Yokohama via Tokyo port and Osaka via Kobe port. Officials from Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe, and Osaka did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Gilbert Woo, east Asia director at X-Press Feeders, told JOC.com the trucker shortage “gets worse when volumes increase. It may get worse with the Summer Olympics next year.”
“During my last trip to Tokyo, one or two mainline operators said shippers are reviewing alternatives and one of them is using an inland container depot between Tokyo and Niigata ports (a distance of about 210 miles),” he said.
The difficulties led Maersk Line to open an inland container depot at Bando in Ibaraki prefecture, about 100 km (160 miles) from Yokohama port, on Nov. 1.
“The truck driver shortage is a significant issue in the Japanese market, often resulting in yard space shortage and long cargo dwell times — especially in the Tokyo and Osaka areas where the majority of import cargoes are shipped to,” a Maersk executive in Japan told JOC.com.
Tokyo and Yokohama are among the three biggest ports in Japan, with Tokyo handling 4.57 million TEU last year, and Yokohama 3 million TEU.
Logistics companies have also been affected by the driver shortage, although CEVA Logistics is trying to mitigate delays for key customers who can give early notice of shipment volumes.
“[The] drayage shortage is a chronic issue here, so yes, CEVA Japan is impacted as well,” said Keiko Miura, general manager of ocean at CEVA Logistics Japan.
Miura said the company is informing customers of the need for a longer lead time in order to secure trucks. The only way CEVA can give shorter lead times to secure trucks is if existing major customers can give volume forecasts well in advance, he added.
Aging workforce, online sales are factors
The shortage of truck drivers has been exacerbated by an aging workforce and strong growth in online shopping, with Japan ranked as the world’s third-largest e-commerce market with sales volumes climbing more than 9 percent per year.
Japan’s Railway Freight Association said the shortage is likely to worsen and has forecast a shortfall of about 280,000 truck drivers in 2028.
The situation has prompted industry and government to explore potential solutions.
In August, logistics company Nippon Express, UD Trucks, and Hokkaido agriculture cooperative Hokuren demonstrated the first use of an autonomous truck driving on a public road. The truck carried a cargo of sugar beet through one of Hokkaido’s leading agriculture processing facilities.
“If an automated truck is used for repetitive tasks, such as transporting cargo along the same route, it will lead to higher productivity,” Hisao Taketsu, Nippon Express executive vice president and chief operating officer, said at the time.
Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism is planning to create a certification scheme for logistics companies by March 2020 that is aimed to cut drivers’ long working hours and attract more recruits to the industry.