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Trains on Tiptoes

Given all that's going on in the economy, I thought I would distract myself with another Japan update. Hope this brightens your day.

Tokyo's mass transit system is superb. It is a model of efficiency: convenient, accessible, clean and quick. I think about trains a lot; any commuter in Tokyo must. But, after awhile, it all blends together into one seamless montage. So, in an attempt to separate out my observations, here are a few scenes that have been rattling around in my head.

The Crush

If there is one thing that stands out for me when it comes to Tokyo, it is the morning and evening rush. Without experiencing it, you cannot understand the sheer insanity. Normally, Japan is an unfailingly polite society with strict rules on how to act based on relative social position. Restrained personal expression is a cultivated and prized character trait. However these rules are suspended during the window of time that people commute to and from work. I am a part of the problem: When I see an open seat, I'll fight for it as hard the other four people going for it. I will push myself into a packed train car even if it means shoving someone rudely to the side, and even knowing that waiting three minutes might mean a more comfortable trip. But I am continually surprised at how, having squeezed onto a train that was already past what I consider absolute maximum capacity, a further fifteen or more people will somehow manage to push their way on board. At times like this, it isn't just the rules of society that have been suspended; the very laws of physics seem to be blatantly disregarded. But in these situations, somehow I manage.

The other day, however, was an exception. Due to weather, the transit system is behind schedule and two trains worth of commuters are now waiting on the platform. Finally a train arrives and we cram on board. The doors are unable to close. Seizing the opportunity, a second wave of energetic passengers mount their assault. I find myself in the middle of a crush of people. I had initially lifted my hands in the air in hopes of grabbing a support and now I find that bodies have filled the space under my arm pits. Once the train starts, we lurch forward and I am lifted up onto the balls of my feet. Amateur mistake! There is an unseen war being fought down below; seizing a territorial advantage, other feet immediately fill the void below and soon I find myself on one foot. I feel like I'm playing Twister: my arms are in the air at odd angles, I am held firmly in a vaguely vertical position, and I am supporting my weight on one leg. With every movement of the train, we lurch violently. The train is perfectly quiet except for the grunts and gasps of people as we are squeezed, pushed, poked and prodded. After an eternity, the train reaches its first stop, the doors open and we are involuntarily, violently,...how else can you describe it...vomited out.

The Punch

It is late Friday night, returning from a business dinner. I notice an older man standing by the doors, swaying slightly, not from the movement of the train. When the doors open, a well dressed businessman gets on board. There must have been some inadvertent contact because the older man takes offense and says something. The words are ignored by the younger, much larger, businessman. A few stops later the businessman gets off. As he passes the older man he turns to say something, perhaps a response to the earlier remark. Enraged, the older man starts yelling and they exchange further shouted insults between train and platform. Then the older man gets off the train, hits his adversary and steps back onto the train just in time for the doors to close and safely separate himself from the situation. As the train pulls away, the shocked businessman is left on the platform. The older man turns to those that witnessed the encounter, bows deeply and apologizes.

The Chikan

I am standing on the train at a station, waiting for departure. Suddenly a man runs past on the platform, a look of sheer terror on his face, as though the devil himself is giving chase. Startled, passengers look up as a moment later a young woman runs by in hot pursuit. She is in a short, tight, dress, wearing high heels and hauling a large designer handbag. Despite her handicaps, she appears to be gaining on the guy and she is screaming something I can't quite make out. Bringing up the rear, puffing, is an older station attendant. My fellow passengers, possibly more fluent in dash-by Japanese than I, start laughing. I have never heard laughing shared among strangers on a train. I look quizzically at the person standing next to me. "Chikan," she says. Aaah. Loosely translated, "pervert." None too infrequently, some men lack manners when in the tight confines of a train. Fortunately, at least in this case, the imposed-upon woman will not suffer in silence. It is unlikely he will forget this lesson.

The Shoes

Trains are clean, climate controlled and comfortable. What better place for a nap? That thought must have occurred to the unkempt man I see sprawled out along the full length of a bench. The train is packed and yet there he is, taking up six precious, coveted, seats. By itself this is an unusual sight but what draws my attention are his shoes. They are carefully arranged on the floor below. This should not surprise me; it would not occur to a Japanese to leave shoes on in this situation. My own daughters automatically remove their shoes on a train when they want to turn around to look out the window. It does not matter that only their knees will contact the seat. The mere proximity of shoes to bench is a serious social faux paux and proper respect for train benches is ingrained in every child from an early age. By these stories, I do not mean to imply that I am a mere innocent bystander.

Certainly I am not only an observer of the insanity around me. I do my share to contribute to the flavor of the city:

The Nut

A few days ago I was on the train to work. Completely engrossed in my thoughts and rocking out on my headphones to a Japanese lesson podcast, I nearly fail to notice a voice on the intercom announcing that the doors to the train for my stop are closing. Abruptly shaken to reality and without coherent reasoning, I grab my bag, push past startled commuters and run to the door. Only my arm makes it through. I should have declared defeat and abandoned my exit at that point. I cringe as I write this, that I continued on. However the thought of turning to face the disapproval of fellow passengers for my failed and flustered dash to the exit must have been too much. I push the doors open and thrust myself out. Behind me, doors close with a slam. Whack! I am momentarily frozen in midair as the doors catch my ankle. Just as suddenly, my foot breaks free and I am thrown violently, spectacularly, chest first onto the platform. As the train departs, bystanders stand by. All watch without a word as I pick myself up and painfully but with considerable haste make a humiliated exit.

Steve Iijima

October, 2008