Surviving Tokyo's trains
I’ll never forget the first time I experienced the relentless push of a crowd on a Tokyo train. It was a Friday night on the Yamanote Line, one of the city’s most central routes. I was heading home and giddy with pride because I was navigating the city’s enormous subway system without the help of a friend. When I initially boarded, the car was relatively roomy. But after a few stations, we stopped at Shibuya and that all changed.
It happened fast. Suddenly, I felt bombarded by a force of bodies pushing me further and further to the back of the train. My bubble of personal space, something typically so respected in Japan, closed and strangers were squished against me from every angle — elbows in faces, chests to backs, feet trampling feet. I remember a girl’s hair in my mouth. Through a tiny crack between bodies, I could see a station employee was actually cramming passengers further into the train with his arm so that the door would be able to close.
None of this pushing and shoving was met with apologies, and that surprised me most. Japan is known worldwide for its culture of politeness, and this was definitely my experience of the country until that moment. I was absolutely shocked; this did not resemble Japan at all.
Tokyo is home to the world’s busiest metro system; an estimated 40 million passengers use it everyday. The system within Tokyo and surrounding areas is also the world’s most extensive and is extremely efficient. In fact, last year a Tokyo train company issued an official apology for departing 20 seconds early. But despite the incredible clock work of this train system, commuting can easily be the worst part of someone’s day.
Inside the sardine trains, it can seem that many Japanese customs become obsolete. Commuters push each other out of necessity, as getting to work on time might be impossible without exercising some aggression. The fact that personal space is sacrificed makes people more vulnerable to each other's choices. Sexual assault on the trains is a huge issue, a fact quite uncharacteristic of a country with such a low crime rate. Groping on trains is a well known common occurrence, one that girls and women are taught to watch out for. While the metro system offers “women only” passenger cars during rush hour, the trains’ dense ridership makes it impossible for all women to commute in segregation.
Unsurprisingly, the trains have a bleak atmosphere. On the morning commute especially, office workers are crammed up against one another in matching suits and frowns. It’s not uncommon for Tokyoites to commute about an hour to two hours on their way to work. Personally, my train ride to work was an hour and it is definitely the thing I looked forward to the least in my day. It was the definition of "the grind." I only lived in Tokyo for three months, so it’s difficult to fully comprehend the ways that this crowded commute culture might affect a Japanese person. But there is another factor which makes taking the train even more depressing.
Japan’s suicide rate is one of the highest in the world, and a common way that people commit suicide is by jumping in front of oncoming trains. According to this article, Japan averages one such instance a day. To combat this, the railway system has taken inventive measures to discourage suicide, such as installing tall barricades, relaxing blue lights and classical music in stations. In recent years, suicide rates have declined. Could this be partly thanks to these preventive measures? A study by the researchers at University of Tokyo suggests that stations with calming LED blue lights installed have experienced lowered rates of suicide, with an 84 percent decline over a 10-year period.
There are also efforts beyond this to make the trains in Tokyo more bearable for the commuter; these are rules of edicate. Passengers are not to talk on the phone while riding the train, and they shouldn’t have loud conversations either. Your phone should be on silent. You shouldn’t eat on the train. You should give up your seat to people who need it, like elderly people or pregnant women. You shouldn’t blow your nose, or listen to music too loudly. This list could go on for a while…
There’s so much to love about Tokyo. It’s an absolutely incredible city. It’s exciting, wild, bright, unique, hilarious, quirky, and never ending. It’ll overwhelm your senses in the best possible way. It’s a place that will always continue to surprise you and thrill you. But all places in the world have negative aspects.
Just like every intriguing area of Tokyo, the trains have their own story and culture. They’re extremely modern. They’re intelligent. They're interesting. They’re surprising. They’re horrible. And they’re definitely depressing.
Last week, I asked a Japanese friend what they think a foreigner should experience in Tokyo, and among their answers was “rush hour on a train.” When I asked why, they laughed and said “you know.” Fair enough.