Wednesday, March 17, 2004


You've been working in Osaka for a couple of weeks now, commuting from Kyoto and back each day, a distance of some 60 kilometers, and you've learned a few basics of the fine art of Japanese commuting. You've experienced firsthand the relentless and dedicated pursuit of the objective, the fearless defiance of odds against. Already it is clear that the innocent foreigner, in his rigid territoriality, his righteous sense of individual liberty, is no match for this mass progress. You perceive that few Western governments have ever understood this.

At first the movements of the individuals in the station mass had seemed to be random in nature; this misjudgment stemmed from both your ignorance regarding the higher laws of Japanese commuting and your indignation at the repeated violation of your personal territory. Your indignation waned, however, as you surrendered to the support of the crowd that twirled you along like a twig, when you began to grasp said higher laws and the truly impersonal nature of mob satori.

So today you've left the office only seconds after 5:30, to give yourself a reasonable chance of success in this event. Yesterday you almost had a seat, but it was the wrong train. This time, to make sure, you double-check the schedule before purchasing your ticket, wasting precious seconds while the pass-carrying professionals shimmy and elbow fluidly around you, seeking superior pole positions in the platform lines upstairs, all in obedience to Japan's highest law of commuting: if you see empty space, occupy it.

The competitive tension returns now in a rush of adrenalin as you spot an old lady shuffling ruthlessly toward the wicket you're heading for: no contest. First blocking your latter leg sharply with her cane at shin level, she mounts your advanced instep and shoulders you back a notch, shopping bag then ballasting her neatly through the wicket, leaving you stunned with her expertise.

She waddles off toward the escalator. No way: you lope for the stairs with a youthful stride, taking the steps two at a time, leading the old lady by about 4 lengths at the top, where three lines are feasible: which is shortest, which looks most professional? As you pause to decide, the old lady moves out like a tank from the top of the stairs. Not a chance: go for it. Dashing forward, dodging the lost and the hesitant, you round the guide rail, lope confidently toward the end of the shortest line just as the old lady slips her brick-filled shopping bag into the space and scuttles deftly under the rail to take her place in front of you, a benign smile playing about her wrinkled lips.

Immune to your microwaves of indignation, she stands solidly in pole position 12; no window seat for you; but still, a chance for a seat. It is the way, you reflect, of elderly women in this country to grab their rights at last, if needs be from naive and sentimental foreigners. Moreover, it is all impersonal; you yourself are not the object of these buffetings, these defeats; it is merely your physical manifestation that must suffer them. No need therefore to steam with indignation like this, a costly drain of energy not to be borne every day. Thus one learns--still, that twinge of the instep, that sting of the shin, the abruptness and heft of that shopping bag--preoccupied, you are pushed with sharp discretion from behind: the train has come in.

Now the game is afoot! The rules that govern polite behavior in this nation of casehardened courtesy are now temporarily suspended en masse as the higher laws of commuting merge with anarchy. What count now are position, power, agility, speed, relentlessness, elbows, knees, hips, feet shoulders, boarding tools (umbrellas, canes, bags, rolled newspapers etc.) and impersonalness.

Age or infirmity mean little in this arena, and the old lady knows it. She's off and shoving like a bouncer the moment the train doors open, cane and bag plying the legs of laggards, fending off those who would gain--but the other line, into the back of the car, is moving faster! Two rank amateurs at the front of your line have cost precious seconds being polite; now someone carrying a cello case is blocking the aisle (mental note: keep an eye out for large musical instruments in future lines) and four housewives are debating where to sit, as if this were a social occasion!

The housewives are tossed to the nether regions as the cello comes unstuck with a violent jerk, nearly felling the old lady. The thought pleases you. She pauses to recover: a flaw in her style, to be taken advantage of with daring speed. No contest after all. You feint impersonally by her in a graceful double-gainer half-twist one-legged commuter leap--a single aisle seat just there--the last: get out of the way, for--an arm shoots by, resembling something made long ago of a hard, dark wood, plumps a bag of bricks down on the very seat and is followed at dazzling speed by the old lady, who has trumped you at the finish...

You stand all the way back to Kyoto, among the amateur commuters blasted by wind from the windows, fighting for balance on the 50-minute ride, the old lady beside you sleeping blissfully, bag of bricks in her lap. But you are not indignant. There is no ire, no umbrage. You go over it all again, analyzing your moves, reviewing the moves of the pros, finding out where you went wrong: not relentless enough--an elbow just then would've--could've been faster with the shoulder; have to learn that trick with the knee--cane countermove--shopping bag defense--practice at home tonight--all impersonal--thus you ramble your way back to Japan's ancient capital.

Though still just a novice, you have learned much today, and will do even better tomorrow. Sooner or later you'll get a seat; in time, you might even be up to a crack at the old lady. She wakes up now, end of the line; you stand back to watch her get off, study her technique as she forges hydraulically forward, toppling men twice her size. Relentless. Awesome.

And now for the bus.

[Earlier version published in Kyoto Journal No. 4]