Tuesday, April 11, 2006


I remember well the rush-hour subways of Tokyo back in the early 70s when Japan was just hitting its stride and there were seemed like 10 million commuters and maybe 20 trains, so at rush hour (i. e., all day long) the stations needed white-gloved pushers to coax, pack, squeeze and pry people onto the trains, me among them - boarders would stand back and take a run at the open doors to get the leverage they needed to get on in the face of an obstinate crowd - then we'd all sardine intimately together for whatever distance beneath or around the city. Subway posters would say things like "Leave your sweater at the office" (so we can fit more people on the trains). I got used to occasionally being pressed chest-to-chest with lovely female passengers, though far more often it was elderly smoker guys.

That was a long time ago, so it was kind of nostalgic this morning when I boarded my usual train and couldn't get a seat, which is unusual at my rural stop, and had to fall back on my old Tokyo rush-hour mobbing skills. By the next couple of stops, the train was full to bursting with high school student chatter and squeals, today must be some first-day-back kind of day when every student has to show up, and they all took this train. Plus it was raining hard, so everybody had sharp umbrellas, slick raincoats and edgy school backpacks (and people now, especially the young ones, are generally larger than they were back then). Of course all the regulars were getting on as well, so by the time we'd traveled halfway to Kyoto we were in desperate need of pushers, but they don't have those anymore.

There was only the voice of the conductor (trapped in the driver's cabin) over the loudspeakers, pleading "Please move in and make room" as the doors whooshed open and those already on board scrambled to stay on while frantic commuters mingled with the boarding students slowly pushed and squeezed their way in before they could be cut off by the closing doors, not wanting to miss this only train all day that goes all the way to Osaka.

To accommodate, people just had to breathe out in unison; there were the familiar gasps and swoons and screeches and ouches and oofs as the crowd unified, blending together just like in the old times, but the young ones not as experienced, the windows steaming up and faces pressing against the doors, limbs unmovable until the next station, when everybody would topple together as the train stopped, then all was ramped up again as the few that were able to got off and even more got on; so it went, the pressure increasing by degrees until it was 1972 again for the good distance to Kyoto, when the train emptied to the modern normal level of intensity and all was space and light once more.

Squeezed a lot of fond memories out of me.


Joy Des Jardins said...

Can you imagine anyone who is claustrophobic? Agony! It's a long time since 1972...but, if anyone could find fond memories out of it...it would be you.

Robert Brady said...

The past is gentler, now...

M Sinclair Stevens (Texas) said...

That reminds me of a bus trip the boy and I took the last time we were in Kyoto (1996). We boarded at the main bus depot and I got the last seat, a half-seat over the wheel by the back door. The boy stood next to me. It was just at 5PM and as we circled the city clockwise, we kept picking up more people. People were three thick in the aisle and still more people got on. Somehow people did manage to make it to the front of the bus to disembark. And still more people got on. An elderly lady trying to board yelled at some junior high school kids to make room. Instead of giving her the finger, they just looked away and shuffled forward patiently.

Personally, I think that the Japanese have evolved in some way that enables them to take up less space without changing size. Clearly a case of evolution in action.

By the way...we had gotten on the bus going in the opposite direction. But since it made a big circle around town and since Kyoto has a fixed-price ride, we had a wonderful lesson in cultural anthropology, despite being a bit peckish. It remains one of my favorite memories of Kyoto.