In my adolescence, I based many of my conceptualisations of Japan on three sometimes questionable sources: my Japanese language lessons programme, Japanese TV, and, yes, anime/manga. And they were all completely dead-on about how awful commuting by train in Tokyo really is.
No, seriously, it’s the worst. But don’t just take my (single) word for it…. take my many, many words for it. Japanese commuter trains are clean, well-lit, and reliable. And that’s about all the positive I can say for the entire experience.
The average commute time in Japan is 90 minutes. If that seems insane, that’s because it totally is. And you have to understand that if 90 is the average number of minutes, there have to be plenty of examples of commutes much longer than that. Then there’s mine. It takes me well over two hours to get from the front door of my current apartment in Japanese suburbia (we call them “bedroom communities”) to the gate of the international school in downtown Tokyo where I currently work. On a particularly bad day, it takes closer to three. And even my driving commute was an hour two years ago, and that’s pretty normal for driving commutes in Japan. But trust me, the train is so much worse.
It doesn’t start off so badly, given how far I live from Tokyo. Of course, I have to get up at 4:45am and get on the train by 5:30am in order to be on time to work at around 8:00. There are two reasons why it’s not a solid two hours (or less):
1. I have to make multiple transfers and
2. everything you’ve ever heard about the way people get smashed into train cars by station attendants and security guards is totally and completely true.
When I leave my station, it’s early enough that I always get a seat. This is helpful on the way in, but only on the first leg of the trip. By the time I hit my first transfer, an area called Akabane (赤羽, means red feather), I know I’m in for another hour or more of standing, with a heavy school bag on my shoulder. I’ve added an additional shoulder strap just to help me a bit with the weight. It’s the second leg of my trip that fits the Tokyo commuting stereotype. When I get to Nagatacho (永田町) station to transfer from the Namboku (南北) Line to the Hanzomon (半蔵門) Line, it’s in the middle of central Tokyo, and it feels very much like being in the queue for a major Disney World attraction.
Shoved together with schoolgirls, office ladies, and salarymen, I am herded by station attendants and security guards into marked-out lines. If I’m just a few minutes later than planned, I may have to wait for two or three trains to come and go before my group is finally allowed to board. Once we are in, the aforementioned attendants and security guards help shove us into our car, making sure to add as many people as possible, so that in the end, we cannot help but rub up against each other in otherwise very awkward if not deeply offensive ways. And we all pretend it’s normal.
Well, most of us do. Then are those who would, and indeed do, take advantage of the situation. Due to the nature of commuting in Tokyo, Japan has for quite some time had an issue with sexual harassment on the trains. It’s often of minors, a problem known as chikan. I am sad to report that I personally have been a victim of this kind of molestation, along with other types of harassment in Japan which I have previously covered over on Jezebel. For this reason, Japanese railways now have women-only train cars during the worst peaks of rush hour. Unfortunately, they run later than my own commute, and tend to not run between most of my stations. I have ridden women-only cars about three times, despite the fact that I’ve indeed been a target and could benefit from them.
On the way back, it’s nothing but human sardines from my workplace station to my home station. If I leave fairly early, I don’t get more space, but I do tend to get a much younger crowd, mostly students dressed not too dissimilarly from myself. If I leave fairly late, I have to put up with being crammed in with salarymen smelling of stale beer, cigarettes (which I am deathly allergic too, as I have a formic acid allergy, which is used as a filler in manufactured tobacco), and sometimes the overwhelming stench of sweat and urine. The trains are clean, but Japanese tend to bathe in the night time, not in the morning, so there’s little to guarantee that your train mates will be reflective of the metal tubes in which they ride.
It’s worth acknowledging here that my experiences on trains have done a lot for my assimilation and integration in terms of visual presentation. This is far more about sociocultural context than it is about things that move you, and I think it’s important to relate because it affects my experiences of being moved.
In addition to my experiences as a woman on Japanese trains, I have also had the intersectional experiences of being seen as a “foreigner” and therefore as a “foreign woman.” This has further entrenched in me a very common Japanese sociocultural response to conflict: making presentation and expression decisions which minimise differences. It’s about sticking out as little as possible, especially from afar.
In the past I’ve had real problems being identified as a “foreign woman” from across a train car. This doesn’t just mean being noticed by sexual predators; it can also mean being noticed by people without malicious, but still annoying or marginalising, intent. I’ve had old men and women manoeuvre across a train car to engage “the foreigner” in “international conversation,” I’ve had men hit on me in the middle of a train car, and I’ve had far too many experiences of people trying to get free English lessons out of me, despite the fact that I very much prefer to speak Japanese when going about my normal Japanese life in Japan.
There are ways in which I have addressed this is to blend in as much as I can. My hair, which naturally is a light brown with reddish highlights, I now keep near black. I style it along Japanese lines, often mimicking the various styles of my female Japanese students. I already had a preppy style long before I came to Japan, as I attended two private Catholic schools and I was always a pleated skirts, oxfords, blazers, and boat shoes kind of girl. Now it all has distinctly “Japanese schoolgirl” elements to it (some of it from the school I attended and taught at concurrently, and I’m still young enough looking to pull it off). My fairly minimal make up also follows Japanese norms and coloring, as I’ve attained a yellowish-golden tan. My eyes are still their Irish green, but from even a fairly short distance, I don’t appear different enough to warrant much of a second glance.
I’ve seen a significant decrease in the amount of uncomfortable behavior I have to deal with after making these somewhat gradual and mostly unplanned changes in presentation. Although few Japanese people actually say it, as it would be considered prying, I can usually tell that many assume I must be be “half.” Only one person has ever flat out asked me if I’m a naturalised (or naturalising, as my process is far from finished) Japanese person.
There’s one exception to this overall dramatic decrease in being bothered, and I try to avoid it as much as I can: showing any type of confusion about where I am or where I am going. This is particularly problematic right now as I’ve only just figured out which routes save me time or money or both. As I go about learning the Tokyo train and subway systems, just as any rural yokel moving to Tokyo would, my confusion (if obvious enough) attracts the attention of station staff or fellow travelers.
And in Tokyo, my confusion plus my appearance are mistaken for a tourist identity. This can lead to an awkward and time consuming interaction whereby I must demonstrate that I can I speak and read Japanese, that I am definitely not a tourist, that yes, Ayukawa is my real name, and I just moved here from rural Northern Saitama, and I would have made my damn transfer by now if you’d just let me study the map in peace…
In most cases, I can extricate myself (of course, only after causing myself further delay), but it’s an annoyance to add onto an already tiring and stressful commute.
When I consider how likely that my commute in Tokyo might lead to being smashed, molested, marginalised, misunderstood, misidentified, or otherwise annoyed, all on top of too little sleep and buckling knees, well, I really miss my alone time on my driving commute.
This might make me a “bad” or “selfish” person to some because I want my own personal space which encompasses only me on my commute, but dammit…
I MISS DRIVING MY CAR!