The doors shut with a familiar whoosh, everyone balances themselves, settles in, then the motion, too subtle to notice at first, begins. There is a floating sensation, my feet lifting, my mind lifting, the city falling away on both sides.
Some people find Tokyo’s trains an annoyance. The Chuo Line—“ my” train—is crowded and often late. Other people may use their train time to snooze, text, shop, game, or watch some sports/drama/film unfold on a hand-size screen. For me, train time is meditative.
I reflect on the day ahead or the day done, on the people in gentle motion, the passing stations, the city beyond. I like the train’s lulling sound as I’m moved around the city, wrapped in sensations, close to people, taken away from all the stuff I have to do, and put close to people I don’t have to know.
I’m not sure if, like Walt Whitman, I contain multitudes, but Tokyo trains definitely do. I think of other passengers as a mantra of lives not lived. It’s unsettling to consider all the paths not taken, all the stations unvisited, the areas left untrod. But it’s a good unsettling. I like the human hive of a Tokyo train, watching the social dance around me, sensing the meanings in small actions, being drawn in by the magnetism of human complexities.
At times I feel discomfited by the density of the human possibilities spread out before me. The panoply of people is a recitation of life’s vast choices. There are hundreds of people on a single train who live other lives, do other things, think other thoughts. My train ride includes an exhibit of lives I’ll never see more than a few minutes of. It’s not speed dating; it’s speed observation.
And just as Joni Mitchell sings in “Hejira,” “I see something of myself in everyone.” Watching people in various states of sleepiness, I position myself on the continuum of fatigue. Seeing their clothes, I can tell what they’re doing that day. From the wrinkles in their brows, I sense their day’s pressures and compare them to mine. Of course, they’re observing everyone else, too, only they do it more discreetly. Train time is the last mirror before job, school, or meeting significant others.
Salarymen, students, retirees, and workers tend to follow their assigned forms, but their inner lives go unseen. That’s where diversity resides. Everyone is so different inside, so unique, so quick to get off at the next station. Is that what a city means? Is that what Tokyo trains mean? It’s a writer’s koan to ponder, process, and store for future narrative use. The train is a bookstore filled with stories being lived.
Some days it seems all people do is peck peck peck on their little screens, lost in the bounce of colorful moving objects, but in fact, people often read. Their hands form little desks. Pecking means not reading, scrolling means skimming, but often the eyes of the readers move calmly and regularly over the writing below. You can tell they’re reading by how their eyes move, their neck angles, their body unwinds. I like to see people engrossed by some inner drama or info intake as their body reclines. It’s as amazing as watching someone dream.
I love being so close to the human form, the bodily manifestations of balance and proportion and beauty. I must turn away from it sometimes—it’s too much anatomy. Pick a part of the human body you like best, and your ideal of it will appear within the week. The train becomes a life-drawing class, everyone posing, me sketching with mental pencils. How do you get people to look right? Well, they already do.
I marvel at Japanese consumer culture’s power to keep everyone clothed so well. Tokyo’s consumer kaleidoscope, with shapes and colors spinning into new patterns, is usually demure. It seems like it’s all sensible, easy black, but then an outfit pops up that is color-filled and stunning. On the train at least, bad taste is the frame around good taste.
Entering a Tokyo train is entering the consumer world of beer smiles, fake doctors, bright-colored hopes, and exclamatory faces. Our desires return to us in the overhead line of advertising. Video screens over the doors dish out snippets of news, weather, products, quizzes, anointing us all in the religion of buying that flows through every train car.
The more profound side of the daily train journey is not just into the consumer world, and not just a to-and-from of work, play, or home. The train burrows into the heart of Japan, a hard-to-reach destination, with its distancing psyche and odd habits. On the train, I am inside another level of Japanese society and culture. I’m surrounded by it. I’m as welcomed and as rejected as anyone else who pays their several hundred yen, but I have to figure it out for myself.
I find that in-it-but-not-of-it oddly comforting. I like that I’m not like everyone around me. It forces my foreignness back onto me. And yet we’re on the same train, eyeing and pushing each other. Train time is for comparing and contrasting, sorting through what matters, what doesn’t. I close my eyes and feel the car burrow into the underground labyrinths of Japan, better than a Parisian café for people watching, better than channel surfing or internet scrolling for image overload.
I always try to see past the protective masks to get to the bullying boss, the pressure to pass exams, the irritations of the day’s impositions. For the duration of the ride, the worst worries of life are stilled and dormant, channeled into minute gestures. People primp their hair, fiddle with cellphones, check themselves in the reflection of the window, their concerns held like extra shopping bags. Watching people on Tokyo trains, I am reminded it’s not all Disney and light.
Some people on trains are blithely indifferent to train time and more resistant to observation and analysis. I study them too, their masks so complete, so effective. Not everyone’s worried. Many accept their uniforms, their commute, the crowd, their lives without a care or thought, happy to do what needs to be done, to dress how one is to look as they travel across the city in the safe armor of conformity.
Or so it seems. Trains are all about seeming. I find it humbling to seem to be just one more body, one more part of the crowd. And not much more. I like that self-effacing feeling of being repositioned in the urban universe of Tokyo. The train accepts all, none denied.
I feel jealous of the kids commuting to school giggling over finger games, sharing video screens, plowing through thick adult legs, cramming test info, or snoozing in refusal. They move so easily on the train. I’m envious it’s such a natural environment for them. It’s not quite that for me. They know they belong on the train and always will.
Adults, too, ease into the space. Friends, lovers, family, the entire spectrum of social dyads, drop into natural train mode. In the daytime, they’re restrained. But at night, loud and loose with drink after a long izakaya chat, they talk, joke, touch each other’s forearms, and release their thoughts in the last few minutes before their stop. I like that, too. They’re going to get home. I try to overhear their whispered conversations. The tone of their voices harmonizes with the sounds of the train to make Tokyo train music, the calm echoes of the rigors of the Tokyo day.
Even when relaxing, though, the train is intense. Tokyo trains are the place where, as Thirdspace theorist Edward Soja said, “everything comes together… subjectivity and objectivity, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the imagined, the knowable and the unimaginable, mind and body, consciousness and the unconscious, everyday life and unending history.” The downtime of the train brings all polarities closer to be seen with greater refinement and understanding.
For me, the time on the train is a bit like the Jewish Sabbath, not a day but an hour or two of non-action. It’s time to rethink, reflect, reimagine. I don’t really do anything. There’s no cleaning, cooking, working, or turning on light switches. The train is a time to STOP doing things and start being something.
Maybe the urban planners had that in mind. I don’t mean the government bureaucrats or cityscape architects, but the social forces that give rise to the urban transit system. There’s a demand from some deep well inside us for a space in motion, a place to be together where opposites meet, for the hope to get somewhere in life and return home again.
Without trains, Tokyo would not be itself, Tokyoites would not be themselves, and I wouldn’t be myself in Tokyo. Bodies need moving, and minds need moving, too. Among the millions of Tokyo spaces, the train is the one space I can’t be without. I like taking the time to check in on humanity. I walk off the train restored, content that everyone’s all right.
Michael Pronko is a professor of American Literature and Culture at Meiji Gakuin University. His seminars focus on contemporary novels and film adaptations. He is the author of the Detective Hiroshi mystery series set in Tokyo: The Last Train (2017), The Moving Blade (2018), Tokyo Traffic (2020), and Tokyo Zangyo (2021). He’s written three award-winning collections on Tokyo life: Motions and Moments (2015), Tokyo’s Mystery Deepens (2014), and Beauty and Chaos (2014). He also runs Jazz in Japan (www.jazzinjapan.com). For more information, please visit: www.michaelpronko.com.
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