Tokyo, Japan: Waiting in Line for Mass Transit

The funny thing about traveling to other countries, to paraphrase what the character Vincent Vega tells Jules Winnfield in director Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 Pulp Fiction, is noticing the little differences: Search and seizure based on reasonable suspicion, recreational marijuana, the use of the metric system, and, of course, Le Big Mac.

Sidenote: I cannot believe this film will be 20 years old next year.

Here’s a little difference I spotted when I was in Tokyo.

Men returning home, all clad in the workaday uniform of dark slacks and tucked-in, light-colored, button-down dress shirts, waiting in lines for the train.

Tokyo, Japan. Waiting for the train.

One morning in Roppongi Hills, I saw the workers march off the trains, into the stations, and sometimes, straight into their office complexes – fed up into the corporate glass-and-steel beast via crisscrossed escalators. The workers formed single-file lines that snaked the entire distance, train to office.

With the only exception of London, in most other places I’ve visited – Manila, Chicago, New York, Shanghai, Beijing, Paris – mass transit equals masses. While waiting, individuals spread out safe distances from each other if there’s room, and then once the train or bus arrives, everyone crowds around to board with little regard for who arrived first, a sense of order nor courtesy, unless one is a nonagenarian, wheelchair-bound or very heavy with child.

An interesting question to ask is Why?

Perhaps here is an answer in the coverage from ABC News of Japan’s recovery from the 2011’s 9.0 Richter scale magnitude earthquake and tsunami. In Sendai, ABC reported, some residents waited twelve hours in line at the few stores open to buy food and other supplies.

Overnight and into the grey, chilly morning, long lines formed outside small convenience stores and supermarkets throughout the tsunami-ravaged city of Sendai.

At one, Daiei, the orderly lines had begun 12 hours before the shop opened and stretched for blocks.

“I came to get baby food for my 2-week-old nephew,” said Maki Habachi, 23, who had been patiently standing for four hours and still had an eight-hour wait to go. “My sister only has one day’s food left.”

Without fuel for her car, she had ridden for two days by bike just to find food. Even bottled drinks in the ubiquitous corner vending machines were sold out.

Despite the line’s length everyone remained calm and polite.

As Japanese survivors cope with food and gasoline shortages amidst the aftershocks and rising body count, they draw on a sense of social order. Unlike scenes in natural disasters in Haiti and New Orleans, there is little anger, no looting.

Waiting in line – whether for the train on the commute to work or for water and supplies after a tragic natural disaster – are both part of the social order that’s practiced every day.

In the same article, Carol Gluck, a professor of modern Japanese history at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute said, “It’s not cultural or religious — it is a historically created social morality based on a response to the community and social order… It’s not that the Japanese are naturally passive and obedient…There is a historically created social value to it. People uphold it. It works. Someone leaves something in the subway and they get it back. When you find something you give it to the lost and found.”

Maybe queuing up for the train isn’t such a little difference after all.

Related reads:

  • Seven Things that Make You Look Dumb on a Shinsaken (japan-talk.com). Notice the #1 thing that makes someone look dumb: Skipping the line. Also close to my heart is #3: Talking loudly on your cellphone. Shinsaken, FYI, are bullet trains. In fact, Tokyo has several different train lines run by different companies, and several lines may run out of the same train stop, so it’s very easy to get on the wrong train. Especially if you don’t know Japanese. Make sure you’re on the right platform.
  • If you’re doing some advance Tokyo travel planning, I’d recommend checking out the Sumo tournament in September. Another sumo-related piece of interest I caught recently was in Freakonomics: The Movie (2010). This collection of mini-documentaries takes a look at different human phenomena and explains them through the lens of economic theory and principles. They did a wonderful feature on cheating in sumo…
  • One of my favorite documentaries is Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) about Jiro Ono, an 85-year old sushi chef and proprietor of what some say (the Michelin Guide) is the greatest sushi restaurant in the world, a twelve-seat establishment tucked away in a corner of the Tokyo subway. More than a story about food – though there’s plenty of food porn – I find it to be more about passion and lifelong dedication to one’s craft, chefs and purveyors, and family. Watch on Netflix immediately.
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