Tokyo’s Rush Hour Madness

December 1, 2009 By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

Clean, fast and punctual, Japan’s rail system is normally a pleasure to ride. But rush hour is grueling and leads people to shed their polite facade. What a great vantage point the packed cars offer for a glimpse into the raw Japan.

On a typical workday morning, I weave my way through the platform crowd and quicken my pace to reach the women-only train compartment. Handbag, briefcase and umbrella secured about me, I step in back-first to avoid face-to-face contact with the passengers already squeezed inside.

Wedged between someone’s bag and a head of hair, I check the information screen above the doors. So often, there will be an announcement of a “jin shin jiko,” technically an accident involving people, but in train lingo a suicide by hurling oneself into oncoming cars.

With 685 such deaths last year, commuters view them as causes of annoying delays rather than personal tragedies. A man leaped to his death at a station I was passing through recently, but I didn’t see any grimaces or hear any words of sympathy. People rushed to catch buses and taxis, and passengers trapped in the thwarted train remained nonchalantly calm, reading newspapers and texting on their phones as officials started what they euphemistically call “the rescue process.”

As my train pulls into the next stop, I see three blue ceiling lights at the ends of each platform. Japan Railways installed them this year in the hopes that their soft color would soothe and discourage jumpers. The following station has a large mirror on a wall; another JR effort to prompt suicidal people to see their reflection and come to their senses. If only lights and mirrors would do the trick.

The women’s car I’m in is only slightly less crowded than the others, but at least I don’t have to be suspicious about whether some guy is being pushed into me or is actively pushing into me. Last year, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department received about 1,800 reports of indecent acts aboard trains and subways. In September, Tokyo police conducted a five-day “anti-groper campaign,” mobilizing undercover and riot police.

The assaults take place below the visibility line, so accusations often come down to one person’s word against another’s. To help women pinpoint culprits, a printing industry cooperative just developed a sticker that fits on a cell phone for women to carry that stamps a semi-permanent scarlet X on misbehaving hands. There have also been some high profile cases of false accusations, so some of my male friends keep both hands in plain view aboard crowded trains, clutching onto straps and poles to avoid any suspicion.

At my transfer station, I see the “pushers,” employees who cram people into packed cars. Three young men dressed in uniform white shirts, yellow reflector vests that say “platform assistants” and gray baseball caps shout “pull your body and baggage in, please,” while shoving people in with both hands. Their doors cleared, two of the men rush to aid the third worker who is half crouched, leaning sideways against the commuters with all of his weight. The team finally squeezes everyone in just far enough for the doors to close, and the men smile in unison as the train departs with a luggage shoulder strap hanging out of the last door.

Safely aboard my next train, I listen to the stream of announcements. From the obvious (“Don’t push”) to the coddling (“Don’t leave your umbrella behind”), the quantity befits a country of docile people who love order. There are constant apologies for delays — normally no more than a few minutes — the reasons given ranging from retrieving someone’s left luggage to “trouble between passengers.” Finally, an admonition to someone who ran aboard just as the doors were closing, an act for which there is a special phrase. “Kakekomijosha is dangerous, so please don’t do it.”

Officials lament that people increasingly don’t know how to behave on trains. Tokyo subway stations now display monthly manners posters. “Let’s do this at home” says the November poster with a cartoon of a woman powdering her face at her seat. Applying make-up onboard is a common sight.

Once in awhile, there are passengers who just can’t take it any more. “Why just me? Everyone has a wet umbrella today,” a woman cried out to a man in my packed compartment recently. The man had apparently yanked her earphone out of her ear and complained that her umbrella was touching him. Peppering the man with protests in a high-pitched voice that pierced through the silent car, the woman was clearly hysterical. But she may have been speaking for all of us when she asked, “Where are my human rights? I’m a good person. I work hard, and I’m going to my job.”