May 26, 2012

More Train Tales

I spend more time commuting now than I used to when we lived in Hiroshima. Besides getting me to the workplace, the train rides offer interesting insights into the Japanese psyche, which still confounds and interests me despite the years I’ve spent here.

Case in point: a man who tends to take the same train as me during the morning rush hour, who spends the entire journey downtown at the very front of the car, standing right behind the driver (separated by a sheet of  transparent glass), declaring each and every stop and other automated announcements about ten seconds before they are actually broadcast. He is oblivious to the norm of near-silence usually observed onboard trains, as he joyously--and in a loud, clear voice –gives his memorized version of the recorded voice announcements. Except for the clickety-clack racket of the moving train, this is the only other readily audible noise in a car with about 100 passengers.

What does this tell us about Yokohama? There is still a collective human heart beating beneath the seeming indifference and distance between individuals created so that millions of people crammed into a limited space can live together without confrontation. My sense is that in Japan there is a premium put on not being a nuisance to others; I get stares at times if I eat a snack while walking in the train station, occasional frowns if my iPod is too loud when wedged against other passengers on trains. Talking on the cellphone while riding the train or subway is a universal no-no. Yet this man, who defies the sacred silence of my morning commute, is left alone to do his thing. Is it the same degree of tolerance that I enjoy as a foreigner when I unwittingly violate public etiquette? Anyway, it’s refreshing to see that this slightly odd, but harmless, behavior is accepted.

Japan is renowned for its cleanliness and the stellar personal hygiene of its people. No argument here about that: anti-bacterial sprays and hand sanitizers at almost every building entrance, white face masks if you’re sick with a cold or to prevent sneezing during allergy season, and a wall of products at every drug store nationwide—all attest to the national attention paid to staying clean and healthy. Usually both sexes do these personal processes in private or stealthily. Yet, given the necessary space, younger Japanese women still apply their make-up on the train, despite public awareness campaigns to try to discourage it.
Why does it persist? I don’t know—boredom? Multitasking in a time-efficient way?  Better than sleeping? I’m not sure, but it sure is interesting to see this very private behavior performed in a very public space.

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