Mount Fuji

Tokyoites rush to 'commuting hell' 

by RONALD E. YATES

(This article was first published in the Chicago Tribune of Oct. 28, 1990)

It is 7:30 a.m. and Tokyo's infamous morning rush hour is at its peak with 11 million commuters pouring into the world's largest city via a vast network of elevated trains and subways.

Standing with some 200 other commuters on the subway platform at Komazawa Daigaku station in western Tokyo, Atsuko Ohta watches the silver and purple Shin-Tamagawa train pull in. The cars are already so jammed that the doors appear ready to burst open.

Ohta and the others waiting on the platform know that the next train will be just as packed. Indeed, not until late morning — long after Ohta must be at her desk in a Tokyo trading company — will the metropolitan area's 10 subway lines be reasonably uncrowded.

So, as the doors slide open, Ohta and her fellow commuters lower their shoulders and force their way onto the already overcrowded train.

Then, with only the smallest of footholds, the newcomers perform the obligatory Tokyo pirouette — a deft about-face that allows them to back the rest of the way into the train without having to make eye contact with the wall of humanity that is grudgingly giving way.

"This is the worst part of my day," gasps Ohta, her leather attaché case pressed between her chest and the door like a flattened shield. "I don't know how much longer I can stand this. It's all so dehumanizing."

She is not alone in her outrage. In the last decade Tokyo's tsukin jigoku (commuting hell) has risen to levels that even the most stoic Japanese finds unendurable. In a nation that since 1955 has employed white-gloved oshiya (pushers) to shove compliant passengers into already packed trains and subways, that is saying a lot.

As the misery quotient has ratcheted upwards, the celebrated facade of Japanese patience and politeness has begun to show signs of stress fractures — especially since a 12 percent fare increase takes effect Thursday, raising the average fare in the central city from $1.20 to $1.44.

While Tokyo's subways still have no violent crime and are unmarred by graffiti, scuffles between irritable passengers are increasingly common, say subway authorities. So are the notorious chikan (subway molesters), who use the packed trains as a medium to fondle their trapped victims.

But mostly commuters push and shove one another like never before, often using briefcases, umbrellas and handbags as weapons. Police estimate a 40 percent jump in the number of "commuter incidents" in the last five years.

"When I am pushed, I push back," says bank teller Mieko Kawaguchi, 29. "You have to be tough to live in this city."

Indeed, stoicism is losing out more and more often to ferocity on the 150 miles of subway lines that run under Tokyo.

Recently, for example, one woman sprayed a MACE-like substance into the face of a man she was convinced had his hand up her skirt. The spray hit several people in the car, creating panic. The woman, it turned out, had somehow managed to straddle another passenger's clarinet case.

While the world marvels at the quality of Japanese automobiles and consumer electronics, commuters increasingly wonder why something can't be done about the quality of their lives and specifically about subway cars built to accommodate 120 but that are usually crammed with three times that number during peak hours.

Last week, Keizo Saji, vice chairman of the Japan Chamber of Commerce, expressed the feelings of many when he called for a general plan to alleviate overcrowding in Tokyo. "This city has become no place to live," he added.

"The fact that we are pushed every day into this commuting hell as though it were some duty is symbolic of the downside of Japan`s enormous economic power," says Shigeru Aoki, of the Salaried Workers' Union, a 22-year-old organization that attempts to improve the workers' lot.

"But I don't expect things to get any better soon," he added.

Actually, the train and subway operators are trying.

The recently privatized Japan Railways has not only increased the frequency of trains to 2½ minutes apart on the busy Yamanote line, which encircles the heart of Tokyo, but has introduced cars without seats — to mixed reviews.

"The cars without seats only allow the railroad to cram even more people into the same amount of space," complains Hajime Nakai, a sporting goods salesman. "We really are reduced to being cattle."

Nevertheless, a railroad spokesman says nothing else can be done for now. Even the introduction of flextime hours by employers has not seemed to help, he added.

"There are just too many people living in the Tokyo metropolitan area," said the frustrated official. "There is no magic solution to the commuting problem. The situation simply has become unmanageable."

Next year the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which runs three of the subway lines, hopes to begin construction of a new circular subway that will serve the city's center after 1996.

While commuters and urban planners say one new subway line will not solve the overcrowding problem, the Japan Chamber of Commerce's Keizo Saji did offer one remedy that many might agree is actually attainable.

"The answer is to make life in Tokyo so difficult that people will stop moving here," he said.

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Editor's noteRonald E. Yates launched his professional career with a BSJ (Bachelor of Science in Journalism) from the University of Kansas back in 1969. Apart from Japan, where he served as Tokyo bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune from 1974 to 1977, and once again from 1985 to 1992, his colorful and sometimes hazardous life as a foreign correspondent has taken him to Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Malaysia, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, as well as Mexico, and various hot spots in Central and South America.

Besides penning something like 3,000 articles over the years, he has authored and co-authored several books, perhaps the best known of which is The Kikkoman Chronicles: A Global Company with a Japanese Soul — the fascinating story of how a centuries-old Japanese soy sauce maker steeped in tradition embraced modern technology and marketing methods in order to win success in the tough U.S. market.

From 2003 until his retirement in 2009, Prof. Yates served as Dean of the College of Media at the University of Illinois, which includes the Department of Journalism he previously headed. I would like to express my sincere thanks to him for granting permission to republish the above article here in Japan Perspectives.