Thursday, July 7, 2011

Culture Share: Japan - The Tokyo Subways

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Juliette Wade discusses subways in Tokyo.
The Tokyo Subways
by Juliette Wade

You've heard about the Tokyo subways - I know you have. The system looks like this (click to go to a web page where it appears larger):
That is, if you happen to have the nice map labeled in English. If you don't have one of those, it's a bit harder to read and I won't subject you to it.

I've worked with this system a couple of times: once when I was living as a student in Setagaya-ku (when I lived off the map on the Keio line to the west), and once when I was living with my husband in Nishi-magome (at the end of the Asakusa line in the southwest). It's essentially the way to get around Tokyo, because you can't get a driver's license unless you have a place to park your car, and believe me, that's tough. The stations are all quite close together. Once my husband and I walked from Roppongi to Gotanda, and it took us just under 2 hours on foot to walk that distance; it's usually 20 minutes or fewer between stations on foot.

Sometimes the station entrances are really obvious.
Other times they are hard to identify in the midst of all the buildings on a street. Getting down into the station involves stairs. Lots of them - it's a real workout, especially if your commute involves an hour and a half crossing town, changing lines, etc. as my commute to school did. You're lucky if you find an escalator. There are no elevators, and at least in 2001, very few accommodations of any kind to the disabled (I can't imagine trying to get around the Tokyo subways with a child in a stroller, much less with an adult in a wheelchair).

The big stations are absolutely enormous, like Shinjuku station: upwards of 3 million people pass through Shinjuku station every single day. You can't just say to your friend, "I'll meet you at Shinjuku" because you'd be looking for him or her in an entire city's worth of people. You have to specify which train line (since multiple lines run through there) and which exit or ticket gate to wait by. If you happen to be non-Japanese, and you're waiting for a Japanese person, the easiest way to do it is to say, "Please find me." Picking out a friend in the midst of the crowd is easier if that friend sticks out (and foreigners do).

The crowds are not like American crowds. First of all, I found I was taller relative to the crowd than I was used to being in the US. This was useful for finding my way, because it meant I could look above most heads if I stood on tiptoe. Second of all, these crowds are very homogeneous. Yes, sometimes you may see someone dressed in formal kimono or school uniform, etc. but the height and appearance of the people is much more uniform than I've ever seen in the US. Third, the crowds are strikingly quiet. People generally do not talk when in a crowd, and will use low voices even with the friends they travel with. When they speak on cell phones, they speak so quietly I can hardly imagine how the people on the other side can hear them. The result is these hordes of people moving in near-silence (which can be disconcerting for an American at first). Fourth, the rules of personal space are just different from those of the US. A Japanese person interacting with you in a private context with lots of room will tend to stand at bowing distance, i.e. further away than an American, who will typically stand at handshake distance. In the subways, however, the borderline of personal space moves to the skin. People move along their own trajectories as if no one else were there, and will often enough walk right through your shoulder with no acknowledgment that they have done so.

This brings me to the question of fitting all these people into train cars. A Metro car in Washington DC or a BART car in the San Francisco Bay Area will have pairs of seats facing toward the front or back of the car. This is inefficient when it comes to jamming people in. A typical Japanese train car will have long banks of seats along the walls, and a wide open space at the center. Plastic rings will hang by straps from metal bars above the passengers' heads, and they can hang on to these. (Paper advertisements hang from the ceiling at intervals, but these are no good for hanging onto.)
This means, of course, that there's a lot more room for standing people. I have been on the subway at crowded times when there are so many people in this area that you don't have to hold onto anything at all, because it's impossible to fall with so many bodies holding you up. Once I nearly passed out because the crowd was mindlessly crushing me against one of the vertical metal bars, like the one you see at the left of the picture above, and I couldn't breathe properly. Heating and cooling are done from underneath the seats, which can have the odd effect of roasting or chilling your calves, depending on the weather. On the most crowded line, the Yamanote which goes in a circle around the center of Tokyo, they have side benches which fold up into the walls of the car during rush hour. During the busiest times, no one sits at all.

Yes, there are pushers. Only in the busiest stations, however, and during rush hour. In Shinjuku station on the Marunouchi line, the trains run every 45 seconds during rush hour because that's as fast as they can run safely - and people line up in three separate locations on the platform for each train door, so that train #1 will stop with its doors in front of the first line, and train #2 will stop in front of the second, and train #3 in front of the third. Trains don't sit there with their doors open for long, either, so when your station is approaching you have to move toward the door, and then shove out as fast as you can. If the door opens and there's a wall of people, don't let that stop you! Dive in, because the people behind you certainly will. I've seen people step onto a packed train backwards, hook their toes behind the door track and their hands above the top of the door, and shove themselves in that way. When there are white-gloved station attendants pushing you in, it's that much easier. Everyone expects to be pushed and jammed in, so there's no resistance in the crowd that might push you back out. People just make room as best they can, because there's no alternative. Women often fear encountering "chikan" in these crowds - men who use the cramped conditions as an excuse to feel a woman up. I never encountered one myself, but it may have been because of my relatively formidable appearance. I did, however, carry a pin with me at all times, for female friends of mine had recommended this as a good way to deal with a chikan should I ever encounter one. I heard a story once about a woman who grabbed a chikan by the hand and dragged him off the train where she accused him and handed him directly to a station agent. Since chikan depend on their anonymity, I didn't find it particularly surprising that she'd be able to do this - and I certainly admired her nerve!

Subway tickets are usually small and rectangular, labeled with the amount of money you paid for them. That amount differs depending on how far you'll be going, and when you go to the bank of ticket machines, there will be a map above it showing the price for each destination station in the surrounding area. People who commute on the train can get a "teikiken," which is a special ticket (more square than rectangular, with rounded corners) that will take them on unlimited trips between two specified stations for a limited period of time (usually a month). These are very convenient, but very expensive. The ticket machines swallow and spit out tickets with a rapidity that always impressed me.

For someone like me, who grew up in smaller towns, the Tokyo subways can be quite exhausting. However, they are the best way to get around if you live in Tokyo. The result for me was that I imagined Tokyo a bit like a mushroom farm - not with a map of the whole city in my head, but with the subway map in my mind, and the stations coming up from it, with a small circle of the immediate surroundings attached to each station. Each line has a slightly different character, as for example when I always found the people who used the Keio line to be friendlier than the ones who used the Odakyu line to travel west.

The Tokyo subway system is a phenomenon, and certainly deserves the fame it has acquired around the world.


  1. When I visited Japan a few years ago, I noticed that people were careful to maximize personal space when choosing seats on the subway during less busy hours. The two seats at either end of a bench are filled first, then the middle one, then the ones that are left. People seem to get annoyed if you don't choose whichever seat is farthest away. I even saw people move seats to redistribute the empty spaces more evenly when someone leaves. Is this the norm everywhere? I don't remember it being so pronounced either on the NorCal BART or the Taipei MRT.

    But wow, I'm so glad the Taipei MRT isn't that complex yet, has lots of escalators, uses EasyCard, and even during rush hour doesn't get as ridiculously crammed as it gets in Tokyo. Great public transportation is so awesome!

  2. I've been on the Tokyo subway, and it was pretty amazing. I remember that map - it brings back memories, awwww! I probably still have a copy at home somewhere...hehe.

  3. I'm hyperventilating just looking at that small picture-link of the metro. If someone handed me that map in real life, I'd probably curl up in a corner and start rocking back and forth.

  4. Wow, Juliette, you've captured this so well. This makes me nostalgic for Japan. I miss it so much now that I'm back in North America.

    I had an interesting experience a few years ago when I lived in Japan, just outside of Tokyo in Abiko in Chiba prefecture. A Japanese co-worker and I were taking the train into Tokyo on a Friday night, and every seat in the car we got on was taken except one. So I let my co-worker, Nanako, take the seat and I stood.

    Eventually, someone on the bank of seats Nanako was sitting on got off the train, and the guy sitting next to Nanako scooted over so I could sit down next to her. As I sat, I told him, 'Arigato gozaimasu,' or thank you, which I thought was the appropriate response for the situation.

    Politely, Nanako told me that, though arigato gozaimasu wasn't an incorrect response, the best response in that situation would be 'sumimasen,' which I thought only meant 'excuse me.' Nanako explained that in this situation 'sumimasen' could also mean 'I'm sorry,' as in I'm sorry for inconveniencing you. When I asked her why use that phrase instead of saying thank you for moving over, she said, "Japanese people first say I'm sorry. We're always apologizing."

    I know, not quite the Tokyo subway experience, but I thought that to be an interesting difference between cultures.

  5. Linda, interesting point. I find it similar to the way that Americans will fill a theater or an airplane (Southwest) - always leaving at least one empty seat between themselves and the next person even when they know that every seat will eventually fill. I agree that public transportation is awesome. It works really well in a place with the density of Tokyo.

    Trisha, I think I have a copy of it in my files too!

    Matt, I feel the same. But I'm less keen to go to Tokyo than I am to go to Kyoto.

    Joshua, yes, it can be daunting. But it's doable, and I'm sure you would get the hang of it quickly if you needed to. Thanks for the comment!

    M.L. Edwards, thanks for sharing your experience! I encountered the same kind of thing with thank-yous when I first went to Japan. The Japanese don't use thank-you in all the places we would. I should do a post on it - thanks (lol) for the idea!

  6. Linda, I can report the same thing happens here in Toronto.

    That map does look daunting, but I found the London Tube to be much less daunting in person than it looked on the map. Maybe it's the same way in Tokyo? What about NYC?

    Juliette, I enjoyed your whole post, but I had to laugh when you mentioned the "mushroom farm". I had the same experience when I first moved to Toronto (going from a smallish city with one RT line to one of the biggest cities in Canada, with four subway/RT lines -- which is great, since I don't own a car). I still feel like that sometimes, although more of the spaces are filled in now.

  7. Siri, some stations are fine. Others are so big you can get lost in them. The signs are good, though not all of them are written in English. Thanks for commenting!