Seeing Japanese culture through blurred vision

A student reflects on the cultural insights she gained while riding the trains of Japan.

The first time I rode a train in Tokyo, Japan was a hot and sweaty blur.

It was rush hour in August, and the summer air felt more humid than a sauna. My friend and I had just run up two flights of stairs only to be forced to make a flying leap into the departing train just before getting pinched by the closing doors.

As soon as we got onto the train we were blasted with cold air, but this didn’t seem to help because of the body heat radiating from the hundreds of people jammed into the small space. Despite these inconveniences, I still felt like I was on a big adventure. I felt like a small child with wide eyes, taking in all of the new experiences my senses could handle.

I noted the scent of freshly pressed school uniforms in the air. I listened as passengers quietly whispering among themselves in Japanese. I watched the boarding businessmen cram themselves into the train, looking for a free space to read their newspapers.

The second time on the train wasn’t as mesmerizing.

I realized those pleasant, new smells were also accompanied by that of alcohol and sweat wafting off of salarymen, Japanese men who work long hours for one company their entire lives. And those new sounds seemed like they came from my ribs almost cracking as more people crammed their way through the door. The scenery was a mass of people trying to balance themselves in no-man’s land in the center of the train where hanging handles and handrails aren’t available.

I was surprised to learn so much about Japanese culture from simply riding the train — an act I never thought would feel new to me again when I first arrived in Japan. Being a commuter student here in Philadelphia, I’m used to public transportation. I ride the train to and from school every day, and that one-hour commute gives me a break from the world around me. Sometimes on my daily train rides, I’m reminded of my commutes in Japan.

I spent the last academic year studying in Tokyo, and almost every day I stood for my two-hour commute during rush hour. With so many people riding the train, it was near impossible to find a vacant seat, a luxury I took for granted here in America.

Whenever a seat would finally open, there was always a salaryman zooming across the train to take it.  And while there are regulations in place to ensure that people like the elderly and those who are pregnant have seats, many riders don’t adhere to these rules. All passengers are on their own.

The Japanese even have a saying for unpleasant occurrences like this that happen in life: “shouganai,” which means “it can’t be helped.” This saying is also used when suicides occur on train lines. Though these occurrences aren’t as common in America, they are quite prevalent in Japan.

Suicides happen so frequently in Tokyo that the city has its own train line known as “the suicide line.” Many suicides are linked to the extreme stresses of work and school in Japan. Much of what is seen in Tokyo’s train culture reveals even more about its working culture.

Trains are packed during rush hour because Japanese culture stresses punctuality. Many Japanese people work 12 hours a day, go out drinking with their bosses for a couple more hours and then get home in the early morning. Many times, my host father would be up working on his laptop until 3 a.m., only to leave for work at 8 a.m.

The trains in Japan also reveal other societal concerns, like “chikan,” or sexual assault. During rush hour, many of the trains in Tokyo assign the first car of the train as the “women only” car in an attempt to prevent “chikan.” But oftentimes trains are so packed that it’s still easy for sexual assaults to go unnoticed by other passengers. I learned in my class abroad that Japanese women often don’t alert others of assaults, and so the crime continues.

In Japan, it seems like the train is the place where people defy societal obligations related to politeness and get to be just a little bit more selfish than usual. Whereas, in America, people tend to be a little bit more forgiving on public transportation.

I often think about these social practices and the vast differences between Japanese and American culture during my daily commutes on SEPTA Regional Rail. And sometimes, although it’s hard to believe, I miss getting crushed to bits every morning while on the passenger cars of Tokyo’s train lines.

Erin Yoder can be reached at

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