Just like sardines

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I know there are already too many articles/discussions on the topic of packed Japanese subways, but having just just “enjoyed” the experience yet again yesterday morning, I thought I’d write a bit about it.

With over 127 million people crammed over a spread of land that is smaller in size than California(!), space is at a premium and a certain amount of elbow-rubbing on a daily basis is almost unavoidable.  One of the worst extremes of “elbow-rubbing” can be experienced on the subways – particularly during the morning rush hours.

Millions of people make use of the subway every day, with Shinjuku station alone estimated to average 3.64 million people per day in 2007 – that’s 3,640,000 people per day at ONE station!  I recall shortly after I first came to Japan and going through Shinjuku – the sheer volume of people around me was more than a little overwhelming and almost claustrophobic.  Fortunately, the Japanese railway system is nothing if not punctual and highly efficient.  It is (almost) accurate to the minute, and generally very dependable.  Things do break down a little though, most noticeably during rush hours and in the event of “accidents” (usually a polite euphemism for jumpings/suicides).  

Rush hours in Japan are typically from 08:00 to 09:30 (though trains are already up and running AND often already contain a number of people by around 05:00).  There are other crowded periods throughout the day, though the only major time period is probably between 17:30 to 22:00, other time slots (usually) less in duration.

Yesterday morning, being a Thursday (when I have a short conference call with other offices), I had to catch an earlier than usual train -got on the 08:02 train from Higashi Kurume- which meant that I got to experience the fun of being forcibly pushed into the train cabin.  I’m used to my first train being extremely crowded actually, at least from Kurume to Ikebukuro.  However, it was even worse on the Marunouchi line, which is almost never the case when I get on around 09:20 (as opposed to getting on that line at around 08:30 yesterday).  One young schoolgirl near by actually broke down with what I believe was a panic attack, crying and breathing so heavily that I thought she was going into shock.  I felt really sorry for her because she was so small and I do believe women really have the worst of it in such physically crushing situations.  Luckily there were a couple of sympathetic women around her who gave her a plastic bag (in case she had to throw up) and helped her get off at the next station so she could recover.

The rush hours can get pretty bad, for various reasons:

  • -They often serve as your very own personal virus exposure chambers.  Just one person with a cold who’s not wearing a mask, hacking and sneezing all over the place, is bad enough in any enclosed space – but in a packed train you don’t have the option of even turning your face away as his/her virus-bearing droplets come flying your way.  I am also positive that the trains serve as breeding grounds for super-powerful viruses given that you have different people with all manners of cold/coughs/flu crammed together.
  • -Some people have distinct personal hygiene issues.  You get people smelling like they haven’t washed for days (especially bad in summer…), at night you have inebriated businessfolk breathing sour fumes of beer/shochu/assorted liquor in your face, and my personal pet peeve – people who have dandruff so bad that you can see large flakes in their hair and a liberal coating on their shoulders – BIG ick for me to be crammed up against someone like that >_<
  • -The crampedness can cause some tempers to flare up.  Sometimes understandably such as when you get someone stepping on your toes (especially bad for women again), or when the flood of people forcibly pushed by you manages to tear a button or two off your coat.  Other times, you have the occasional people who always seem permanently grumpy, who seem to begrudge the fact that they need to share their space.  These people get seriously touchy if they get nudged in the slightest, usually responding by violently shaking their shoulders and elbows to get people away from them.  Not nice.  
  • -The crowded environment is also a perfect hunting ground for that lowest of life forms – molesters, otherwise known as “chikan“.  (well, perhaps they are not THE lowest of life forms -there are even sicker people out there- but they certainly rank among the top 5 in my opinion)  There isn’t much one can do when smashed up against people – there is no avoiding physical contact, some of which can be a little embarrassing.  I have gotten pretty good at twisting around to avoid such situations (see my tip at the end of  this post) but some people deliberately maneuver themselves in such positions where they can “accidentally” brush against women.  It’s very difficult for a woman to do anything in such situations because a) there’s no place that they can move to, and b) that twisted lowlife can just keep on pretending that it’s all accidental.  I’ve even read on the news that there are “clubs” or groups of people who get together just for this, even providing tips on effective ways to act out their twisted desires.  I’m not a violent person, but hearing about such people REALLY angers me. /rant
  • -It can get pretty dangerous, having so many people pushing to get in.  People have been known to pass out from being squeezed in so tightly, and I would never take a child or someone physically fragile onto a rush hour train.  The image of sardines in a can is particularly apt, given that we’re so packed together that there’s no room to fall down – some people even use the opportunity to doze off, using your shoulder as a pillow and counting on their fellow passengers to keep them propped up.  

Despite the negatives I list above (and these are the just ones that immediately come to mind – I know there are more), on the whole the Japanese railway and subway systems are very well maintained and comprise a vital part of the Japanese transportation system.  There is simply no other feasible replacement for this method of transportation given the lack of available space in the country.  Plus they’re fast, efficient- and environmentally friendly!

That being said, you haven’t experienced the “real” Japan till you’ve been shoved in a packed train car by the ever so helpful station attendants, or served as a human cushion for when a drunken businessman decides to do a bellyflop dive into an already overpacked train car (yes, I’ve seen this happen)!  (O.o)

Tip: Keep hands raised in front of chest if possible.  It forms a sort of ‘shield’ that can help expand personal space, as well as showing to women that you’re no molester.  Also, try to maneuver around so that your hips, side, or back are the parts of you that are touching others – not the front.  Trust me, there’s less potential for embarrassment that way. >_<

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