Notes from a Crowded Country

Virginia Woolf requested merely only a room of one’s own. Turns out she was too demanding, as in Japan our ambitions are more modest, here it appears that all we require is that little bit of the space-time continuum we currently occupy, with no further leg or elbow apparently being required.


Whether it be crowded trains to busy streets, from JR Shinjuku Station to Shibuya crossing; the former arguably  one of the busiest train stations in the world, the latter the busiest commuter area, it is fair to say that that Japan has plenty of rising suns but little space.


One of my favourite films is ‘Lost in Translation’ and in that film, one my favourite scenes is when Charlotte, taking time out from karaoke collapses into Bob’s shoulderExhausted from their singing, they take a time-out. Together alone, in a karaoke place in Tokyo, they relax in space that is their own, albeit temporarily. 


Finding such a space in Japan, especially a quiet place is rare. People back in the country I hail from ask me about culture shock, is there anything that disturbs me about Japan, anything I find difficult to deal with, I usually answer in the negative, I have genuinely never really experienced culture shock, but if pushed, I give this response – Japanese people appear to understand space differently – or at very least, the notion of space is dealt with differently here in Japan. Absolutely you can fit yourself and a rather large suitcase in between the foot wide space in a queue at a convenience storewhy wouldn’t you try to do that?


From busy trains to attendance levels akin to rock concerts during festivals and national holidays, Japan does seem to be a crowded place. Japan also seems to be a place that actually likes crowds, or at least, does not react to crowds as something to be avoided.  Instead they seem to be regard as an inevitable part of everyday life.


When I first came to Japan years ago, and was living in Tokyo I remember seeing a sign that read ‘please be considerate to other passengers and sit close to each other’. That sign was something I loved about Japan when I first moved here. You think the train you want to take seems to be over-crowded?  Nonsense, the Japanese people, it appears, laughs in the face of crowdedness and give the middle finger to the concept of not enough room. In Japan there are even people that well help squeeze you on to a train during busy hours, some of them even work for the train company, here there is no such thing as too full, there is always, at least on trains, room for one more.


As someone whom, back in Britain was denied access, on more than one occasion, to both buses and trains on the grounds that were ‘too many children and handicapped people’, one admires, for the most part, Japan’s attitude towards transport.  As a physically encumbered man hoping to get back home on a busy train running late at night, I really appreciate it, here even during busy times, a disabled person, along with the pregnant or young  is given ‘priority’, there are seats that are called just that ‘priority seats’, so it’s all good.


However, I am left wondering about following: I am sure they are all very kind people, but I doubt that the pregnant lady, the kindly old age pensioner nor the teenager, actually wanted to give up their seat for me, of course not, they are deserve the comfy chair. And I worry about the culture towards space here, there appears to be no maximum occupancy to a train, and if the train is obviously too full, well there’s an app for that, here no passenger will be left behind apparently, if need be we shall push you on to the train.


So whether I am coming back from work or a late night on the tiles, I prefer to leave early (so I guess it’s not so late!so as to be able to choose which train I get on, I’ll get on the less crowded train. Space is important to person with a physical disability like me, by walking with a cane and possibly bulkily paraphernalia like a wheelchair or by wearing a calliperAs a person with disability, you sometimes view your personal space like thisyou are yourself and one foot in any direction, and you are always thinking the following; where next does my body need to go and can I get there? 

And my body spasms, and on a rare occasion quite violently, but also quite in voluntarily, so I worry about injuring people, on busy trains my only defense against this is a wide stance, which makes me the worst kind of gaijin, one whom hogs space on a train. And on a not entirely unrelated note, there is a concern in Japan about chikan, men who use the excuse of a crowded to grope and assault girls. Obviously men should simply not do that, but it is equally true that it’s exceedingly difficult to assault someone you not physically near. 

So instead of encouraging people to sit closer to each other, why doesn’t the sign read like this:


‘Please keep a respectful distance from your neighbor.’