Shh, we’re on the subway

Posted in Society, Travel at 19:20 by RjZ

Tokyo is a giant, bustling city of over 35 million people (metro area). That many people have a lot going on, which is all the more amazing: You step into the Tokyo subway, filled with other passengers, and you feel obligated to pause your conversation. Nearly everyone has a cellphone or a music player and most everyone is tapping away at them, but you don’t hear any conversations or tinny music leaking out of tiny earbuds. People may be coming out of bars, late at night, and yet still, the boisterous conversation meets a, in my experience, unlikely end in the subway.

Shibuya Crossing

The Japanese people that I met were nothing like the uniform consistency that citizens had described as driving them kichigai (crazy) about their own country decades ago. Young people, especially, are anything but uniform. Fashions are stretched well past what would seem like good ideas considering the weather (extremely short skirts on very cold fall days) or flattering (same skirts on all but a few super models). Today’s Japan, and especially Tokyo, is practically famous for the wackiness on display. (A trip to Hirajuku bridge or the maid cafés of Akihabara ought to convince anyone of how earnest the Japanese are about stretching boundaries.)

Still, an almost other-worldly consideration for others pervades the society. People don’t make noise on the subway because it would be inconsiderate of other passengers. A sardine packed bus can somehow part like hollywood movie effect to let people in the back squeeze out of the front at their stop. Fellow tourists bow and crouch out of the way to make room for photos in front of the most popular spots.

The lovely thing is just how contagious it all is. Racism is directed at Japanese in China for some pretty understandable historical reasons. But that isn’t the worst thing I imagine for a Japanese tourist visiting their giant neighbor. Instead it’s how loud, direct, and generally impossible to offend the Chinese people can be. Where the Chinese can push directly in front of your picture taking to get a better view; can be heard at four in the morning shouting at fellow tourists on their way to view the sunrise; or push passed each other, bumping shoulders like fish in an over crowded pond (even when there is plenty of room to go around) the poor hapless Japanese tourist must wonder what she has done wrong to warrant all this abuse. Meanwhile, back in Japan, Chinese tourists have left their culture at home and are just as kind as everyone else is to each other, and quiet too.

U.S. American tourists, famous for their “HONEY! COME LOOK AT THIS” shouting from across a market, are hard to even identify on holiday in Japan. People often asked where we were from (a common conversation starter in nearly every country I’ve visited) but in Japan there was no “I knew it” smirk that followed the answer. Perhaps they are just characteristically considerate, or maybe, stripped of the obvious clues of behavior seen everywhere else yanks travel, they couldn’t hazard a guess?

I’ve heard that it can be incredibly frustrating for foreigners to live in Japan. They may never be truly accepted into society, seen forever as gaijin; visitors who will eventually grow tired and leave. I can’t speak to that, but I can say that as much as I love to travel, I do find the running around from site to site, attraction to attraction, experience to experience to be tiresome after a time. I would have loved to stay longer in nearly every place I’ve been; there is so much more to see and learn, but in Japan, for the first time, I wasn’t the least bit tired. Could it be all the peace and quiet, while surrounded by 25 million people?

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