“Is it so hard to put in one more train during the big rush hour?” is the most frequent question of those who see the, beyond any reason, congestion in the trains early in the morning and late in the afternoon in Tokyo; the second most frequent question is “OK, can’t they wait for the next train?” and the third “Do they really tolerate this every day, twice a day for years?” Obvious questions with equally obvious answers, at least for anyone who has spent some time in Japan: “Yes, because of the complexity of the railway system, adding even one train takes literally years of planning”, “No, many come from far away and if they miss their corresponding train, they might get delayed for hours” and “Yes they do because they are Japanese and when they must do something they do it” –I know, these are simplified answers but the questions were quite simplistic to begin with.
The very idea that one would plan a system moving on a daily basis more than 40 million passengers over 158 lines, stopping at 2,210 stations and belonging to 48 different operators seems unrealistic. And it would be unrealistic in any other place in the world since the way it has been laid out and functions is so characteristically Japanese that wouldn’t work outside Japan. Part of the system is the fact that passengers will spend some minutes (which aren’t always in the single-digits) squashed in a way not normally associated with the transportation of people –or any other living creature for that matter. But from the moment it is related to the top priority of the Japanese, their job, suffering is hardly a matter worth discussing.
Besides, like most images from Japan, the particular one doesn’t depict the whole truth: the big cramming happens on specific times, at specific stations, of specific lines even in specific cars of specific trains –those that are closer to the stairways so the transfer time between lines is minimized (those who don’t mind walking 50-60 yards, usually go for the further cars which, almost always, are considerably less congested.) And of course fragmented reality is always more sensational than the complete one but that way the essence gets lost: even high-level executives, their position being easily deduced buy their age and the quality of their clothes and accessories, chose to get packed to the point of suffocation instead of taking a taxi or demanding a company car; I don’t think there are many places in the world that one gets to see something like that.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.