For any visitor with the common complaint that Tokyo’s citizens are inscrutably, unnervingly polite, this reporter has the antidote: board the Yamanote line at Ikebukuro at 7:45 on any weekday morning ...


With a population of 35m, greater Tokyo is the world’s biggest metropolitan area. Despite the tyranny of Japan’s shrinking demographics, it will be decades, if ever, before Mumbai or Mexico City dislodges Tokyo’s crown. In the meantime, the scale and efficiency of the city’s diurnal migrations present the sharpest possible contrast between Tokyo and those two competitors.

The railway rules. Every working day a vast ganglia of 45 bullet, main and suburban-overground lines, with another 13 underground, channels 4.1m swipecard-carrying commuters into Tokyo’s central wards alone, with clean and exceptional precision. (The exception to the exceptional will be touched on later.)

Shinjuku station alone disgorges 900,000 passengers each morning, sucking them in again in the evening, some of the men (and they are mostly men) by now inebriated, before dumping them in their distant bedroom towns. Indeed, the commuting sarariman [salaryman]—the selfless company drone, one among a sea of dark suits pushed on to their morning train by white-gloved platform attendants—has as much claim to be Tokyo’s iconic figure as Christ the Redeemer has for Rio de Janeiro.

And almost as misunderstood, a projection of others’ fantasies. Westerners may no longer subscribe so openly to the nonsense of Japanese inscrutability. Still, the commute has become the chief expository site of a variant example of “Japanese exceptionalism”: the notion that society in Japan is governed by subtle but unbreakable social rules, where group-think trumps the individual and automatons replace the freedom-loving and autonomous actors of the West. Somewhere deep in all this lies a tiny seed of truth, but it is too often buried in a bed of bunk.

Japanese social and business interactions are famously not contact sports, but the obvious exception is the rush-hour trains. Don’t assume that Japan’s commuters are somehow better shaped by social norms or the obligations of corporate life to cope with the crowded commute—they are merely long-suffering.

Indeed, a sense of camaraderie that everyone is in this together is not so different from, say, Mumbai, which has its own commuting etiquette: there, travellers are asked to “please adjust” to make space in a crowded carriage for one more. Yet a new commuter in Tokyo very quickly learns from the sharp exchanges and even fisticuffs that, at the peak of the morning rush, the tension is just below the surface, and short fuses can be lit by one shove too many. For any visitor with the common complaint that Tokyo’s citizens are inscrutably, unnervingly polite, this reporter has the antidote: board the Yamanote line at Ikebukuro at 7:45 on any weekday morning.

Outside the rush hours, travelling offers both social observation and the time to spin a theory out of it. Recently, a visiting English philosopher at Tokyo University wrote a book about his year in Japan that was entertaining—mostly intentionally. But during one late-evening commute home he notes an impossibly beautiful young woman hanging, fast asleep, from the strap. He marvels at the woman’s ability, in a split-second, to go from a sleeping state to striding off the train at her stop. And he puts such “subliminal attentiveness” to something very deep in the nature of the Japanese: “a pervasive and acute alertness to their environment and its most subtle signals, instilled perhaps by their constant vulnerability to earthquakes.” Or perhaps, as one Tokyo-based reviewer suggests, she just heard the station announcement.

The trains are run with a uniformed professionalism and an esprit de corps that put even the Swiss in the shade. Only earthquakes or a terrorist attack have the potential for major disruption (the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s sarin gas attack on the underground in 1995 killed a dozen commuters and railway staff).

On the other hand, jinshin jiko (literally, “human-body accidents”) cause many lesser disruptions each year. These are the “jumpers”: those driven by depression, or by shame from losing their job or accruing debts, to throw themselves in front of an oncoming train. This aspect of Tokyo mores, at a time when suicides may be expected to rise as the economy slumps, is curiously underexamined.

Indeed, the train companies have got the business of cleaning up the mess down to a fine art, sometimes in less than 15 minutes, while commuters are handed excuse-notes to show their employers. Meanwhile, the grief of the deceased’s family is heightened by having to bring a perverse kind of blood money—up to ¥3m ($34,000) as compensation to the railway company.

Every year 2,000-plus train chikan, or perverts, are arrested for groping women and schoolgirls—the vast majority during the morning rush hour, causing minor delays. For years, females just put up with the indignity of groping, either out of embarrassment or out of fear that their claim would not be taken seriously. But habits are now changing, and women will hold up the offender’s hand and shout “Chikan!”. Several lines also have women-only carriages for peak hours. A few men’s lives have been broken because of false accusations.

Many male commuters are huge consumers of manga, and flick lazily through rapes and other sadistic humiliations of women. As elsewhere, a debate rumbles on in Japan about whether such pornography excites deviant behaviour or diverts it. Certainly, a strong vein of erotic fantasy, with deep draughts of sado-masochism, runs just beneath the order of Japanese society. Yet rates of sexual crime are astonishingly low. Meanwhile, some schoolgirls also indulge openly in their own brands of manga, depicting graphic if less violent sexual fantasy.

The only thing that can be said with confidence is that Japan has found original ways to make money out of people’s sexual predilections. Little more than a stone’s throw from the huge Shibuya station is the “Shibuya Pink Girl’s Club”, which on its varied menu offers a chikan densha, or pervert train.

The “groper’s course” starts at ¥12,000 ($130), where the connoisseur picks out from the menu the girl of his choice, dressed either as a schoolgirl or office receptionist. This girl then beckons him through the window of a mock-up train carriage, which not only broadcasts station announcements, but even shakes and rattles. For the next 45 minutes the connoisseur is under no risk of arrest as he gropes to gay abandon—before joining the slumberers on one of the last real trains home.

Picture credit: robertDouglass, O Pirata (both via Flickr)

(This is an instalment of a week-long correspondent's diary about commuting around the world, published on