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Commuter love affair, Tokyo tales

by Anthony Fensom

TOKYO COMMUTE: Japanese Customs and Way of Life Viewed from the Odakyu Line, by A. Robert Lee. Renaissance Books, 2011, 214 pp., $22 (paper)

Arrive in Tokyo via airport train, as most travelers do, and it quickly becomes apparent that the city’s lifeblood is its world-class railway network, each line an artery of the pulsating megalopolis.

All of the city’s 13 million residents seemingly have their own personal local station on the “Tokyo Wonderground,” a home away from home and base from which countless journeys begin.

For British academic and 14-year Tokyo resident A. Robert Lee, his “local” was Mukogaoka-yuen on the Odakyu Line, operated by Odakyu Electric Railway Co. and carrying half a million passengers daily.

In “Tokyo Commute,” Lee expounds on his fondness for the railway in a fascinating glimpse at Japanese customs and way of life through the lens of an ordinary Odakyu commuter.

A former professor of American literature at Nihon University and awarded author of numerous books on the United States and Japan, Lee draws upon his experiences in cities ranging from London to New York in seeking out the peculiarities and history of the Odakyu Line.

Perhaps akin to America’s love of the car, Japan’s and the author’s fascination with the railway appears to be a long-lasting affair.

“Photographing trains in Japan, along with TV train documentaries and museums … approaches a national pastime. Daily, one sees cameras aimed at parked, arriving and departing trains, zoom lenses and tripods,” Lee notes.

His style may not appeal to every reader, with the book’s mixture of passages of text with line graphics, frequent literary and Japanese references, and its varied tone and pace.

Yet with its attention to detail and support of illustrations from designer Yuriko Yamamoto, the work ably transports readers along the 82.5 kilometers of line stretching from Shinjuku in central Tokyo through the city’s southwest suburbs and via “Romancecar” to the tourist destination of Hakone.

Built in 1927, the Odakyu Line’s frequent upgrades with new tracks, bridges and underground works reflect the constant changes of its city host. But as Lee notes, travelers instinctively reach for the familiar and the line’s cream and blue imagery has become part of the cultural landscape.

Starting at the line’s base at Shinjuku Station — one of the world’s busiest — Lee’s tour begins with an examination of mundane details of railway signs and ticket machines, but fortunately makes some more interesting diversions, including visits to Yokohama and Ibaraki Prefecture.

Few commuters might imagine that they are sharing their journey with famous artists, diplomats and even murderers. The author identifies a number of Odakyu notables, ranging from filmmaker Akira Kurosawa to “Japan’s Picasso,” Taro Okamoto.

“Take the Odakyu to Shimo-Kitazawa, board the Inokashira Line, arrive at Shibuya. And before you, walled, massive, striking, is Japan’s ‘Guernica,’ ” Lee states.

The railway also has its darker side though, including the chikan (groping) of female passengers that has led to female-only carriages, and the jinshin jiko (“human-body accident”) train jumpers that make the nation’s 30,000 annual suicide toll one of the world’s highest.

While suicides and earthquakes may cause temporary delays to Tokyo’s super-efficient trains, the author notes that commuters still have the reassurance of obtaining a chien shomeisho certificate from railway staff detailing the exact delay for the benefit of concerned employers.

Such certificates offer more proof of the country’s concern with timeliness. Other cultural features include bowing to other passengers, the umbrellas that mysteriously appear at stations for commuters’ benefit on rainy days and the various signs warning against inappropriate behavior, ranging from loud talking on cell phones to practicing a golf swing with an umbrella.

But despite all the warnings, Lee also describes some encounters not quite in synch with social norms: a male passenger who uses tweezers to extract arm hairs, another who clips his toenails with barely a raised eyebrow from others, and the “maquillage cinema” of women applying makeup.

From the “body prison” of rush hour trains to more relaxed trips to the Hakone countryside, Lee shows all facets of the Odakyu experience with its “language poetry” of signs and sounds.

Odakyu is but one of 13 rail lines in Tokyo, with each undoubtedly having its own claim to fame. This is by no means the definitive text on Japan’s railways and those seeking more user-friendly guides should look elsewhere.

Yet for “train anoraks” or just curious passersby, there is more than enough material in Lee’s work to spark a railway romance. Next stop, Tokyo?