Voices | FOREIGN AGENDA

I feared the crush of the rush, but now my commute completes me

by Andreas Neuenkirchen

Contributing Writer

Everybody knows that it is hard to make a good living from writing alone. However, every aspiring writer I’ve met has thought they might end up as that one-in-a-million exception to the rule. Most learn the hard truth in their 20s, but some have to get to their late 40s, like me.

That is why I recently accepted a semi-regular editing stint in Tokyo. Mostly for the money, of course, but also to break free from the routine lull that comes from working at home. The job description required the successful candidate to “be at the office at least sometimes,” and that’s exactly what I wanted after nearly three years of not being at an office at all: To be at one sometimes. Not all the time, mind you. About 20 years spent at offices full-time in my pre-Japan life have cured me of that.

I apologize if I sound privileged. Some people accuse writers of living in ivory towers, but that’s not true. Most of us live at Tully’s Coffee. I used to consider writing at cafes a bit gauche, but I’ve come to realize that writing at home is inefficient. There are too many distractions between books, DVDs, video games and bathtubs in need of a scrub. Yet even when working at a cafe, you can eventually get that same feeling you get when you’ve stayed in your home for too long: Life is taking place in the offices of Tokyo, and passing right by your home office.

A changed man on a train

Being back in an actual workplace, I feel like a changed man. It’s not the job itself. I never believed in work as a character-defining or existence-justifying concept. My new work is fine, but it’s just that: work.

In my previous long-term, full-time employment situation, my boss once stopped me in my tracks when, in one of those dreaded annual performance review talks, I got a little carried away praising the many pleasures I derived from my tasks every hour of every day.

“Let’s be honest,” he told me straight-faced, “it’s work. Neither of us would be doing it, if we didn’t get paid.”

It dawned on me that what he said might be the case. Even people who profess to love their work, I wonder if they’d be doing it if they weren’t getting paid. I certainly wouldn’t write for free (that’s not where the “free” in “freelancer” comes from, dear potential clients). I enjoy writing so much that I would do it for very little money, though. Most of the time I have to.

No, the reason I feel like a changed man is my commute. I love it. It takes about 58 minutes from apartment to office, making for a round trip of one hour and 56 minutes. According to an NHK survey in 2015, the average round trip commute in Tokyo was one hour and 42 minutes, while the residents of greater Osaka spent an hour and 26 minutes getting to their jobs. My ride might be longer, and include a transfer to another train line and a bus, but it has some relatively empty stretches.

When I was working from home, I didn’t really feel like I was living in one of the world’s most vibrant cities. I could have led the same life in any medium-size German town — though the lack of convenience stores would have been noticeable.

I’m also no longer interested in being much of a night owl. One or two nights a year of nomikai (drinking parties) and karaoke are fine for me. Secretly, I am rather happy that I’ve reached an age where I no longer have to pretend in this stuff.

Still, for the past three years there has been this nagging sensation of missing out, that I wasn’t really participating in what was on my front doorstep. For some reason, commuting to work started easing that disconnect for me — and it wasn’t just that I could join in on conversations about how awful the Yamanote Line is at rush hour.

Feeling connected

Every time I get on the train to my office, I know I’m in Tokyo. I’m at one with the workforce, the masses rushing through the ticket gates and underground tunnels.

I’m more observant, too. I’ll choose to stand and look out the window so I can see the city rushing by when the train is above ground, but even when there’s no view I’ll look at ads or listen to the Japanese being spoken around me.

For the final stretch of my journey into work, I’ll usually hop on a bus. But since busses can be unpredictable due to traffic, occasionally I’ll even decide to walk. It’s not a short walk, but I’m in relative control over what time I’ll make it to the office. And walking through a new neighborhood can be exciting, I’ve discovered new restaurants and seen interesting homes — and walking has the added advantage of being healthy.

One of the last train stops on my commute is Tokyo Teleport. Sometimes, on the way home, I get off there to take a quick stroll through the Venus Fort mall. I live in a city where a Teleport takes me to a Venus Fort. As a fan of science fiction, I appreciate that.

My commute connects me to my city. I know that not everybody feels the same way. Women in particular have good reason to not want to deal with dozens of salarymen squeezing them into awkward positions and, of course, sometimes groping them: “I could very well live without feeling that particular kind of connection every morning, thank you very much,” a female friend replied to me while I was gushing over my newfound joy in traveling to the office.

It’s a disgrace that some men take advantage of the situation. We’re in this together, literally. The aforementioned problems aside, the trains run on time (generally), they’re clean and, given the amount that could go wrong transporting millions of people around one of the largest cities in the world, we escape the experience relatively unscathed.

Granted, this going-to-the-office thing is still pretty new to me, at least in this country. Maybe I’m one commuter delay away from escaping back to my old life working from home, creating underappreciated literary gems at the local Tully’s, and scrubbing the bathtub in my ivory tower — er, mansion. Until then, however, I’ll give all my fellow commuters a big hug — figuratively speaking, of course. It’s hard to move your arms in there.

Andreas Neuenkirchen is a German novelist and essayist based in Tokyo.

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