Life on the Last Train

Yokohama | 2002 | 25 years old

In the land of super efficient transport, the train and subway system was my indispensable peephole into Japan. Like most others there, I depended on the reliable trains that crisscrossed the urban metropolises and connected cities and the countryside. Indeed, without it, I would not have been able to regularly disappear into the crowds in Shinjuku, visit my host sister’s newborn son in Kanazawa, or witness the New Year’s bell ringing at a Kyoto temple.

Yet, in addition to their function of getting me to my destination of choice, the trains were cultural journeys in and of themselves. As a foreigner, each ride held the promise of glimpses into the everyday lives of a wide swath of Japanese society. Depending on my luck that day, I might have the chance to eavesdrop on the giggling chatter of uniformed school girls. Or I might be able to watch from across the aisle, the interactions of a mother and her two rowdy, carefree young boys. Each train ride was unique, providing intense snippets of insight into the subtle intricacies of behavior in a country dominated by relationships and mannerisms.

One experience stands out in my mind – it happened during a ride that I took on the last train of a Friday night in Yokohama. I shuffled on, riding the crowd’s momentum into a car that was already crammed with other riders who, like me, had timed their plans to end exactly when the last train would take them back to their homes for the night. Scanning the car, I saw that it had packed in its usual late night crowd – teenagers and 20-somethings who had spent their night at karaoke and salarymen and office ladies who had shared several rounds of Kirins. In particular, I recall seeing a 20-something guy who looked the worst for wear. Held up by his clan of three friends, the guy hung heavily like a puppet. He had obviously graduated from Kirins to sake that night and seemed on the verge of losing it. And five minutes into the ride, he did. Before we knew it, all of us were privy to the gastronomical delights that he had partaken of earlier that night. What happened next though was what surprised me most. Immediately, one of his friends asked for tissues, and soon passengers in the car reached into their purses and pockets, passing dozens of tissue packets to him. He and his friends then began to wipe up the mess, and within five minutes, it was cleaned up. Then to top it off, one of the friends made a short speech of public apology to the train and thanked everyone for their tissue and understanding. When the train came to a stop, the three friends helped the staggering fourth off.

Amazed, the first thought that crossed my mind was that this never would have happened in the U.S. At best, the mess might have been cleaned up, but more likely, it would have been left there for the train staff to discover. Certainly, there would not have been a public apology made to the other riders. If nothing else, this experience solidified in my mind the value of responsibility, social cooperation, and consideration in Japanese society. It also demonstrated the strength of bonds of relationships in Japan. How many of us can say that we would mop up our friend’s vomit on a train?

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