October 8, 2013

I was on my way home from work on the Tokyo Metro Hibiya Line when I started to observe what would soon become an interesting chain of reactions between three passengers.


It was 9 p.m. on a Thursday, and the train was not as packed as it can infamously get, but it was crowded enough for all seats to be occupied.  I was quick enough to get a seat, but a few moments after I sat down, a girl and a guy, presumably just having started dating, stepped onto the train and unable to find any seats, they stood silently as the train continued to its next stop.


After a few minutes, the train stopped at Roppongi Station, at which point nonconsecutive seats opened up.  The couple separated and sat down, with several strangers in between them. They sat silently, craning their necks to smile at each other every now and then.  For the record, trains in Japan are usually dead silent, especially during rush hour.
















At the next stop, Hiroo, a few seats next to where the guy sat opened up. The girl silently signaled to him that she would go sit next to him and slowly got up to approach the seat.  Simultaneously, however, a young lady swarmed into the train and quickly sat down next to the guy.  When this happened, the couple looked at each other and rolled their eyes, and instead of asking the young lady if she could move over to the next seat, the guy stood up.  Since there were no other consecutive seats in which they could sit together, they remained standing.

When this first occurred, I thought it was insensitive for the young lady to neglect her surroundings and fail to realize that two people were trying to sit next to each other.  But I also felt that the couple should have been more aggressive: if the guy had just put his hand on the seat next to him to politely save it for a few seconds, or if the girl had been quicker to get to the seat, the young lady would have understood and have been happy to sit one seat over to allow the couple to sit together.


It wasn't until the couple stood up that the young lady looked up from her iPhone and seemed to realize what had occurred. As the standing couple smirked about what had just happened, the young lady began to cry silently she repeatedly looked up from her phone, towards the couple. The couple didn’t look back or notice her reaction.  I was sitting across from this, a stranger watching them.

The next stop was the end of the line, so we all got off the train and diffused onto the crowded platform.


I wondered what had made her cry.  Was she upset at herself for being insensitive? Or was she offended by their passive aggressive attitude and the fact that they rolled their eyes and smirked instead of kindly asking her to scoot over one seat?  Or was she having a bad day at work and did this small, awkward miscommunication push her over the edge?


I didn’t know the answers, but this short encounter exposed a very defining aspect of Japanese culture: deep emotion and intensity expended through the smallest or simplest gestures.


Using silence and subtlety to express deep, intense emotions is very characteristic in Japanese movies and writing.  In Takeshi Kitano’s film, Kikujiro, for example, a silent two-minute shot of the young protagonist pouting and looking down at the sand is enough to convey the boy’s deep dejection brought on by never knowing his mother. The most intense parts of the film are the long silences, injected with one subtle facial expression or body movement. 


Furthermore, it is common for Japanese movies to take place entirely in one living room, with the whole film being an exploration of familial characters through conversation and their reactions to one another.  These films slowly but steadily layer tension upon tension through subtle, unspoken cues.  The context is simple, but the significance is complex. 


As a viewer, these subtle interactions evoke in me the deepest, most tender kind of empathy. When I see these subtleties in a movie, I can appreciate them as elegant forms of expression inherent in traditional Japanese culture.  I see it as a form of art.  But experiencing such dense subtleties first-hand here in Tokyo is not always romantic or sophisticated.  Sometimes, this subtle way of interacting feels childish and unproductive, with non-communication leading to miscommunication, and the silence can be stifling.


The chain of reactions between the three people on the train was just one of many episodes I experience daily in Tokyo.

I’m always amazed by how a city so crowded with people, neon signs, and white noise can also be so dominated by silence. Tokyo really is a mega-metropolis full of contradictions.  Usually I think the contradictions are magnificent, but sometimes I just find them frustrating.