February 18, 2018

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A Ride in Japan


After more than 14 hours of travel, jetlagged, and over stimulated by the bright neon ads, high-pitched jingles, and foreign script around me, I land in Tokyo Station. I try to regroup by doing as the locals: nose to belly, I dig in to my iPhone trying to get the online map to pinpoint my location. Even then, my perhaps accidental attempts to blend in can only go so far—I stand at 5’10, dark skinned and curly haired, next to my luggage in the middle of a busy rail intersection. I’m spotted. A Japanese girl in her twenties approaches me, acknowledges my device and nods to me with a soft smile. Somehow through a swift and subtle mix of body and verbal language (ten days in Japan have shown me how skilled the Japanese can be at this), she lets me understand that she wants to help me get to my destination. She walked with me through the underground labyrinth and led me to the station hub where I could board the high-speed bullet train to Kyoto.

Before boarding I made sure to stop at a small canteen, where, with the aid of images and no known words, I ordered the most elaborate and beautiful bento box I’d ever seen. It was a delight to travel in the comfort of a clean and spacious train, with a complete meal, courteous train personnel (a lot of bowing was happening), not even realizing the 320 kilometers we passed per hour. In hindsight I realized how amazing the magnitude of it all was; the distance covered, equivalent roughly to that between Paris and Amsterdam; the speed, ranking it as one of the fastest commercial trains in the world; and the shared consciousness of 11 thousand million people riding the Shinkansen lines each year. So I felt comfortable and even somewhat comforted throughout my first train experience in Japan.

As I became more acquainted with the tangled web of railways, metros, subways, and trains (operated each by a different company), I began feeling the pace of Tokyo. I had secretly hoped to get caught in a packed subway car just to experience what seemed to be at once an iconic and over-the-top experience—being pushed in by an attendant into a crowded train. I tried to rush through gates and stations at a local’s speed. I wanted to attract very little attention, and solitarily achieve my goals, whatever they might have been, without inconveniencing anybody. I was trying to be Japanese, perhaps because even though I knew it was impossible to pass, it would at least provide me with a Japanese perspective on Tokyo.

One day while on an escalator I noticed a poster that read “Beware of Upskirting!” When I learned that “upskirting” meant that I needed to watch out for cell phones or cameras under my skirt, I became overly conscious of anyone standing behind me. An even more unforgettable poster encouraged women to verbally confront offenders of sexual harassment on trains. What struck me the most was that the passengers were drawn as normal cartoon people, yet the offender was illustrated in black and red as a sort of devil figure. Were sexual offenders dehumanized before or after the act? Was their supposed lack of humanity the reason the posters didn’t appeal instead to the perpetrator to desist? I was confused, not because of the references to sexual harassment (I’ve had some experience with parallel narratives in the United States and Europe) but because of the symbolic choices made to represent and deal with the problem.

On my last day in Tokyo, I saw another curiosity at a station. A subway car painted all in pink and featuring in a font worthy of any woman’s razor brand the words “Women only.” I hopped on just to see what it was like. It seemed like any other car in my experience, except there were no men present. But I got off feeling glad that I had the choice to step in and join a certain kind of community. And the Japanese in me was excited to engage in a shared complicity. It wasn’t about a personal fight against the devil, but a joining of voices that isn’t afraid to call out for attention. Whatever it was or whatever I imagined, it was a great ride.

By Carolina M.


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