Friday 25 May 2012

Finger Lickin' Good

The daily commute. It’s a war-zone; a battle-ground where only the fittest survive and the weak, the aged, and the infirm are winnowed from the healthy core of society, dispassionately and mercilessly. You know this.

I assume that by now I don’t need to go to any great lengths describing the particular conditions for foreigners using public transport in Japan. The gaijin zone, the Empty Seat, the amazing invisible force-field we seem to generate, along with the opprobrium we attract for acts which would be disregarded if perpetrated by Japanese people.

Even so, there are still universal rules. Unwritten rules that only the inept or oblivious breach. Like the clear and obvious rules on urinal use that most men instinctively know how to follow, whatever culture they hail from. In case I’m being too cryptic, allow me to explain with a couple of diagrams. Behold the painstaking technique underpinning my mastery of Microsoft Paint. I’m classically trained, you know.

fig. 1

My commute takes me one stop past the main city station, where most people get off. This means that if I haven’t already gained a seat by studiously ignoring the old, the crippled, or the otherwise incapacitated, then I can at least sit down for the last few minutes of my journey. Figure 1 demonstrates the situation I found myself in the other morning. A booth of four seats facing each other. Less than ideal, really. The backs flip back and forth so the seats can always face the direction of travel (the blue arrow), but that means there’s always a little pod at one end, and the leg-room is the same here – for four people – as it is for a regular double seat.

Still, a seat’s a seat. More people get off than on at the main station, so there are normally a fair few seats free afterwards. I’ll grab one and the gaijin zone does the rest. Unless it’s unusually busy there’s not even a need to ‘accidentally’ leave my bag on the seat next to me in a pathetically transparent blocking maneuver.

Because even here, normal, non-gaijin etiquette works for you. The seats are notionally numbered: A1, B1, A2, B2 and the like. I can’t remember what the numbers were in this particular instance, so for your ease of reference I’ve labelled the seats here with pictures of a Louche Gnome, a Cheesecake, and Timmy Mallet (figure 2).

fig. 2

The best seat is clearly the window seat facing the direction of travel (Red Star). Being by the window confers many benefits – you can look out of it for one. The scenery’s the usual mix of over-engineered watercourses and grey, post-industrial miscellany, but as a way to avoid making eye-contact with your fellow travellers it makes a nice change from squinting at your phone. Sitting in the window seat also significantly reduces your chances of having to tolerate a stranger’s arse or crotch hovering six-inches away from your face for the duration of your journey. Facing the direction of travel is good because, like a gunslinger who always sits facing the door in a wild-west saloon, you can see any trouble coming. Or something.

If Red Star is taken, commuter etiquette dictates that the next person to enter the booth takes the seat opposite and across (Louche Gnome), this allows both travellers maximum legroom whilst avoiding unnecessary body contact. Any third person usually then has a choice to make – Cheesecake or Timmy Mallet? If my great gangling legs are clogging up the space by the window, people usually choose Mallet, but if it’s especially busy they may bow to the inevitability of someone having to sit in Cake eventually, and prefer playing footsy with my good self to being clambered over by some insistent salaryman. In a two-taken/two-free scenario there is no hard and fast rule that I can discern, both Cake and Mallet seem acceptable.

This is where it gets a bit weird. Last Thursday, after three-quarters of the carriage alights and the usual trickle of people get on, I knock over an old lady who’s taking too long to drag her half-dead carcass off the train and bag the Star. So far so good; the carriage is half-empty and there’s a real chance I might get all four seats to myself for the remaining five minutes of my journey. You can appreciate the dismay with which I  then notice a middle-aged salaryman clocking that the only free double-seat is the Cake/Gnome combination opposite me. Ah well. Can’t have everything. I resign myself to sharing the booth for the remainder of the trip.

He only goes and sits in Mallet, doesn’t he?

How does this happen? What kind of crazy, fucked-up Bizarro World have we just entered? I look out of that hard-won window and confirm that, yes, the sky is still up and the ground is still down, and no, we haven’t slipped through a flaw in the space-time continuum into an alternate reality where transcendence has been achieved and the laws of nature, physics, and causality are but as playthings to the omnipotent super-beings the human race has become. This is still early 21st Century suburban Japan and some heinous motherfucker is sitting in Timmy Fucking Mallet.

Commuter etiquette and gaijin zone. That’s double indemnity right there, Twatbubbles. What the fuck do you think you’re doing? The Gnome, you should be sitting in the Gnome! If you’re going to play fast and loose with societal proprieties like this you might as well just drop your trousers and start furiously masturbating to the lottery adverts hanging from the ceiling. Frankly that would still leave me feeling less violated than what you’ve just done.

Pull it 'til it bleeds, my son.

The final five minutes of that trip are the longest of my life. This gives me plenty of time to consider the question as to what kind of uncaring, indifferent god would create a universe in which such a thing could happen.

My conclusion was that it was the weather’s fault, or more specifically the way I’d reacted to the weather. You see, it was sunny and I was wearing my linen suit. My cream linen suit.

Yes. I know. But I bought it ages ago, before I first came to Japan. I was younger and had even poorer dress-sense then than I do now. It seemed like a practical decision. ‘Japanese summers are hot,’ I thought, ‘and linen is cooler than wool.’ What I didn’t appreciate at the time was just how bollock meltingly humid Japanese summers truly are. I could dress in nothing but the flimsiest of shifts, tailored from the most diaphanous wisps of lace and the first frozen moments of mid-winter’s dawn, and I’d still be sweating from my toenails within thirty second of stepping out of the shower.

So the linen makes fuck all difference, and the colour just adds insult to injury, to be honest. But it’s hard enough for me to buy clothes that fit over here, and if I wear this suit every once in a while hopefully it’ll mean my other, better ones last a bit longer. Even so, it’s hard to work out exactly what I was thinking when I decided to buy it. Who wears white suits? Apart from pimps and dandies, of course. And the man from Del Monte.

“Yes! Having forced us out of centuries of subsistence farming and into 
a precariously risk-prone cash-crop monoculture, the post-colonial 
neo-imperial corporate avatar has consented to buy our produce! 
Yes! Now we will have enough food for winter and won’t 
have to sell any more of the children! Yes!”

That’s not really within the Japanese frame of reference, to be honest. And neither are any number of other unfortunates and undesirables who thought wearing white was just the thing. But there is one significant white-wearer the Japanese do know –

Had I been wearing my usual sober blues or greys, I’d have been safe. But the lighter shades of the textile whitewash I’d given myself just made me a target for a stray, socially graceless spicy chicken fucker. He obviously mistook me for Colonel Sanders, and so keen was he for a whiff of my secret blend of herbs and spices that he was willing to ignore some of our most powerful social conventions just for the chance to partake of my fun bucket of grease and poultry. I mean, I’m not a kindly old southern gent. I have brown hair (mostly), twenty-twenty vision and am clean-shaven, but I guess we do all look kind of similar. Easy mistake to make.

So my advice to all those who complain about unconscious racism in Japan is this: lighten up, and make your peace with fried chicken. White’s just a friendlier colour.

You’re welcome.


  1. I don't know if more men have no sense of personal space here, or I notice it more here because the sense is different. I do know that I get annoyed multiples more often by it here than there.

    I have theories (as usual):
    - Japanese get so little affectionate body contact they are desperate to crowd up with anybody at all on the trains*
    - they have no sense at all of personal space, as they have never had very much
    - being Japanese makes a proportion into 'Reavers'#

    I have a new trick, which I should have figured out ages ago: when you can, sit between two women, rather than anywhere else. They take up less room, esp. in the shoulder, and smell far better, cover their mouths when they cough, etc. Also, do not sit at then end of a row of seats near the door. You end up with someone ass in your ear, because they do not build the partition all the way up. Sit beside one of the vertical bars on the bench. At least one side you won't have thigh contact with a stranger.

    *Much like the infant monkey who will hug a soft puppet and starve, rather than a hard puppet with milk.

    1. I think there's genuinely something to the personal space theory. Less so with the Reavers. The Face-huggers from Alien, perhaps...

  2. This was probably one of the funniest things I've read today.

    I always wondered what makes people choose the seats they do whenever I take the bus. Especially the homeless guy I sat by once where you could smell him 4+ seats away.

    1. Thanks, and thanks for stopping by.

      There are rules for this type of thing. As there are for everything -

      Thing is, that only makes the times they get broken that much more egregious. Don't get me started on the smells...

  3. Those type of trains with seats opposite each other are a nightmare, particularly if you're taller than the average Japanese person. The rare times I find myself on one of those, I try to go for one of the few seats facing the corridor close to the doors...

    1. Yeah, that's usually the safe option, as long as you get the 'inside' seat away from the door, as Ant mentions above. I thought I'd be safe this time though.

      But of course I realise I have nothing to teach you in this regard.

  4. I am so going to start using that in daily life. In the office, at restaurants, in bed. The possibilities are endless.

  5. Cheers, and thanks for the RLS add.

    I would cut it up, but have you seen how much suits cost over here for someone my size? It's not like I could even donate it to a charity shop because
    a) There aren't any, and
    b) They'd only stick in in the wrong section. 'Family size tents' or something.

  6. Mate, your 5-minute imposition should be a Seinfeld episode. I can just see George Costanza recounting the trip "the train was angry that day my friends".

    1. Thank you.

      My confession, though, is this. I never really liked Seinfeld all that much. That and Woody Allen movies. I can see why people like them, but they always left me totally non-plussed. A decent enough way to kill time on a flight, but not the crowning pinnacles of civilization I'd been led to believe.

    2. May be a N.American thing. I know plenty of N.Americans who don't get UK humour (mainly the stupid).

      Maybe you saw the wrong Woody Allen. Even at peak inconsistent. After he started fucking his daughter, creative onanism: something compulsively reflexive in both. Still, don't write all the old stuff off without seeing 'Zelig'.

      Seinfeld ages well. One thing you should appreciate, if nothing else, is it is one of the fewest American comedy acts that does not play like this:
      - watch me, I am going to tell a joke
      - here is the start of the joke, in case you were unsure
      - this is the joke
      - this is the laughter so you know it was funny
      - here is the joke retold in another way, in case you have a serious head injury
      - more canned laughter
      - etc.

      Just tell jokes FFS!

  7. Even though proxemics and trains are not areas I can pretend to know much about, your sense of humor is something I can relate to (well sort of). I mean, I was laughing for real when the picture came up with the Captain saying a naughty word. And then seeing the young Colonel before he grew the beard and went into the chicken business... it was all just so silly. And, bless your heart, ending the post with so kindly recognizing those who promote tolerance... I'll order a few t-shirts for some folks I know who'd be tickled to see how their organization is growing.

    Bless you.

    1. It's basic economics, that's how you make an organisation grow. Branch out, diversify. It's what everyone wants, surely...

  8. i hate the train. i try to avoid the train as much as possible, even if that means high parking fares in the city. of course, i am just a country bumpkin and stay away from the scary city!

    1. Probably for the best, you'd just break some unwritten code and prompt some jumped-up city boy to write an excessively passive aggressive blog post about it ;)

      Thanks for stopping by.