Friday 27 April 2012

Plain Trains and Automobiles

By training I’m a geographer. Geography’s a fairly amorphous subject – if you push it too far in any one direction it becomes something else: ecology, demography, vulcanology, etc. It exists in the blurred, smudged area where dozens of different disciplines overlap. It’s a pretty good fit for me in that respect, in that I’m interested in quite a bit and I know a reasonable amount about a fair number of fields, but I’m certainly not an expert in any one thing. Plus I really like maps.

There's a turtle under there, somewhere

Geography is fundamentally about change. Change across space and change over time. Now, space and time are also things which overlap a lot, especially as we humans conceive of them. For all that Japanese learners sometimes get frustrated with the lack of a future tense, English doesn’t have one either. Not really. We don’t conjugate the verb (the strict expression of ‘tense’) to indicate the future, we throw in an extra word or two.

Those words express movement through time in the same manner as they express movement through space: ‘I’m going to…’ Steve Pinker writes about this in The Language Instinct – how we use space as a metaphor for time. For all that we’re four dimensional creatures, it’s hard to break out of three. Like a square trying to describe a cube.

Even scientific enquiry is about metaphor. Once you move away from the numbers, at least, and there are precious few people who can deal solely with those. My old physics teacher once asked us what colour electrons were. They’ve not got any colour, of course, and they don’t really wizz around in neat little loops; those are just simple ways of visualizing them. Once you get smaller than things you can see with the naked eye, or bigger than things you can manipulate with your body, then you have to use metaphors to talk and think about them; be they waves and particles (or both), tiny selective demons, or murdering cats.

Pinker eventually goes beyond the space/time metaphor and talks about how we use metaphor itself as a metaphor. ‘The Metaphor Metaphor’ he calls it, which is like, sooo meta.

All of which is by way of saying that I’ve got a little metaphor I’d like to share with you myself. I’ve been kicking it about for a while now, and reckon it works quite well (for once). See what you think.

Ringo Starr's Greatest Achievement

Japan has a railway system which is the envy of the world, and the USA (the archetype for all things ‘western’) has a continent spanning road network. I put it to you that these transportation systems are pretty accurate and robust metaphors for their respective cultures.

Trains are excellent at getting large numbers of people from point A to point B relatively quickly, relatively efficiently, and relatively cleanly. If they’re going where you want to go, at the time you want to go there, then your journey will be smooth and almost effortless. You’ll have to make concessions to the presence of your fellow travellers, but the earlier you got on, the greater the chance you’ll get a seat and travel in comfort. People getting on further down the line will just have to bide their time until someone else gets off.

However, if you’re not starting at point A, or if you don’t want to go to point B, you’re in for a lot of difficulty. And it doesn’t matter if you’re 30 minutes or 30 seconds late, if you miss your train you’ve missed it. It doesn’t matter if you got to the platform 30 minutes or 30 seconds before departure either, you’ll still get to the other end at the same speed as everyone else.

For all that ease and comfort you have to delegate/give up flexibility and control. You are in the hands of those who run the network. If those few in charge screw up, then the entire network is affected and can grind to a halt. The actions of individual travellers are far less influential though, which obviously cuts both ways.

If this picture included a Geisha, I'd never need
another clichéd image of Japan

Road networks are, in comparison, dirty, inefficient and slow, at least at larger scales. Every individual traveller requires shitloads of metal and fuel to get them from A to B. But it’s easier to go to C as well, if that’s what you want, or even to start at X and work your way round.

Road users are also free to choose a bike, or a Prius, or even a Humvee if they like, and if they have the necessary individual resources. This of course means that everyone is traveling at different speeds, some because they choose to, some because they can, and some because they must. If you leave a little late it’s possible make up time through clever route-planning, or maybe ignoring a few rules.

The people who run the network are also less important. They’re still a factor, of course. They’re responsible for maintaining the roads and ensuring the cost of fuel stays at (un)suitable levels, but it’s easier to forget that they’re there as individual travellers have more control of, and more impact on, the system as a whole.

And all we're missing here is a morbidly obese
man holding a gun 

That’s it. I’m sure there are many ways you could embellish it, and equally as many ways to pick holes in it. It helps me think about stuff though. For all that the methods might be different, with better or worse aspects, the goals are essentially the same. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Sticking them in boxes and waiting for them to die though, that’s just cruel.

But still kinder than this


  1. Orderly train commutes in Japan vs. the freedom of driving at your own pace along your own route are great symbols of the differences in the mindsets of the two nations.
    The train, following a set path and departing/arriving at fixed times in Japan suits the salaryman (no pun intended) wage slave for life. Not much room for creativity or variation save the chance to stop at a different vending machine on the way to the station to grab a different can of shitty coffee.
    The car in the States is especially geared for the entrepreneur (pun intended), who goes where he wants to when he wants to.
    Neither is better or worse. In fact, in either country the vast majority of people are lazy and unimaginative and are content to just stumble out of bed, file into a train car, punch a clock, go home, watch TV and go to bed. LRR. So, in major cities in either country, the train should be the preferred method of travel for most.
    We Americans love our cars and our freedom, though...

    1. "Neither is better or worse"

      Yep, swings and roundabouts. I certainly think that there are specific aspects you can and should point to and say 'this is bad, this is good', but the sum totals are balanced pretty evenly. It all gets you from start to finish, one way or another.

  2. I much prefer the American model in the metaphor. I think your pointing at a symbol of why Japan is failing in an epic way that most appear to be unaware of or scared to look at. The inflexibility is an enormous handicap for this country. It is not getting better...and it won't. Even I...I was taken aback when most of the blowback by Tadashi Yanai regarding mandatory TOEIC scores to move up the corporate ladder. It wasn't Ojisans freaking out it was young people on Mixi and 2chan moaning about why they had to do something like that when they had no plans of working abroad.

    They are not seeing the bigger picture. It's fucking scary...the level of ignorance regarding the now and the future of the corporate model in the world economy.

    1. "They are not seeing the bigger picture."

      That's the brutal irony right there. Individually there's no question the western model is better, but at the larger scale Japan is/was pretty damn good. Rail is far more efficient than road at shifting masses people and material. But you ignore the individual pieces at your peril. You can't just assume all your little cogs will turn as they're supposed to if you don't pay them any attention.

      What with everything that's happened over the last few years, I reckon you could make a decent case that the 'road network' is just as flawed as the 'rail', it's just Japan got found out sooner.

      I'm Interested in people's ideas on this. For once these are genuine open-ended queries on my part.

    2. America has boomed and crashed 3 times during the period of Japan's lost generation. A literal generation of non growth. The glacial pace of change in this country is to blame and that's before zombies like Ozawa and the like took everyone's eye's off the ball.

      Economics is not Rocket Science or should I say Quantum Physics. America is fucked really bad but it'll get better...and crash again before Japan gets THIS situation fixed. There really isn't even a plan.

    3. Fair points all.

      But you win the Double Irony Prize, because, by a fair number of measures, Ozawa has been the most effective political reformer of the past few decades. Even Koizumi did his stuff from within the existing system.

      Not that any of his changes has actually improved matters, but they've changed things nonetheless. Deckchairs, Titanic, you fill in the rest...

  3. Metaphors...I always wanted to use the way citizens of this great island nation drive as a metaphor for a lot of other stuff. On one hand, we've got the image of the doting 'kyouiku-mama' competing with the unrestrained toddler jumping on her car seat. Oh yeah, and the color spectrum, red, yellow, and blue. But there are shades of red with properties determined by the amount of time the light has actually turned red. The yellow light doesn't really mean anything. But it kind of looks nice.


    Actually, your metaphors are fine for getting the point across. Travel in Japan, outside the big cities, is cumbersome and expensive. Traditionally, things have been like this for a long, long time. Part of it, I feel (more than think) is due to the Ozawa-like zombies who are still pulling the strings (why can't those things just retire!). Run or shuffle onto the platform, "You’ll still get to the other end at the same speed as everyone else." And shuffle off.

    Really, the quantum approach gets promoted in Japan in that life here is said to be very different from the rest of the world we live in (or at least, that's what I keep hearing, ad nauseam). When looked at up close, things are supposedly different. Supposedly.

    When I look closely, it ain't so different from anywhere else...

    Now, for a bit of trivia from those who do drive, long-haul kind of stuff. Truck drivers are not supposed to put anything other than diesel in their tanks, but they are known to mix in the kerosene when prices at the pump are spiking (which seems to be happening a lot). Um...this little 'secret' is kind of common knowledge for people who are not in cities.

    Now, excuse me while my wife and I try to sit through "Drive Angry". Before the title even done showed up, I was feeling sorry for Coppola's nephew.'s that bad. Wifey said, "We haven't even gotten to the opening credits and it feels like a B Movie".

    I would rather have my face buried deep between the pages of a four letter word. Wait...I think I just saw tits...

    1. "why can't those things just retire!"

      Yep. Somehow they've created a notionally capitalist system with all the disincentives to innovate and improve of communism. They got sandwiched between the two at the end of WWII and couldn't choose, so decided to compromise and adopt the worst of each. It's almost zen, appropriately enough.

  4. My friend Brett (contributor at the Yoji) has long described Japan and America using that exact metaphor. I tend to agree. But that's not why I'm here.

    THIS IS:

    1. That's beautiful. I'm having that for when the next order comes through. Thank you.

  5. I never really thought of the transportation systems as metaphors for the cultures. It is very true! Canada is quite similar, it's all about roads, quite like the USA. While I like the train system in Japan, I just use it to go from place to place. Once I'm out, I use the roads to walk. I do a lot of walking and wandering wherever I want (alliteration not intended). I like the ability to explore. I've walked 35 km before just to see what's out there. I had a destination in mind, one which I could've reached by train, but I wanted to do it my way, on foot. It was an adventure, and extremely satisfying. I think people in Japan need to embrace individuality in this way. Many of my students do, but they're restricted to the old strict Japanese way in business.

    I'd drive in Japan if I had a car, but I hate the traffic here.

    1. Walking is perhaps the ultimate Libertarian expression of this metaphor. And much like Libertarianism, many like to preach it, but few want to follow through with the practicalities...