Getting Home


From KJ 4, BY ROBERT BRADY, Illustrated by Shimizu Toshifumi

You’ve been working in Osaka for a week or so now, commuting from Kyoto and back each day, a distance of some 40 kilometers, and you’ve learned a few basics of this fine art of Japanese commuting that have given you insight into the economic miracle of the Japanese, and their behavior on the battlefield in times of war. You have experienced firsthand the relentless and dedicated pursuit of the objective, the fearless defiance of odds against. Already it is clear that the innocent foreigner, in his rigid territoriality and sense of righteousness, is no match for this mass progress, whether on the train, in the marketplace or anywhere else. You perceive that few western governments have ever understood this.

At first the movements of the individuals in the station mass had seemed to be ruthlessly random in nature; this misjudgment stemmed both from your ignorance regarding the higher laws of Japanese commuting and your righteous indignation at radical incursion upon your general person. Your indignation waned, however, as you were forced to surrender to the support of the crowd, when you began to grasp said higher laws and the truly impersonal nature of mob satori.

So today you’ve left the office only seconds after 5:30, to give yourself a reasonable chance of success in this event. Yesterday you almost had a seat, but it was the wrong train. Today, to make sure, you check the chart and buy your ticket, wasting precious seconds while the pass-carrying professionals shimmy and elbow fluidly around you, seeking a good pole position in one of the platform lines upstairs, all in obedience to Japan’s highest law of commuting: if you see empty space, occupy it.

The tenseness of competition returns now in a rush of adrenalin as you spot an old lady shuffling ruthlessly toward the wicket you’re heading for: no contest. First blocking you sharply with her cane at shin level, she mounts your instep and shoulders you back a notch, shopping bag then ballasting her neatly through the wicket leaving you stunned with her expertise. She waddles off toward the escalator. Not a chance: you lope for the stairs with a youthful stride, taking them two at a time, leading the old lady by about 4 lengths at the top, where three lines are feasible; which is shortest?

As you pause to decide, the old lady moves out like a tank from the top of the stairs. Not a chance: go for it. Dashing forward, dodging the lost and the hesitant, you round the guiderail, turn toward the end of the shortest line just as the old lady slips her brick-filled shopping bag into the space and bends deftly under the rail to take her spot in front of you, a benign smile playing about her lips.

Immune to your microwaves of indignation, she stands solidly in pole position 12; no window seat for you, but still a chance for a seat. It is the way, you reflect, of old ladies in this country to grab their rights at last, if needs be from naive and sentimental strangers. And it is all impersonal; you are not the object of these buffetings, these defeats; it is your physical manifestation that must suffer them. No need therefore to steam with indignation, a costly drain of energy not to be borne every day. So one learns. Still, that twinge of the instep, the sting of the shins, the abruptness of that shopping bag — preoccupied, you are pushed with sharp discretion from behind. The train has come in.

Now the game is on! The rules that generally govern polite behavior in this nation of casehardened courtesy are now temporarily suspended en masse as the higher laws of commuting take hold. What count now are position, power, agility, speed, relentlessness, elbows, knees, hips, feet, shoulders, boarding tools (umbrellas, canes, bags, rolled newspapers etc.) and impersonalness. Age or infirmity mean little here, and the old lady knows it.

She’s off and shoving like a bouncer the moment the train doors open, cane and bag plying the legs of laggards, fending off those who would gain — but the other line, into the back of the car, is moving faster! Two amateurs at the front of your line have lost precious seconds; now someone with a cello is blocking the aisle (mental note: keep an eye out for large instruments in future lines) and four housewives are debating where to sit, as though this were a social! They are tossed to the nether regions as the cello comes unstuck with a violent jerk, nearly felling the old lady. The thought pleases you. She pauses to recover: a flaw in her style, to be taken advantage of with daring speed. No contest after all. You feint impersonally by her in a graceful double-gainer half-twist commuter leap—one aisle seat just there, the last, get out of the way, for — an arm shoots by, resembling something made long ago of a hard, dark wood, plumps a bag of bricks down on the very seat and is followed at dazzling speed by the old lady, who has trumped you at the finish…

You stand there all the way, blasted by the wind from the windows, fighting for balance on the 50-minute ride to Kyoto, the old lady beside you sleeping blissfully, bricks in her lap. You are not indignant. You go over it all again, analyzing your moves, reviewing the moves of the pros, finding out where you went wrong: not relentless enough — an elbow just then would’ve — could’ve been faster there; have to learn that trick with the knee — cane countermove — shopping bag defense — practice at home tonight — all impersonal — thus you ramble your way back to Kyoto.

Though still just an amateur, you’ve learned much today, will do even better tomorrow. Sooner or later you’ll get a seat; in time, you might even be up to a crack at the old lady. She wakes up now, end of the line; you stand back to watch her get off, study her technique as she forges hydraulically forward, toppling men twice her size. Relentless. Awesome.

And now for the bus.


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