Get on The Train - Part 1

This piece is a humorous piece on the Japanese rail network - or at least, it tries to be! It's meant not only for those who have lived in Japan, but also for those who are maybe curious about the world's most famous rail system.

The idea for this page came from a conversation with a Japanese friend of mine after suffering near suffocation on the Shinjuku-Tokyo train one morning, and this was his explanation about Japanese culture, and trains in general. Here is that gem of wisdom. I hope he's still my friend.

In Japan, there are two cultures - densha no naka (inside the train), and densha no soto (outside the train). Now before you all start giggling about this, let's just take an honest look at the train, and not only how they run, but also at how people behave on them. In this, part 1, I'll be introducing some characters from the train, which I'm sure some of you will recognise.

The Characters

The Salaryman

We've all seen him! Usually this fascinating creature has two natural positions: hanging from a hand ring, or sleeping - but the common thing is the smell of alcohol! To be fair, most of these guys are pretty harmless (to other men at least!), but what do they usually do? Well, usually they talk to themselves a little and swing from side to side on the hand rings, unless they're near an attractive woman (bonus points for High School girls) when they try to get as close as they can whilst attempting to look like they aren't trying to get as close as they can...which is quite difficult when you're so drunk you can't stand.

So how do we know who is a salaryman? Well, by their dress sense, or rather their lack of it. Actually, that's not fair, so here's a breakdown of salaryman fashion.

Young Salaryman

Increasingly, young 'office workers' are dressing like something they once saw in a fashion magazine - and it shows. Never forget the phrase "Sophisticated clothes, do not a sophisticated man make". Usually, this means that the jacket looks like it's still hanging on the clothes hanger (so it's always worth a look at the back of the jacket to see if he's left the hanger in), and the trousers look just a little bit too long. Shoes are usually black, well shined (though not by the salaryman), and usually at least three centimetres too big. The suits are usually expensive, well made, tailored and styled like something out of London, Paris or New York but were probably purchased in Tokyo (still not bad though!). However, on these chaps they look like something out of the 1980's, with 'power' neckties - either black and white, vomit yellow or blood red. Like many salarymen of other styles, they will have a magazine about computers, and/or a laptop computer case, whether or not it actually has a computer in it or not.

The second 'modern fashion' salaryman will maybe be reading a manga such as "Jump" or any other publication which has the picture of a girl in a bikini on the front, trying to look as if he's not looking at those pictures. He may be dressed a little more traditionally, which we'll discuss later - a cheaper suit, a bad shave etc.

In groups they're loud and talk about some great deal they've just done, or make a point of calling someone on their keitai (mobile phone) to make plans. Image is everything here. Alone, they tend to be quieter, reading, and avoiding other groups of young salarymen - there is safety in numbers!

The Traditional Salaryman

So who is this man then? Well, usually they are middle management, in their forties and are suffering from trying to dress like their bosses, who are probably either in their 70's, or dead. Or both. What this means then is that in the Autumn and Winter months (as decided by their bosses) they will all be wearing tan coloured raincoats. Obviously to many Westerners, this might make them look like an army of potential flashers, but this is not (generally) the case. Without the coats though, things get worse. The standard suit for these gents is like something from the 1970's, usually a grey plaid or at least a criss-cross pattern which hurts your eyes after you look at it for a few minutes, especially if you've had a bit to drink, so how these guys survive looking in a mirror is a tribute to their stamina. It is stamina too, which allows these guys to go drinking after work, hang from the hand-rings on the train going home. Hairstyles are important too - if a salaryman has hair, it'll look the same on the train home as it did on the train going to work - I often wished I could get my hair to stay in one place like that; I don't know what it's called, but I suspect it's from NASA - the stuff they use to stick the tiles onto the Space Shuttle. If the hair is beginning to disappear, it's time to grow one side, and do the old comb across the bald bit style (known to Brits as a "Bobby Charlton", and to others as a "Barcode look"). Now I don't have a problem with this, but it looks a little strange to see a man drunk under the air conditioning fan with 8 inches of hair on one side of his head looking like it's trying to escape from the train (maybe it is). I don't mock this though, because in twenty years time, I'll probably be exactly the same. By then, I'm hoping it'll look sexy to women too. Possibly the worst part of the traditional salaryman look though, is his necktie. I would put a picture of a typical one on this page, but in tests, it crashed my computer and caused the server to shut down, so my ISP has asked me to remove it - they're that bad!! Usually they're brown or green with crossing diagonal stripes, and are designed not to match any decent suit design - even the terrible ones the salaryman is wearing. These ties are not nice, they offend my eye.

So what are they like on the train? Well, if they can stand near a woman they will, and will avoid foreigners as much as they can. If they can't get near a woman they'll just stare at one for a while. If they have one, they'll pull out a diary and start writing something, or even better , if they have an electronic organiser (e.g. Sharp Zaurus or a PalmPilot), they'll start playing with it and making noises as if they nearly forgot that important meeting with the NASA hairstylist the next week. If he doesn't have such a handy piece of organisational or technological equipment, then it's time for 'Plan B'. This is where he pulls some office papers from his office bag and starts writing small comments on them, to make it look like he's still working, even on the train! You may be wondering why he doesn't pull out the flashy laptop out of that leather computer case he's got. Well, simply because there isn't a computer in there - it only holds a bentoh box (a Japanese lunch box - and very delicious they are too!). It probably wouldn't matter if he had the computer anyway, since despite spending a lot of money on the computer, the only thing he can use is Ichi Taro (Japan's leading word processing package) - and he's not sure how to start it all up!

Thanks to the Odakyu Electric Rail Company, and JR lines for letting me on their trains.

Next Update: School students, and School Sports Teams on the trains! In future editions: Old ladies, crazy drivers and the 'amuras'.