Training Ground: Tokyo
Written By: Holly H. Jones
The Canadian teacher calls it the train game. The other teachers in our English-language school call it twisted. I’m a year out of Smith College, new to Tokyo, and more sponge than conversationalist. I don’t call anything anything yet.
Mike is the teacher’s name, and he’s a generally happy guy. A multi-year work visa, students who shower him with gifts, and a beautiful Japanese fiancée. I’m down to two hundred dollars and a return ticket to the US, so I think he’s got it pretty good. But Friday nights, he can’t resist playing the train game.
“Ride the midnight train,” he tells us. “If you wait until the last train, you get too many drunks who can’t understand anything in any language.”
“Or they just don’t know enough English to tell you to fuck off,” another teacher says.
“But on the next to the last train,” he continues, “you get the shit-faced salary men heading home. The older ladies coming back from a night out spending their husbands’ paychecks. And students not cool enough to party all night. I can make every last one of them speak English.”
He won’t leave them alone until they answer his three questions in English: What did you do today? What sort of work do you do? Where are you from?
No one answers him the first time.
“The trick,” he tells us, “is to not let up. Smile. Speak slowly. And keep asking. I never lose. Ever.”
Badgering the Japanese to speak a foreign language in their own country, on the trains their tax dollars funded, seems about as messed-up a thing as I can imagine. But it’s my first summer in Japan. I haven’t been here very long.
It’s 8:45 a.m. on a Tuesday in Sangenjaya Station, the stop closest to my home. I’ve stepped onto the train just as someone in front of me stopped moving forward. I rock backward and before I realize what is happening, I drop into the gap between the train and the platform. My subconscious must register what’s happening, but my conscious brain is elsewhere. I am thinking of my father. He is dying in Alabama. I am in Tokyo.
One moment, I am inside a train car that smells strongly of bodies, coffee, and perfume. The next, I am outside it, eye-level with shoulders, then with lunchboxes and bags, and finally with knees.
I brace myself: One hand grips the train doorway and the other the platform. My legs swing in the gap.
I’m pretty strong, I think. The words appear in the air like text in a cartoon bubble. Then, This will make a great story in my next letter home. And, finally, But my father is dying and I am in Tokyo. My arms begin to shake. I sink further.
Two men grab my arms and hoist me up and into the train. The door shuts behind us with a whoosh. No one makes a sound.
“Arigatoo gozaimasu,” I say. Then, in a shakier voice, “Thank you.”
The men stare at their hands and nod.
I smile at the woman beside me, and she looks away. I will live in Japan nearly two more years and never see a person fall into the gap as I have.
Grit covers my hands, but I press them to my hot cheeks all the same. This really would make a great story in the next letter home. But I am going home instead of sending a letter. My father has terminal cancer. Fast-moving. Late-stage.
I am twenty-three and, a week later, I tell my father about my fall in person.
“You could have been killed,” he tells me. “Stop treating it like a joke.”
I am twenty-four when he dies and near-misses stop being a joke.
It’s after midnight and I’m rushing to catch the last train. Late autumn, so the station’s a sea of coats and scarves. I’ve somehow landed a job as a tax analyst in an accounting firm and have discovered how much people on expense accounts can drink. This is new for me, drinking and working with businesspeople. I suck at this job, but they invite me out all the same. They like that I laugh at their bad jokes.
My father has been dead for two months. The only thing I know for sure is that I can’t bear solitude. I will go to great lengths and laugh at many bad jokes to avoid time alone.
I stand across from the open doors, in the wedge of space between the seat rail and the car wall, and wait for the doors to close. Except they never do.
People rush on, thinking the doors are about to close, that there will never be another train home that night. On and on they come, until there is no space left. No space to breathe, to move my hands or feet. Only my nose has clear room.
Claustrophobia, a surprise after so many weeks of seeking crowds, sets in.
The sound of someone vomiting onto other people’s shoes kills my claustrophobia.
I try to breathe through my mouth and stay calm. Too many hands are trapped too near my body, and Tokyo trains are known for their gropers. Then something worse than groping happens.
A woman cries out. “Onegai! Itai!” Please, you’re hurting me!
A man near me says someone’s stepping on the old lady’s foot and to move. No one responds. No one can move.
More bodies press in and against mine. Everyone believes this is the last train and that the door is about to close.
“Itai. Onegaishimasu. Itai itai itai…” It’s just short of a scream.
I can’t see her. I can’t even see my hands in the crush of limbs.
Several minutes pass. The woman gives up shouting. She stops begging for the pain to stop. She sobs instead.
I press my forehead to the train wall. No one can move. No one can back up unless the person behind them backs up, and they won’t. We are trapped and her crying fills the car.
I didn’t cry when my father died. I got the call in the middle of the night and hung up without shedding a tear. I called my closest friend, let him say all the things people say to someone who has lost a parent. Still I didn’t cry. I flew eight thousand miles home before letting the tears flow. Not because I was too brave or proud, but because crying would have made his dying real. Just like the cries of this woman, whose foot she says is slowly breaking, makes the prospect of another night of crying myself to sleep in an apartment smaller than my childhood bedroom too real. And if it’s real, I can’t ignore it any longer.
The train door whooshes shut and the train begins to move. A few people cheer, the lurch of the train shifts the standing commuters a few inches and the woman who has been crying sounds a groan of relief. Her foot must no longer be trapped. As the train pulls out of the station, I begin to think about how to shift my own pain so that my nightly tears become a thing of the past.
I stay in the office job with the accountants who like my laughing at their jokes. I get better at preparing tax returns for overpaid expats. My coworkers invite me to dinner parties where every expat I meet is living better than the teachers I first worked with, but they’re even more tired of Tokyo. It makes me laugh. The only time these expats truly see Tokyo is when they take the train.
My boss and I take the Yamanote Line train back from a client’s office one March afternoon. Schoolkids and businesspeople fill most of the seats, but we’re ahead of the commuter crush. We stand, swaying, and talk of vacation plans.
“Paul and I are going to Thailand,” she says. “Maybe Bali too. You?”
“To see friends?”
To see graduate schools, actually. I might return to the States. Where I can have a normal dating life, and not be someone’s trophy, and walk down the street without a thousand eyes noting my foreignness. I might finally mourn my father’s passing and move on. But I’m not ready to say this aloud. I lie. “Exactly.”
“I bet there’s a guy!” she says, smiling widely enough to catch the attention of the salary man sitting in front of us. “You need a good guy. Not like the ones here.”
“What?” The salary man leans forward. “What you’re saying?”
Here is the trick of Mike’s train game: Late at night, the Japanese passengers are drunk, tired, or both. Coaxing English out of them is actually a sick accomplishment of sorts. In broad daylight, there is no game. Every businessman on the train understands at least a little English. This one, with his graying comb-over, cheap suit, and expensive watch, understands everything, including my boss’s aside about men in Tokyo.
“You American!” he says. “So pretty!”
Her smile falls away.
“What were you saying?” the man asks once again.
She turns to me. “Do something. You speak Japanese. Say something.”
“He’s harmless.” The train slows as we enter the Shinjuku Station. “Just showing off his English.”
“You American? Gaijin?” he asks more loudly. “Pretty gaijin.”
“He’s drunk,” my boss whispers. “If I spoke Japanese, I’d tell him to fuck off.”
I see the challenge in her eyes. If I were alone, I would ignore him. It’s the tried and true approach of many Japanese women on these trains, and it has gotten me through almost three years in Japan. But, for once, I’m not alone. So I dive in.
“Sumimasen,” I say. Excuse me.
The man slides his eyes to me. I sense the air around us going still, as if everyone else is watching and listening too.
“Kankei ga nai, deshyoo?” There is no connection, is there? But what I am really saying, idiomatically, is that he doesn’t know us and shouldn’t mess with us.
My words hang in the air. The train grinds to a stop, and a bell chimes to announce our arrival in Shinjuku. The man’s smile falls away as he stands to disembark with the others.
“Good job!” my boss says quietly.
Not quietly enough.
I am between the man and the door. Just as he steps around me, he looks directly into my face, and I know what’s coming. I angle my body away. I move my laptop bag between us. I hold my breath.
The grab comes. I knew it would. He moves fast, like gropers have on other trains, on other occasions. Once it was my breast. Another time, a grab of my butt so forceful I was lifted off the ground for a split second. But no matter what they’re grabbing for, they’re fast. If Mike had his train game, so do these men. What, I have time to wonder, is my train game?
His hand strikes my bag. The crowd pushes him toward the door. He tries once more and connects with my hip bone. He tugs at the fabric of my skirt but then is pushed beyond us and deposited onto the platform. I am left short of breath, but largely untouched.
“Did I tell you Paul and I head back to Seattle in seventy-three days?” my boss asks. She sits down and pats the space beside her. “Seventy-three more days and we’re home.”
I smooth the edge of my skirt. The last time I saw my father, I’d just bought it. Good quality, black wool crepe, with a hemline just above the knee. A real businesswoman’s skirt, he had called it. Proud of my adventure. And of me.
Seventy-three days until my boss goes home. I’ve thought of Tokyo as my home for ten times as many days. But maybe it is time to begin heading back toward a more real home.
Spring comes slowly to Tokyo and then bursts in a glorious frenzy of cherry blossoms. My first two springs here, I had boyfriends who knew the best cherry blossom viewing parties. This spring, I am looking for the cheapest multi-destination plane ticket I can find.
A man sits down across from me on the train. We frequently board at the same time and wind up standing near each other. He always smells of stale alcohol. Today there are few commuters, so we can both sit. I can’t smell him from across the aisle. “The sakura are in bloom. You should take the day off and go to Yoyogi Park.”
“I just gave notice,” I told him. “And I need my full bonus when I leave.”
“Where are you going?”
I shrug. I don’t know. I’ve taken to carrying maps and daydreaming of places to visit before starting Stanford’s MBA program. Three months to wander. A person could get lost in that. Or found.
“Where are you from?” he asks next.
Mike’s Train Game questions. It’s been almost three years since I first heard them and nearly two since I could change jobs and start to forget them. This man, like Mike, asks them in English. But I live in Japan, still, if only for another month, and I’ve been studying the language the entire time. So I answer in Japanese.
“I’m from too many places to count. I draft tax returns and then my boss corrects my mistakes because I suck at accounting. And I went for a run this morning and saw the cherry blossoms.” Three questions. Three answers. Mike would have been proud. All in Japanese. My father would have been even prouder.
The man nods and smiles. “Japan will miss you.”
I shake my head. Japan is too big to miss one foreigner. And it is too big for me to stay any longer. I look down at the maps stuffed in my leather satchel. My father had shown me how to clean it that last visit home, when I tried to make him see the humor in my falling into the gap between the train and the platform. I won’t use this satchel again, after Tokyo. But I will never be able to throw it away.
For now, though, I set down the bag of maps. I smile back at my fellow commuter. I look out the window and marvel at the cherry blossoms bursting forth outside.
About the Author
Holly H. Jones has been published in several print and online journals, and has written two column series, “Dispatches from the Anacostia” and “Dispatches from the Capital,” for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Working closely with Dave Eggers, she co-founded Washington’s 826DC (initially known as Capitol Letters Writing Center) in 2008 and remains very close to the larger 826 National family and its network. She was awarded the TED Challenge Prize for her work to fulfill Dave’s TED Prize wish and is a long-standing member of that community as well. She holds an MBA from Stanford, an MFA from Vermont College, and is the only Chicago-based member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.