Breaking the Rules

My daily commute consists of taking a tram(streetcar) for approximately 15 minutes, followed by a 10 minute subway ride, and then culminating in a 20-25 minute bus ride. It’s a thing of absolute precision. Rarely have I had a delay, even on the buses – traversing some tough snowstorms in the early morning – usually getting to my destination on or around the expected time. These commutes are quiet, orderly affairs. Order and rule following is really the name of the game here in Old Nippon, and this is never more obvious than on public transportation.

No talking on cell phones. Keep your cell phone on silent/manner mode. These are two of the most well known and well followed rules. Trains and buses are pretty much silent. Conversations are kept to a hush. It makes for a rather pleasant journey, but I can only fathom the amount of social engineering that the populace has been exposed to that keeps them so unwilling to break such rules. Travel to South Korea or China and take the subway and sit back and enjoy the chaos.(Just take a look at the Tokyo Metro “Things to Consider When Riding the Subway” to get a feel for what I am talking about.)

But the real social engineering isn’t inside the trains, it’s on the platform at each station. There you will find very clear lines painted in front of each carriage door entrance, showing passengers where they must line up (usually in two lines on either side of the entrance. Japanese people dutifully follow these cattle chutes, always waiting for the passengers to exit the train, before sardine-ing themselves in for their journey to salaryman hell.

I have always been thankful for this sense of order. I’ve elbowed one too many Korean grannies, trying to gain a seat in my journeys in Pusan. It’s a rule based commuter culture here in Japan, and no deviation from the rules is excusable. Which leads me to a rather bizarre occurrence that repeatedly keeps occurring to me…

Each evening, on the final leg of my journey, I take the stairs up from the subway and directly to the above ground platform to the tram. Sapporo’s tram runs in a loop around Sapporo’s city center. In the rush hours it can be packed to near unbearable levels. It really gives my daily transit a taste of Shibuya.

The Sapporo streetcar route can take you to some interesting places around town

The tram makes its stops on platforms that usually sit on concrete islands in the middle of some rather busy roads. These platforms are pretty narrow, and only allow for a single file line. One line that leads to the one entrance of the single car tram. Pretty simple. But a few years ago Sapporo revamped its Nishi 4 Chome (Odori) platform, placing it along the main sidewalk, and installing a large overhead canopy to protect the increased passenger traffic. This precipitated a change to the single file rule that exists on the other stops. So, clearly painted on the ground, two rows lead passengers in an orderly fashion to the entrance of the tram. There are signs in clear Japanese informing everyone of the two lines. There are even painted footprints to drive the point home even harder. But to change the rules, the routines, of a Japanese commuter is tantamount to a break in their collective psychic reality.

Each evening I arrive at the Nishi 4 Chome tram stop and encounter the same scene each and every time. Anywhere from five to twenty passenger lined single file, completely oblivious to the second line painted at their feet. Sometime this single file line will stretch outside the canopy and wrap around the sidewalk.

At first, I played along with my fellow Japanese in there delusional avoidance of the second line and begrudgingly followed suit. But after a few days of this I decided to take matters into my own hands and lead a commuter line revolution! I approached the single file line fifteen deep, shuffled to there left, and walked right on by to the very front, careful to follow the painted footprints. I actually felt guilty for following the rules, just for a little bit.

But then a remarkable thing happened. I heard some whispers of “So Desu ne…” as the stares locked in on the rebel gaijin who decided to follow the rules! And then one by one, some recruits made there way behind me. That first day I managed to sway only three or four over to the dark side of two line freedom. But throughout the next week I led a full blown defection from the nation of single file heathen. Finally, two even lines, everyone following the rules.

Was it my foreign presence that initiated this behavioral shift? Sometimes it seems that way. I’ll need more experimentation to see if my theory holds any weight.

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