Monday, March 31, 2008

"Oh Yeah... That's How it Was..."

Being with someone over a period of years, you know they (and yourself) are changing, but it doesn't seem like so much - until you take a look at a picture taken fifteen years ago, and suddenly the contrast is quite stark. The first reaction is a kind of shock, and then as you stare at the photo, the previous time drifts back into present day consciousness and the huge change between then and now is inescapable, not to mention the way the forgotten ambiance of the old "present" time comes back to haunt you.

And so it is with the many videos I'm watching that I took from 1990-92. In the flow of time from 1990 to 2008, many momentous things have happened, but on a day-to-day basis, it was just time flowing forward, and major change is something I abstractly imagined for the future, but never perceived in the way a time machine blast to the future would have put the changes in stark contrast to what was (or "is" if it's the "future").

Not by way of illustration, but just because it happened to come up today - here's a video clip of a railway employee punching tickets by hand.

"Hand-Punched Ticket Gates in 1990 Tokyo at Shinjuku Station"

I don't how soon (or late) other countries automated their ticket gates, but with the trains in Tokyo, automatic ticket gates started appearing at one station after another in 1991, and the only line I can think of off-hand that still does it by hand is the Chichibu Line in Saitama, although I'm sure there must be branch lines here and there away from the major city centers that still get by without modern machinery for taking and issuing tickets.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Friday, March 28, 2008

"Dust & Pollen... Sniffle"

For the past few years, every spring the media cranks up the "the tree pollen this spring is worse than before..." reports, and - this year in particular - I do believe they're right. Pretty much non-stop for the past three weeks or so I've had itchy and/or sore eyes, runny nose, sneezing fits, etc. The story is that after the war, they planted a fast-growing type of pine tree ('sugi' in Japanese) forming near-mono cultures in the mountains, and now these trees dump massive amounts of pollen into the air every spring.

And something I hadn't picked up before, but hear isn't new - apparently, there is an increasing amount of dust blowing in from China's deserts - and one sand storm I even witnessed myself. I wouldn't have though that sand from deserts in China would ride the winds all the way to Japan, but the winds are strong, the sand particles are small....

And so it was that - on the way home - I dropped by a park to see the cherry trees in blossom, armed with a towel in one hand and a camera in the other. It was a typical experience for this time of year, except for one detail.

At the entrance to the back side of the park (where most of the cherry blossom trees are) , I noticed a sign saying that cherry blossom viewing ("hanami") was only allowed until 9:00 p.m., and it warned people not to sing karaoke (good, good) or play music, and - get this - not to talk too loudly! I looked over at the large pricey houses bordering the park and thought "What's this? Did one of you guys complain to city hall about the noise? Do you think this park is your personal property or something?".

An over-reaction I suppose, but I remembered an article I'd read about a park in Nishi-Tokyo-shi that had some sort of sprinklers for kids to run around in the summer. Great idea. But they shut them down. Why? One neighbor complained that they could hear the sound of children playing and it disturbed them.(!!) What blows my mind is that one deranged lunatic is listened to and the sentiments of thinking people are ignored. A person can't stand the sound of children playing in a park? They they should move to the Sahara Desert, or Mars, or something.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Sunday, March 23, 2008

That Train Before? Half-Empty! Here's the Real Thing...

I accidentally sent a video of a half empty train before when I was trying to show how crowded it gets sometimes - here's the real thing:

2013/06/23 Update: Video Google was discontinued and so the above link no longer works. Here's the video on YouTube:

Actually Full Train in 1991 (Why Flex Time is a Good Idea)

(As posted with the video):

I have nothing but the highest respect and admiration for the Tokyo train system - but even this fine system running like clockwork has its limits. This video was taken in 1991 and things have improved somewhat due to increased trains and (more importantly) flex-time being allowed at many companies, but even now, when something throws the trains a little off schedule (someone taking the express checkout from life by jumping in front of a train, etc.), then things can be as shown in the video. 30,000,000 people is a lot of work to move about!

This video has been relentlessly copied by a lot of people - none with my permission. It's my video and I retain all rights to it.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Friday, March 21, 2008


Just when I'm trying to be careful and quietly get myself safely to work without incident, I get on the Yamanote Line and suddenly there's someone pushing against the right side of my back as I get on - and as the doors close, they're still pushing away. Meanwhile, there's a man to my left and the closed doors straight ahead - no where to go! The person keeps pushing in a strange way - the way someone might if they are from Mars and they're used to riding completely empty trains and don't understand what the Tokyo morning crush-rush consists of.

I tried to ignore it, but as the person kept pushing at me, I started thinking about it... it seemed less like someone really in a pinch and needing space than someone being weird, so I looked back and discovered a very mean looking woman in her fifties with one of those profoundly ugly brown bags from one of the "brand" bag sellers (good gig - I wish I was in on the money generated by those things - so long as I didn't have to look at them!), who has enough space for two people and has her bag arranged sideways so it pokes into my back, and is holding out a book to read with one hand and shoving at me with the other....

Gentle readers not intimately familiar with Tokyo's very high-density train system, you may even think that's normal behavior. No. It's not. Not in general, and certainly not during the morning crush-rush. As I took in that scene - 1) mean-spirited obatarian, 2) hideous brown bag being used not only as a visual eye-sore, but as a physical weapon, and 3) enough space for two people... something snapped and I spun around (knocking her off balance, since she was pushing on me with all her might) and told her "Iikagen-ni shiro!" (something like "That's enough!" or "Stop it already!"). (The expression is stronger in Japanese than that translation makes it seem). Her snarling expression changed to one of shocked surprise, and I turned around and faced the window again - getting off at the next station.

Agggghhhh.... I don't want to be be in conflict! This is what is typically (and relatively recently) called "kireru" (to snap, or lose control). Even in the cool of several-hours-later tonight, I still think that obatarian needed to have someone tell her that (she wasn't behaving like a civilized human being) - I just wish it was someone else and not me! I want to peacefully commute to work! I don't want to battle my way there! Mattaku!

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Thursday, March 20, 2008

"Anti-Mobile Phone Fanatics"

When mobile phones first got small and cheap, it was pretty common to hear a new user talking on one on the train - typically saying something like "Guess where I am right now? - On the Yamanote Line!! I just got my own mobile phone!", or just talking loudly & proudly - suddenly having the freedom to talk on the phone anywhere!

The next step - after cell phones were becoming commonplace - was to encourage people not to talk on the phone on the train unless they really needed to, as the noise could disturb other passengers. About this time, cell phone e-mail kicked in, so was well and good.

Then... they reported that there was a possibility of someone with a cell phone causing interference with a pacemaker and killing someone dead. I don't think there has been so much as a single incidence of this actually happening at any time or any place in the country , but this gave some anti-mobile phone nut cases ammunition to go around verbally attacking people for having a cell phone in their hand. There are even two individuals that I've run into several times (the chances of this happening in a mega-city of 30,000,000 people are not so strong!), who are really wacky.

One is this woman in her late forties or maybe early fifties who - each time she sees someone with a cell phone in their hand - goes over to them and says with a life-or-death urgency "Yamete! Yamete! Yamete!" ("Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!). This might even be okay (sort of... if said in a more human-like manner) if it were in the priority seat area, which is the official area to turn the power of your mobile phone off, lest people start falling over dead left and right, but this attack-creature strikes all and sundry in any part of the train she's in (I've seen her two or three times on one line and once on a different line).

The other attack-biped I've seen several times, is this short, thin man in his twenties, who verbally attacks anyone he sees with a cell phone out in their hand ("What are you doing?! You could poke someone with that!"). Certainly there are some people who will jam their cell phones into people's backs while they're text-messaging on an overly crowded train, but every time I've seen this guy, the train hasn't been especially crowded, so I don't think there was any issue that a normal biped would feel driven to loudly complain about.

What prompts me to bring this up? On the Sardine Run home this evening, an argument broke out half-way down the train car. One (older-sounding) man loudly accused a (younger-sounding) man of poking him with his cell phone. The younger man less loudly denied the accusation, to which the older man accused him of it again in a still louder voice.

I had gotten on the train at its first station, so I was able to wait for an empty train and thus grab a seat. Sitting in my seat comfortably reading a magazine, I and my seat-mates (and nearby standing passengers) looked towards the direction from where the sounds were coming (we couldn't see anything from the seats - maybe the standing people could) with just a very slight sense of minor alarm. Even if things became more heated, the train was crowded enough that the two warriors wouldn't be able to move down the train car.

So how did that turn out? After the heated exchange, presumably the younger man backed down, as there were no more battle noises over mobile phones for the rest of the trip.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

"Memory Corruption"

I've been looking at several hours of video tape I took (from 1990-92) that has been sleeping in one closet or another unwatched over the past 16-18 years. Somewhat expected has been the sensation of coming face to face with several of my own personal experiences that I had forgotten happened. While watching these experiences again, most of them come back, but some seem strangely missing.

That's not too big of a deal, but what was almost completely unexpected and a bit dismaying are some experiences I have often remembered over the years, that - now that I'm watching them exactly as they happened, enshrined on the tape - I'm shocked to discover that the version in my memory, which I had believed to be spot-on accurate, is often slightly different than the version on the videotape, which I must believe - especially since I took it myself! But more on that aspect later....

Back to forgotten memories. One example is three hours of tape I took in and around Tokyo Station on a single day in 1991. I had obviously decided to focus on Tokyo Station and I spent an entire day and evening there walking the platforms, diving into trains for a few minutes before they began a new journey (Tokyo is a terminal stop for some lines, so there's enough of a lag between arrival and the next departure in the opposite direction, to have a quick look inside), walking in the hallways of the Tokyo Station Hotel (now defunct), and walking around the surrounding station area a little.

A bit of time and effort went into that, and yet I can't remember making a decision to do it... well... wait... after thinking about it for the past 36 hours or so, I seem to remember deciding to focus on something in detail instead of doing my usual deal where I would get off at one station, walk around all day in one direction or another, and then, late in the evening, look for a train line - any train line - to begin the journey home on. But it's a faint memory and I can't quite remember myself doing what I see myself doing in the video images taken that day. Obviously, spending a day exploring Tokyo Station wasn't interesting enough to me to warrant thinking about again after I had done it. And so the memory was lost, and I find myself looking at myself (I used to periodically record myself at arm's length making commentary) and the very things I saw from my own vantage point, and it almost seems like it's another person doing what I'm watching. (In one sense it was - 17 years have wrought a different man in some ways.)

Now... for the really disturbing aspect to looking again at my life recorded on videotape in 1991. In watching the things I have remembered and thought about over the years, I kept wondering why my memory didn't hold on to a precisely accurate recording of what happened. It was fairly accurate, but why not spot-on 100% accurate? In the middle of reviewing the tapes, I listened to a radio interview with a researcher who has been studying how people's brains work, and there was a fascinating thing that came up in the discussion about how memory works. Apparently the researchers discovered that, rather than the brain re-accessing a static recording of an event, when it is recalled and thought about, it is overwrite re-recorded! So just recalling it, thinking about it, and remembering it, alters it! Revelation! Shock! Dismay! No wonder PR and advertising work only too well! Hammer away at people and give them an altered, inaccurate version of the truth (otherwise known as lies) and the brain will have a tendency to believe the story as fact after a while.

Groan! We're doomed! Well... wait. There is recording! Writing, cameras, video.... By way of (frivolous) example, thanks to my videotape, I can now give you a far more accurate view of 1991 than I could have before revisiting 1991 via the tapes (and there are a lot of them - 20 hours for June alone). Modern TV shows and movies here in Japan now portray the "bubble economy" years as a time of living it up, but that was only true for a very tiny percentage of the population. When I see kids playing on a shitamachi street in my 1991 video, it brings to mind how inaccurate modern portrayals of the time are. And I was there! Even though I was in Japan for every single day of the bubble years, the modern movies still influenced my memories of the times! History from previous generations? I have to wonder how accurate it can be if very recent history is already distorted!

The conclusion must be that recording things (by writing them down, taking photos, etc.) is absolutely vital to maintaining some kind of accuracy in history.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Saturday, March 15, 2008

"Air Flow & Oxygen"

Yesterday at work, I was feeling like it was as hot as the Sahara Desert, so I checked my thermometer and confirmed the sensation with the scientific information that it was 28 degrees (28C - 82.4F). Being a modern building, none of the windows are openable; and being the era in which we are currently living, all doors are security lock protected, so the doors to the emergency stairwells (which do have openable windows) must be kept shut at all times (other than momentarily being opened for entry and exit).

The result is that not only is it very uncomfortably hot (something that could be adjusted, except there are several sickly people on the floor who act as though they will drop over dead from frostbite if the temperature drops below about 25C), but the air is very stale and so the combination of hot and stuffy makes it feel even hotter still. Add to this the fact that the approximately 120 people sharing the same space are all consuming oxygen, and you have a fairly hellish workspace air-quality wise. It's a shame too, because otherwise, it's a good group of people and it should be a pleasant place to work. If only I didn't have to work while fighting off the sensation of approaching death from heat and lack of oxygen.

This is something I really envy past generations - who were able to work in buildings with openable windows. ISO energy savings are a good thing, but the amount of oxygen in the air and the general quality of the air should also be taken into consideration - if there are to be oxygen-fueled bipeds working in the space that is. Fill it up with machinery and keep the bipeds out, and there's no need for oxygen, but if people are working there... please give us some more live-giving oxygen!

It's the same thing with new trains - they've done away with the roof vents, and made half the windows are unopenable. Even the openable ones people seem to be afraid to open. Here's the other thing - not only is new design putting us into sealed boxes, but too many people seem to think that's just fine. I guess they have special low-oxygen demand bodies? Or... they're getting sicker and sicker and don't even know it? When I see someone sitting in 27-degree heat with a blanket on because they feel cold, I can't believe that they're healthy.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Friday, March 14, 2008

"White Day"

March 14th, "White Day" in a Japan. A holiday reportedly begun by confectionery companies wanting to cash in on more chocolate sales following Valentine's Day. On Valentine's Day, women give men chocolate, and on "White Day", men give women chocolate. Westerner's living here don't necessarily go along with this however, so on Valentine's Day, you'll see a long line of women buying chocolate with a lone western man in line. On "White Day", the stores are pushing chocolate, but I never see lines (of any kind of biped) the way there are on Valentine's Day.

The idea seems to be that a woman will give a man she's interested in a Valentine's Day chocolate, and if the man is interested, he will follow up by giving her a "White Day" chocolate. I'd always heard that the "white" in that came from white chocolate, but a quick look at a Wikipedia entry says that it may have started with a marshmallow manufacturer and then spread to chocolate from there. Seems sort of plausible, although certainly not widely known! I'm a little skeptical, come to think of it. Why would you want to give someone marshmallows?)

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

"You Don't Get Used To It"

I was nearly knocked over by this man while getting off one of the four trains I take to work every morning. Feeling that it wasn't necessary, and in an anger flash that bypassed reasonable thinking, I reached out my fist, placed it against the very top left corner of his chest (his shoulder really), and pushed with a "Hey you!" intent. It wasn't a punch, and it wasn't a strong push. Certainly it's a good thing I didn't go stark-raving-mad and actually punch him, which would be considered assault. What's bad though, is that if he decides to lie and say that I punched him, and he gets someone to say that I used my fist, he could make a lot of trouble for me.

I was depressed all day about this, thinking that I can't let myself lose control of absolute reason when in a situation like that. I mentioned it to a guy at work and he said "I would think you'd be used to that sort of thing by now".

Yeah... you might think so, but generally that's not how it works. The more bad experiences you have, the more hypersensitive you become to them. Twenty, ten, or five years ago, I would never have done that. But the unpleasant things that have happened to me over the past 24 years of being out on the public transportation system have built up to the point where I think I'm either going to have to arrange to come in earlier to work (to get myself into a lower pressure commuting time zone), or else move within walking distance of the company.

Tomorrow morning... I probably should get on a completely different part of the train. An obvious solution? It's not that simple. Losing around thirty seconds at the disembarkation transfer point of that train could make me miss the next express, and then end up being fifteen minutes late for work. I need to be near the exit.

Something needs to change. Punching people is no answer. But then neither is laying down and being trampled on. How to remain civil and still retain a tiny bit of dignity and self esteem.....

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Sunday, March 09, 2008

"The Sardine Run (Tokyo-1991)"

The Tokyo train system is a fantastic system, and it's constantly being improved upon. Nevertheless, moving 30,000,000 people about, leads to some crowding on some lines at some times..... This video was taken in 1991, but when a train is really packed, the situation is the same today.

So, to my Japanese friends, please believe me when I say that I have nothing but the greatest respect for for the Tokyo Train system. I think it's the best in the world. The reason I'm posting this, is that when I say to my foreign friends that I'm tired from the trains, and that the morning trains are so crowded... I don't think they believe me! So I want to show them what I'm talking about!

The video is of the Seibu Ikebukuro Line, which has implemented some track and train improvements since the video was taken. The system in fact, has never stopped growing for about six decades now. It just grows and grows! Still, I am nearly always (to one degree or another) basically in the same position today as the commuters in the 1991 video.

Well - here it is:

Let me know how that seems to you and how it compares to your own city's train system.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Friday, March 07, 2008

"Closer to the Process"

Part of what it takes to run an efficient train system is the constant replacement of older trains with newer ones. All well and good, but there are some drawbacks to the newest class of railway car - chief among them being less ventilation than the older ones (they've done away with the roof vents in the newest ones), and then there are things like motor noise....

A quieter train should be a good thing, but quieter is only good if you can relax. When you're packed in as a vertical sardine with a few hundred other sardines in the same train car, then distractions like wind noise and motor noise can be quite welcome as a distraction and indication of speed.

And... something else. The old type trains are manually run, with a throttle lever and a brake lever. The train is taken up to speed with the throttle, and then the throttle is cut back to zero and the train just coasts for a while, until it's lost enough speed that the throttle is thrown back on to get the speed back up. For braking, there's motor braking where the motors are basically turned into generators and some power is pumped back into the lines, and then the regular brakes are used towards the end of the stop.

I bring this up, because I go out to Mitaka from time to time on the Chuo Line and they've been phasing out the 1982 trains over the past year, to the point where there are only a few of the old trains left and soon those will be gone. Last week, I got on one of the old ones, and since it was running just about ten minutes in front of an express, the operator was racing between stations as fast as the train would go so as not to hold up the express (which passes the slower train at Mitaka). I was standing looking out a door window, listening to my MP3 player (Creative), and I could perceive how the operator was running the machinery (motor noise heard over the voice recording I was listening to). They got full on the throttle right out of each station, and left the throttle on full until the train was up to near its maximum speed (about 100km/h I think), at which time they cut the throttle and let the train coast for just ten seconds or so before starting fairly heavy braking for the next station.

So - big deal I guess... but there really is something to be said for sensing the speed of the train through the motor noise, wind leaking through the rattly windows a little, the sound of the metal doors rattling back and forth in their old worn tracks, etc. The more isolated we are from understanding how machinery works, the more numb & ignorant we become. Or not? I hope not.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

"1991 Tokyo - Expensive Umbrellas & Long Hair"

In the day-to-day chain of living one day to the next, the world changing is not often striking, and so it has been with a bit of a shock that I've started watching my old videos taken in 1991. I didn't realize just how much things have changed since that time. It's not in the details so much as the feeling between the frames, but the details are connected in an obvious way, so that's what I'll focus on until I can come up with some sort of (hopefully) coherent bit of text that will at least hint at what it felt like to be walking the streets of Tokyo in 1991.

Why focus on 1991? Because I have about 200 hours of video from 1991! At the time, I nearly always carried a video camera with me wherever I went, and I had the thing fired up most of the time, taking a stream of pictures every minute or so. (I always carried several batteries, an extra two-hour tape, and in heavy usage from 1990 to 1992, I burned out four cameras.)

So - on to a few obvious detail differences in 1991:

- Many young women had long straight hair that reached halfway down their backs. This was most common among single women in their early twenties, but some high school girls also had it. Now it's practically unheard of.

- Y100 clear plastic umbrellas had yet to make an appearance, so umbrellas were more varied and more interesting when any crowd opened up a sea of them.

- It was right around this time that schoolgirl uniforms first began appearing as mini-skirts, but it was still unusual. In fact, this is something that was shocking at the time! You got used to school uniforms for girls always being long, and so the first time you saw a group of schoolgirls in mini-skirt uniforms, it seemed sort of... I hesitate to use the word, but it fits the feeling at the time: outrageous & almost shocking. (Not that I was distressed by the sight...).

- The vast majority of the ticket gates were still not automated, so you gave your ticket to an actual living human being. From this point forward though, they steadily installed automated ticket gates and now there are hardly any stations anywhere without the machines.

And a comment specifically for this video clip:

This was taken in the Oku-tama area of Tokyo, up near the mountains. It may not look like Tokyo, but it is. Probably by design, the western part of Tokyo reaches into the mountains, making it easier to lay claim to part of the watershed there.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Sunday, March 02, 2008

"1991 Tokyo - Hibarigaoka Rain (July 1991)"

1991 - It was just before video camera manufacturers came out with stabilization technology, so there is some camera shake at telephoto lengths, but I tried to hold the camera steady and it's fairly stable at wider angles at least. I just figured out today how to pull a small bit out of a two-hour digital transfer from 8mm analog tape, so it's more haphazard than anything, but the rain seemed sort of interesting (to me anyway), so I grabbed that as a test. I'll try to find more interesting bits for the next video post....

The out-of-sight opening on the right of the frame that people are running to, is the side entrance to Hibarigaoka Station on the Ikebukuro Line in Tokyo.

The short clip is here:

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon