Tuesday, July 21, 2009

"Chaos to Order to Chaos to...?"

When I arrived in Japan in the summer of 1984, the orderly lining up for trains in neat rows of three seemed right enough that I never even thought about it. On the other hand, I wondered why there were separate lines for each ATM machine at the bank, each order window at fast-food restaurants, and a near free-for-all for public phones (although there were sort of separate lines for each phone in some cases). On escalators, people rapidly stood on both sides of each step, making any walking progress impossible.

Then many things got better. Single lines were set up at banks and fast-food restaurants, and people began standing on the left on escalators, allowing passing on the right (same as the roads in Japan, although I've heard the left-right orientation (on escalators) is opposite in Osaka, possible due to the 1970 Expo there...).

And now... the one thing that was most orderly back in 1984 - lining up for trains - is beginning to fall apart. A few years ago, I began seeing people lining up in twos instead of threes, and while I could appreciate the concept of two lines evenly splitting when the train arrives, it's a bad idea when it's crowded (not at all a rare occurrence in Tokyo!), as people quickly end up lining up all the way across the platform, making it difficult (or nearly impossible, or impossible) to walk along the platform, and forcing people to mill about between the lines once there is no more room to line up. At Shinjuku Station, the platform workers used to work at getting people to line up in threes, and I heard some announcements asking people to line up threes, but now it's gotten to the point where it seems like most people are lining up in twos as though it were their religion - "Thou shalt line up in twos and disrupt the platform!".

Just as I was getting (grudgingly) getting used to everyone lining up only in twos, I began seeing (on one branch line), some people forming a single line! Now, if you're getting on an airplane or a reserved seat train, this is what you should do, but the logistics of transporting vast numbers of people in Tokyo screamingly does not allow for single lines for the cattle cars! When I saw some people doing that, I began to wonder "What are they doing? Daring people to walk around them? Something has to give here..."

And... that something appears to be the new popular rage in Tokyo - line breaking! Now, however people are lining up (in twos or threes), I'm seeing people blasting past everyone and just going straight for the door. In some situations, this is almost understandable. For example, at Shinjuku Station in the morning, each and every 11-car train (arriving & departing every two or three minutes) is full. Some are smash-'em-in sardine can style full, and a lot of people don't even try to get on, but form a line waiting for the next train. So, if you get to the platform after the lined up people who were boarding get on, there is often a ten to fifteen second window of opportunity to get on the train. In this case, you cruise past the people lined up (who are not even attempting to get on the train), and jump (or push) aboard.

So you've got this situation of people lining up for trains incorrectly (for conditions) in the first place, combined with situations where it's actually okay to walk past the line, and there are beginning to be a number of people who seem to think that they have a right to just blast in front of everyone all the time, whenever they see a door open. Having this happen repeatedly, people are getting more blood-thirsty about getting on and off the trains.

Bringing everything full-circle, I was talking with a from-birth local who told me that when they were a child (about 45 years ago), people didn't line up for trains and it was just a free-for-all when boarding. Hearing that, and looking at the current state of things, I would say Japan is just a few steps away from coming full circle with the trains, and getting back to free-for-all boarding. Not a happy development, but at least bank and restaurant lines are still orderly....

As for when things were still orderly, have a look at this July 1991 video, "Hibarigaoka to Gotanda - July 1991" (which doesn't show things in the rush, but still):

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

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