Sunday, May 31, 2009

"Train Culture vs. Car Culture"

I've had the concept of "car culture" in mind for decades now, but life without cars is generally referred to under the category of "public transportation". But there's a culture to city rail travel as well (and you don't hear the term "private transportation" so much for ordinary car ownership, come to think of it - or do you? Is that a popular term?). I've been living in train culture, feeling the situation and ambiance of it, but it was only yesterday, while viewing video footage I took in 1991 (including a lot of train views and sounds), that the concept jelled and I realized that the term "train culture" really ought to be in common use, just as "car culture" is.

The intricacies of this are hard to pin down, but the main factor is having a city (Tokyo in this case) functioning with virtually no one really needing cars, so a lot of people don't own a car, and a number of fundamental things are different than they are for those living in car culture cities:

Young job-seekers are not asked if they have a car on application forms - it's understood that they will be commuting to work via train, and employers pay the train fee (which might be a law here - I'm not sure). In fact, if an employee were stupid enough to try driving to work, the company would forbid them from using the company parking lot (which only has a limited number of spaces for deliveries, taxis, and executive management - if it has any parking at all). Not only would they not be able to park at the company, it would be illegal to just park their car on a nearby street, so they would have to spend something like Y50,000 a month on a parking space possibly a twenty minute walk from the company. And - to top all of that off, it would take them from three to five times as long to get to work as it takes to get there by train (for those living in the 'burbs that is, it wouldn't be as bad if they lived fairly near the company). (No one pressing up against you in a car, but hours in a traffic jam every morning is no picnic either.) Since coming to work by car would be abnormal and anti-social behavior, being late due to traffic would not be considered a legitimate excuse. Someone committing suicide on your line is a perfectly acceptable excuse however, and carries the benefit of being verifiable and shared by thousands (misery loves company...).

High school couples who meet for a date are not concerned with what kind of car each other has (since neither of them has one), so they don't waste money and time on fire-breathing machinery acquisition & maintenance. Rich kids can't drive to the date in a BMW, and poor kids have nothing to feel ashamed about in the form of driving a piece of junk. It's a more level playing field. (Granted, people find other ways to vertically position people, but that's beyond the scope of this particular page of text.)

Car-owning high school students are not forced to work late at night at restaurant jobs to pay for gas and car parts for their old clunkers.

When you meet people, parking is not an issue, since everyone comes by train.

If you buy something, you have to carry it home (or have it trucked), so shopping becomes a logistical issue of how much you can carry (this is one of the things I most miss about cars - not being able to toss things in the trunk!). Second to how much you can carry, is the issue of what time you plan to carry it home on the trains. If you have an armload of boxes, the last express for the day, leaving at 12:10 a.m. is going to be a problem. When you have to force just yourself onto a train, having things with you can be tricky. You have to hold them over your head and then toss them onto a rack in the train. That may not sound very difficult, but there is no guarantee that you can get anywhere near a rack, and even if you can, it might already be jam-packed full.

When cars are vandalized in your apartment building parking lot (which only has enough [expensive, by the way] spaces for about 20% of the apartments, and still there are some vacant slots), you of course are irritated by the concept of some idiot going out and damaging other people's property for no good reason, but not owning a car, you are immune to car vandalism (bicycles are another issue, but the financial exposure is much less).

When - and this is peculiar to Japan I think - the entire train system completely shuts down every night between 12:00 - 1:00 a.m. (depending on the line and the station on the line), not to start up again until around 5:00 a.m., the looming deadline of "last train" is a wonderful way to escape either overtime going on endlessly, or situations and/or people that you've had enough of. You can even adjust the time somewhat by claiming distant connections that require leaving by 10:30 p.m., etc. Going the other way, a couple that want to spend more time together can conveniently miss their last trains, thereby gaining an extra five hours together before the train system comes back to life in the morning. (Taxis are not a - cost wise - realistic option if you live outside the central area.)

Etc. etc. That's all that is coming to mind right now, but in any case, suffice it to say that going everywhere by train is a fairly radically different way of living than going everywhere by personal car.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Sunday, May 24, 2009

"Hibarigaoka to Ikebukuro - March 1991"

The following is an explanation (director's comments I guess you could say) about my video: "From Hibarigaoka to Ikebukuro via Seibu-Ikebukuro Line - March 1991"

The following times are taken from an internal video player application playing the source file, and not from the YouTube posting, but presumably the counts are identical:

00:00 - Narrow lane leading to the north entrance of Hibarigaoka Station.

00:03 - After crossing over the tracks, a left turn leads to the main entrance to the station and the bus stops, with a Seiyu department store on the right. (In Japanese-English, the word "department" only refers to upscale department stores, so locally, the Seiyu didn't qualify as a "department" store. I've had arguments about this in the past here, telling people that I understand their position in Japanese but in English, it was certainly a department store.) Notice the McDonald's on the right. It was inside a building that (I was told at the time) used to be a grocery store. Soon after this video was taken, they tore down all the buildings on the right and put up a large combination apartment building / Parco department store (with McDonald's and KFC on the ground floor). Now everything in this view is in Nishi-Tokyo-shi, but at the time, the right and left were Hoya-shi and the middle section Tanashi-shi (shi = city).

00:05 - The station building was rebuilt, so the area on the left has changed, and the empty sky straight ahead and to the right is now occupied by a huge apartment high-rise building ("mansion" in Japanese-English).

00:10 - Taking video inside an ATM box - I wouldn't do that now, but the world was less obsessed with security in 1991.

00:27 - Inside Hibarigaoka Station. This is completely different now. Comparing how it looks now with this video, this scene looks really old. At the time, I never thought the station was modern, but it didn't strike me as being profoundly old either. I look at that picture now and have a hard time bringing up a memory of it as something from the present day.

00:28 - Stairs... these have been replaced with escalators. Sometimes I hate escalators at stations, because they narrow the available space for going up and down and create bottlenecks that can make you miss a tight transfer.

00:41 - The live announcement - made by the conductor. They now have recorded announcements that are generally irritating to listen to - especially the one-third speed, overly pronounced & overly intonated English. I really wish they'd drop the English announcements (a station name is a station name, non-Japanese speakers don't need to hear "The next station is..."), and go back to having a real live human being make the announcements. Even when the announcement isn't irritating (which it usually is), hearing *exactly* the same recording over and over and over is really... inhumane.

00:55 - Two things - the announcement going on and on for a bit. Okay - after my rant above, I can see where this would confuse a tourist, but all he's doing is rattling off the many stations that the train (an express) will not be stopping at, and telling people they will need to transfer to a local train at the next station if they are headed to those stations. A tourist might mistakenly go to the end of the line, but so what? They can get a train going back the other direction and have an interesting tale to tell of getting lost on the train system when they get back to their home country. Most importantly, 99.99% of the passengers, who use the train all the time, don't have to have their ears assaulted with inane and endlessly repeating recordings.

The other thing is the farmland. Until quite recently (and even now somewhat), there have been small plots of land being used as farmland just outside the central area of Tokyo.

01:07 - Billboards. In 1991, these were full of advertisements. When I revisited this area a few years ago, most of the billboards were blank.

01:19 - The noise of going over merging rails. The old trains didn't have any kind of insulation at all, I don't think. The new ones must have, as they're quite a bit less noisy. With the old trains, you could hear (and feel - via leaky window frames) everything (which is not necessarily a bad thing - you feel more like you're on a train journey and less like you're locked into a suffocating box awaiting your return to freedom when the stuffy box finally gets to your station).

01:30 - More billboards. These were looking very forlorn a few years ago when I saw them with no advertisements on them. And then the view inside. This was taken in the late afternoon, heading into central Tokyo. It should go without saying, but obviously (most) lines are not crowded all the time, and it's possible to sit down if you're outside the office-drone routine. This is the very same line that the "Actually Full Train in 1991" video was taken of. This very same train car in the morning (or one just like it) was a sardine holder containing something like 300 people-as-sardines (x10 for a ten car train).

01:32 - A new apartment building. This is a fairly common design, although new apartment buildings being put up in 2009 are usually sleeker looking.

01:40 - Looking over new elevated track construction from the one small bit of elevated track at the time. The Seibu-Ikebukuro Line was very slow to implement new track construction, which is one reason the morning trains were so vastly overcrowded at the time.

01:52 - Passing through a local station and past small shops near the station. For the feel of the train, it was more interesting when it ran on the ground. This part is elevated now and it cuts the train off from the area it passes through. (That is by no means a call to run them on the ground though. Putting them overhead separates them from traffic and is safer, faster, etc., not to mention the view is better if the buildings are right up against the railway.)

02:01 - The Seibu-Toshima Line merging with the Seibu-Ikebukuro Line. All of this is elevated now.

02:25 - Early construction on what was to become the new (large), Nerima Station... I think. Certainly the current Nerima Station is huge compared to before, but this might have been construction a little further down the line - as a whole section of the railway was elevated. (Sorry for the imprecision here, but the camera I was using at the time didn't have time code and I took this footage 18 years ago.)

02:37 - Passing over a fairly rare freight train and, in the background on the left, the new Tobu Department Store under construction. It was a bit of a big deal at the time, as the new construction was to give Tobu Department Store more floor space than its rival on the other side of the station, Seibu Department Store.

02:39 - Wooden ties - rare even in 1991, in Tokyo they are nonexistent on anything except defunct sidings (as this picture is of), although (I think) they still exist out in the countryside on some branch lines.

02:43 - The old three-door Seibu-Ikebukuro Line trains. These have been almost completely replaced with newer four-door (per side) train cars (carriages). It should be noted that one cause of the loading problem in the "Actually Full Train in 1991" is that there were only three doors. The more doors you have per side, the easier loading is. On the Yamanote Line they have a few cars with six doors per side and seats that are folded up in the morning, making for speedy unloading, loading, and maximum carrying capacity. (The advantage to three-door trains of course being that more people can sit down per train car.)

03:34 - Manual ticket gate. One advantage to a manual ticket gate, is that if you've got too small of a ticket (in value that is), you can pay the extra bit right at the ticket gate. With the machines, you get an error and have to walk over to an Add-Fare machine. Incidentally, in contrast to what some illegally posted copies of my "Actually Full Train in 1991" video say, this man is *not* a police officer! This the uniform of the Seibu Railway employees at the time. (I think they've changed the style a little since then, but I'm not sure - I don't use this line very often any more.)

03:41 - Out into the big city. Hibarigaoka is also in Tokyo, but in one of its suburbs. Things are a bit busier around the Yamanote Line hub stations - like Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Ueno, Shibuya, Shinagawa, Tokyo, etc.

Phew! It's always a bit surprising/irritating to realize how long it takes to explain what's in a video! Especially when it concerns scenes lasting all of two or three seconds. Look at all that text above! But if the calculation of "a picture is worth a thousand words" is taken into account, then a 4:46 video would come to 8,580,000 words (286 seconds x 30-pictures per second = 8,580 pictures x 1,000), so I guess this isn't so long after all? There's the overlap of many pictures being similar, but on the other hand, there's the sound, which would require another large block of text to properly explain. So much information in a video....

Ah! One last comment! It seems to be standard practice to put in fake sound effects for any "documentary" footage of anything, taken at any time if the real sounds are not recorded, or are unpleasing. I really abhor this dishonest practice! In fiction, why not, but for documentary footage, it amounts to bad virus code going into people's minds regarding how things sound, since more often than not, the sounds are inaccurate. This has come home to me when watching these videos, as not only the sights of Tokyo have changed, but so have the sounds! Okay. Mini-rant over.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

"'It's Like Disneyland!'"

On Friday, I met some friends in Yurakucho, and after socializing for a bit, we got to talking about old buildings in Tokyo, and how it was a shame there are so few of them. From there, I mentioned an interesting one I know of in Ginza, and it was decided that four of us would walk over to it, with me leading the way.

As we neared the building, I explained a bit about its history, and when we arrived in front of the building, I stopped everyone and pointed out some of the architectural details. (I'm not exactly an expert on Tokyo, but this particular building I've spent some time studying - via direct observation, talking to people who know its history, and reading about it, so I was the most knowledgeable one regarding the building in the group.)

With my pre-arrival tour guide functions fulfilled, I marched across the street, and held the door open for the other three. I introduced the elevator with its manually operated doors, and we went up into the building. As we walked down one of the old hallways, a woman in the group was visibly excited by the building, and looked at me with eyes sparkling and said "It's Like Disneyland!".

I was a bit taken aback, but as I looked into those sparkling eyes, I realized that she wasn't kidding - she really meant that it reminded her of Disneyland (quick note here - Tokyo Disneyland has been phenomenally successful ever since it opened in the early 1980's, and it's rare to find a Tokyo resident who hasn't been there at least once). During the tour of the building, she repeated that "It's like Disneyland!" phrase (well, actually, the Japanese equivalent: ディズニーランド見たい! [Dizunirando mitai!]) a few times, further burning that image into my brain, so I've been thinking of how that can be - how can an old, but honest building produce a strong feeling of being like Disneyland?

The answer is depressingly simple. Tokyo has had almost everything old in the city so successfully destroyed (intentionally; via earthquake; via external-origin bombs in WW-II; and then intentionally again), that the closest "exposure" (if you can call it that) someone in their twenties (or even thirties) has had to that middle ground between pre-technology eras and full-blown modern technological society, is the fake world built at Disneyland.

And that, I think very strongly underlines the importance of having at least some functioning old buildings preserved in a city. You walk into them and they positively radiate with the history of their existence. You can't get that with recreations and theme parks, no matter how well they are designed.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Sunday, May 17, 2009

"Botchan - How Many Translations Are There?"

I was looking around on-line for the original Japanese text to Natsume Soseki's Botchan, when I came upon yet another translations of the book into English. About twenty years ago, I read two different English-language translations, one by a Japanese person and other by a foreigner, possibly American. I remember that, at the time, I thought the Japanese translation was the better of the two, as it retained more of the book's original ambiance, and the one done by a foreigner had been over-translated into an English-culture story, which it isn't. (Generally, it's a pretty good rule of thumb that a translation should be done by someone who is native to the target language, but in this case, it seemed to be the other way around.)

The new (compared to twenty years ago anyway, I think it came out a few years ago) translation seems to be fairly good (based on the first section of the book that I read), but I think it's not really possible to do the book real justice in any other language than the original Japanese. Translations change things, and the ambiance of the translated version is never quite the same as the original. The original (I think) translation by Yasotaro Morri (1919) explains this difficulty well in a forward to the book (just the first two paragraphs of the longer forward here):

A Note by the Translator
No translation can expect to equal, much less to excel, the original. The excellence of a translation can only be judged by noting how far it has succeeded in reproducing the original tone, colors, style, the delicacy of sentiment, the force of inert strength, the peculiar expressions native to the language with which the original is written, or whatever is its marked characteristic. The ablest can do no more, and to want more than this will be demanding something impossible. Strictly speaking, the only way one can derive full benefit or enjoyment from a foreign work is to read the original, for any intelligence at second-hand never gives the kind of satisfaction which is possible only through the direct touch with the original. Even in the best translated work is probably wanted the subtle vitality natural to the original language, for it defies an attempt, however elaborate, to transmit all there is in the original. Correctness of diction may be there, but spontaneity is gone; it cannot be helped.
The task of the translator becomes doubly hazardous in case of translating a European language into Japanese, or vice versa. Between any of the European languages and Japanese there is no visible kinship in word-form, significance, grammatical system, rhetorical arrangements. It may be said that the inspiration of the two languages is totally different. A want of similarity of customs, habits, traditions, national sentiments and traits makes the work of translation all the more difficult. A novel written in Japanese which had attained national popularity might, when rendered into English, lose its captivating vividness, alluring interest and lasting appeal to the reader.

That people keep re-translating and republishing new versions of the book in English is testament to people's belief that they can do a better job translating it, but if they believe they can accurately convey the story completely intact into English, they are deluding themselves. Having read all of the books I'm referring to, including the Japanese original (with the caveat that I've only read the opening pages of the third English translation), I think I have a right to my opinions on this. I'm not complaining that it's been translated again - as it's a pretty cool book and I'm glad interest in it continues, but I can't help but shake my head a little at the fact that there are at least three J-E translations of it now. I wonder if it's becoming something like a musical score from Mozart that is reinterpreted by one group of musicians after another. In time, will there be a dozen versions of Botchan?

Just in case it's interesting, here is the fist paragraph of the book in the original Japanese, followed by the 1919 English translation.

親譲りの無鉄砲で小供の時から損ばかりしている。小学校に居る時分学校の二階から飛び降りて一週間ほど腰を抜かした事がある。なぜそんな無闇をしたと聞く人があるかも知れぬ。別段深い理由でもない。新築の二階から首を出していたら、同級生の一人が冗談に、いくら威張っても、そこから飛び降りる事は出来まい。弱虫やーい。と囃したからである。小使に負ぶさって帰って来た時, おやじが大きな眼をして二階ぐらいから飛び降りて腰を抜かす奴があるかと云ったから、この次は抜かさずに飛んで見せますと答えた。

Because of an hereditary recklessness, I have been playing always a losing game since my childhood. During my grammar school days, I was once laid up for about a week by jumping from the second story of the school building. Some may ask why I committed such a rash act. There was no particular reason for doing such a thing except I happened to be looking out into the yard from the second floor of the newly-built school house, when one of my classmates, joking, shouted at me; "Say, you big bluff, I'll bet you can't jump down from there! O, you chicken-heart, ha, ha!" So I jumped down. The janitor of the school had to carry me home on his back, and when my father saw me, he yelled derisively, "What a fellow you are to go and get your bones dislocated by jumping only from a second story!" - "I'll see I don't get dislocated next time," I answered.

Sore dewa, mata!

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"Ginza & Yurakucho"

Ginza is historically Tokyo's most well-known area (these days, I'm not so sure - it might even be Shibuya, Roppongi, or Shinjuku), and Yurakucho is way down the list, but the two are side-by-side and for the many people who visit Ginza via Yurakucho Station (JR surface train station), they have to walk through a section of Yurakucho in order to get to Ginza. Yurakucho has long been famous for cheap drinking places, and that's still partly true, although they had to demolish a wide stretch of them when they built the first Shinkansen super express from Tokyo to Osaka (completed in 1964), and the section between Yurakucho Station and Ginza has been mostly rebuilt with shiny glass & steel fashionable buildings that make the section fundamentally an extension of Ginza.

In this video (above), I begin by boarding a Yamanote Line train and riding the loop line over to Yurakucho Station, and then walking through the rebuilt part of Yurakucho and into Ginza. In Ginza (the edge of Ginza), I visit one of the oldest buildings in Ginza (the Okuno Building) to visit some art galleries, and then go over to the fashionable part of Ginza, followed by a visit to the part of Yurakucho that still has cheap drinking places - many with tables and stools that are set out on the street in front of the shops.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Thursday, May 07, 2009

"Dashboards & Platforms"

Always on a journey from Point-A to Point-B, it's easy to forget that a huge part of the total experience of life is in the transition between Point-A and Point-B. Sitting at stoplights back in car-culture California, I can still recall the details of the dashboards of the various cars I owned - and even recall sounds and smells somewhat. The time in motion was a feeling of freedom of motion, but stoplight time enabled contemplation of the immediate surroundings. I spent a lot of time behind the wheel, getting everywhere I went by car (until I moved to San Francisco, where I first experienced getting almost everywhere by public transportation).

Now I don't have a car, but even when I owned a car in Tokyo, I only drove it once a week or so (to keep the battery charged) and went on trips only once every month or two. Nevertheless, I still remember the details of that car (a 1984 Honda Prelude) in great detail.

All hum-drum stuff, but it just occurred to me recently that in the same way I used to be tuned into the sound of the engine, the location of various gauges (lots of attention focused on the tachometer), etc. now the time waiting on station platforms (the public transportation equivalent of waiting at stoplights) has me tuned into the conditions in train stations in general, such as which spot of the train is nearest to the stairs for the next transfer (when you have 30 seconds to make a connection, every second saved helps!), which passengers look like they should be avoided (it's always a gamble riding public transportation, but if you pay attention, certain things can be avoided), platform construction details (in spite of the law requiring that anything old in Tokyo be demolished and smashed into bits [sarcasm here folks], some small bits and pieces of the past have managed to somehow exist for [gasp!] several decades! And so close scrutiny of structures that have been modified 79 times sometimes reveals unmodified surviving bits), etc.

This video of the two Yamanote Line tracks at Shinjuku Station (among many other lines) is both uniquely Shinjuku and generic Tokyo train system. What's unique about Shinjuku Station? That's hard to pin down, and come to think of it, it might have more to do with knowing that Shinjuku Station handles the largest number of passengers in the country and knowing what's around the station as you get off... and maybe being tuned into the vibration of the place after coming to know it. So, maybe it doesn't seem unique if you blow through as a tourist, but it's definitely unique if you live here. As for the term generic, that's easy - look at the platforms, look at the roofs over the platforms, etc. - all standard JR Tokyo train system (the private lines often have their own feel).

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Sunday, May 03, 2009

"Maximizing Disposable Income in Yurakucho"

The vast size of Tokyo (and its connected/neighboring suburbs/regions) means that it is generally impossible to get off work, go home, and then go back out to meet friends. There is simply too much travel time involved and - as often as not - people live in opposing directions, so meeting people close to home doesn't work either.

And so people tend to go to izakaya drinking places that are around transfer stations and at a crossroads for all the people attending. This works out fairly well, but what if your hours have been cut (due to the bad economy) and you can't afford the typical (reasonable, but still not exactly cheap) cost of meeting friends this way?

One option, is to go to a "stand bar", which is a bar with no seats, so you stand - thus "stand bar". (That term probably doesn't make much sense in native-English speaking countries, but if you just consider it to be a distant cousin of English and a local noun, it works. Better still, just use Japanese, and then the English connection is easier to ignore: 有楽町スタンドバー)

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon