Penguin Stolen from Ueno Zook u n o k u m o
Life in Tokyo is choreographed to the point of madness. This is barely an exaggeration, especially in all kinds of public transport and traffic nodes. Not only trains are never late (at least if there are no typhoons, earthquakes or suicides), but also people move around in a set of invisible rules that most first-time foreigners find hard to observe and end up breaking in every possible way. However, even these situations seem to be included in the built-in code of manners of every Tokyoite. No one will ever tell you if you stay on the wrong side of the escalator even if people behind you are terribly late - as if they deliberately wait for you to get embarrassed when you find it out yourself.
I became aware that people actually queue to get into specific doors of the train on my third day of commuting to university. During my first rush hour return from Tokyo I noticed that even though the platform was crowded, all people formed neat double lines behind small signs on the pavement marking where the doors will open. When the train arrived, these double queues nearly split before the doors to let the people out. There's also a certain distance to keep - otheswise the person who stays before you gets nervous, glances back and moves further away from you. Then there are all kinds of behavior demands inside of the train: placing bulky bags on the overhead shelf, waiting a "respectful" moment before occupying a free seat (as if offering to sacrifice it to anybody else interested), then always choosing the seat furthest away from other people (so that nobody feels awkward), never eating and neeeveeer ever talking on the phone. Never. Nobody will tell you to stop, but they will be sure to give an accusing glance in your direction since their peaceful meditative commuting seems to be in danger.
It was stressful at the beginning but when I got used to it - my journeys became flawless. All these rules actually help you relax and ignore other people completely. When everyone follows the same principles, all the movements around you become highly predictable and you can immerse into your reading/writing/sleeping as deep as you please. People sometimes even work on their laptops in the trains.
But the most relaxing thing is - nobody steals! I've heard stories about people forgetting their cellphones and cameras on the trains only to find them at the Japan Railways lost&found office a few hours later. You can imagine that after living in Moscow and Milan for a while I became pretty used to controlling my stuff every second I'm in public but now oh! I'm dashing around happily with my backpack and my pockets open and leave my laptop (as well as tons of other belongings) at my desk in the university for the night. Totally carefree.
So far I know only one person who had something stolen from him in the past. He told me that several years ago his bicycle disappeared when he left it before his school... unlocked. Yet the guy was very shocked since he always left it unlocked before! Unbelievable. In Milan my awful crappy bike was stolen with two heavy motorcycle chain locks on it. God bless Japan!
I presume that all this is possible due to the collective nature of Japanese society. From early childhood all educational facilities here would focus on cultivating your collective consciousness and neglect your occasional strives towards any overly individual expression. It doesn't matter if you are too bright or too slow, differing from the others too much will likely get you bullied. That's why most of the local Western immigrants prefer sending their children to private international schools, which by the way are crazily expensive.
Since overall social environment in Japan is quite homogeneous and predictable, barely any crime is possible. There's also a strong culture of "public shame" and "family disgrace" so that makes any moral misbehave even more fatal. People joke about the policemen being so bored with absence of serious crimes, that they engage in such unproductive activities as placing paper warnings onto irregularly parked bicycles. Yes, most of the bicycles are registered and yes, there are paid bike parkings near every metro and railway station, but usually there're no consequences if you don't pay the fee or park in a wrong place. A bored policemen will just put a small sticker saying that next time you are invited to do it better.
Last week one (and the only) foreign professor from my department in Gedai was reflecting upon the topic of this apparent safety, saying that it's almost impossible to get yourself killed in Japan. Yet if you somehow manage to do so - you will get killed in the most original and elaborate way ever possible. And he told us this story.
Last December he was enjoying a morning coffee in his quiet residential neighbourhood while an extraordinary scene was happening just around the corner. In a notorious and wealthy Tomioka Hachimangu shrine a family conflict was escalating for years since the position of head-priest was given to the younger capable daughter instead of a good-for-nothing first son, who predictably developed a huge grudge against his sister. So after a decade of sending her threatening letters, he finally took two antique katana swords from the shrine treasury, gave one to his wife and together they ambushed the head-priestess and her driver, who just happened to be in the way and barely managed to escape. When the head-priestess was stabbed in the chest and died, her brother moved to another part of the shrine grounds where he first killed his wife and then committed harakiri. Needless to mention, all corpses were found in traditional priest clothing. Yeah, I couldn't believe it at first, too, so here's the proof link: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-42275875
This fantastic murder was, of course, an outrageous event for the safest megapolis on Earth, but it was as choreographed and controlled as behaviour in local public transport or tea ceremonies. The guy followed the strict code of personal revenge taken directly from Japanese samurai legends, using precisely the same style and weapons.
However, Japan is known to be the country of contrasts. While certain things function flawlessly, there are always very, very, veeeery idiotic exceptions as if to challenge logics of the entire system. I believe they happen to keep some balance and liveliness to such overly predictable everyday life. Here's the second story:
We were having lunch with some of my group mates when I asked if we could use our university id cards to get discounts at different Ueno park museums. One bachelor student told me it's possible in every place except from Ueno Zoo for a very specific reason. It turned out that until some years ago Geidai students could visit the zoo free of charge to draw and admire the animals, until one guy from Fine Arts department got drunk, climbed over a protective fence and stole a penguin. "Stole a penguin?" - I made sure I heard it right. Yes, he stole a penguin, brought it to the main Fine Arts building, let it run around the corridors for a bit and then put it into a freezer. "A freezer?" - I was sure I heard it right but that just stopped making any sense. Yes, he closed it in a freezer in one of the studio rooms in order to eat it later. "You gotta be kidding me" - I wasn't sure if it was an example of Japanese dark humour or a real story. Well, the part about eating is an unconfirmed rumour but the penguin was seriously injured for sure. The student got arrested and expelled from university, and the Ueno zoo administration was so pissed that they made all Geidai students pay the full fee since then.
In any case, all these weird stories are so rare that people talk about them for decades on. Usually, nothing much happens and I even started loosing my motivation to learn martial arts that I had developed before coming here. Back then I actually had no idea about general safety conditions in Japan. Popular culture tends to portray Tokyo in a different light with all this yakuza, adult industry and deceit stuff. I was extremely preoccupied when I found my dorm on Google maps and looked over some desolated rural street views around the station, but when I arrived the real experience was completely reassuring - normal middle-class people everywhere, small children coming back from school even late in the evening, cute backyards and densely occupied land.
But nowhere is perfect! Even if serious crimes never happen, petty crimes are becoming a very common thing here. My female course mates warned me about frequent sexual harassments in the trains or Ueno park that is very poorly lit at night. Well, usually you listen to these things like "Okay, this will probably never happen to me, but I'll keep that in mind". And guess what, last Sunday night I decided to walk from a station a bit further away from my dorm (I missed the last train at the transfer but people from the dorm often take this road at night) and got into a fairly creepy situation. While I was walking an empty street somewhere between scary-looking social apartment buildings and warehouses that I never saw before, a young male takes me over in a bicycle, gets off, starts walking beside me and asks something in Japanese. After hearing my ''eigo de hanashite kudasai" he repeated in English: "Do you want to play with me?"
And there I was, honestly thinking that the guy, who actually looked completely decent, needed some road directions... I responded with several "no, please leave me alone" and even remembered "yamete kudasai" from all the animes I watched but he wouldn't listen. "You look very fit", he continued, "you should come with me tonight!". By the way, I was wearing an amorphous oversized raincoat finishing somewhere around my ankles, male sneakers, not a trace of makeup and hadn't washed my hair for two days. The guy definitely had a twisted taste and was very persistent. He didn't stop following me for a while so I finally freaked out and phoned one of my close friends, put the call on speaker mode and started talking in excessively loud angry Russian. Surprisingly, that was enough to make him climb back on the bicycle and quickly disappear in the next traffic light turn.
Well, I learned my lesson and from now on I will take the idea about martial arts more seriously. Actually, today was my second kendo (Japanese sword fight) training class and I'm giving it my all! It's amazing to have free university sport clubs so tomorrow I'll also try karate and tell you how it goes next time. Moreover, I'll go to my first baito (jap. for "part-time job") on Thursday where I shall teach English to six housewives from my suburban neighbourhood while cooking local food together. Sounds more surreal than killing a head-priest with a katana sword, I know. It's Japan after all!