ANTS ON THE EASTBOUND TRAIN
“The ants go marching one by one
And they all go marching down, around,
and upside down.” -The Ant’s Marching Song
Confucius said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” I wish I could say the same about the quotidian pattern of commuting every single day in Tokyo. We hear so many dark, horror stories about how Tokyo trains and train stations not only look graphically like a pack of sardines, but also feel unsettlingly like a pack of sardines, smell offensively (in summer?) like a pack of sardines, and breathe forcefully like a pack of sardines! I prefer to call them though, buzzing, complaisant ant colonies—for there is most certainly a stiff-faced “leader” or “leaders” among them diligently guiding the commuter ants on what to do, where to go, and how to go, just like those loud, repetitive train station announcements that basically blast the same, monotonous monologue.
For more than a decade, my life was at “considerable peace” when I maintained an up-and-down freelance job. Although I worked for long hours, sometimes more hours than the average Japanese salary man, I conveniently set my own time and place, and could work at home or in a café, and take needed breaks whenever I wanted to. Simply put, I was my own “leader,” my own “follower,” my own “ant colony.” This time, I’m obligingly programmed to join the millions of crawling Tokyo train commuter ants to jump onto the train at 8:50 a.m. and again at 6:45 p.m. during the mind-blowing rush peak hours. Chaotic madness. Often, I think that I would start the day already breathlessly exasperated just by being inevitably subjected to the physical and mental confrontation with the swarming ant colonies, scurrying every corner of the escalators, staircases, platforms, going about their delegated duties, and unmindful of the other ant platoons around them. Bela Gulosi, the famous Dracula actor once said, “Like ants that are chained by monotony, afraid to think, clinging to certainties.”
Last March, the Fukutoshin line from Shibuya Station was extended to join the Toyoko line until Motomachi-Chukagai in Yokohama. This, of course, meant more scampering commuters herding into the stations and trains along this line. Unfortunately, I take this line everyday, and nonetheless, end up being so claustrophobically surrounded by station guards, maybe more than thirty of them, in just one train platform, lined up in front of the train doors like a battalion file, except without their M16 rifles, yelling profusely all at the same time, “This way to Ikebukuro…this way to Motomachi…take the escalator…take the stairs…watch your step…don’t cross the yellow line…fall in a single file…fall in double files…the doors are closing…the doors are opening…the train is coming…the train is leaving…this coach is for women only…be careful, be careful, be careful…” on and on like thousand crying chants in one minute! Really, do we intelligent humans need this entire hullabaloo early in the morning? To be engagingly spoon-fed by a constant overpour of directions, instructions, as though in fear that if one of the obedient ants go astray, the entire colony empire is to be blamed? Humans, after all, (should) function by instinct…or are we led to believe naively that Japanese are less sensitive to the natural order of things? Have we been unrightfully deprived of the human law to take responsibi-lity for our own actions?
The Japanese society functions with immeasurable ultra-efficiency because it has been groomed to depend relentlessly on a self-profiting system that hardly makes room for flexibi-lity, irregularity or failure. Once a single piece of domino chip drops out of the strictly defined file, the ground that supports it breaks into unmanageable rubble. The train ant colony is pretty much the same. Once some commuter ants step out of the “leaders’” commands, the colonies burst into madness. Observe how they look in the morning, and you will know what I mean. They are so flustered to chase desperately after a train whose doors are about to close, that they sadly overlook the one simple doctrine in life: WE HAVE A CHOICE. If you don’t want to be stressfully sandwiched flatter than a hot focaccia piece of bread, you have the choice to take the next train. If you don’t want to go up the escalator, you have the choice to take the staircase. Colony dictators are, after all, not perfect commanders; they are (supposedly) humans as well, and commit mistakes.
Yet, as I vainly stride along the cramped cues and crush off handedly with the impolite bumps and undesirable body contacts, do I not feel that every train passenger in the station has turned numb and passionless because the gravity of norms towers so heavily over any possible human logic? That is why I put a tiny grin on my face when I see all types of human struggles inside the trains: the frantic woman who MUST put on make-up while being squashed tactlessly by a curious elderly man looking over; the dignified 60-year old lady who throws sharp, stinging glances at a worldly teenager whose iPod sounds vibrate deafeningly from his ears; the overworked and underpaid salary man who murmurs humorously to himself like he was left in seventh heaven; the attractive Japanese girl who curls up on her gaijin (foreigner) boyfriend’s lap, while men and women are glancing suspiciously, yet carefully so as not to appear conspicuous. Every human soul has a story to tell inside the train, and he can freely express his world without being painfully barred by the harrowing notion that he is not “allowed” to do so because such a rule prevents him from being himself.
There could be freedom in the Japanese mind! But, for now, I glide obliviously along my own self-directed pace with the buzzing ant colonies, with my music earphones to my ears and my wishful thinking mind that such unnecessary madness lasts only until the exit gate…
Happy train hopping!