Observations on Urban Hecticism
Overseas friends often ask me what life is like here in central Tokyo, assuming it’s stressful and hectic, and are invariably surprised when I tell them how relaxed it in fact is.
For a city of 13 million people and whose extended area (“Greater Tokyo”) is the most heavily populated on the entire planet with over 35 million, Tokyo is an incredibly calm place. One would imagine it to be noisy, dirty, dangerous and stressful but remarkably it’s none of these things.
Certainly there always seem to be crowds of people wherever you go, but there’s no sense of aggression or tension within the crowd. Everyone respects others’ space, people rarely push (other than squeezing into trains) or jostle, and I hardly ever hear a shout.
Previously to Tokyo I lived in London, and the contrast between the two is staggering. I shall elaborate:
Trains in Tokyo (which run every few minutes) are quite often full to overflowing, even at 11:30 at night. Nevertheless they’re a calm, quiet place.
Nobody talks on their mobile phones; rather everyone politely sticks to emailing and text messaging in silent mode. This enables passengers who manage to find a seat to sleep soundly even during the most crowded of rush hours, their bags and other goods left unattended on the luggage racks in no danger of being stolen. Women stand without any concern, bags yawning open, purses and ipods and phones sitting in full view.
Thousands of people rammed together, squashed inside carriages calmly, respectfully and politely. It’s just so….so civilised.
In contrast I recall in London, commuters seemed to feel it was a basic human right to sit down on public transport and often complained if there were no seats available. Negativity and tension were palpable when large groups of people were crammed close together, and one would never risk losing sight of one’s bag or leave valuables visible.
Sitting in a London train or bus one was regularly forced to endure a constant cacophony of loud and intrusive ringtones and to listen to people jabbering banalities into their phone for the world to hear.
“hello? hello?…..yeah, it’s me…..sorry, what?…..oh, ok, right…..yeah, what happened…..I dunno…..is he going to be there?…..yeah, that’s what I said…..yeah, later tomorrow…..it’s next to the door…..no, no!…..she thought it was like Andrea’s…..ahhh, alright…..did you talk to Rod? What did he say?…..really? when?…..Tuesday’s no good…..yeah, but…..I told her already…..good, eh!…..yeah, yeah tell them both too…..hold on…..yeah, it’s here…..”
Unignorably, unwelcomely intrusive. And if one dared to politely ask the person to speak more quietly, would often cop a mouthful of abuse.
The feel of the street
In the UK, walking at night along dark urban streets is risky to say the least, whereas in Tokyo one can walk anywhere anytime with anything, and it doesn’t even enter one’s thinking to be cautious.
One often sees unoccupied cars and vans with doors wide open, engines running and valuable goods inside. At night old men walk alone carrying expensive photographic equipment and women wander down the narrow dark streets to get home.
Such things one wouldn’t see in the UK, despite the execrable profusion of CCTV cameras ostensibly there to offer “protection”. In Tokyo surveillance cameras aren’t common at all.
Drivers don’t honk their car horns in Tokyo. They don’t need to as they generally drive cautiously. They slow down and veer widely to avoid cyclists.
The high emission controls on vehicles also leave the air clean – rarely a lungful of noxious car exhaust here. In fact one often sees cars parked by the side of the road, drivers sleeping with the engine running to keep the heater on in winter or the air conditioning in summer. Roads are quiet and clean even when busy.
What’s yours is yours
As a cyclist in Tokyo, it’s generally unnecessary to lock one’s bike. If at all, people usually only use a flimsy lock.
Vandalism is essentially nonexistent here.
And perhaps the clearest example of the respect for others’ property in Japanese cities occurs in retail areas, where shops often display their goods on tables and shelves outside on the street with little or no staff supervision.
It’s a common sight, walking along busy shopping streets and passing tables and racks piled high with electronic goods or books or clothes or food products. If people want something they pick it up, carry it inside and pay.
The fact that this seems remarkable to me is quite a sad comment on my own culture.
I have to say it again: it’s just so civilised in Japan.
Swings and roundabouts
Don’t get me wrong – I love London and many other cities too for other reasons, but there can be little doubt that next to Tokyo they all fall short in the ways mentioned above. And these constitute much of everyday life.
In Tokyo I walk around with a wonderful sense of inner calm infusing all daily action, something I rarely recall feeling in any other big city anywhere else in the world that I’ve visited or in which I’ve lived.
It’s a nice feeling.