His Super Commuter Power is over one million!

The trains in Tokyo are crowded.  Can’t-move-your-arms-to-scratch-your-nose crowded.  Ride in Tokyo rush hour, and you have the exciting chance to be part of a can of spam, seasoned with business suits and briefcases.

It would seem sane to try to ride outside of the worst of peak hour.  Thanks to a flexible workplace policy, this is what I do.  However, many Japanese offices have rigid starting times.  If you are not in the door by 9am, heaven help you.  Additionally, working overtime is highly regarded, but getting to work early… not so much.  So of course, the rational thing to do would be to step foot in the office at the stroke of 9am.

Perhaps you can see where the problem lies: waves and waves of packed trains with people aiming to arrive at the same place at the same time.  So, how do you change those super-peaks of commuters into a more even distribution across time?


Everyone loves loyalty card schemes in Japan.  Lots of restaurants and shops will give you a stamp card  to get some kind of modest freebie down the track, and happily, they don’t seek to mine your personal information like some schemes I could name (or link to).

So, someone had An Idea.  People like points, they reasoned.  If we offered points for commuters moving their travel outside the normal peak hour, could we change commuter behaviour and alleviate the worst of it?

Enter the “East-West Line Waking-Up-Early Campaign”:

Just touch your commuter pass to the glowing hexagon to rack up points:

To give you an idea of the rewards, the best case has 10 weeks of consistently travelling before 7am netting you a $35 gift card:

Anticipated result: happiness (on a spiritual level, I’m assuming):

So, how did that go, then?

Not so well, at a guess.

The machines got taken away some time ago, never to be seen again.  By most accounts, peak hour is still unbearable as ever.

Nice try, behavioural economists, but it seems you’re going to have to work a little harder to manipulate the citizenry.  Still, why people need to be manipulated to avoid getting treated in a way that would make cattle stand up and complain is a mystery.


The great seat conspiracy

What is this?

I’ll tell you what this is.

This is a picture of an empty seat next to me on the train in peak hour.

This is a picture of rejection,  ostracization, segregation and isolation.

I don’t want to make it seem overly dramatic, though.

Speak to any number of foreigners in Japan. They’ll tell you about the time they were on a packed train, and a seat next to them became inexcusably vacant while hordes of commuters stood around, pretending the seat did not exist.  “Nobody would sit next to me!” they say.  “My very aura of my foreignness scared them off, I’m sure of it”.

Foreign aura?

I refused to believe them.

Until it happened to me tonight.

The scene: a peak hour Tokyo subway.  Me, commuting home with my Japanese study materials laid out on my lap, two people sitting either side of me.

The person to my left gets off the train.

Now, let me be clear.  Seats are a sacred thing on the cattle-have-it-better Tozai line.  A novice subway rider sees a newly empty seat near them and thinks, “I wonder if I should take that seat?  After all, I am slightly closer to…”. BOOM.  Seat’s gone.  Of all the people to lose to, you just lost your seat to a frail elderly person who could barely stand upright.  Way to lose, loser.

Competition is fierce.  Jungle law.  Black-suited, salaryman jungle law.

So when the hot-ticket seat beside me goes begging like that for three whole stations, questions must be asked.   An empty seat in peak hour is no less than the faux-velour scarlet letter of the outcast, the foreign.

I didn’t want to jump to conclusions.  I firstly assessed whether there was some kind of invisible goo on the seat, remembering my historical weakness at seeing invisible things.  I didn’t think it was that.  And if I might quote Sherlock Holmes: once you’ve eliminated the possible, jump to the most sinister, conspiratorial answer you can think of.

The Great Empty Seat Next To A Foreigner In Peak Hour Conspiracy: more to come.

I’ll work on the name.