After a long day of walking around Tokyo I often catch myself thinking, “Well, I guess today wasn't to be the day that I bump into her.” Is it really so ridiculous to think that I might? Sure, it may be a city of nearly twelve million, but the odds of meeting my ex-girlfriend on the train or passing her on the street can't really be that low, can they? By my calculations, it’s an even fifty-fifty: either I see her or I don't. At least that's how it feels.
To Pass By
Once while browsing at the library, I came across a book that began with a dentist and a patient chatting during a minor medical procedure. The patient, if memory serves, was a professor of Chinese history. So where ya from, asks the doctor? China. What Province? Szechuan. Ya know, the doctor chuckles, I only know one Chinese guy, a dentist from Szechuan. His name is X. D’ya happen to know him? Actually, says the astonished patient, that's my uncle!
The author’s point was not that it’s a small world after all, but rather, that docs and profs really only move within the smallest slices of a rather large world. Nor is this phenomenon limited to cosmopolitan elites. When I used to drift around New York City, I would often see folks in MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) uniforms, far from any train station or bus stop, greeting each other by first name: Hi Derrick. How’s it going there, Carroll? It’s true that for the MTA, city-streets behave as the office hallway, food trucks as the cafeteria, stations as cubicles; but still, shouldn’t these folks feel just the littlest surprise when running into each other inside this impossibly large office building? It would seem that city-space just operates differently for the transit authority than it does for those of us who merely pass through the city’s streets in transit. How it all works I can't presume to know.
Passing By in Tokyo
If chance encounters happen at all in Tokyo, they happen in the small slices; at the bike-shop, the record-store, a favorite watering hole. But for most of us, most of the time, Tokyo is a city of almost-encounters and near-misses, a city of shared space – shared not simultaneously, but by turns. It is a city defined by 'passing by.’
Everyday, 3.55 million passengers are sent round and round Tokyo in a dizzying twenty-one mile subway loop called the Yamanote Line. The entire New York City Subway System, by comparison, spreads its 5.5 million daily riders out over thirty-two times as much track. The Yamanote Line is an extraordinarily busy little piece of real estate. At each of its twenty-six stops, passengers don’t exactly pass-through the ticket-gates, instead,they are pressed-out in batches, like loaves of bread through a bread-slicer. When you step onto this thronged train-line in the morning, it’s safe to assume that by day’s end, dozens upon dozens of friends, colleagues, past lovers, and future muses, will have passed through the same small square inches of this immense city.
If we fail to see friends or acquaintances on our morning commute, this probably has less to do with the sheer size of the city holding us apart and more to do with the minuscule differences in time that manage to hold everything together. The faster each of the city’s individual parts moves over to make room for the next part to move in, the smaller the city as a whole can be. One could ask with a queer sense of seriousness whether we are passing each other by in Tokyo because we are all in a hurry, or if it’s really more that, were we not all moving so quickly, the city simply wouldn’t be able to hold us all in? Maybe it’s precisely because of the speed of the city and the possibilities opened up by passing-by that we all manage to fit within the city’s smallness without getting squashed to bits.
You come to learn all manner of things about your fellow commuters when you stay just outside Tokyo’s more bustling parts. Board the same car every morning for a few months, and before long, you notice when the elderly businessman with the bowler hat is not among the morning’s passengers. Maybe you even worry about him a little. He always appears to be looking out the window at the passing scenery, but you know he’s nearly blind – twice now you’ve seen him hold a book millimeters in front of squinting eyes, only to then lower it in mild defeat. You also know that the prim office lady with the big mole on her neck – (why doesn’t she get that removed?) – has trouble walking in high-heels. You quietly applaud her good judgment on days when she wears loafers and carries her heels in that small designer shopping bag of hers. Of the two phones she keeps on her lap, you’ve decided that the silver one must be for work; when texting on it, she hardly ever smiles, or at least not the way she does with the red one.
Move deeper into Tokyo and there’s just not enough room in the crowded cars for the peculiarities of daily passengers. The 7:06 may well be your train, the second-from-the-last may well be your car. And sitting across from you, day after day, may well be a nearly-blind businessman or a woman with a mole on her neck, but you’re likely never to know it. It’s not that, when in the city, one turns one’s attention too far inward, or that one become’s too self-concerned to concern oneself with others. It’s that, inside the Tokyo metro, the self becomes as much of an obstacle as the other; just one more thing to make sure doesn’t get in the way of all the other moving parts.
I often wonder how many love affairs in Tokyo might be traced back to a spilled purse, an almost-forgotten umbrella, inclement weather, or any of the thousands of other things that normally bring strangers into conversation, into a restaurant, and eventually into domestic partnership? Undoubtedly, not very many at all. I fancy to think that one could probably count the number, within a reasonable margin of error, on the fingers of one hand. Tokyoites are just too busy passing each other by to be drawn in by such things as happenstance, chance, and accident.
One would of course be hard-pressed to deny a certain expertness at work in the way Tokyo’s residents shuffle unconcernedly past injuries, altercations, and businessmen passed-out in front of train stations, but when all is said and done, I prefer to think that it’s not so much the practiced dismissals of strangers, but rather, the almost-encounters between colleagues, the near-misses between lovers, and the blind baton-passes of city-space from one friend to the next, that make Tokyo a city distinguished by 'passing-by.'
The other day, I witnessed the city and all its velocity come to a grinding halt just outside a Tokyo subway ticket-gate. A visibly embarrassed businessman stood there motionless, holding an empty coin purse. Around him, a small crowd of eight to ten commuters in business attire had sunk to the linoleum and were pecking about vigorously for scattered coins. It all looked uncannily like a film-reel of a man feeding pigeons being played in reverse. I thought to help, but in the end was too caught up watching, as, one by one, small kernels of metal were placed into the man's extended hand with nearly imperceptible bows.
When I related this scene to a colleague that evening on our way to the station, he volleyed back with a small collection of his own anecdotes, and then offered a provisional thesis to the effect that money might play by its own rules in the game of passing-by in Tokyo. It’s possible, it’s definitely possible, I said. We traded back and forth for a few short minutes about the curious nature of money, of exchange, of transaction, traffic, and of passing-by, and then each went our separate way.
Coda: Passing by with a Sneeze
I can't express how eerie it is to sneeze in a Japanese coffee shop. There’s no custom here encouraging seat-neighbors to chime in with a ‘bless you’ after you sneeze, and it’s about all a foreigner can do to restrain himself from offering up a friendly ‘gesundheit' in response to a high-pitched atchoo coming from the next table over. For the Japanese, a sneeze is a mere sound, an insignificant bodily function; something like scratching your arm, blowing your nose, or re-adjusting your shirt collar. It carries no value whatsoever. None. After a sneezer sneezes in Japan, she returns to her book, he to his coffee, they to their television-watching, all with such seamlessness of motion that not even the smallest opening remains for the well-wishing of a stranger. It’s in these moments after a sneeze that I sense most poignantly that Tokyo, down to its smallest detours and by-passes, is a city that thrives on ‘passing-by.’