26 June, 2008

sleeping on the train

Japanese commuters have this absolutely uncanny ability to fall dead asleep on the train, and then sit up, completely awake, the instant the train reaches their stop. It's the kind of limp, lifeless sleep of babies in the car: the head heavy with sleep that lolls over to one side, only to jerk back up as if being pulled by a marionette's string. They look absolutely lost in sleep. I wish I could take pictures of these people, because it happens without fail every time I ride the train, but I feel like that's something a creeper would do, and it's probably quite socially unacceptable.

But, regardless, it's this fascinating thing to me. Because riding the train is this bizarre in-between time where you are moving from point A to point B and you have to fill it somehow. Most Japanese commuters choose to sleep. The ones who aren't tend to either read or text on their cellphones. But never talk. No one talks.

The sleepers I like the best though. I wish I could draw like Grace, because I'm sure I'd spend my "in between" time on the trains sketching their faces. Whether it's the old man with the heavy cheeks that tremble slightly as the train lurches down the tracks, or the high school girl in her uniform bent almost in half, or the young man with the wild hair who fans his face subconsciously, they are all immensely interesting. Perfect characters. It is definitely the confession of a creeper, but watching strangers sleep on a train is one of the most interesting things to do.

Physical contact with others is something very absent in Japanese daily life. You don't shake hands (you bow, of course) and you never hug. Couples might hold hands, but even that is not quite socially okay. But the train is yet again this strange in-between place, because it's the one spot each day that you are pressed up against dozens of people and there's nothing you can do about it. Even when you're sitting down, your legs and arms are usually right up on top of your neighbor.

I'm one of those annoying people who likes to touch people when I talk to them--like a brief touch on the arm to make a point or a hug or a handshake--and so it's been a bit hard, actually, living in this culture where you touch no one. I can't remember the last person I hugged; I certainly haven't hugged anyone here. And aside from the strange Japanese man in Ueno Park who wanted to shake my hand, I haven't really even touched anyone since coming here. So being on the train is curious--it's like I have to remember what another human being feels like and it's shocking to me.

This morning, I sat beside a sarari-man ("salaryman"--term for a Japanese businessman) who was dead asleep. As with everyone else on the train, his legs and arms were pressed right up against mine. He was nearly bent in half with sleep and as the train swayed, he leaned back and forth until, at one point, his head was actually resting on my shoulder. I'm sure he wasn't even aware of this, because as soon as we reached his stop, he, with this uncanny knack, snapped awake and moved away from me, as if he were embarrassed to be caught asleep. He straightened his jacket and walked off the train and I almost laughed, trying to lasso my thoughts around this strange space of the morning train.

1 comment:

mike said...

This is easy:
1) hide camera in purse
2) slowly raise purse flap
3) be sure flash is "off"
4) clear throat as you push button, to cover sound of shutter
5) quickly drop camera back into purse and shift weight in seat, again to cover action...