Letters to Home: "Shikata Ga Nai"
December 4, 2016
by Alexia Lipman
When I arrived in early September, Tokyo was hot as hell. The humidity induced a kind of vertigo, which was not easily assuaged by stepping indoors (air-conditioned hallways are hard to come by - a hallmark of Japanese sensibility). Autumn has now settled in, and with her she brought Koyo, or ‘autumn colors,’ crisp air, and clarity. The honeymoon stage has come and gone, and I feel somewhat acclimated to Tokyo. During my study abroad experience, I have been a tourist on many occasions: in Kyoto, while pushing through a crowd of strangers to get a better view of Kinkakuji (a dazzling gilded temple - the one you might have seen in pictures); in Nara, posing for selfies with charismatic deer; and in Hiroshima, unsettled by the artifacts (a blackened lunch box, a tattered school uniform) that the victims of the first atomic bomb left behind. I passed through these places, seeking to oversaturate myself with experiences – but I left with just a glimpse. I ate at one restaurant, saw one or two tourist attractions, and then moved on to the next destination.
In Tokyo, I am not a tourist. I am still a foreigner, but one who is granted certain privileges. I walk down backstreets a tourist would never encounter, order meals by myself in restaurants off the beaten path. Slurping up noodles, I listen and watch others as they make idle chit chat in Japanese. I can only understand bits and pieces so I pay special attention to their intonation and facial expressions. It’s not spying, per say – I prefer to think of it as ethnography.
My favorite place to conduct ‘ethnographic research’ is in the trains. I commute at least two hours each day, depending on my schedule. In the morning, I typically take the 8:08 train from Baraki-Nakayama, switch trains at Nishi-Funabashi, and ride the Musashino directly to Kaihimakuhari. (In the afternoon it is a bit more difficult because direct trains come and go less frequently. This means I sometimes transfer twice, rather than once.)
The first leg of the voyage only takes about two minutes and the Tozai Line is rarely overcrowded. My 8:20 transfer is something else. When I surface on the platform, I find myself surrounded by recognizable strangers: salarymen, rambunctious school children, and women my age dressed to the nines. I struggle through the throng of commuters towards the narrow strip of platform directly adjacent to the stairs (where it’s usually less crowded). We all wait together, but each of us is preoccupied by our own thoughts.
The train usually arrives promptly, interrupting our daydreams. From my spot on the platform, I can see hands and faces generating condensation on the windows. A tone sounds, the doors open and commuters spill out like jellybeans. When all of them have exited the train, we react according to procedure. We pile in, pushing and getting pushed by others trying to fit themselves in the car. I slowly deflate as I am shoved into a crevice between a tall, middle-aged Japanese man and a fashionably dressed woman. Standing up against this man, more than twice my age, I have no choice but to smell the coffee he drank this morning on his breath. I can see every hair follicle on the woman’s head (even the lone grey hair she must not know about). I have never been this close to strangers. Every time the train jolts, which is suspiciously often, we all shift one way or another, like lifeless cargo. It is difficult to ignore the others in these circumstances. While a typical commuter in Boston, my hometown, may be able to concentrate on his phone and ignore the presence of others, the physical closeness inhibits this kind of emotional detachment. This is rush-hour commute. We suffer together. But as the Japanese often say, ‘shikata ga nai’ or ‘it cannot be helped.’
In the early afternoon, the trains are relatively empty, which makes it easier to focus on individuals. Directly next to me, a woman sneaks a piece of bread into her mouth, chewing discreetly. It is not missed by the others, who shoot her accusatory stares for breaking train etiquette. Across from me sits a woman slumped over her phone, with her face shielded by her black shiny bangs. Perhaps she didn’t get enough sleep, because she worked overtime the day before (a common occurrence in Japan). Next to her, a man with a briefcase appears engrossed in his manga book. I think about the kind of life he must lead. I wonder whether he joins his colleagues for drinks at the Izakaya after working tirelessly all day. Why is he riding the train at this time? Maybe he left work early to play pachinko.
I’ve acquired meaningful knowledge and learned concrete skills during my time here – information that I will likely disclose in interviews with future employers. But despite the importance of quantifiable achievements, the most remarkable aspect of study abroad is your opportunity to experience an unfamiliar culture. Not with the goal of using the experience as a stepping stone to help you discover some sort of moral truth, but to appreciate living abroad for its intrinsic value. To eat, sleep, and breathe a different culture – all the while still retaining the inescapable vantage point of a foreigner. To observe the daily routine. To pick up on the little details. To get a little closer to strangers.