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By Louie Diaz Jr.

Paying respects

One small act of kindness changes a foreigner’s outlook

I used to have no respect for the train system in Tokyo. Yes, it’s extensive and reaches all parts of the great metropolis; yes, it’s almost always punctual and reliable; yes, it’s as important as the roads and sewers, and is as much part of the cityscape as the never-ending buildings. But it never earned my respect. I hated the fact that the service closes down too early and that the fares can get quite expensive. And the fact that people constantly fall asleep on my shoulder, with their mouths open, their bodies swaying to the train rhythms.

I also had no respect for train etiquette. I learned that, first of all, it’s a real taboo to bust through the gates and not pay. It is also taboo to talk on your mobile and to make a scene by talking too loud and animated. Also, eating a meal while you ride the trains is a real no-no.

Louie Diaz Jr. is a freelance writer living in Tokyo

However, some foreigners, like some of the people in my circle of English teacher friends, including myself, do not follow any of these rules. I have learned that you can bust through the gates and no one, I mean no one, will say anything. I have seen this point proven when someone I knew jumped the gates, and then went back to ask for directions to the same train attendant who saw him do it. It was totally disrespectful of the norms of Japanese society, but what can you do? It was so easy and so convenient. Sure, I would get pangs of guilt, but that lasts about as long as the walk from the platform to my seat. In less than a minute my mind had already moved on.

I have also felt guilty when some drunken gaijin acts like a fool on the last trains, pissed drunk. I have seen the patience of some commuters tested to the limits, with some drunken dude being so annoying that I’m sure he would have been beaten to a pulp anywhere else in the world.

I have also eaten entire McDonald’s meals on the train, late for work and needing to fill my stomach before teaching. I have also talked on my mobile, taking and making calls that could have easily been postponed until my destination.

I use the trains everyday, I depend on them everyday; they are a cornerstone of routine and convenience, but still I did not respect them. I took them for granted. Ignoring etiquette was commonplace.
Then, one day, everything changed when I dropped my Suica card at Mitaka station right after I put ¥6,000 on it. My opinion of Tokyo trains was about to be reversed.

I was devastated by the loss. I had no money to buy another card. The next day I went back to the station where I dropped and lost my pass. I tried to explain my situation to the attendant, but the language barrier was too thick. It was a futile effort. But a lady behind me in line, in sweet English, asked if she should translate. Of course. I eventually made my way to the lost and found, and lo and behold there was my train pass, still inside the little card holder of my wallet. Someone had turned it in!

I had given up hope. This was a stab in the dark, a last-ditch effort, and it came through. The Suica card could have easily been used by whoever found it. It could have been a free train pass for the month. I would have used someone else’s train pass if I found it on the ground. I lost it at night, so the person who found it was probably a) rushing for his last train, perhaps drunk and wanting to go home or b) an early riser and hard worker on the way to some indifferent job. Either way, this person took the time and went out of their way to return it.

Perhaps this is the reason why the train system is so extensive in Tokyo. Perhaps this person is the reason why trains are so punctual. Perhaps this is the reason why so many people depend on them, this is the reason they exist in such practical glory, available to every salaryman, punk, housewife, giggly teenager and, sometimes, disrespectful gaijin. This is why the whole thing works: a person sees an unused train pass and returns it to the lost and found.

The honesty in this country astounds me. The trains and the people who use them validate this belief. Perhaps next time I will follow Tokyo train etiquette: I will not bust through the gates, I will not eat McDonald’s, I will not make a scene, and I will not talk on my mobile. I think I found my respect for the trains of Tokyo, probably at about the same time that that mystery person found my unused Suica card and decided to turn it in.

Would you like to comment on this article? Send a letter to the editor at letters@metropolis.co.jp.

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