Semester at Sea Fall 2006 Voyagebanner


A Rushed Day in Tokyo

By Wren Chan

           The staff at the station allowed me to pass upon seeing my Japan Rail Pass.  It was the last day in Japan before setting off for China.  It was around 14:30 at Ichigaya Station, Tokyo, around 1 hour till the last train that would reach Kobe in time for me to arrive back at the ship before 20:00.  I had just gone through several shopping areas in Japan trying to find souvenirs only to find that I was too practical for something like souvenirs.  It was my first foreign port hence I thought it would be appropriate to get some equipment to play go with which I wanted to give to the club I had started back in high school.  Go is an ancient Asian board game played on a 19 by 19 line grid with black and white stones.  The beauty of the game is that the rules are simple yet the game is complicated because of its depth.  Thus go is a paradox, simple and difficult at the same time and it is the embodiment of East Asian philosophy which is balance.  Go first appeared in China at least 2,000 years ago and was introduced into Japan where it was refined and appreciated by the ruling elites.

           As the time ticked down to the 15:00 express train, I looked frantically for the sign back to Tokyo Station to retrieve my baggage.  At this critical moment, I could feel myself getting annoyed trying to decipher where the train was since the signs weren’t very conveniently in located and there wasn’t much English on some of them.  My only luck in verifying where I was going was the electronic signs that alternated between Japanese and English, which I anxiously waited for to change into English.

           At last getting a train and transferring further down the line I found myself sitting next to a middle-age Japanese woman who had a pale complexion like the rest of the Japanese women that I saw in Tokyo.  Upon thinking about Mikiko Ashikari’s article, Urban Middle-Class Japanese Women and Their White Faces: Gender, Ideology, and Representation, I realized that this was the ideal white face that middle class Japanese women put on.  According to Ashikari, this ideal was the result of social pressure to conform and a nod to male dominance in the Japanese workplace.  White face is a social institution that is “produced and reproduced through dominant representation of gender relations in public.”  It is quite an elaborate feedback system which maintains the social structure, I thought as the train pulled into the station before Tokyo Station.

           I was ready to dash out of the train as soon as possible and get my baggage and depart for Kobe.  This mentality kept me sharp and aware that a passenger, a middle age man, dropped something that apparently looked like handkerchief.  At this moment, everything was a blur to me; the advertisements hanging from the ceiling of the train blurred in front of me as I thought about what to do since that man had already walked out of the train.  There was a great chance that the train doors would close, which kept me from running out and returning it to him.  As soon as I regained my composure I signaled to the woman next to me about the handkerchief but her voice failed her as in my case, as the man started to descend down the stairs.  A strong sudden thought of returning the handkerchief gripped me and eventually drove me to do so.  It was so fast I must have scared the lady next to me.  Within seconds I dashed out of the train, tapped the man on the shoulder, stuffed the handkerchief in his hand and attempted to get back in the train but to no avail; the doors started to close in front of me.  My experience with closing train doors in New York told me I could hold this one and get through but the warnings about doing so on trains in Tokyo won out as the doors closed in front of me.

           At this moment I realized that I had forgotten about my own belongings on the train.  I knew the Japanese were really meticulous in maintaining everything on time and as planned.  However the system would not win today, since my greatest flaw is that it is hard to let go.  Thus even with the knowledge of Japanese punctiliousness I frantically tried to get the attention of the station staff or the conductor to open the door.   As a foreigner I knew my actions were somewhat limited since they could cause misunderstanding.  Running towards the end of the train, I saw the operators in their cab, who could easily allow access to the train cars.  With some difficulty I was able to get their attention and delay the train.  The delay drew attention on me from within the train and on the platform.  It made me stand out and shocked me a bit but nonetheless I tried to communicate that I wanted to get back on the train.  Whether they misunderstood or it is against policy to allow me back on the train, I’ll never know.  But luckily I was able to get my things back through the window from the white faced lady, who momentarily stepped out of conformity to assist a foreigner.  The next few hours would be the most anxious in my stay in Japan as I counted down the time and ran through the many stations to get to my train on time.  In the end I barely made it to the trains on time but it seems this episode confirmed Ashikari’s thesis that white face is just a public facade.

Return to course home