Race relations, Japanese style
The Osaka subway system is made up of eight different lines, each moving in various directions as they go back and forth from five in the morning to around midnight. Many stops are connection points between the different subway lines and other Japanese railways. In the midst of trying to understand all this, I somehow miss the Bull Runner.
Osaka is Japan’s second-largest commercial city after Tokyo. Since the most common means of transportation for the millions of residents of Osaka is a bicycle or the subway, the subway is a microcosm of Osaka’s society. The total number of foreigners that may be on the subways (eight trains at any given time) closely resembles the amount of foreigners there are in Osaka altogether. There aren’t many of us at all.
My daily subway commute from the town of Tsurumi in Northeast Osaka to Tennoji in South Central Osaka is never without its surprises. A month after my arrival here, I still have a lot to learn.
Every major subway station is the first floor of a giant department store. Department stores in Japan have several floors, anything one could want to buy and can be found towering over every major prefecture in Osaka.
With this being the case, department stores carry clout in Japan, and many people do all of their shopping at these places.
One subway line, the Kintetsu line, is named after Kintetsu, a prominent department store chain in Japan. Talk about capitalism on speed: One of Japan’s major league baseball teams is named after Kintetsu as well. Could you imagine the Starbucks Buccaneers? Start praying, folks — that may soon be on the way.
With most stations being the centerpiece of these monstrosities of commerce, a person may never find an empty subway station in Japan, even after the last train leaves its platform. In the moving tide of subway activity, being the only non-Japanese face in a sea of Osakans will definitely have a effect on the mind. What effect that is probably varies person to person.
My first night in Osaka was when I realized something. The people of Japan, known for their shy and reserved nature, do not easily initiate conversation with strangers and rarely with foreigners. What they do instead is stare, as I have mentioned in my previous column. As I try my best to get with the program, fall in line and avoid making a spectacle of myself, I have found, thanks to my height, green eyes and nationality, these things are impossible. Even if a massive earthquake hit there, I would probably still have an ogling Japanese person to help me remember how different I look.
On my way to work one morning I stepped off the platform at Tsurumi and onto the train holding a regular paper bag containing nothing but a change of clothes and a pair of sneakers. With the car too full to sit, I stood, with the bag beside me, near an old Japanese woman, who was probably in her sixties.
At first glance, it seemed as though she was staring at my backside. I looked over again and saw that she was staring directly into my bag. A minute later, I looked over again and she was still staring.
“To hell with this nosy old bat,” I thought as I quickly picked up my bag and looked over at her.
Her expression was priceless as her eyes made a quick dart toward the roof of the subway car and she put on her best face of complacent innocence. I could have been frustrated at this, but I just let it go.
What could be so different about what I have in my bag than what a Japanese person has in his or her bag? How long would she have stared into my bag had I not reacted to her racial rubbernecking?
I never thought my mere presence could incite so much curiosity, but I guess this is just how things go.
God forbid I had some grocery-store porn in that bag! The real catch to this story is that this nosy old woman was wearing a kimono on the subway car. She was the only person I saw all day in full kimono. Shouldn’t I be curiously staring at her? I guess not.
Amid the condensed and confusing hustle and bustle of Osaka stands a foreigner struggling to understand his surroundings. Perhaps it would be better if I tried to understand those who surround me first, and, maybe, give them their chance to understand me.
Daniel Shimek is a former graphic arts manager who now lives in Japan.