I was sitting on a JR Loop Line express train yesterday afternoon, en route to a private lesson in the sticks. My iPod was playing “C’est la Vie”, the weekly CBC Radio program about French Canada (sadly, thirty minutes a week is more news than most English Canadians can stand about French Canada). Just out of Shin-Imamiya station, an old man sitting across the aisle from me was making a slight commotion. At first, he just seemed a bit eccentric and talking to himself (which is not particularly unusual on the Loop Line). But then I realized that he was doing that very Osakan thing: describing the misfortune he was suffering as though he were observing it (“Oh, it seems I’ve just missed my train,” or “Oh, I’ve just pushed the wrong button. I don’t want to get off on that floor,” older Osakans say, perfectly audibly, to no one in particular: in fact, they’re surprised if anyone replies to it). I couldn’t catch it exactly, but he was saying something like: “Oh, dear, I do believe I’m taking a bad turn of some sort,” as he was having it. “It feels unpleasant and I will have to lie down,” he continued as he did just that, first sitting cross-legged in the aisle, then lying down in it, repeating in a mixture of polite Japanese and Osaka-ben, “sumimasen,ne – summahen, na,” (sorry, OK? – pardon me, OK?).
The middle-aged man standing in the aisle by the man’s feet looked away, muttered something like, “Oh, get a grip, uncle,” (the elderly are always addressed/ referred to here as ojisan – uncle – or obasan –aunt). Some older women rushed up to him. “Oh, uncle, are you all right? (Ojisan! Daijoubu desuka?)” “Where are you hurting?” “Maybe you should put your head on your jacket. Yes, like that.” And so on, the whole time the man describing his distress and confusion in a high, whiny voice.
“Could somebody push the (emergency) button?” one of the women asked. Others watched passively, nosily, or turned away.
– Oh, he really should be looked at. They should take him off the train.
– Please push the button somebody.
– Ne. (‘ne’ – or in Osaka, ‘na!’ is the general agreement sound. It can be used like ‘right?’ or ‘OK?’ or the Canadian, ‘eh’, it can be similar to a tag question – ‘isn’t it?’ – ,or in this case ‘yes, someone should’)
– The conductor should be told.
– Ne. (‘he should, shouldn’t he?’)
– Ojisan, don’t give up.
– Summahen, na. Gomen-na.
And it occurred to me, sitting there, with all this going on behind me, that this was all taking a long time, that the man, if he was on the verge of having a heart attack, needed help soon. Perhaps it was happening very quickly, but time had slowed down. Finally, we heard the bell from the alarm being pulled, and the train ground to a halt on a bridge over a canal.
“Well, he could have stopped at a station!” exclaimed one of the obachans. “Ne!” replied the others. People began to get antsy (of course, commuters in the other carriages had no idea why we had stopped). After what seemed like five minutes (which is unlikely), a weedy young conductor came in and squeezed past everyone to see the old man. He asked him what was wrong and where he had got on. The answer, Shin-Imamiya, made several listeners give a ‘might’ve known’ look (Shin-Imamiya is home to the largest homeless community in Japan, many elderly day labourers who can’t get work anymore – much alcoholism, mental illness, or at least reputedly). The conductor went back up front (what was he doing there? They’re usually in back, now that I think of it). A few minutes later, a woman hurried into the carriage, possibly a nurse (it then dawned on me that the conductor had probably left us to shout, “is there a doctor in the house?” and we forgave him his rushing away). She looked him over professionally, asked him useful questions reassuringly.
Eventually, the train began moving again, finally stopping at Bentencho station. Doors opened. Passengers began flooding in, then stopped at the sight of the prone old man (who by this time looked more embarrassed at all the attention than in pain – to an old Japanese man, all the attention would almost be worse than the pain). A young otaku, oblivious to the affairs of other carbon-based life forms, stepped over him and shuffled to the doors on the opposite side. Station staff arrived, with a stretcher. Someone asked him if he’d mind standing up and getting onto the stretcher, and he replied quite sincerely that it would be rather difficult, sorry ‘bout that. With the help of the motherly ladies and the nurse, he was eventually placed on the stretcher and lifted to the platform. Then, at a signal from a conductor, the waiting passengers got on, and the train took off again. As the doors closed, we heard from the platform, “Summahen-ne! Moshiagenai-ne!” (Sorry! I really have no excuse!)