“Mount Fuji Looks At Us”

A Sunday evening on the Midosuji Line, heading south to my home in Nagai. I’m standing, listening to Quirks and Quarks on my iPod, gazing into the middle distance (I think I need glasses, finally). The train stops at Showacho and a crowd gets off, prompting a man, who was standing by the opening doors, to walk deliberately (I am aware) behind me. He is in his 60s, wearing unironically old-fahioned glasses, with grey hair slicked back, and he is dressed in a jacket and tie on a Sunday evening (a time when even most men his age dress casually). Pastor? Teacher? I brace myself for the usual Sales Pitch for Jesus and the offer of a pamphlet, which I will decline. He moves into my line of sight and has one of those confiding looks which are comforting when given by a friend but which put me on guard when they’re given by a stranger. Me of little faith. I ‘fail’ to see him – if he wants to talk, he’s going to have to start the transaction.

Eventually, he pounces.

– “Excuse me? Can you help me?” he asks, unfolding a piece of paper. Written on it are two sentences:

We look at Mount Fuji.

Mount Fuji looks at us.

He helpfully reads them out to me (I should add that I’ve turned off the iPod by this time). Then he asks me, very deliberately, “Do you ever say that second sentence in English?”

I am to the point: “No. Never.”

He gives that involuntary hollow laugh that older Japanese people give when they’re embarrassed or perplexed. “But you could say it, couldn’t you?”

– You could say it, but we wouldn’t say it.

– Why not?

– Because it doesn’t make any sense in English. The first sentence is what we say.

– But we say it in Japanese.

– Okay, but we don’t say it in English.

Embarrassed silence. I try giving him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he is speaking figuratively, poetically. Perhaps he is using the wrong verb. I try again, offering a face-saving suggestion:

– Do you mean Mt Fuji overlooks us? Because it’s so big? You can say that.

He sighs shortly, impatiently. He obviously has a high opinion of his written English and is not used to being contradicted.

– No! Look! We believe that Mount Fuji looks at us the way we look at it. Because it’s a god. We believe in mountain gods.

– Where I come from, not many people believe that.

– Excuse me, where are you from?

– Canada, I answered, fumbling for my earphones.

He gives me the look that the good cop in a Japanese police drama gives when offering a bowl of noodles to the guy the bad cop is trying to beat a confession out of. Come on, pal – just between you and me.

– But in Canada, you have many mountains. The Rockies look at you? You sometimes say that, don’t you?

– No. We don’t. I’m sorry. (I expect to get a strongly-worded runic parchment from the Druid Anti-Defamation League  of  British Columbia any day now)

– Well. I see. Thank you.

He does not look grateful. Nor does he look like he sees. I put the phones on just in time for the train to pull into Nagai subway. The doors open, and I look back. He is staring stonily at his piece of paper, and I will not be acknowledged. I guess that will show me.

I wonder how many times he went up and down the line that day, trying to find some foreigner to tell him he was right. And why?


Osaka Largesse

On the subway this morning en route for Umeda, a seat opened up for me at Tennoji, a great rarity. I sat, settled in, and then I caught sight of a man well into his 70s (at least), stooped, thin, tallish (for a Japanese man his age), in a well-kept old suit and horn-rimmed glasses, strap-hanging in front of me, to my right. He looked a bit unsteady on his feet, so I immediately got up and gave him my seat (you never just offer, because old people here always politely say no supposing they can barely stand up). He bowed his head quickly, sliced the air vertically a few times (meaning “excuse me” or “much obliged”) and sat down. There was still a bit of of space next to him (he didn’t take up very much), and he gestured insistantly for me to sit next to him. I smiled, told him it might be a bit narrow for me, but he persisted and after other people shifted over a (resentful) little, I squeezed back in.

–  Sumimasen, I nodded.

He looked me up and down. Wow, you’re big, he said good-naturedly.

Soudesunee, I conceded.

– “You could be a sumo, couldn’t you?” he said, which I realized, after a split-second of resentment, to be a compliment on the old man’s part.

I smiled and nodded, as you do, reaching for my earphones. But he wasn’t finished.

– You must weigh about – what? A hundred kilos?

– Oh, I don’t know really, my smile probably getting a bit more strained around the eyes at that stage.

– But still (demo-ne) – I’m half you’re size and I’m only 50 kilos. Look! Look at that leg! And look at yours!

– But you look well, I said, trying to get him off the topic of my avoirdupois.

– Oh, I’m all right. But honestly, you’re what? 100?

– Must be about that, I answered.

– Ah. Well there you go. Big man.

Is this going to go on for the next 20 minutes? I thought. Then he paid me another backhanded compliment:

– So where are you from? England? France? The usual one-word question is “America?”, so although I don’t think I look either British or French, it pleased me for some reason.

– I’m Canadian.

– Ah! Canadian. English and French. Yappari (I knew it/ might have known)! And are you here on business?

– I’m a teacher (using the modest word kyoushi for teacher).

– Ah! Sensei desuka! (he used the more respectful term, which a teacher should never use when referring to himself). This seemed to please him, and he smiled and nodded and looked ahead. I did the same.

As it turned out, he got off after only eight minutes, at Shinsaibashi. Shitsureishimasu (excuse my rudeness, which you always say to you excuse yourself and leave first), he said, nodding in my direction, and he tottered off the train.

It’s odd – although the W word is the big taboo to ask anyone you don’t know well (and most people you do), his good-nature and obvious lack of malice about it made it  seem not so bad. Also, just to have someone (more to the point, someone sane) chat with you out of the blue on a train is so rare nowadays that it put me in a good mood. I felt as though I were seeing a bit of old Osaka which has all but disappeared.

God help the next person who asks me that, though.

Visa Renewal, 2009

Sumiyoshi-ku (ku means city ward) is at the bottom of Osaka City, geographically. It borders the Yamato River, which has the dubious distinction of being both the most historical and the filthiest river in Western Japan. On the other concrete-covered bank is Sakai City, famous for knives and swords (in some circles). Nagai, the neighbourhood where I’ve lived for 6 years now, is in Sumiyoshi-ku, although curiously Nagai Sports Park, the only thing for which Nagai is famous, is not (that side of the street is in Higashi-Sumiyoshi, the adjoining ward). Regardless, Nagai is where I live, so Sumiyoshi-ku is where I’m registered as a foreign resident of Japan and where, every now and then, I must make my presence known to the authorities.

My work visa expires in May and needs to be renewed for another 3 years. In  the 90s, you had to take a day off every year to sit in the Immigration Office in Temmabashi (in a Ministry of Justice building) until they finally stamped your passport – you couldn’t leave once they’d taken it. For the past 8 or 9 years,though, the system was becoming fairly streamlined. Until recently, you went to the office, took a number and submitted your documents and passport, waited 30 minutes or so until your name was called, filled out a self-addressed postcard; when the postcard arrived at your home, some days later, you went back, got your visa stamp, and were free for another 3 years. I expected the same this time, but was unpleasantly surprised.

My company usually mails me all the paperwork (duly translated), which I fill out and take down to the Immigration Office, and this year was no exception.This time, along with my usual package of documents there was a checklist. All of the documents were there except a newly-required one, a kazei shoumei (課税証明,City Tax Report), but a handwritten note on the checklist read: “You can get this at your ward office.”

Now, the Sumiyoshi Ward Office was, until recently, a dumpy old building, which looked as though it had been built in the 50s (which probably meant it had been built in the 70s – postwar Japanese government architecture being mostly glum and Stalinist until fairly recently). It was nowhere near a subway station and the old Nankai Line train station nearby was not of much use to anyone who wasn’t going to Wakayama. It was one of those government buildings seemingly put up in an inconvenient place to give bus drivers something to do. On my day off, I bicycled down there. And promptly got lost.

Something was different – there used to be at least signs pointing to the general area of the office. But nothing. After 25 minutes or so, I realized I’d overshot the runway. I made the mistake of asking a resident for directions.  When I asked her where the Sumiyoshikuyakushou was, she gestured and said “mukou (over there somewhere), about 10 minutes that way.” The first part of her sentence was vague enough to be correct, but the rest was just her imagination (is there any other place where people know as little about their own city as Osaka?).

Eventually, I turned what I thought to be a wrong corner and drove right past it. It looked even more desolate than usual, more fences up. The gate was locked. I looked around for some explanation, and then I noticed a small, hand-drawn note on the fence. It turned out to be directions to the new ward office, but might as well have read, “Hey, Kenji, if you read this, we’re at the pub round the back – just follow this map – Toru”. By this time, I was getting cranky.
I followed the zig-zagging directions and finally found a huge, new, modern-looking complex. According to the sign, it featured the ward office, a kumin sentaa (区民センター,an auditorium for cultural events), and the Sumiyoshi public library. All inconveniently located at a neighbourhood nowhere near you. {Addendum, June 23rd, 2009 – that was a bit unfair. I got lost because I was coming from the old ward office and was disoriented. I’ve since realized that it’s not all that far from my place, and the new local library is small but very good, and the staff is helpful. The following comments about the ward office still stand, though.}

Anyway, there I was. I parked my bicycle. I made my way past a phalanx of furiously smoking civil servants at the entrance and entered an oddly empty atrium (there are always people milling about an entrance to a ward office – mostly old men who look confused because they saw all the wickets and thought it was a betting shop). Around the atrium were numbers and names of departments in Japanese and (surprisingly) correct English. I found the one I was looking for (ominously, number 13), and followed the arrow down one corridor.
I soon realized that the structure was the latest triumph of that great architectural firm, Kafka and Sons. The corridor curved, and along it were many locked doors. One office (water works?) with glass doors and peach-coloured walls, featured a desk, with a man in his fifties sitting in a chair, staring into space (when I left, he was sitting in another chair, observing space from a different angle). There did not appear to be anything or anyone else in the room.
I wondered what was behind all those closed doors in the corridor, but feared I’d turn into a cockroach or something if I looked, so I gave up wondering.
I rounded a corner at the end of the corridor. It opened up into a large hall. Now, in the old place, all the civil servants’ desks were jammed together behind a counter and supplicants stood in line waiting to be served. Here, in this great, expensive new building I saw…all the civil servants’ desks jammed together behind a counter while supplicants stood in line waiting to be served. It was as though they’d lassoed the whole lot of them and just rolled them down the road together.
I bypassed the reception desk and saw Section 13 (a sign along the counter). A man in his 50s (they all looked to be men in their 50s, even the men in their 20s) was staring vaguely into the middle distance, simulating thought (but probably just waiting for his co-workers to come back from their smoke break so he could go out for his). I asked him if this was the place to get a kazei shoumei. He gestured vaguely to some yellow forms on the counter. “Go fill it out over there,” he said, and gestured to the taller counters behind me. To my left, about fifteen people sat or stood watching a large TV, which had been placed there to placate the masses as, forms submitted, they waited for their number to be called (the motto of this country should be “Take a Number”).
I looked at the form. I could read exactly 1/3 of one side of the double-sided, kanji-filled page. I was able to find where to write my name and address and state that I was the head of my household. The rest would have taken me an hour with a dictionary. I looked up imploringly at the city officer, but he was in a reverie or self-willed trance. In fairness, since I didn’t know exactly what I was asking for, he couldn’t have helped me anyway. I grabbed a few copies of the form and skulked out, day wasted.

Next day, I went to the personnel section at my company headquarters to get the form translated and to sound the alarm before the next poor sap had the same experience. The woman in charge of foreign employees’ visas looked at the form, ticked three boxes, said, “Sign here and here, and write the date,” and handed it back to me. “That’s it?” I asked, stunned. All I’d had to know was which three boxes to tick (but I’d have to be able to read it all to know that). Amazing.

A few days passed. I went back to the ward office, eventually finding it after a few false starts (pigeons and ferrets having eaten the trail of bread crumbs I’d left on the previous occasion). I handed it to the same city officer (distracting him from his dreams of samurai glory), he called up the requested form on his computer, printed it out, took my 400 yen fee, and out I went. Time elapsed: less than three minutes. Feeling empowered, I decided to continue on to the Osaka Immigration Office. This had also moved since the last time I renewed my visa. Now, however,instead of a leisurely subway trip to Temmabashi, fifteen minutes away, I got on the train at Nagai, changed at Daikokucho, changed again at Suminoekoen to the New Tram, and chugged along the man-made island in Nanko (南港, southern harbour). It took me an hour, and it would take nearly anyone an hour. But I didn’t mind too much – I was on a mission, documents in hand. I’d turn them in, wait a few minutes, fill out a postcard, and go have a cup of coffee.

In my dreams. The new immigration office has nothing –nothing – around it, but it’s another nice new building with an atrium full of natural light. I took the elevator upstairs, the door opened, and a man was standing there with his back to the open door. I instantly realized that he was behind another man, who was behind two women, and on and on. The queue started at the elevator. It wound around a corner of the corridor, leading to the processing room. Ten minutes later, I was standing inside the room, and five minutes after that, an officer took my application and documents, slipped them all into a ziplock folder, gave me a numbered slip (matching the one in the bag with my documents), and told me to place them in the inbox on the long counter. I sat down. There were about 150 other people in the large room, four or five caucasians, two African couples, two Indic guys, and all the rest Asians of various origins (which is pretty much the make-up of the actual foreign population of Japan as a whole). I heard a lot of Korean spoken, and some Mandarin.

Because the numbers of the processed applications came up almost randomly, I couldn’t really concentrate on the book I’d brought (Everything Is Illuminated). Also, periodically, someone would come out from behind the counter and call the number of someone they wanted to get some extra information from, so I couldn’t really enjoy my iPod either. So I sat and waited. I waited for two hours and ten minutes. I estimated from the numbers called out that there were about 65 other people in front of me when I arrived, waiting for the same thing. No idea what everyone else was sitting there for. Finally, my number was called, my postcard taken, my passport and gaijin card handed back, and off I went, without a fine or anything. I took the Chuo Line to Hommachi (where my train pass kicked in), then repaired to the big Starbucks there and drank a much-needed cup of coffee. (incidentally, the total train time, minus the coffee break, for this alternate route took me…one hour).

The postcard arrived in the mail today, so back I go, cash in hand, next Tuesday. Can’t wait.

Daumier at the Itami City Museum

This being my day off, I got up late, but eventually hopped on a few trains (I’m becoming very good at this) and wound up in Itami City, in neighbouring Hyogo. It’s a fairly nondescript bedroom community (in fairness, though, parts of it were severely damaged in the 1995 earthquake), but it does have a small, cosy museum (which, of course, I forgot to photograph) which occasionally hosts small, affordable shows (I don’t think I’ve ever seen the permanent collection). The one at present is a collection of lithographs by the French cartoonist, Honoré Daumier (1808-1879), to celebrate his bicentenary.

Now, Daumier has been one of my heroes for as long as I can remember. What he does with charcoal and pens is amazing – and still funny. Some of the lithographs (for Parisian magazines of the mid-19th century) are over 170 years old, yet you still give a smile of recognition when you look at them. Not that I’ve ever seen many of these cartoons before (even online) – he’s more famous for his political cartoons, savaging whoever happened to be king or emperor in France at any given moment. This show is called “Daumier and the Human Condition” and deals mostly with his parodies of middle-class life in Paris (and that of the poor, whom these nouveaux-riches tried so studiously to ignore). The situations he portrays are universal – the exhausted new parents whose baby kept them up all night (some of the best stuff is the muttering of the put-upon fathers and husbands – “Babies? They’re a gift from the devil!”); the father who takes his son on an outing only to have the kid REFUSE to get into the pool (I note that in 1839, all the fat/skinny, bow-legged/knock-kneed men in the cartoons are wearing what look to be baggy, Ocean-Pacific-surferdood swim trunks, c. 2008, not the striped body-stocking they always show men wearing in the movies: was that introduced when pools ceased to be segregated by sex?); a very smartly-dressed young couple lounging fashionably in their supremely tasteful drawing room, both giving uncontrolled, wide-open yawns (caption: married six months).

(NB – This fragment was written in September, 2008, and was the first half of a review of a two-part exhibition. I was planning to go to the second half of the exhibition, which ran October-December, but went to Canada in October instead and completely forgot about it when I came back)

Lost and Found (忘れ物)

Saturday is the morning when I can get up exactly an hour later than any other workday.  I had laid out my clothes the night before, and, after a quick soak to make my hair less ostrich-like, a few trims to the beard, I dressed and packed two bags for the day. The first one contained my gym gear (yes, I  rejoined the gym in January, paying cash for one year, which is much cheaper; no, there’s been no discernible change in my appearance or weight yet), the second, documents to proofread, and my laptop (a MacBook, the other big-money payout which ensures that I’m not going to profit from the inflated yen by sending any money home anytime soon). For a split-second I thought: can I get that computer bag into the backpack with the gym gear? A short struggle told me: no.

So I walk to the station with a bag over each shoulder. I listen to Silver Street, the BBC Asian Radio soap opera on the iPod (aging, but still holding up – the iPod, that is). The train arrives, remarkably full for a Saturday; I put my computer bag in the overhead rack, and start listening to the At Issue panel discuss Canadian politics. The train pulls into Tennoji Station. I promptly exit and head for Starbucks (despite how  not-completely-unjustifiably fashionable it is to hate it lately, it’s a non-smoking café in a country not known for them). Enter, go to put down my bags, and realize that I no longer have bags in the plural. Feeling of dread immediately descends. I turn and walk back to Tennoji Station.

I speak to the station staff – a man slightly older and a woman much younger than me. Tell them I’ve forgotten something, and of course all that listening to English podcasts all morning has gummed the works of the primitive Japanese section of my brain (I think I described my bag as “Koizumi-iro” – the colour of the former prime minister – instead of “nezumi-iro” – grey*). They asked me what train I was on and showed me a schedule. Luckily, I noticed the crowd waiting to get into Kintetsu Department store, so I knew it was before 10 o’clock and indicated that. Next, they asked me which car (carriage) I was in and I told them it was the one “before the Ladies’ Car” ( for the last four or five years, there has been a women-only car on most of the subways and commuter trains in Japan, an option for women who wish to avoid all the repressed male gropers out to cop a feel on the way to or from work – and according to my female students over the years, there are plenty of them).

They conferred quickly: Well, we’ve missed Namba, it should be in Umeda in 9 minutes. So if we call now, we can get someone to check that car in Umeda (woman calls the Umeda Stationmaster). Yes, I’d like to report a forgotten bag on train # XXXX, car # xx. It’s grey and has a pasucon (personal computer/laptop) in it. Onegaishimasu (Would you be so kind?)!

They ask me to wait until the Umeda staff call back. As I stand by the counter, I watch the commuters pass throught he ticket gates. Some, not all, look at me, as if to say, Well, they caught another one. Wonder what this one did… I stand stoically. The phone rings.

Hai. Hai.” (yes, yes) she says. “Grey. Has a laptop.” She turns to me. “Is it wrapped in a towel?” Embarrassed, I tell her yes (payday is Thursday. I’ll buy a proper case then). Confirms my information to the staff on the other end of the line, then rings off.

She tells me I can go pick it up now! “Jikan ga nai,” (I don’t have time) I tell her, and, this being Japan, she immediately understands that I have to go to work. “Well, you can get it anytime today. Go to the Umeda stationmaster’s office. Tomorrow, they’ll send it to general lost and found.”

I thanked them politely and bowed (which, I realize now, I don’t do all that often), and they smilingly bowed back. As I walked back to Starbucks (I really needed a coffee by then), I reflected that if I had mentioned this to any station staff in nearly any other country in the world, I’d have been lucky not to have them laugh in my face. I concluded, not for the first time,that although Japanese politicians and captains of industry set a world standard for corruption, incompetence and mendacity, the average Jousuke, for all his foibles, is all right. And perhaps that was my problem: in what other country would I have my guard down enough to let go of my computer in the first place?

The postscript is unremarkable: I went up to Umeda and got the bag, after filling out a form in duplicate (Japan must be the only industrialized country which still uses carbon paper unironically). I headed south, vowing I’d never forget anything on the train again. Until (remembering all the other things over the years that I’ve walked away without) the next time.

*On the other hand, I saw Koizumi on TV last night, and he certainly looked mouse-coloured (the literal translation of grey) to me.

“You are white devil. I am God.”

JR Tennoji Station is known for its eccentrics. Many of them are either overliquored or undermedicated, but they are – for the most part – harmless. A reasonably well-dressed man in his late-50s, toothless, laughing happily to himself (or at some very witty friend the rest of us can’t see), can usually  be seen wandering between there and Kintetsu Station. Middle-aged drag queens can occasionally be seen balancing on heels as they totter towards Tennoji Park and Shin-Sekai. The men who wore schoolgirl uniforms seem to have been chased away. Every winter, a fairly regular cast of homeless men (and one woman for several years, her long gray hair as matted as tatami) sit on the steps near the subway entrance,between the two train stations and around this time, as the temperature begins to drop, I wonder which ones I won’t be seeing again; many talk to themselves, one used to quietly weep.

Outbursts are rare – one thing such people know is that to make a fuss risks getting them turfed out by the authorities. So I was mildly surprised to hear someone roaring abuse as I made my way through Tennoji station on Saturday evening, at around 6.

The man was at first glance a disgruntled otaku – couldn’t get the latest Playstation or something, and you know that’s gotta hurt. This man, though, was roaring about deporting all gaijin (foreigners), especially sangokujin 三国人 (literally, Third Country People, read Third World People, read Asians who aren’t Japanese), and something about Dainippon (Greater Japan, the old euphemism for the pre-war Japanese Empire). He was about 35 or 40, plump, sweating profusely, wearing nerdy glasses and drab, otaku-like clothing. Some people were watching him, warily, and a decrepit security guard was looking at him, sternly – as though this were accomplishing something. There were, of course, no police anywhere about.

Then he saw me, and walked over. He barked at me in English.

– Hello. Hello. Where you from? France? Germany?

– No.

– Go to Hell. You hear? Go to hell. You are devil.

– Oh, we’re related, then? (lame comeback, but I can’t let an insult go unanswered, no matter how stupid; this is a failing on my part)

– No! You are white devil! I am God.

– You are God of this place?

– Yes. I am God! Go to hell! (he seemed to think this was the worst thing you could say to a foreigner)

– If you’re the God of this place, I am in hell.

– What? What??

– I am in hell. This is hell.

– {look of horror} RACIST! RACIST! {unitelligible raging abuse in Japanese}

I kept walking at that stage, leaving him doing the Tasmanian Devil act to no one in particular. I guess my only surprise should be that this happens as seldom as it does.

“A bad turn of some sort”

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!)