THE WOMAN ON THE TOKYO TRAIN

This is about the woman, a young woman, that I saw on the Tokyo commuter rail taking me from busy Tokyo station to the station where I would catch a taxi back to Tachikawa Air Base. That’s where I was staying in a pleasant little, single-person dwelling on the base during a two-week temporary duty leave. In truth, “temporary duty leave” was merely the technical designation for the trip a military member might make from their base in Korea to Japan for, essentially, a vacation. For some it might be for duty. For me and others, it was just a two-week vacation, a break.

As I recall it was rush hour. I’d gone into Tokyo just to look around. I could not begin to recall just where I went or what I did on that particular day. It was September, 1970. I was a standing strap-hanger in a nearly full, though not jam-packed car. Japanese trains were clean, in my memory, and commuters polite, perhaps especially to a non-Japanese visitor. But I did not interact with anyone on this particular trip. I was glad it wasn’t more crowded.

Meanwhile, the train sped through the sprawling miles of densely packed fringes of metropolitan Tokyo, all fascinatingly terraced or stacked to accommodate one of the most populous cities in the world. I don’t recall, on that particular trip –standing in the middle as I was — much of what we passed. None of it, really. My eyes were fixed on the people and I only recall that young woman

She was sitting right before me. She was wearing a light top coat. She was somewhat heavy set, had long black hair. Her eyes were downcast. Never once did I see her look up. She was pressed in between other commuters and they would rise to get off, others would sit down — at least I seem to remember that. That would be the likely flow of traffic on a commuteer train.

The point is that she never once looked up, paid no attention to the movement around her — not at every stop where her body and the bodies of those beside her might sway barely perceptibly with the inertia of the train slowing, stopping, then starting up again. She was unmoving; she just stared down. There might have been a purse on her lap, her hands folded around it.

Then I noticed a tear streaming down her cheek. Then another…and another…. She did not wipe them away. She was immersed in a private sorrow and did not wish it to be known or to be observed. But, of course, I was observing this and wondered, why — why was she crying? I didn’t get the sense anyone on either side of her noticed that she was crying. (Perhaps they did and, in polite Japanese fashion, ignored the fact.) What was laying on the mind and heart of this young woman, perhaps a little older than me, perhaps headed home from work in Tokyo, for whom this commute might have been a daily routine while for me it was part of a joyous, solitary, exotic adventure in a strange land? I would not pass this way again, not likely. I haven’t been back to Japan….I recall and certainly have forgotten many details about those two weeks, visiting monuments and famous streets. I have not forgotten this small moment.

I could only surmise at the cause of her sorrow: trouble at work, trouble at home, broken romance, a death in the family, or of a friend, a bad medical diagnosis….

Of course, for some, a nameless but intense melancholy can come unexpectedly and overwhelm every other emotion unexpectedly. Like a tsunami…

In overly idle moments before this same laptop, I have recently watched on Youtube wobbly, terrifying cell phone video of a tsunami overwhelming Japanese seafront neighborhoods, people in shock, shouting and running for their lives, boats, cars and houses being swept away. Massive catastrophe, massive terror and sorrow. It is not, please God, likely that most of us in America will experience that particular character of catastrope in our lifetime. Such hazards are most often a potential reality for people living in South Asian regions where many of us Americans could only imagine living. But then — earthquakes that trigger tsunamie could strike either coast, especially the California coast….

And here in America, this summer– and even in the last couple of days — there have been sudden, extraordinary, deadly wild fires to the west, cutting through neighborhoods, consuming houses in minuters, trapping and killing people. And the floods! Horrible flooding in Kentucky. Shocking, unexpected, life destroying and mind-altering misfortunes that change lives forever. …

But I feel this was no grand sorrow I was witnessing on that Tokyo train. Just one of life penetrating small sorrows. But enough to make this young woman sit quietly crying on a public conveyance.

On that Tokyo train, where east was meeting west in that moment, everything, including the way people interact or register joy or sorrow, might well have been conditions by culturally distinct conventions and therefore be different from anything I might have recognized or expected. But here I felt sure I was seeing a quietly crying woman who could have been any one of us.

Should I have tapped her shoulder, given a wordless, trans-cultural expression of sympathy? No, that plainly would have been wrong. She clearly did not want that attention — would have been embarrassed.

When the train reached my stop, she was, if I recall accurately, more alone on that long train seat, eyes still cast downward, unmoving. Wherever she was going, it was farther out in the suburbs than where I was going. What if I’d had a sprig of flowers! (Ridiculous notion!) What if I could have dropped it in her lap before I moved to the door? Seen her glance up at my departing form, smiling…? This is almost vanity to think such things!

But again…

What if I had spoke Japanese –many westerners in Japan do — and could have leaned over and uttered some consoling word in her ear?

For all I know, this normally laudable American entiment might have violated some Asian shibbolith — who knows? Whatever…

This was fifty-two years ago this month. I didn’t mean to write so much about it. A simple sorrow, simply observed would have been better.

But I hope that was the most transitory of sorrows for that young woman. Who knows? Perhaps it had lifted and vanished by the time she reached her destination. A good little cry, and it was over. I hope so. I hope, if she’s still alive, she has had a happy, fulfilling life.

Living or dead, I’m thinking of her, obviouly. And praying for her. And while I remember the Imperial Palace, Tokyo Tower, The Ginza…I will also always remember the young woman on the Tokyo train.

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