October 5th, 2008

operesque

Western ritual: passion and ecstasy of an American train driver

Dramatic and interesting things -- things that only I can see, via the "View Recent Comments" button -- sometimes happen at the end of old Click Opera threads, often when people arrive here by googling. A case in point is the dialogue that's been happening this week at the end of Superlegitimacy: passion and ecstasy of a Tokyo train driver.



Superlegitimacy is one of Click Opera's more significant posts, one I've rewritten and published. It appeared in a catalogue about the artist Matt Stokes and will pop up in The Book of Scotlands, transmuted for comic effect to a Scottish setting: "Yesterday I took one of Edinburgh's beautiful new trams, from Pilton to Restalrig. I was standing in the first car, right behind the driver."



Shortly after I rewrote the Superlegitimacy piece with a Scottish setting, an American train driver calling himself "Delta" started adding comments to the original thread.

"While I understand -- at least superficially -- the notion of superlegitimacy in Japanese living culture, in sharp contrast to western individualism mistaken as legitimacy, I have to wonder whether the train driver's actions really betray superlegitimacy," he wrote.

"I am a train driver myself, in the US (train engineer is the term we use here) and I see the difference daily: train drivers is what we do for a living, not who we are, and we would rather be scientists, movie stars or politicians to earn legitimacy. I personally disagree with this notion and tend to see my profession as a deeper calling, which, in a sense, guarantees its legitimacy for me.



"I have no doubt that the Japanese train driver in the video wears his uniform on off days and may even be addressed as Mr. Train Driver by his wife -- this is who he is and without his role, Japan could not survive.

"Still, his actions betray something quite different: ritual habits. In our profession, many actions must be ritualistic, even in western societies. The complexity of the job requires that the driver practice good habits -- really, rituals -- or run the danger of forgetting something critical. The job requires persistent focus, continual analysis of conditions ahead and constant multitasking. In an environment such as this, practicing rituals helps simplify what is already too complicated.

"This may indeed be little more than "mirror, signal, manoeuvre."

"Still, fascinating for western eyes to see. Do you have a longer video of that fellow you could post?



I responded enthusiastically: "Wow, great to hear from a real train driver on this thread! And I take your point about ritual existing even in the West, and being a necessary part of the job. The film I posted is all the video I have, alas, but there may be other video of Japanese train drivers on YouTube."

"Very good point," said Delta, and then went off and found the videos I've embedded on this page, "in which it is explained why these engineers make certain pointing motions".



After watching these videos, Delta noted one where drivers (or possibly conductors) are changing shifts. "They seem to compare watches (having standard time on railroads is critical), exchange words and salute. Another ritual."



Ritual becomes Delta's explanation for the strange movements I'd noticed in my Tokyo train driver: "Looking at the last engineer, it seems to me that what he is doing is "going through the motions." Before taking any action, such as throttle out, he checks conditions outside (e.g., the signal governing his movement), and inside his cab (indicators, doors-closed lights, etc.). ALL engineers must go through these checks before moving. It seems that Japanese engineers are required to actually point physically to items being checked. This will reinforce completeness for the checklist and assure that no brain lapses happen."

Delta concludes: "Ours is an extremely high responsibility. I like the Japanese approach.

"Again, however, this does not mean that your original point is invalid."