imomus (imomus) wrote,

Superlegitimacy: passion and ecstasy of a Tokyo train driver

(Click the picture of the train driver for a 14MB avi video file representing his ecstasy and passion.)

Westerners in Japan often find the things they see spectral, uncanny, plastic. This is because there's a constant sense that, despite similarities to (or simulacra of) western forms, the social organization of Japan is radically different from what we know in the west. On a superficial level, Japanese cities look like western cities, their parks like our parks, their trains like our trains, and so on. Nevertheless, this 'likeness' is an illusion. 'A train' is a western invention adopted by the Japanese in the 19th century. But when we look at, board, and ride a train in Japan it would be foolish to see it as anything like a western train. It's a set of Japanese etiquettes and assumptions travelling through space. It only looks like a train. Soon, explaining the deep otherness of the superficially familiar things he sees around him, the visitor finds himself saying things like this:

That x only looks like an x, something I know well. In fact it is a manifestation of y, something I don't.

One of the things I do here is read signs endlessly, sifting them for meaning, distinguishing the apparent westerness of what I'm seeing from its real Japaneseness, its familiar appearance from its strange reality. Since I don't speak Japanese, I'm particularly focused on body language, gesture, the theatre of the street, the micro-life of small, fleeting encounters. And since I don't know the actual terms for the Japanese social relations I'm seeing beneath the veneer of western-looking stuff, I tend to be making up terms as I go along. Here's a cluster of 'irreducibly Japanese values' which might be hiding in the micro-gestures of some ordinary social interaction.

Mutual capitulation
Cute Formalism
Society as 'The Voice of Heaven'
The veneration of smallness
The universality of fetish
(the investment of small, practical actions with 'undue' gravitas and charisma)
...and so on.

Let me give you an example of Superlegitimacy. Yesterday I took a Tokyu line train from Okayama to Meguro. I was standing in the first carriage, right behind the driver. I noticed a series of odd cries, muffled by glass, and realized they were coming from the white-gloved driver himself. Alone in his cabin, he was accompanying his actions with sharp cries. It was astonishing, yet, weirdly, I was the only passenger paying any attention. My first thought was that the driver was mentally ill. I admired the train company's lack of prejudice in giving such a responsible job to someone with Tourette's Syndrome, but worried for our safety. Then I remembered that autistic people can often be highly talented in narrow areas -- drawing buildings, for instance, or memorizing music. Perhaps this man was an excellent driver, better than someone mentally, well, well? I watched -- and filmed -- the lunatic. He did seem exceptionally focussed. At each station he made an immaculate white-gloved gesture -- a series of florid manual curlicues more like the gestures of an orchestral conductor than a train driver. He pointed at the TV screens in his console showing the doors, then pulled the train away with both gloved hands on his accelerator lever, uttering as if by compulsion his ecstatic falling cry: 'Kkkkyyyyyoooooooo!' Crossing points or passing other trains, he made similar noises. They seemed less like words than explosions of passion for the regular events of the job. And yet it was a passion as formalized as the whoops and howls of kabuki actors.

More speculations rattled through my mind. Was this a trainee driver, taught to call out loud the actions he was making in the same way that, as a Learner Driver in Britain, I was taught to say 'Mirror, signal, manoeuvre?' I began to see, beside the driver in the cabin, the contours of a ghostly 'guru driver' appear; a calm, modest yet deeply authoritative 'master of the train'. This trainee driver, I speculated, was addressing his ghost, his internalized 'train master', and calling out with passionate capitulation the beloved gestures of his duties for the master to see and approve.

Later, a Japanese friend told me that this weird behaviour is common and normal in Japan. All train drivers shout out their actions in this way, not just trainees.

It seemed impossible to see this driver as (in the western cant) 'a man who just happens, at this moment, to be driving a train... but could be so much more than that if he wanted to be... So don't box him in.' Western society covers its hierarchical verticality with the cant of 'equality of opportunity' (which of course entails its less benign cousin, inequality of result). Sure, the President is better, but you too could be president! Whereas Japanese society is superflat, distributed. Ultimate value might fall at any point on the horizontal plane. Everybody is as important as everybody else, everybody bows to everyone else. The capitulation is mutual, the investment total.

The west prefers us to be divided, to wear masks, to adopt a casual, pragmatic, rather non-committal attitude to our jobs. Only selected professions (entrepreneur, artist, designer, sexual pervert) are really seen as vocational in a passionate way, the way that would make you say 'He's what he does right to his core, he lives it 24 hours a day'. A western train driver might make us feel indifference, scorn and pity, or make us hope he had a nice family and hobbies to compensate for the under-rewarded, uninteresting drudgery of his job. This Tokyu Line employee seemed to have the very soul of a train driver. He had made train driving his religion. He made me feel admiration and jealousy. I wanted his commitment, his dignity. I wanted to wear white gloves and make delicate ceremonial gestures even while doing something completely pragmatic and down-to-earth. I wanted to cry out with ecstasy every time I crossed points. As this driver, I would never feel unimportant. I would feel, in fact, like a star. I would catch glimpses of fascination and envy from children and adults alike. I'd never be surprised to find myself being photographed or filmed. It would seem perfectly natural that video game arcades featured simulations of my job. My glamour would be apparent, though lightly-worn. I would hand over to the next driver with a low bow and a deep sense of satisfaction, not to have the job behind me, but to have the same glories ahead of me tomorrow, and forever. Whatever I was paid would be okay. My reward would be a deep sense of legitimacy. Superlegitimacy, a rich reward.

So this only looked like train-driving. In fact it was something tremendously Japanese; a sense of almost fanatical dedication, a capitulation of self to social role, an internalization of social requirement, a going-to-extremes, an etiquette, a sense of honour. I thought of how Mishima's father, reluctant to see his son become a writer, had said 'Very well, if you become a writer, at least become Japan's best writer.' (Mishima proceeded to do just that.) The ecstasy of my train driver seemed to confirm something very important, a secret of happiness known to Collectivist societies like Japan and lost to increasingly, mistakenly Individualist ones like ours. Namely, that happiness does not lie in evading, avoiding, denying or escaping your social role, but in embracing it completely and joyfully. Stop trying to deny the social category you're in! Relax into your role, or, rather, stiffen into it (in all senses). The clarity will help everyone. By limiting yourself, you will set yourself free. By concentrating on what's here and now and practical, you will reach 'the eternal' and the mysterious. This is the very essence, it seems to me, of Japan.

Whereas in the west we tend to feel uneasy relating to a train driver as a train driver, preferring to see him as 'just a guy', 'just passing through on his way to a management position', 'whatever he wants to be', 'a fan of the Redskins' or 'a guitar player', in Japan being 'Mr Train Driver' to the very core of your soul is just fine. If this man has a wife, I'm sure she refers to him as 'Mr Train Driver' in bed. I can imagine him wearing his uniform even on days when he has no work, as the schoolgirls do here, so wrapped up in the deep joy and honour of being 'a schoolgirl', the pleasures and freedoms of what we'd see as a categorical limitation. I imagine my train driver hero walking by the sea wearing his uniform, and even the sea calling out a cheerful greeting: 'Thank you for your great work, Mr Train Driver!'

Superlegitimacy runs through Japanese society; you begin to see it everywhere. It's the opposite of anomie, and it's beyond price. You could pay western train drivers twice, three times as much and they'd never feel, existentially, this sense of enchantment. As a result they'll never do their job with the love, attention to detail and dedication of a Japanese train driver. Tender, lovely music will never flood western stations as it floods Japanese stations whenever a train arrives (each station has its own melody, and they're frankly, unabashedly romantic; the arriving train is 'the beloved'). The cleanliness and efficiency of the Tokyo subway system is not just a question of throwing money at cleaning services, or the different demographics of urban transport here -- if, in the West, only losers ride the subway, here everyone does. No, all flows from the basic perception, shared by passengers and staff alike, of superlegitimacy. Just as anomie is a vicious circle (we hate the trains, so we trash them, so they become even more dismal, and we hate and trash them more), so superlegitimacy is a virtuous one, an upward spiral.

As a westerner, one fears introducing contempt, dirt, pragmatism or bad manners into such a legitimate system. To us, it all seems like a brittle, tender-minded, insane illusion, a bubble we might burst, eggshells we might break. For superlegitimacy has been lost to the west. Anomie rules, the subway is abandoned, dangerous, smelly, abused, inefficient, threatening, dirty. Here in Japan, though, we wonder if our clothes are clean enough for the seats. We walk on tiptoe, hoping we don't transgress against the codes of etiquette. To fart, for instance, would surely warrant the death penalty. To put shoes up on the seat fabric would be a horrific gaffe. (Both of these things happen every day on the London Underground.) To attack another passenger would be unthinkable, brutish. Even to talk on one's mobile phone would be illegal and downright rude. The etiquette is unpredictable, though: to lightly molest a child might be quite acceptable on the Tokyo subway, no more than a peccadillo to which other passengers would turn a blind eye.

Which brings us to 'That only looks like sex. In fact it is the Japanese love of all things small and cute in sexual form.' What, did you think all Japanese differences were easy to feel good about? Differences it's easy to feel good about might not be real differences at all. I'm not even sure I find our superlegitimate train driver 'healthy'. Isn't he some sort of fascist, a fanatic? And when I envy him, shouldn't I feel slightly disturbed by my feelings, irresistible as they are?

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