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Superlegitimacy: passion and ecstasy of a Tokyo train driver - Superlegitimacy: passion and ecstasy of a Tokyo train driver - click opera Page 2 — LiveJournal
February 2010
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Tue, Jul. 20th, 2004 09:45 am
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?


Tue, Jul. 20th, 2004 07:19 pm (UTC)

To try to take a different tack on this, Momus, let me ask
what do your Japanese expat friends think about
"superlegitimacy" and the aesthetics of super-flatness.
Are there any native Japanese living in Berlin, Paris, New York
reading this discussion who can comment on the essay
and the subsequent discussion?

Many young Japanese want to leave Japan, and many who leave
don't want to go back. Why is this? Others make openly
negative comments about their society, or complain how
frustrating or boring it is to live in Japan. Is this
just self-deprecation or do they really think this is so?

It would be nice if we could have more input into this
discussion from Japanese readers. Onegai shimasu!

Tue, Jul. 20th, 2004 07:35 pm (UTC)

It would be nice to get Japanese input. I did discuss the ideas in this entry with a half-Japanese, half-American woman in Tokyo, who found them interesting, but when I extended the idea to pretty girls also being 'superlegitimate' (loving, being at home with their role as women, rather than trying to bust out of it and be, American style, 'whatever they want to be' -- translation: some kind of ersatz man), she said that was 'problematical'. (I didn't ask if that was the American or the Japanese in her saying that!) Of course, it's precisely when these ideas get 'problematical' that I find them most interesting!

ReplyThread Parent Expand

Tue, Jul. 20th, 2004 07:54 pm (UTC)

I think what Nick is talking about in his last reply may be related
to what is called "kata" in Japanese. These are essential patterns
of behaviour that can be applied in certain situations.
It's somewhat related to the "Pattern Language" approach
to design proposed by the architect Christopher Alexander.
The individual ego takes the back seat and culture is at the
steering wheel or train conductors seat as the case may
be ...
The kata themselves can be quite fixed. The flexibility
results from the combinatorial explosion that results when
you put different kata together. Kata can be the basis
for a universal system, like a human langauge or the genetic
code. Tea ceremony is where you really get to have fun with
kata. It's a strict and formal system, yet somehow it's infinite.
An infinite set of situations is observable. Perhaps it's something
like the game in Herman Hesse's Magister Ludi.

Boye De Mente's book on Kata is worth a look:

Kata: The Key to Understanding & Dealing With the Japanese!
Boye Lafayette De Mente

Boye De Mente doesn't have the academic credentials that
Ruth Benedict or some of the other authors cited in the above
discussion have, and some of what he says is dated. But he
does have a lot of practical experience and his book
is full of down-to-earth helpful insights.

Another of his books, Bachelor's Japan (http://www.amazon.co.jp/exec/obidos/ASIN/0804816921/qid=1090377008/sr=1-13/ref=sr_1_0_13/250-2215540-6013822), is so out of date that it is worth a look just for it's kind of smoking-jacket Tokyo Tiki-lounge early 60's retro feel.
You can probably find both over in Tuttle books in Jimbo-cho, Kanda.
(Yasukuni-dori, isn't it? I don't know Tokyo very well).

Hope this spout from a Japan otaku is not too annoying. Just bouncing ideas around ...


Tue, Jul. 20th, 2004 08:05 pm (UTC)
Train Driver

This article is precisely why I like to read this site.
I love the whole thing. Then the twist at the end.
We're seduced by something delicious and exotic, then the whole business is problematized. Its enought to drive you mad and sane at the same time... I am yet to listen to any Momus music. I'll get there.
Thanks for this inspirational site.


Tue, Jul. 20th, 2004 09:28 pm (UTC)

Superlegitimacy. Momus.

There is something incredibly delicious about seeing my life as legitimate and a place where I can live fully engaged! That feels so sweet. Maybe some part of me has been starved for legitimacy.

Adrift in the western way of life we hunger for legitimacy. I think Momus really touches on something of a sore spot in the western psyche, especially for artistic people, but probably for the vast masses. Let me speak as an artist, it seems to me that for the most part artists are not valued. We are considered valuable only when we become $uccessful. Without money we are not valued at all. So to hear tell of some being who feels absolutely legitimate, more, superlegitimate, its enough to make an outsider westerner swoon. I guess it is my hope to some day be legitimate. Imagine being absolutely validated in your work and in your being!

I have an incredible hunger for validation. I would like to live a day when I felt completely at one with my work. As a marginal artist such days are rare. I recall being the recipient of warm applause from an audience who had just seen a small video that I had made. That was amazing. To feel that appreciation.

I think the whole concept of superlegitimacy opens up a can of worms for me psychologically. As an artist I have gone forward with my own art and this belief that I will somehow break through. I have not gone by any known formula, if anything I have always looked towards the unknown. I think that artists need to be adventurous. I love that part of my job. One thing that I didn't anticipate was the amount of validation and legitimacy I would be starved for because of the role I chose in life. I'm a starving artist in this sense. Starved for validation. Starved for legitimacy.

Is your 'superlegitimacy' a real thing in japan or is it a projection of a western hunger artist's need for validation.

It may not be a good thing to be superlegitimate. The superlegitimate are merciless and inhuman. Superlegitimacy is facist. We know that.

I see something very problematic and very western about this whole notion of superlegitimacy. Why must we make a fetish of absolute legitimacy.... My answer is that we have a surplus of indeterminacy in the west so we become hypnotized by what seems to be the exact opposite.

Raised in the secular west, adrift in our the painful triumph of individuality, superlegitimacy will have its charms.

Wed, Jul. 21st, 2004 03:16 am (UTC)

You're in JAPAN! Stop updating your LJ and go out and enjoy yourself some more :)


(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Wed, Jul. 21st, 2004 04:29 pm (UTC)

Could the social environment brought about by Japanese culture produce a Leonardo or Voltaire--or merely fragments of them found dispersed among numerous individuals?

The answer is a very resounding yes. Japan's culture -- with its attention to detail, its eccentric imaginings, its otakus, its wealth, superlegitimacy, curiosity -- leads straight to genius, to scientific and artistic achievement. If you want a modern Leonardo, look no further than the brilliant Toshio Iwai.

ReplyThread Parent

Wed, Jul. 21st, 2004 04:19 pm (UTC)
drama, but fun to read

I'm going to play skeptic here, but it's because I enjoy the ideas and debate, and Momus is just about the best blog leader ever, no? You are certainly "Locutus of Blog". Somebody has to push this in another direction besides "I'm enlightened, you are wonderful", though that might be true.

I'm not a sociologist or a philosopher, and all of this dramatic orientalist exoticsm is fun, but I bet you jyu-en that if you interviewed the guy he'd shrug and say, "eh, it's a job." In my working capacity in Japan I've had to shout things whenever someone came in the office, and as they left as well, when the went for lunch, and when they introduced a new client. And I've asked coworkers about it, and they've shrugged and said, "eh, it's just what we have to do." Not terribly different from "Welcome to Wendy's".

Is the train driver feeling "enchantment"? Maybe he is contributing to a 'superlegitimate' society (I like that term), but does it please him to do so? Or is he merely droning on, the same way I did at my computer on the 33rd floor in Manhattan? I have to suggest that it's the latter. I've read so many books about how the Japanese are "different", and it's well known that the biggest problem Japanese have, in relating to the world, is that they believe that that's true. As fun as it is to treat Japan like some kind of 'weirdo wonderland', my experiences here have been mainly ho-hum, fine and pretty much understandable. I guess my point is for readers who come to this blog from other places — Japan is 97% just like wherever you are posting from.

Wed, Jul. 21st, 2004 04:34 pm (UTC)
Re: drama, but fun to read

I'm glad you put a different point of view, but I disagree. Did you watch the video of the train driver? What about the fact that the following day, there were people standing behind him imitating his gestures? Do people do that when you're at your computer on the 33rd floor?

Perhaps we could arrive at a compromise, though: I'll say 'Japan is 47% just like wherever you are posting from'. No, make that 42%.

ReplyThread Parent Expand

Wed, Jul. 21st, 2004 06:14 pm (UTC)
Japanese Geniuses

Yes Iwai is a genius. He gave a brilliant lecture and performance at this year's NIME event. There are some photos
and a video clip linked to


In my opinion the real Mozart of technology in Japan is
Jun Rekimoto (http://www.csl.sony.co.jp/person/rekimoto.html) of the Sony CSL Labs. He's one of the few people
I know who can get a standing ovation after a lecture
at a conference meeting.


Tue, Sep. 5th, 2006 12:56 am (UTC)
you might know about japan, but you know shit about tourette's syndrome

people who have tourette's syndrome aren't mentally ill, nor are they autistic. And they are certianly not lunatics. So before you say something, why don't you think twice about it before, it might not only be offensive but completly innaccurate. Worse than not understanding something is misinforming others about it.

Tue, Sep. 5th, 2006 02:53 am (UTC)
Re: you might know about japan, but you know shit about tourette's syndrome

Ah, the "disgruntled single-issue googler"!

I know you have little interest in what my narrative was setting out to achieve (the thoughts and misperceptions that rush through a commuter's mind on hearing someone in a subway train suddenly uttering strange cries), but I'd have thought it obvious that this is not meant to be a definitive statement about how people suffering from Tourette's are "lunatics".

I don't need to make any disclaimer here: my text already sets up the idea that "I may have thought x, y or z, but I was wrong."

ReplyThread Parent Expand

Fri, Oct. 3rd, 2008 10:07 pm (UTC)

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.

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?

- Delta

Fri, Oct. 3rd, 2008 11:52 pm (UTC)

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.

ReplyThread Parent Expand

(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand

(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand

Thu, Jun. 18th, 2009 03:56 pm (UTC)

Hi there, the reason he is shouting and pointing, is to keep himself alert and as such avoid passing signals at danger, or failing to carry out certain safety duties which could result in a collision. This is actually used in the west in certain situations, although not all day every day, as there are other certain 'reminder' systems in place in the cab. Calling and pointing is just one of many ways to achieve this.

By the way, its not such an unrewarding job, upwards of £40k per year for a 4 day week in UK. Not sure what the japanese pay but i imagine it would be even more :)

Thu, Jan. 13th, 2011 04:36 am (UTC)


>>Mutual capitulation

"saving face" or to use a filipino term "pakisama"

>>Cute Formalism

That's called 'kawaii' I believe that is what you're referring to

>>Society as 'The Voice of Heaven'

confucian themes the japanese modified for their purposes (like being more crowded than mainland china)


>> Anomie rules, the subway is abandoned, dangerous, smelly, abused, inefficient, threatening, dirty.

Chicago El lines aren't that bad, and even the NYC subway has LONG improved since the 1980s. It's far to go compared to European systems but you're exxagerating

Anomie is pretty bad in japan as other people pointed out, the hikkimori phenomon is strong and the society is cracking under its' own hypocrisy and self-serving lies.

Thu, Jan. 21st, 2016 01:54 am (UTC)
thank you

amazing article