Tuesday, March 06, 2012
Somnambulant Interaction on Japanese Trains
In the 1997 Japanese film Janku Fudo one of the protagonists dies on the Yamanote Line (in UK parlance, The Circle Line) and circles around and round before anyone notices, thinking he is asleep. Japanese subway carriages can be lonely places.
In some excellent observational research (in Japanese), Dr. Harihara Motoko (2010) studied the behaviour of passengers on three subways, in Tokyo, Seol and New York. She and her confederates stood in subway carriages with clipboards counting the number of times that passengers interacted with each other, and found that the Japanese interacted far less than those in Seol and New York. In New York there were about 26 interactions per 100 stops on the subway, whereas in Tokyo there were only 6. Harihara associates these results with those of Yamagishi's research (see Yamagishi & Yamagishi, 1994 for a review) which show that the Japanese have lower levels of general trust (i.e. they only trust friends and family but not strangers) and this tendency, not to interact with anyone but ones peers, with collectivism.
First of all, as Harihara herself points out, there is research on interpersonal interaction in the field of intercultural communication which finds that country folk are more likely to interact that city dwellers. And at the same time, it is usually argued that City dwellers are more isolated and individualist. In my own experience of travelling from Southern Italy (where passengers on busses talk to each other and even the driver), up through to London (where the passengers are almost as unfriendly as in Japan) and being of the opinion that it was the English, rather than the Southern Italians, that were individualist. As is often the case, the same behaviour - ignoring other passengers - can be interpretted as both individualistic and collectivistic, an indication of the problematic nature of this axis of comparison.
Secondly, and relating to the theory proposed by this author, while I think that Harihara's research is excellent, authentic, and above all very intersting, I wonder if it falls foul of the invisibility of the visible paradigm that I touched on in my recent post about Japanese architecture.
Aside: Invisibility of the Visible Paradigm: To westerners (such as Donald Richie, the author of "The Image Factory, Fads and Fashions in Japan) and perhaps Westernised Japanese, visual images can seem trivial, mere "fads," not worthy of note, and almost invisble. This enables Westerners to come to Asian cities, which are so bristling with individuality that it pokes your eye out, and not even notice! They are blind to all but the linguistic self-representations, and since the Japanese are a quiet lot, that rarely speak, much less express opinions to strangers, the Westerner can go away thinking that 'those Japanese have no individuality.' Since the Japanese are into cooperating with each other and have more individuality than they know what to do with, they are happy for Westerners to mis-represent them in this way. End of Aside.
Of the 21 categories of interaction studied by Harihara Motoko, 14 are either purely linguistic (ask for directions, converse etc) or partly linguistic ('smile or greet someone' as a single category), or a response to what may have been a linguistic request (such as giving money to someone asking for contributions). Dividing the interactions into "possibly-linguistic" and "probably-non-linguistic" we find that the majority of the difference between Japan and New York falls in the former category, with New Yorkers making about 21 and Tokyoites about 3 possibly-linguistic interactions per 100 stops. Regarding the remaining 7 probably-non-linguistic interactions (giving up a seat, moving a seat, letting someone on first, helping in some way, staring, moving seat, negative facial expression) the difference is the number of interactions is drastically reduced, to about 3.5 in Tokyo to about 4.5 in New York. Limiting the interactions again to those which are clearly purely visual (staring/glimpsing and negative facial expressions) we find the situation reversed, with 1.6 interactions in Tokyo to only 0.4 in New York. This is a ratio of 4 to 1 in favour of Tokyo-ites interacting more than people from New York, still not as great as the difference in linguistic interactions (7 to 1 in favour of New Yorkers) but non-linguistic interactions are sometimes very difficult to observe. Or are they....
Thinking back to my experiences in the Tokyo subway, and indeed in a lot of social situations in Japan, it seems to me that a great deal of non-verbal interaction goes on. Leaving aside the glances, expressions, sighs, and postures and moving to the most extreme example, I was surprised to find that on a large number of occasions, the subway travellers fell asleep on each other (please see the photos above). Call me old fashioned but it seemed to me that falling asleep on a stranger seems to be a schockingly brave, and or invasive form of interaction that requires extremely high levels of interpersonal trust. I am quite unable to fall asleep on the shoulder of another traveller, but a young Japanese female has fallen asleep on mine.
Taking another extreme example of non-verbal interaction on Japanese trains, if interpersonal touching could be said to be a form of interaction then Tokyo is way out there in the blue as this next photo illustrates.
Japanese trains are silent. They remind me a little of Japanese public baths - where Japanese people 'get naked together' - in the the ferocity, the deafening roar of the non-verbal interaction taking place therein.
Harihara M. (2010) "Chikatetsunai ni Okeru Mishiranu Tasha to no Sougosayo no Nichi-Kan-Bei-Bunka-Hikaku." （"A Japan-Korea-US Cross Cultural comparison of Interaction with Strangers on the Subway" my trans). Japanese ociety of Social Psycholgy. 51st annual conference. Hiroshima University. Downloaded on 6th March 2012 fromhttp://www.wdc-jp.biz/jssp/archive/paper_download.php?s=2010-A-0378
Yamagishi, T., & Yamagishi, M.(1994). Trust and commitment in the United States and Japan. Motivation and emotion, 18, 129--166.
This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.