Gentle giant

Published : Oct 19, 2007 00:00 IST

A view of Shinjuku, one of the busiest localities in Tokyo. - JAPAN NATIONAL TOURIST ORGANISATION

A view of Shinjuku, one of the busiest localities in Tokyo. - JAPAN NATIONAL TOURIST ORGANISATION

Tokyo has an urban culture combining the anonymity of the cluster of millions with the intimacy of neighbourliness.

WINTER is the most attractive season in Tokyo. The light is so captivating. When I leave the house in the morning shortly before seven, it is bright daylight; even in January the sun is already in an azure sky, which is usually cloudless, with just a red tinge from the pollution. The sun is red, not yellow, in Japanese iconography, as it is on the flag. In this time of the year it can almost always be seen.

It is a five-minute walk to the subway station, past the old man who sweeps the leaves up outside his house every day, even when there is hardly a leaf to be seen. I pass the couple who take their morning stroll down to the river, and the silver coupe with the elegant woman at the wheel, whose time is too precious for her to go on foot. Life in Tokyo is fast. Studies indicate that people here walk more quickly than in other cities.

How many of them are there? Eight million? Twelve? Thirty? It is not that no one knows the actual population of Japans capital; errors in statistics here are negligible. But it is not always clear what people are talking about. Is it the metropolitan area of Tokyo, with or without the incorporated towns and villages? Is it the prefecture of Tokyo? Or is it the conurbation in the wider sense, including the adjacent cities of Chiba, Kawasaki and Yokohama?

The citys population varies from day to night by over 2.5 million. In the evening, many people who work in the ministries, banks, factories, stores, businesses and cafs return to the dormitory towns of neighbouring areas. But that is hardly striking. Despite the migration that takes place every evening, if you do not live on the Ogasawara Islands, which with their 2,600 inhabitants lie more than 600 miles (965 kilometres) south in the Pacific but administratively are part of the metropolis, you rarely have cause to get bored or feel lonely in Tokyo. The population density of 13,000 for each of the 240 square miles (621.597 square kilometres) of the inner city alone prevents that.

Despite these numbers, Tokyo is not intolerably full. It has been one of the urban centres of the world for longer than most big European cities, which in any case owe this nomenclature only to a very lax interpretation of the term. It has developed an urban culture that combines the anonymity of the agglomeration of millions with the intimacy of neighbourliness. Despite its permanent staccato tempo and narrow confines it has preserved a high degree of civilisation, not only in neighbourhoods where the streets are lined with cherry and gingko trees, but also where people live more on top of one another than side by side.

At the small subway station, where two lines meet and which has only one exit, we go underground. Here the city follows its own rules. Most people read a book or a newspaper, unless they are looking at the share prices on their telephones, playing a game or sleeping. The urgent telephoning of people talking loudly with their business partners or loved ones does not disturb those who are tired. Of course almost every Tokyo resident has at least one cell phone, but no one would pester others here with their own trivialities.

Communication in the subway is only in writing, as on all trains. The sleepers are allowed to sleep and the readers to read in peace. Many people commute for two or three hours a day, the price they pay for a house that is not too small but affordable.

The Tokyo subway transports 7.5 million passengers every day, and the streetcars move at least as many on the roads. At this hour many schoolchildren are on the train: the girls chatter and giggle ceaselessly, the boys push school caps in each others faces, read comics or write out their homework. The smallest travellers, easy to recognise, are the first-graders. Their parents do not worry about letting them travel alone because they know that nothing will happen to them and that they will arrive on time.

Tokyo inhabitants are used to good service. Courteous and clearly articulated announcements tell them not only the direction in which they are travelling, the next station and where they can change to another line, but even warn them that when the train starts there may be a slight jolt and they had better hold on.

They are asked not to forget their umbrellas, not to stand next to special seating with their cell phones switched on so that they do not interfere with the pacemakers of passengers who may be sitting there, and not to stretch or cross their legs because that could obstruct others. If the train stops for a few seconds longer than expected, they are given a full explanation of the cause. Delays to the timetable can be measured in minutes. One of the most frequent causes of delays is suicide, a sore point of this otherwise peaceful city. The line on which I travel has built dividing walls between tracks and platforms, which make it impossible for anyone to jump in front of a train.

But there are plenty of other lines that are not protected so. Those weary of life choose the trains more frequently than tall buildings for their last act. Delay as a result of an accident with personal injury, is the phrase used in the announcement. A city with a population twice as large as Switzerlands does not live without suffering.

On A subway

Fewer people die a violent death in Tokyo than in other big cities. In Berlin the murder rate is three times as high, in Moscow it is almost 20 times, and in Washington, D.C., 50 times.

Despite repeated complaints about the rising crime rate, we can move around the city without anxiety. No other city of this size can compare with Tokyo when it comes to the safety of its citizens. That is worth a great deal for peace of mind. Nevertheless, no one need get bored. Those seeking entertainment will find in Tokyo all that the heart, body and soul could desire. Granted, the classic industries of gambling and bath houses are in the hands of criminal syndicates, but the police have an eye on them, and if there is violence, usually only the yakuza, or mafia, themselves are involved. However, there are always new challenges to security. Several subway and commuter trains have introduced women only carriages in reaction to complaints from women about groping on trains. If a man gets into one of them by accident and becomes aware of it, he feels quite out of place.

Alarm systems and other anti-intruder equipment are a growing industry; it is however not clear whether or not they satisfy the increasing need for security within ones own four walls. Tokyo is a rich city that has much to offer thieves. The times when you did not bother to lock up when you went shopping are long past.

The growing number of senile drivers who lurch through the streets or unexpectedly put their cars into reverse and park outside a shop window cause headaches for the Tokyo police. The accident rate among those over 70 years of age is twice the general average; those who voluntarily hand in their driving licences are now rewarded with free subway passes.

One other problem requires attention: crows. When I get out of the subway in the morning and cross a little park to the office, a crow sitting on the hedge looks at me in a threatening way. I gesture to frighten it, but it is not impressed. It flaps its wings for a while and caws. Immediately the caw is echoed from somewhere near by as a warning: the crow can call on reinforcements.

Pitch-black, with a beak like a chisel and a wingspan of up to a metre, the jungle crow instils due respect. It is a real plague in the city. Fifteen years ago there were around 7,300 of them in Tokyo; today they are estimated to number 35,000. These immigrants from the southern fields are in the process of taking over the city. The citys inhabitants observe this with some unease.

It is not difficult for the crows to find food in this prosperous society. People put out their trash, always conscientiously divided into burnable and not burnable, in an orderly way at the points indicated on the streets. Crows descend on it noisily and cause chaos. The nets with which the piles of trash are covered hardly keep them off. The Suginami district is experimenting with yellow garbage bags as a researcher discovered that these birds are blind to yellow. There has been initial success, but for how long is the question. These vultures are not stupid. They soon discovered that it was easier for them to strip off the coverings of the broadband cables and tear them suitably for waterproof nests than to attack electric and telephone cables. These cables have all been laid above the ground because of the many earthquakes. They make a major contribution to the ugliness of the city but improve the quality of the crows lives considerably.

Internet access for hundreds of homes and offices has been cut by crows that eat through the optic cables of broadband connections. These omnivores are certainly not harmless. Small birds are not safe from them, and sometimes they even carry off small puppies Tokyos inhabitants have an innate weakness for pets. Crows seldom attack children who get too near to their nesting platforms.

Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who is prone to making pithy remarks, is not only in favour of deporting foreigners whose residence permits have expired but has also declared war on crows. So far he has had as much success as George W. Bush against Al Qaeda, and is just as perplexed.

Brutal solutions poison, traps, hunters are too violent for the magistrates. The problem is being studied, and a peaceful solution is still being sought. As a temporary response, the city has set up a website on which the statistics of the black tribulation and measures taken against it will be registered.

That makes a peace-loving administration look good, but would not citizens prefer something more immediate? Here nature is striking back and showing how adaptable it is. The hypermodern city is becoming the preferred home of crows. All that we suffer from seems to be tailor-made for them. They flourish in the humid atmosphere that continuously running air-conditioning creates, with its extractors feeding the heat of the concrete jungle, which keeps us from going outdoors for longer than is absolutely necessary all summer.

Crows are a

Our garbage is their food. They pollute the otherwise spotlessly clean streets. They have no natural enemies, and there is no indication that they want peaceful coexistence. Hundreds of thousands of Tokyos inhabitants are awoken every day at sunrise by their ear-shattering crowing, and sunrise is very early. To make up for the lack of sleep, people have to take refuge in the subway. No crows have been sighted there so far, but now they command the air space above the city.

In Tokyo, crows are the enemy more than the people.

Florian Coulmas is Professor of Language and Culture of Japan at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany. He has lived in Tokyo for many years as head of the German Institute for Japan Studies. This article was translated from the German by John Bowden.

Sueddeutsche Zeitung 2007. Distributed by the New York Times Syndicate.

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