Tokyo Stories: Commuter rage and a spot of Beckham therapy

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The Independent Online

Riding on the sardine-like Odakyu Line from western Tokyo one morning, I witness an argument: a middle-aged man squeezes into a seat six inches too narrow for his ample rear, prompting muttered complaints from the next passenger. The mutters get louder, the trigger word baka (idiot) is uttered, and the carriage is entertained by the sound of the "Little and Large Breakfast Show".

Riding on the sardine-like Odakyu Line from western Tokyo one morning, I witness an argument: a middle-aged man squeezes into a seat six inches too narrow for his ample rear, prompting muttered complaints from the next passenger. The mutters get louder, the trigger word baka (idiot) is uttered, and the carriage is entertained by the sound of the "Little and Large Breakfast Show".

"There's room on these seats for seven people."

"Seven normal-sized people."

"Are you saying I'm not normal?"

A few years ago, there was much concerned talk about how the legendary restraint and consideration for others of the average Tokyoite were dying, after a couple of equally petty train incidents led to broken skulls. Since these qualities are the lubricants that stop this teeming metropolis from seizing up, the concern was understandable. But given what Tokyoites put up with, it's remarkable how rare incidents like this are.

More than 30 million people fight for space in the Tokyo region, and 20 million have to get to work or school every day. Forced out of the city by extortionate rents, the commute for most gets longer by the year - about two hours a day on the train.

Tokyoites are herded into carriages filled to 200 per cent capacity, squeezed through some of the world's largest stations and popped out ready for another day's grind in grim corporate bunkers. The stoicism with which they greet this daily ordeal and keep the Asian financial hub humming is one of the wonders of the modern world.

As we head into summer, life gets even tougher. A blanket of thick, oppressive heat drops on the city and makes itself at home for two months. Cheap suits become damp with sweat, and the smell of stale booze wafts through the packed train carriages. And there is no letting off steam in Spain for two weeks, either. The typical Japanese vacation lasts three or four days. Trips abroad are the preserve of the young, the old or the rich, and the vast layer of people in the middle have to make do with a couple of days at a hot-spring resort.

In the six years I've been here and the thousands of hours I've spent on trains, I can count the number of fights I've witnessed on one hand. Amazing.

Our neighbour Mrs Kumagai calls in distress. "What am I going to do with my son?" she asks, close to tears. We'd noticed young Kumagai around, a 15-year-old hybrid of Marilyn Manson and Kevin the Teenager with a gloomy disposition that sucks the energy out of the air for yards in all directions. A typical teenage boy, then?

"No David-san," says his mother. "He hasn't gone to school in over a year. And I can't make him go. I'm kind of afraid of him."

"Monsters in the house" is what one author calls Japan's confused and angry kids, who are dropping out of school in record numbers: 120,000 officially, but probably many more. Some explode in articulate rage, others lock themselves in their rooms, sometimes for years. The blame is often laid at the door of the country's inflexible education system. But what can I do?

"Teach him English," pleads Mrs. Kumagai. "He loves David Beckham. It may take him out of himself."

Which is how I ended up poring over articles about Mr Posh Spice with a sullen Japanese teenager. Becks as therapy anyone?

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