Japanese Commuter Diaries

INTRO HERE

On the train.

Today I decide to change it up: sit in a seat other than my normal one. I can choose because I always arrive early enough to get the seat I want.

My normal seat is usually in the last booth on the train (my commuter train has two cars, generally), on the left side. I usually sit facing forward.

However, I have found that it’s nice to change things up. Usually I stick to the left side of the train, since that is the less sunny side, but taking a rearward facing seat on occasion is a nice change of scenery. When you’re used to watching what’s coming in your journey, it’s a new perspective to see those same scenes in reverse. A contemplation of where you’ve been, watching things drifting off into the distance.

Today is overcast, so I decided to really change it up. Right side booth, rear facing. Totally different world now. Like they say: sometimes a change is as good as a rest.

Waiting for the train to depart, a group of seven salarymen get on the train. It’s a whole crew. The dynamic with which they do this is interesting.

First, the point man: junior manager. He snags my usual booth, but takes the rear facing window seat. He is followed by four juniors: young, fresh-faced keeners; all obsequious eagerness and jumpy bowing. They occupy the four sideways facing seats by the rear doors. Totally separate area from their manager. The train equivalent of the kids’ table at a big family function.

This remains the entirety of the crew for some time. Then, five minutes before the train’s departure, the two big dicks present themselves. Turns out, junior manager has been holding the booth down for them.

Middle manager takes the rear facing booth seat next to the junior manager, at the aisle. Then, senior manager gets the front facing window seat to himself. His backpack gets the empty seat to his right.

Bossman is the only one with a backpack. The rest have the ubiquitous salaryman briefcases. Bossman, however, can allow himself this small breach of professional dress code.

It is a very nice backpack. Black and grey. Has the logo of some prestigious international business conference or another. The wooden handle of an expensive, folding umbrella protrudes from one of the backpack’s side bottle pouches.

Bossman’s number two, the middle manager, leaves his seat and heads back to the kids’ section. He hunkers down in front of two of them, like a peewee baseball coach instructing his youngsters. I can make out a few words: “customer,” “office,” “meeting,” “presentation.” His juniors are all attentive heads bobs and squared shoulders. Coiled springs at tension, ready to engage.

His people primed, his duty done, middle manager returns to his seat.

Bossman acknowledges none of this. He has not looked at the youngsters behind him once. Nor will he.

Bossman is in his early fifties, with a greying crewcut. Fit. Very low body fat. Square jawed. Dark black suit. Purple and violet tie with a broad, interesting striped pattern that probably set his wife or daughter back a minimum of ten thousand yen (a hundred dollars). He is calm. Like a cat on its favorite perch, he watches quietly with placid eyes. Sure of his superiority.

Bossman likes gum. He works it like it is premeditated murder, with violent stabs of chewing. The base of his jaw thickens as he chews; the muscles there overdeveloped. Sinews and tendons spring out of his jaw and neck. Not just a gum chewer, then: a nighttime tooth grinder too. Unsurprising.

Bossman hands gum out to his two underlings seated opposite. They dutifully take it. He likes gum, so you like gum. Halfway through the train ride, having swallowed his first batch, Bossman hands out more. He actually throws a stick of it at the middle manager, who has to move fast to catch it in his open file folder.

The managers don’t talk. They spend the first part of the trip going through some paperwork quietly. Reviewing files and business propaganda materials. The Bossman has an interesting looking notebook in which he has glued papers and pamphlets amongst his handwritten notes, like some kind of weird scrapbook. Then, once all their preparations are done, they put their materials away and sit in silence.

They sit in silence because the Bossman wants silence.

When we reach our destination, Bossman and his two subordinates leave the youngsters in their wake, paying them no heed as they move to the escalators to get to the bullet trains. A little later, moving through the station myself, I am able to watch their procession heading up to their platform.

Bossman leads the way, talking amiably with the middle manager, who follows one step back and to his right. Then, a good two meters behind, follow the rest. The junior manager who held the booth seats leads the four ducklings, who follow along, two by two.

Bossman leads the way. Kicking ass for his company. Not a doubt in his mind that his people follow behind, doing everything exactly the way they are supposed to.

This is Japan.