Academic journal article The Journal of Transport History

Commuting Gazes: Schoolgirls, Salarymen, and Electric Trains in Tokyo

Academic journal article The Journal of Transport History

Commuting Gazes: Schoolgirls, Salarymen, and Electric Trains in Tokyo

Article excerpt

In the first decade of the twentieth century, there were several transformations in Tokyo urban space and in the lives of its inhabitants. Many of these social and spatial movements converged on the train. During the years after Japan's 1905 military victory over Russia, the infrastructure of Tokyo was laid, and train and streetcar routes were extended.1 A growing number of people moved to Tokyo from other parts of Japan, and the city population started to dramatically increase. Concurrently, families of different socio-economic classes began to migrate from the city to the surrounding countryside, seeking nature and tranquillity away from the noise and crowds. The residents of these suburbs included the 'salaryman', who, as indicated by the anglicised signifier sarariiman, was a male corporate or government employee paid monthly and a member of the new urban middle class that formed with the developing capitalist economy. The salaryman, his wife, and children lived alongside upper-class families, whose daughters often attended school in the centre of Tokyo and commuted there by the expanding network of mass transport. From the last decade of the nineteenth century, the number of female students (jogakusei) increased, and the image of the teenage schoolgirl dressed in hakama, wearing hair ribbons, and traversing Tokyo or its suburbs on a bicycle or by train frequently appeared in popular literature and the mass media.2 Both the proliferation of salarymen and female students and the rise of the suburbs they inhabited were facilitated by the development of Tokyo transport, especially commuter trains, the spaces of which were shared by these men and women of different ages and social backgrounds.

Trains became integral to everyday life in Tokyo. Different from earlier horse buses, they were 'mass' transport, and genders and classes interacted in passenger cars. The daily commute was implicated in and characteristic of changing sensory perceptions of urban crowds, shocks, and spectacles and in psychological adjustments to the new systems of signs and practices in the city. Trains were places to watch and for being watched, and altered the way people viewed the landscape and each other. Female passengers often became objects of the gaze. As Foucaultian 'heterotopia', temporary worlds in transit, trains revealed and reflected the conditions of daily life in the twentieth century, and they epitomised the conjuncture of capitalist growth, State ideologies, and social transformations, all of which helped cause their development and the diversification of their passengers.3 Trains became a practical means of living, studying, and working in Tokyo but were, at times, the site of urban behaviours and seductions and could be viewed as synecdoche for the rapidly modernising city itself.

The historical concurrence of and relationship between the creation of new gender roles, the development of Tokyo's network of modern transport, and the growth of the suburbs in the first decades of the twentieth century were frequently depicted in fiction, journalism, and popular songs. In the years after 1905, the inseparable connection between mass transit and social and spatial change was most vividly seen and intensely felt in Tokyo, and, therefore, trains and passengers figured prominently in stories, essays, and other writings at the time. Literature was an effective vehicle to express such historical transformations, and, in their stories, Japanese authors described the thoughts, emotions, and impressions of men and women who rode trains and streetcars, thus providing insight into how individuals experienced urban modernity. Writers saw something captivating about trains and the potentially liberating but traumatising experience of riding in them. Moreover, the presence of objects and practices in literature, art, and other media often coincides with the start of their integration into the realities of daily life. When such commodities and behaviours become familiar, they are no longer threatening to established systems or alluring in their newness. …

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