The train ride was like any other in the early afternoon, so much space that one could watch the urban labyrinth flit by while sitting down. During rush hour people would gush in like water, filling the space completely and evenly, businesslike, without waste. The buildings of the outside world flashing by would be obscured, making for a tedious journey of staring at one’s shoes, the ads near the ceiling, or the back of the next salaryman’s neck. On rare occasions someone next to me would have the courage to practice his English, and state in a halting, monotonous voice: “I…hate…train”, or some other safe topic of conversation. Though I was never game for chatting with a stranger in such stuffy conditions, it was nice to know that some natives felt like I did. Usually I had the painful feeling of being alone in not understanding the purpose of my environment, orderly though it was. But normally the trip passed in silence. Having only to endure such a journey one-way was an advantage of starting work at mid-afternoon. The train arrived right on schedule and the familiar recording advising riders to be careful and watch their step sang out cheerfully.

The school was no more than a five minute walk from the station, and it was refreshing to step out into the city air, skyscrapers and train lines boxing in the sky above. Walking under the elevated tracks was like briefly passing through another world: dark, almost dingy, the environment there was shielded from the bright lights and advertising. What was most unusual was the odd weed growing through cracks in the pavement. To see any sign of botanical life was rare enough in Tokyo; virtually all plants were part of park spaces, which were themselves uncommon. Even then some tiny patches of green on a map would turn out to be nothing more than about thirty square meters of concrete with a bench and a solitary tree. Where I lived I was fortunate to be within walking distance of not one, but three small parks, all of which had grass and trees growing in them. One day on my way to one of these parks, I found an alternative route through a small hillside which led along a narrow footpath between houses. Along the way, far from the road while I sat down to enjoy the quietude, I noticed that the houses on either side of the path had a small garden out the back flanking the path – a rarity in big city Japan. One garden just in front of me had a tree growing up over the fence, and though trying to stretch its branches over the pathway, was restrained by a thick rope, pulling it back in line. Just then I happened to flip through my kanji dictionary, which I always carried with me in Japan, to the character for the verb ‘komaru’, written 困. If you separate this kanji into its individual parts, what you get is a tree: 木, in a box: 口. The meaning of komaru? To be in trouble. But the weeds popping out through the pavement were living a different life altogether. These were unplanned plants and though by urban standards might be ugly, they were undoubtedly free. I took great comfort in seeing these weeds, knowing that life would continue despite the worst environmental degradation; they assured me that the most important cause was for humans to take care of each other, knowing that non-human life would survive.

I walked into the school and the receptionist bowed her head slightly as she bleated out the expected greeting: “Ohayou gozaimasu”. I returned the pleasantry, looped my tie over my head, and tightened the yellow noose. Bright coloured work clothes were irregular in Japan, with most workers sticking to black, grey, white, or some shade inbetween. I had never worn a tie at work before, but it was essential in any adult language class; only for kids’ classes were teachers allowed to remove their tie. Today I had the usual sort of schedule: four adult classes and one kids’ class.

The emphasis for the kids was on using English words to play games and have fun. Any English use was encouraged. As usual the class began with me greeting the students at the door: “Hello Koji, how are you?” I asked, beaming at the little sprite standing before me. Knowing the routine that he must answer in English, after a short pause he blurted out “Banana!”

“Very good!” I cheered, and handed him a cushion as he entered the room. After sorting out a scuffle to ensure that everyone was satisfied with the colour of their cushion, we sang a simple English song while I held up one hand, a family of tiny puppets on each finger and thumb.

“Father finger, father finger, where are you?” Then wiggling my thumb with the father puppet,

“Here I am, here I am, and how do you do?”

Though it was prohibited for the teacher to speak Japanese in the class, somehow it never took long for the kids to catch on what they were supposed to do, and soon they all chimed in, singing beautifully together as we went through the whole family of mother, brother, sister, and baby fingers.

Teaching adult classes was all about rote learning. While the grammar increased in complexity as the students moved up levels, the lesson structure remained focussed on repetition. A class would have me read through a short script, with students parroting what I said, line by line. A lesson would go something like the following, with students repeating each line:

“When I get home tonight, I will take a bath”.

“When I finish work tomorrow, I will go out with my co-workers”.

“When I finish high school, I am going to Keio University”.

“When I retire, I want to live in Denenchofu”.

Afterwards, students would make up their own sentences using the same sentence structure, and there would sometimes be a few minutes for more improvised conversation. One day, at the end of the lesson above, out of curiosity I asked an aging salaryman why someone would want to retire in Denenchofu. “Mmm…” he replied cautiously, sensing the expectations of his classmates. He proceeded slowly, carefully: “Den-en-cho-fu…is…very…quiet”. He drew out the last word in particular, uttering it with precision, and a sense of finality, assured this would maintain the harmony of the group.

Students could elect to have a free talk however, and one-on-one lessons often proceeded this way. I gained some insight into the Japanese way of thinking during such lessons. One day I was talking with Akiko, a middle-aged house wife, about the town where she lived. “Do you like living in Fujisawa?” I asked. “Oh yes”, she replied.

“Why is that?”

“Well, Fujisawa is a small, quiet town”.

Just then I looked out the window of the classroom. The fifth floor of the building overlooked the centre of the town, with trains entering and leaving the station, and a hive of human activity buzzing around the shops surrounding the station, emanating outward in all directions. Compared to the centre of Tokyo – places like Shibuya or Shinjuku – Fujisawa was indeed relatively lethargic. Yet even the notion that Fujisawa was somehow a separate town from Tokyo was misleading. Any boundaries between parts of Tokyo-Yokohama were purely administrative; the entire area was one seamless urban labyrinth, a megalopolis of about 32 million people. Where I grew up there were wild green spaces between towns, full of trees and grass and birds and bugs, so the relentlessness of urbanity was hard to adjust to, and every other weekend I would escape to Kamakura, hike into the middle of the forest and just sit down for a couple of hours, letting the hum from the city subside as I took in the tranquility of the trees. I always wanted to know how Japanese people could stand living in such cramped cities without going insane, and occasionally during a one-on-one lesson I would try to elicit a response to this question. One day, another middle-aged house wife, terribly lonely like so many of them, admitted to me that she too thought the urban landscape in Japan was unpleasant. At this I felt a great sense of relief, knowing that I was not alone in questioning the fitness of this manmade environment for human wellbeing. Most other students showed no obvious signs of discomfort in their urban environment. I suppose one gets accustomed to wherever they grow up, and many seemed to revel in the city. When asked what their hobby was (a common question in Japan), many young women would reply “I go to shopping”. It had never occurred to me that shopping could be a hobby. I had always viewed shopping as something done out of necessity, not as a pastime, and I quietly continued to believe that such views were simply conforming to social expectations which bound people together like the threads of a rope, tightly, uniformly.

Breaking such expectations carried serious consequences in Japan, and this was built into the language. The word “chigau” means both ‘different’ and ‘wrong’, the two concepts being identical. A conversation with an elderly man from Kyoto added to this impression. During a free-talk he shared some aspects of Japanese culture unique to Kyoto, amongst these a simple dish called ‘bubuzuke’, made by pouring tea or hot water over cooked rice. When one is visiting another’s house in Kyoto, the protocol for the host to signal it is time for the guest to leave is to offer them bubuzuke. “But what if someone, like me, didn’t know that and took up the offer?” I asked him. “Well”, he replied, “I would just give it to them and smile”.

The work day was winding down now. The sun had set and the trains had long since become busy with the rush hour crowds, which would continue well into the night. Many salarymen were forced by custom to remain at work until the boss decided to go home, which could be several hours after the end of the official work day. Many too were obliged to go out drinking with their colleagues after work, and no doubt this regular collective inebriation helped to dull the inhospitable lifestyle.

I undid the noose from my neck and headed for the station. On the way a light rain began to fall, making the world glisten in the streetlights and providing for the freedom of the weeds to grow where they liked. The trains in Japan ran like clockwork and glancing at my watch I quickened my step to catch the next one. I took the first flight of stairs in twos, with a few others doing the same, conscious that the train would arrive in about a minute. As I rounded the wall of concrete to ascend the second flight, I barely noticed two officials carrying a long swaddled package between them as they filed past in the opposite direction, hurrying down the stairs. I ascended the last flight of stairs and stepped onto the platform, expecting the automated recording announcing the arrival of the train and to stay behind the yellow line which ran a meter parallel to the edge of the platform. But something was wrong. There was no announcement and as the clock struck 8:11pm, no train arrived as it should have. Of all the months of riding trains I had never known one to be late. Seconds crept by and still no train arrived. I glanced around the station and suddenly noticed a station official and a few cleaners at the far end of the platform, frantically washing the floor. They had mops and big buckets of water and detergent. The cleaners worked quickly and efficiently under the supervision of the station official, but most people seemed not to take much notice of them. After about a minute of sanitising they snatched up the buckets and marched toward me, making no eye contact as they hurried past and disappeared down the stairs. A few seconds later the familiar autorecording sang out cheerfully, announcing the impending arrival of the next train. It slid into the station, the doors opened, and a mass of people spilled out onto the platform. I then joined the mass flowing into the train and grabbed a hand rail. The doors closed and I was whisked home, four minutes behind schedule.