Tokyo in Transit: Japanese Culture on the Rails and Road

Tokyo in Transit: Japanese Culture on the Rails and Road

by Alisa Freedman

View All Available Formats & Editions

Increased use of mass transportation in the early twentieth century enabled men and women of different social classes to interact in ways they had not before. Using a cultural studies approach that combines historical research and literary analysis, author Alisa Freedman investigates fictional, journalistic, and popular culture depictions of how mass transportation

…  See more details below


Increased use of mass transportation in the early twentieth century enabled men and women of different social classes to interact in ways they had not before. Using a cultural studies approach that combines historical research and literary analysis, author Alisa Freedman investigates fictional, journalistic, and popular culture depictions of how mass transportation changed prewar Tokyo's social fabric and artistic movements, giving rise to gender roles that have come to characterize modern Japan.

Freedman persuasively argues that, through descriptions of trains and buses, stations, transport workers, and passengers, Japanese authors responded to contradictions in Tokyo's urban modernity and exposed the effects of rapid change on the individual. She shines a light on how prewar transport culture anticipates what is fascinating and frustrating about Tokyo today, providing insight into how people make themselves at home in the city. An approachable and enjoyable book, Tokyo in Transit offers an exciting ride through modern Japanese literature and culture, and includes the first English translation of Kawabata Yasunari's The Corpse Introducer, a 1929 crime novella that presents an important new side of its Nobel Prizewinning author.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Based on a large amount of historical material, literary works, journalistic and popular cultural depictions, it examines the development of the Tokyo mass transportation system, and more importantly, the social and cultural transformation of Japanese society during the first half of the 20th century. The book not only provides a new methodology and fresh thinking for social science research, but also provides a new perspective on the modernization of Japan with its rapid development of mass transportation, and introduces us to new and vast materials for the study of Japanese history and culture."—Kuniko Fujita, Urban Studies

"Freedman weaves into her study a history of Tokyo's mass transit system and descriptions of material culture that provide readers a heightened sense of the everyday experience of urban modernity."—David R. Ambaras, American Historical Review

"Tokyo in Transit deserves praise for proposing an innovative approach to the history it relates, the writing it illuminates, and the conceptual disciplinary questions about literature and history it raises. The wide range of critical theorists, Japanese scholars, and films brought to bear on the investigation are evidence enough of Freedman's thorough engagement with the subject."—Robert Goree, Social Science Japan Journal

"Freedman has produced an engaging literary ethnography, using the vast writings of the times centered on transportation and its effects on social mores during Tokyo's dizzying jazz age. Commuter rail, department stores, cafes, and dance halls bustle with people on the move, and Freedman captures the excitement of modern life through writers who celebrated (or deplored) the new city."—Theodore C. Bestor, Harvard University

"This is not a conventional history of Tokyo's trains, but rather, a broad and ambitious exploration of the complexity and dynamism of early twentieth century Japan's modernity through depictions of Tokyo's mass transportation network. Impressive and insightful."—Elise K. Tipton, University of Sydney
"A significant contribution to Japanese literary studies, Tokyo in Transit offers such a readable, compelling cultural history that anyone who has ever taken a train or waited at a bus stop will find a story here that strikes a chord."—Jan Bardsley, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Read More

Product Details

Stanford University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt


By Alisa Freedman

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7145-0

Chapter One

Eyewitness Accounts

Observations of Salarymen and Schoolgirls on Tokyo's First Trains

If you look closely, you will notice that most dramatic change enveloping Tokyo is in the kinds of people found here. This is a natural and inevitable result of the extension of modern transportation. —TAYAMAKATAI, Thirty Years in Tokyo

A hand gets grabbed. A foot gets stepped on. Something that should not be touched gets touched. A wallet gets picked from inside a kimono sleeve in a momentary impulse. Abnormal psychology and the seduction of theft are there if we only turn our heads and look.... Caring parents must not let their darling daughters ride the train during rush hour. —MAEDA HAJIME, Story of the Salaryman

In the early twentieth century, there were several transformations in Tokyo space, the lives of its inhabitants, and writings about the city. Many of these spatial, social, and literary movements converged on the commuter train. During the years after Japan's 1905 military victory over Russia, government attention was paid to developing the urban infrastructure, an effort that involved extending train and streetcar routes. A growing number of people moved to Tokyo from other parts of Japan, an increasing trend from the late nineteenth century, and the city's population reached 2.2 million people in 1908. At the time, the national population totaled around fifty million. Concurrently, use of Tokyo mass transit vehicles helped initiate a first wave of suburban migration, as different socioeconomic classes moved to residential areas to the west and south of the city center.

Upper-class families were among the first to move to the suburbs, and daughters of government officials, military officers, and other elite of the time commuted to school in the center of Tokyo. Especially from the last decade of the nineteenth century, the number of female students (jogakusei) increased because of the culmination of economic, ideological, and educational changes. The image of the teenage schoolgirl as dressed in hakama, wearing hair ribbons, and traversing Tokyo or its suburbs on bicycle or by train frequently appeared in popular literature and mass media. These affluent women shared the space of the passenger car with various strata of predominantly male workers, including white-collar corporate and government employees, who, after 1918, would generally be referred to by the Anglicized signifier "salaryman," the common term for Japanese businessmen today. The proliferation of schoolgirls and salarymen and the suburbs where they resided was facilitated by the new electric trains and streetcars, which were cleaner and quieter than the steam locomotives that preceded them. As Foucaultian "heterotopia," temporary worlds in transit, commuter trains reflected the conditions of the early twentieth century city. Different from earlier horse-drawn buses, trains and trams were "mass" transportation, and genders and classes mixed in passenger cars.

Especially as trains were becoming integral to daily life, observations of the behavior and appearance of mid-level businessmen and schoolgirls became the topic of fictional stories, news reports, the comics of social mores that flourished at the time, and popular songs. These accounts were used to show class differences, to criticize schoolgirls for representing degenerate behavior believed to be a negative consequence of urban life, and to present the common man as a new kind of literary protagonist. The increasingly common sight of elite young women on trains changed the ways they were seen in the popular imagination, giving rise to a stereo typed identity that is still perpetuated in the global mass media. This stereotype casts Japanese schoolgirls, conspicuous in their uniforms then as today, as paragons of innocence and budding sexuality. Stories of schoolgirls on trains proliferated when magazines—those aimed at female readers and those not—played a growing role in defining notions of girlhood and showed that these young women not only consumed but also produced cultural trends.

In particular, the short story "The Girl Fetish" (Shojobyo) by Tayama katai, published in the May 1907 issue of the influential journal Taiyo (The Sun), which appealed to an educated readership, dramatizes historical problems caused by the extension of the gaze, mobility, and sexuality engendered by train travel. This story, the prose of which reflects the rhythm of a moving train, is the tale of a thirty-six-year-old male office worker whose obsessive staring at schoolgirls during his daily commutes causes him to fall from the crowded passenger car to his gory death on the tracks below. The protagonist, continually referred to as "the man" (kono otoko) by the third-person narrator, is the author of sentimental novels popular among schoolgirls, but he becomes a laughingstock in the literary world because of his fetish for young women. The man is dissatisfied with his domestic life in the Yoyogi district, a new suburban, residential area in the western part of Tokyo, and is tired of his banal editorial work at the Seinensha magazine publishing company in the central Kanda section of the city, located on the same street as the school for Proper English. The times of the man's morning and late afternoon commutes coincide with those of schoolgirls, whom he watches to seek comfort from the frustration of leading a life he feels that he cannot improve. He fantasizes about starting a relationship with one of these attractive women but is restrained by social and class constraints. The physical space of trains and streetcars is more than a setting for the man's actions; it is the environment that encourages his self-realization and causes his death.

The man does not merely look at women's bodies but also carefully notes their clothing and hairstyles. As a result, the story is filled with historical details pertaining to schoolgirl fashions, transportation, as well as the suburbs. More than just a tale of a voyeur, "The Girl Fetish" can be read as a reaction to a distinct moment in Tokyo modernity and as an allegory of a nameless everyman who is unable to change the track of his dull urban life. Similarly, authors with different politics, aesthetics, and temperaments, ranging from the established Mori Ogai to the young proletarian kobayashi Takiji, also demonstrated how revolutionary for society the intrusion of the gaze into this new kind of daily space was.

This chapter first examines important developments pertaining to mass transportation, the suburbs, commuting schoolgirls and salarymen, and changes in the act of seeing to show how Tokyo's early trains helped transform Japanese society. Journalistic observations about sectors of the Tokyo population in passenger cars, along with songs, cartoons, and other forms of popular culture that playfully celebrate and scorn the city's growing dependence on mass transport promote greater understanding of the human costs of urbanization and the construction of literary characters. The second part of the chapter closely analyzes examples of stories of men watching girls to try to find release from feelings of emotional confinement and the rigid class nature of society. These stories sympathize with the men who looked rather than the women who were objectified in their gaze. The third part investigates how the act of girl watching has continued to encourage discussion about public behaviors and the kinds of spaces women need to feel safe in the city.

Here, as in the other chapters, I am more concerned with cultural images of new gender roles than with the ideas and experiences of actual members of these groups. Accordingly, I am treating students and salarymen as culturally constructed historical categories. I view portrayals of them in literature and other media as often extreme or overdetermined caricatures, reflecting but also parodying lived reality. One of the themes of this book is how, through shifting social discourses and writing conventions, objects and gender roles come to represent, both at the time and for subsequent generations, the age that presented them. Stories of mass transportation encourage readers to react intellectually and emotionally to important similarities between public manners in Tokyo's formative years and those today.


The 1905 military defeat of Russia demonstrated to the Japanese state that it had achieved its nineteenth-century aspirations of "rich country, strong army" (fukoku kyohei) and was becoming a first-class nation equal to those of the West. Many of the political goals of the Meiji state had been accomplished, and greater government and corporate attention was focused on the construction of urban institutions and areas, advance of consumer capitalism as a way of promoting the nation-state, and pursuit of private interests, while continuing to build up the military and expand imperialist ventures in other parts of Asia. The growth of the suburbs, like the trains that served them, represented the culmination of these trends.

In the years following the Russo-Japanese War, there was a large population influx to the Tokyo suburbs, which then reflected the city's changing class composition. This was the start of a movement that would continue throughout the twentieth century. In 1900, there were 129 new residential areas to the south, west, and southwest of Tokyo, including Sendagaya, where the protagonist of "The Girl Fetish" lived, and these sections had a population of almost 1.5 million people. By 1908, the number of housing districts had increased by 5 percent, but their population had exploded by 45 percent. The September 1904 issue of the magazine Schoolgirls' World (Jogakukai) explained various new lifestyles in Tokyo and described these areas around the city as an extension of "Yamanote," a name that connoted the place where the upper classes generally lived and which could be contrasted to the often dirtier and more crowded "Shitamachi" downtown. Yamanote and Shitamachi were socially distinct in name, but in spatial reality, the true division seemed to be between the inner and outer city, as it has been described by scholars and chroniclers of Japanese urban space, including Kon Wajiro in his 1929 New Edition of the Guide to Greater Tokyo (Shinpan dai Tokyo annai).

At this time, two kinds of suburban commuters, schoolgirls and white-collar salarymen, became icons of modern Tokyo. Laborers also used trains, but they did not come to represent Tokyo development in the ways that the above two groups did. Although such socially conscious writers as Kunikida Doppo and Tokuda shusei depicted day laborers and the urban poor, the working masses became the focus of literary movements only later. Following the establishment of compulsory elementary education in 1872, a growing number of children attended classes, but schoolboys continued to outnumber schoolgirls. In 1888, 28.3 percent of girls nationwide received some form of education, and this figure rose to 96.1 percent in 1907. Secondary schools for girls became more common, especially in cities. Although there were only twenty-six all-girl academies in 1897, by 1907 there were 133 girls' secondary schools, with 40,000 female students. Moreover, the 1907 hit "Schoolgirl Song" (Jogakusei no uta) further suggests these young women's increasing popularity. This also shows that the cultural fascination for secondary schoolgirls was distinct from the question of numbers, and instead was premised on the association between gender, class, and modernity.

As daily life in Tokyo became increasingly cosmopolitan, many young men, who once had aspired to work for the government, wanted to be part of the commercial empire. The salaryman, the epitome of this new pursuit of personal success, was often depicted as a worker who commuted from his home in the suburbs to his office in the center of Tokyo. The salaryman was defined as performing thinking labor and as earning his own money and not relying on inherited position or fortune. The late Meiji salaryman was not a member of the propertied classes, and his status was different from that of merchants in the earlier Tokugawa five-caste hierarchy. He instead belonged to a new socioeconomic group. As noted by historian Masuda Taijiro, for a brief time at the end of the Meiji and beginning of the Taisho (1868–1912) periods, the urban middle class included both factory laborers and office workers, for there was no real demarcation between white and blue-collar employees in the city. This group included all of those who earned regular wages, but, over succeeding years, a clearer distinction in social prestige and salary was made among office workers, those who labored with their bodies, and the growing proletariat.

The growing force of businessmen could be distinguished by how they commuted to work and what they wore and ate. Beginning in 1871, the Japanese government began paying workers monthly instead of annual salaries. Subsequently, a new level of bureaucratic employees was created that was different from the high-level officials, who rode to work in expensive horse-drawn buses or in carriages sent by their offices. By 1907, members of this new urban socioeconomic group often dressed in Western business attire and were frequently sighted walking to their offices or to the modern mass transport vehicles that would take them there. Clerks dressed in Japanese-style clothing were often referred to as koshiben, an abbreviation for koshi bento, a term from the late Tokugawa period that signified lower-level samurai who worked in locations outside their homes and brought their meals to work. They carried their lunches (bento) on straps tied to the waists of their kimono, hence dangling on their hips, or koshi. At the time of "The Girl Fetish," the word koshiben was often used pejoratively to connote the bottom stratum of urban white-collar workers, who still wore Japanese clothes, for their jobs were not important enough and salaries not high enough to warrant wearing Western suits. A made-to-order suit cost an average of twenty to twenty-five yen in 1907, a time when an inner-city train ticket was priced between three and five sen. The Western-clothed equivalent to the koshiben was the yofuku saimin, the ill-suited poor businessman. In the late Meiji years, these workers were also known as gekkyu tori, men who earned a monthly salary, and tsutomenin, men who commuted to work by train. Around the first decade of the twentieth century, the term "koshiben road" (koshiben kaido) was used, perhaps in parody, to describe the morning and evening travels of commuters to their trains and offices. Yet as economist Maeda hajime later noted in his bestselling 1928 The Story of the Salaryman (Sarariiman monogatari), a handbook for young businessmen and an exposé of their hardships, by the start of the showa period (1926–1989), no self-respecting businessman carried his lunch to work and instead ate out in restaurants.

In the years after the Russo-Japanese War, the term "salaryman" (sarariiman) was available, but it did not come into wide usage until the end of the Taisho period and may have been popularized by the manga or comic strip artist kitazawa rakuten in his 1918 series "salaryman heaven and salaryman hell" (Sarariiman jigoku, sarariiman tengoku). As seen in Figure 4, rush-hour streetcar rides are part of hell. The protagonist of "The Girl Fetish" is referred to as an employee (shain), a term still used today but not as commonly as salaryman. "Shain" may have been a usual way to describe middle and lower level white-collar workers at this time. Yet the term "salaryman" applies to the lifestyle of the protagonist of "The Girl Fetish" and associates him with a group of men whose numbers and cultural influence increased throughout the twentieth century. In many ways, the man is a prototype of the salaryman characters that would increasingly appear in 1920s stories and sketches. Most of the angst-ridden men of Meiji literature were students, authors, or professors, as evidenced in the works analyzed here and in Chapter 2.


Excerpted from TOKYO IN TRANSIT by Alisa Freedman Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More

Meet the Author

Alisa Freedman is Assistant Professor of Japanese Literature and Film at the University of Oregon. She is engaged in several interdisciplinary research projects and literary translations that investigate how the modern urban experience has shaped human subjectivity, cultural production, and gender roles.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >