A few months ago I was going to work at our Shinjuku school and I was riding on the TOEI Oedo Line. I was looking around absent-mindedly when the women next to me said, “It’s quite a crowded train, isn’t it?” I was taken aback as a stranger had never really talked to me on a train in Tokyo.
If this conversation had begun on a train I took in Canada I wouldn’t be surprised at all. People sometimes made small talk on the train to and from work when I lived in Calgary. However, this was Tokyo, where even friends keep their voices down a bit when riding the train together. Moreover, the train wasn’t really that crowded at all as there were still empty seats nearby.
I smiled and looked at the woman speaking to me. When I looked up I noticed most of the people on our side of the train were looking at her as well. She then continued the conversation asking me how long I was staying in Tokyo, assuming I was a tourist. I told her I had been living in the city for over 4 years to which she was quite surprised. Then she started to tell me her life story about how she used to be a Japanese teacher for foreign diplomats and is now retired and working part time teaching private lessons. Her English was quite good and she had a mix of a British and Japanese accent.
We chatted the rest of the way to Shinjuku station as if we were old friends. I was quite aware of the looks and glances I was getting from the other people around us and that confirmed to me again just how uncommon it is for strangers to strike up a conversation. Usually the only time I see strangers talking to one another is when someone is giving their seat to an elderly person or if someone is trying to get off a crowded train when no one is moving out of the way.
I wish I wasn’t as shocked as I was when she started talking to me and I am glad I at least had the decency to smile at first. I really wouldn’t mind if it happened again. I have had some of the most interesting conversations with strangers. We never know what that person will say or what their background is. I also think it is a test of our society to see how two strangers interact with each other. It shows if we still have manners and can remember how to address people politely.
I know many people just see their commutes as a time in between work and home or any other place they are going. Many are completely unaware of the people around them and have no wish or desire to change that. However, I really wouldn’t mind it if there were some people who were up for a chat. I’ll hopefully be less surprised and ready with a smile when it happens the next time.
absentmindedly (adv.) – without paying attention to what you are doing or what is happening near you because you are thinking about other things
be taken aback (phrase) – be surprised or shocked by something so much that you cannot respond at once
strike up (a conversation) (phr.v) – to begin talking to someone
decency (n) – behavior that is good, moral and acceptable in society