Tokyo subways mirror Japan society

Tokyo's overloaded subway stations are New York's Grand Central Station repeated many times over and at about four times the capacity.

Every morning a sea of bobbing heads surfaces from a score or more of centrally located stations raring to go and ready to be at work on time. Punctuality is a Japanese habit.

During Tokyo's 8 to 9 a.m. rush hour, 2.6 million commuters, equivalent to the entire population of Singapore, will have been safely and efficiently absorbed in what is unquestionably the world's most remarkable, most efficient, and most highly computerized subway system. All told, more than 5 million passengers a day use the Tokyo subways.

During the morning and evening a train arrives at a station every 10 seconds. Every rush-hour train, each consisting of 10 coaches, carries an average of 4, 000 people. The real capacity of a coach is 200, but it more often runs to 300; and during the worst rush hours it's easily 400.

Transport officials blithely report they're running more than 200 percent over capacity. That's when those white-gloved conductors go into action and stuff commuters in like sardines.

Unlike New York's subway system, which seems rudimentary by comparison - one platform for the local, another for the express - Tokyo has five kinds of trains: from local through express to super-express and ultra-super-express, all coming in on the same platform. The ultra-super-express will speed you at 75 miles per hour in one uninterrupted ride 50 miles out of Tokyo in less than three-quarters of an hour.

The time schedules for no fewer than 10 different Tokyo subway companies, all profitable (some exceedingly so), are so complicated that the conductor must watch the platform literally every second.

Tokyo's subway system is repeated nowhere else in the world, according to international urban specialist and professor, Tokue Shibata of Tokyo's University of Economics. ''It's a circus,'' he says, implying a fast-paced, precision-timed operation.

Commuters buy their tickets at some 25 vending machines at each station. The vending machines provide tickets for different priced rides. In numerous trips, this rider never once saw the machines fail to deliver change or ticket.

''In London two out of 10 machines are usually out of work,'' Professor Shibata notes.

It doesn't take a visitor to the Tokyo subway system long to realize that it is a microcosm of Japan itself.

The subways are crowded in a land where half the population of the United States is crammed into a state smaller than Montana. The subways are sparkling clean - no graffiti, no candy wrappers, no discarded newspapers - and commuters who rush headlong down the station stairs must beware they don't collide with the cleaners who nonchalantly sweep in the midst of thousands of swirling feet.

In a land that enjoys one of the world's lowest crime rates - Japan's robbery rate is only 1.9 per 100,000 inhabitants compared to 30.5 for Britain, 65.8 for France, and 243.5 for the United States per year - a woman can ride the subway day or night and feel totally safe.

Leave a camera or umbrella behind you on the seat, and somebody will soon tug you and return the forgotten article. The Japanese would no more steal from a stranger than travel without a camera.

What few people realize, even the Japanese themselves, is that as many as 99. 2 percent of the people living in Tokyo are Japanese, a proportion of indigenous people unrivaled in any major Western city. Because of the overcrowding and homogeneity of the Japanese people, they have learned to live with consideration for others in a very tight space. The result: a premium on honesty and safety.

In one other important respect Tokyo subways are a mirror of Japanese society: their commitment to work.

Professor Shibata, who was recently in the United States, produced a US real estate ad for a beautiful home in Hingham, just south of Boston. The ad extolled the house's beautiful harbor view.

''That,'' says Professor Shibata, ''would never happen in Japan. A beautiful location would be about fifth on the priority list.''

What counts is proximity to the subway, because proximity to the subway means proximity to work. Land values therefore are determined by the number of miles between work and home.

Because of urban sprawl Tokyo commuters regard a one-hour ride as ''good'' and 11/2 hours as ''normal.'' Even at this far distance the houses are so close together they look as though they are huddling together to keep warm.

The plots are so tiny that they average a mere 0.008 of an acre. The selling price: $200,000. . . because it is close to the subway.

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