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Gaijin by Ron Rogers

It's July 27th, 1979, and the Friday morning crush of Japanese salarymen propelled me along Yokosuka train station's small platform into an open carriage. Boarding is always a frantic last-minute rush in Japan- why arrive early when the trains are obsessively on time?

My train car filled rapidly with businessmen in neat dark suits, impersonal and immersed in their clever quarter-folded newspapers or pornographic hentai anime magazines. Interspersed were clusters of dark-haired, dark-eyed school kids, boys in their military-styled five-button gakuran uniforms, the young girls in pressed white blouses and pleated navy-blue skirts rolled at the waist to expose more leg: Incongruous Lolita figures shoehorned with adults engrossed in lolicon porn. Although tightly packed, there was no hint of unwashed bodies or heavy perfume- this is Japan.

The ninety-minute ride from Yokosuka's U.S. Navy base to sweltering summer-time Tokyo wasn't just unpleasant but miserable. The old Japanese National Railway trains lacked air conditioning and offered hard-backed bench seats reminiscent of an elementary school bus. The Japanese passengers were unfailingly stoic, but the ride during warm weather usually left me with a wet back and numb butt. However, Tokyo's vibrant Akihabara district was filled with futuristic electronics, stereos, 35mm camera gear, digital watches, and very pretty salesgirls, so "All Aboard!".

With the train loaded to near-capacity, the white-gloved conductor in crisp uniform performs his shisa kanko safety pantomime; we leave the station for Tokyo precisely on time. On this trip, I'm lucky enough to snag a window seat because, even though I've lived in Japan for almost two years, I still enjoy the scenery: Everything is so foreign. The quiet Japanese passengers politely ignored me except for discrete glances reflected in the train's windows. They're curious, but only a little.

The seat next to me is empty, always, because I'm gaijin. Foreigners in Japan can either let their feelings be hurt or enjoy the extra legroom. Although I'll never "fit in," I try hard not to be the Ugly American. I like Japan and its culture, and I know it's expected not to call attention to yourself in public. Keep a low profile. Follow the rules. Easy enough, right?

Outside the train, cities, towns, and rice paddies race past, but the air inside the car is hot and immobile. Inevitable sweat forms and slides uncomfortably down my back. The miles 'clack' by, the train sways on its narrow-gauge rails, and my thoughts drift in the heat:

Crap, if I could open my window...
Open a window. No, that's impossible; they're sealed. Except it sure looks like they're designed to open. Looks-kind-of-like-windows-on-a-bus. I wonder if anyone would notice if I just squeezed this clasp and...

Click. Whoosh!!!!!

I'm sitting on a train filled with hot, sweating people, and I'm the only one with an open window! Guiltily I look around me, but no one will meet my gaze- they are all pretending this isn't happening. My plan to follow the rules is in tatters, but nearby passengers are now shifting discreetly to take advantage of 'my' breeze. No uniformed authority arrives to berate me.

Behind me, I hear a window slide open. And then another. As we arrived at Tokyo station, there was not a closed window in our carriage.
Venerable Japanese proverb: "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down." But not today; ‘going ronin’ instead offered refreshing benefits. The windows on our train weren't locked- instead, they had been sealed shut so we perspired together in social culture and tradition. It was nearly impossible for someone Japanese to break the status quo,

On the return trip to Yokosuka, the windows were closed. I thought briefly about the importance of 'fitting in.'


Gaijin by Ron Rogers
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