The Stress of Urban Living


A few days ago, a man rented a van and intentionally ran over people in a crowded part of Tokyo. He got out of the vehicle and then proceeded to stab people randomly. Seven people died and another 14 were wounded. He explained that he was “tired of life”. I wonder if moving from Aomori, a remote rural part of Japan where the suspect is from, to Tokyo, a dense metropolis, was a factor in his tragic actions.

Earlier this year, I transferred from Shibuya to Meguro. I had worked in Shibuya, one of the three busiest station areas in Tokyo, for two years and the crowds started to aggravate me. People bumped me, cut me off, pushed, shoved, stepped on my feet. For a West Coast guy, used to a lot of personal space, it frayed my nerves. At first, it was interesting in an anthropological way, but then it just became people getting in my way, making me late for work.

My train line, the Yamanote, which circles around Tokyo, isn’t as crowded as other trains. The busiest lines are trains that radiate out to the suburbs. And the best way to describe those during peak hours is to think about that 50’s craze where as many people as possible stuffed themselves into a phone booth. Then imagine that every 5 minutes a few more squeeze themselves in. Repeat a dozen times. And that approximates the morning commute for millions of Tokyoites.

In the summer, it’s hot and sweaty and everyone’s in a suit. Eventually, you’re just propped up by the people around you. What a way to begin your day. I only did this for a month when I decided it’s better to pay higher rent and live closer to the city center. I once counted how many people were in physical contact with me and there were 12! I sometimes had to step out of the train, well before I reached my destination, because I couldn’t breathe. I could understand how people might have panic attacks.

Fortunately, once I moved to Ebisu, I only had to ride one station away to Shibuya and that was against the rush hour. But even after getting off the train, I had to contend with the throngs of spaced-out, slow-moving teenagers fixated on their mobiles, iPods and handheld video games. I still go there to go to my gym. But dread the crowds when I come back home.

Now it’s a 5 minute bike ride to Meguro. Or a 15 minute walk. And my sanity has begun to restore itself.

The Japanese are a slender and patient lot, two essential traits to survive the daily commute. If similar conditions existed in most other countries, there would be daily outbreaks of fisticuffs and hard words. I’ve found myself, more than once, barking at someone who obliviously bumps into me while sending a text message, elbowing overly-aggressive commuters, or flaring my nostrils at slow-moving tourists.

In this context, it’s not surprising that someone could snap, and wantonly hurt innocent people, because he was “tired of life”. I have an inkling of where that frustration is coming from. Out of the 30 million people who live in the Tokyo metro area, there are bound to be more than a few who just can’t deal with the stress of urban living.

But it’s important to remember, amidst all the media global coverage of the stabbings, that Tokyo is still the safest place I’ve ever lived in or visited, amazing for a dense city of its size. You can walk in any neighborhood at all hours by yourself and you’d be okay. There have been a few grisly crimes recently, but it’s nothing compared to the constant high-level of crime that I’ve lived amidst in other countries.

Still, dense urban living anywhere is not natural. It’s not good for the soul, mind or body. But concentration of people in the cities have been a powerful trend in the last 200 hundred years. I wonder what it would take to reverse the irresistible draw of the cities.

4 thoughts on “The Stress of Urban Living”

  1. Hey Bru,
    It’s on the news everyday. Apparently it’s not just the stress of the city. He escaped Aomori because he owned money to some people. He was also depressed because he didn’t have any friends or girlfriend (according to his blog). He also complained about the fact that he was ugly. Anyway, I think the big problem is education in Japan. Adding to that is the lack of communication. Years ago, families in Japan used to spend time together at least on week ends. Everybody would gather and have a family lunch or dinner. People would share their daily experience and problems. But these days, everybody is busy. Parents aren’t home until late and kids are at clam school. How do you expect to communicate with others when you can’t communicate with the ones you are closest with?
    I just can’t accept the fact that he took innocent people’s lives because he is unhappy with his life. What they ever do to him? Crimes aren’t that rare here. They are actually quite a few everyday but it has become common. On top of that they are weird. For instance last year, there were two or three murders followed by hacking the bodies in the same month (by different people!). Killing is one terrible thing to do, but how can you go and hack a body in pieces? That’s just sick.
    I think Japan is facing a crisis that people don’t want to face or can’t see. It’s on the news and Japanese are shocked but not affected to the point of doing something about it. It really troubles me.

  2. yes, in the end, there’s no excuse for taking human life. but i still think japan on the whole is much better safety-wise than any urban conurbation i’ve visited. i don’t know, maybe vancouver and canada is safer. but tokyo is much bigger.

    nevertheless just a tragedy any way you look at it.

  3. Thanks for sharing this piece, I was looking for other people who share the stress of urban living, from living in New York City for about ten years, I have been thinking perhaps it’s time to live somewhere more spacious. Over time I’ve gotten a lot more defensive around people about my space and get tense when someone stands too close when it’s unnecessary, especially on the subway platform or other public areas, I feel like people should have the same etiquette as in an elevator where it seems proper to space out evenly whenever possible, and get tense even when someone walks by too closely on the sidewalk because it happens way too often. Transportation can be crowded but the MTA does a good job of running very frequent trains and buses so it depends on luck and timing, the great thing about living in the city is that it’s nice to have so many people around you 24/7 , the street traffic noise and emergency siren though are also constantly there which can add to the stress.

    1. i feel ya joanne. i’m kind of dealing with urban living better. namely by avoiding crowded areas and reminding myself to breathe.

      big city living is fun. but definitely not healthy.

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