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.