train top

After living here for the best part of eight years (five in the country, the rest in the capital) I’ve come to realise that for all the talk of Japan being kind of an oddball nation, it’s no weirder than anywhere else, and perhaps the only reason people here sometimes come across as so quirky is because the rest of the time they mind their own business and just get on with things quietly.

One thing that never fails to astound me when I go out at night in Tokyo, though, is the almost superhuman way in which some businessmen – despite looking like they’ve consumed more alcohol than I ever could without ending up in hospital or featured in the local news – still manage to remain upright and even have the wherewithal to navigate the city’s labyrinthine stations, board a train and get themselves home.

Here are some words about this. Read them if you want to.

– The following was written by a 32-year-old man who hails from Northwest England. As such it contains a generous serving of swear words and a level of frankness that some readers may find unpalatable, which will no doubt please him tremendously. –

The drunkest I’ve ever been in my life was about five years ago, on the evening of my 27th birthday. I had decided to throw a little party to mark the occasion, but rather than risk incurring the wrath of my neighbour who would bang on my door if I so much as sneezed too loudly after 10pm took the advice of a friend and opted to rent a small cabin roughly a 30-minute drive away from where I was living, inviting all of my friends along. When we arrived (very much en masse and causing the site owner to eye us with a mix of curiosity and caution), we were pleasantly surprised to learn that the cabin we had booked would cost roughly half the advertised amount because it was out of season. Even better, the cabins either side of ours were completely empty, meaning that we could be as loud and idiotic as we liked without risk of traumatising any nice Japanese families who might be enjoying a weekend away.

From what I hear, it was a great party. We laughed, we danced, we sang. We also demolished a disgusting amount of yakiniku barbecue cooked on portable hot-plates, pounded more cans of beer than our little cabin had likely seen consumed in its entire lifetime, and drained a worryingly large number of bottles of tequila. Very little of this could I witness, however, as by 9pm or thereabouts I was vomiting violently off the side of the porch, making sounds like the illegitimate offspring of a cave troll and a manatee, into some bushes. When I wasn’t throwing up, I was mostly either forcing myself to drink the cups of water being constantly supplied to me by a friend who was concerned that I might die otherwise, or accidentally flashing my misters at her when I took myself off to the bathroom but then found myself unable to get my pants back up unaided. (You know you’ve got a friend for life when they never once mention having seen your naked bollocks.) It was without a doubt one of the worst nights of my life, and one that I hope never to repeat.

It’s probably for that reason that I’m always so amazed to see how incredibly drunk some of the businessmen in Tokyo get at the end of a hard day at the office. And how they somehow manage, most of the time, to get themselves home despite appearing to have already begun sleeping. It is a truly awe-inspiring sight.

Last week, for example, following a three-hour after-work “meeting” with my boss and fellow RocketNews24 writer Joan Coello at a nearby cafe-cum-bar, I found myself privy to a fantastic, close-quarters display of drunk salaryman superpower. It was a Tuesday night and I had hopped on the busy train home at around 10:30pm, shuffling towards the end of the carriage where there still remained a small amount of elbow room. After securing an overhead strap to hang from, I pulled my phone from my pocket (feeling slightly guilty for using it near the priority seats until I realised that everyone around me, including those sitting in said seats, was already using theirs), and settled in for the ride home, scrolling through my unread emails and putting stars next to those I couldn’t be bothered reading but knew I’d have to at some point the next day. The steady rocking motion of the train was strangely soothing, and after a while I realised I wasn’t even pretending to read my emails any more; I was just staring into space, phone in hand, with a weird little smile on my face. It then dawned on my that pretty much everyone else on the train was doing the exact same thing, staring glassy-eyed either at or just past their mobile phones, tablet computers, or pocket-sized paperbacks in total silence as the train creaked and rattled along. It felt weirdly comforting to be surrounded by so many people, all of them peacefully absorbed in their own thoughts or whatever was in their hands.

All except, that is, the man standing immediately to my right.

I say ‘standing’, but it would be more accurate to say that he had suspended himself from an overhead strap, and he was barely able to keep his head up. This slim, medium-height businessman with salt-and-pepper hair that looked so much like my father-in-law’s that for a second I worried that the night was just about to take an awful turn for the worse, had clearly had an absolute skinful and looked about ready to fall on his face. Yet there he was, gripping his strap like a mix between a dopey puppet left to hang in a performer’s dressing room and a virile young chimpanzee that had recently discovered a stash of rum.

He had slipped onto the train just a few seconds before the doors had closed but had seemed perfectly normal at the time, even waving to his friend who remained on the platform as we pulled away. Now that the train was in motion, however, he could no longer hide the fact that he was completely plastered and his body was slowly shutting down. Like a toddler intentionally letting his entire body go limp as his mother drags him from the toy aisle in the supermarket, the suited salaryman hung from his overhead strap, swaying increasingly wildly with each and every movement of the train. I watched as he began to find a rhythm, his mouth falling open slightly as he slipped deeper into sleep, until suddenly he grunted, lost his footing, and spun around 180 degrees, the leather briefcase in his right hand whipping through the air in a violent arc, causing those around him to recoil and the seated passengers to look up from their various electronic devices to see what was going on.

“You’re going to hurt someone,” came a gruff, smokes-twenty-a-day voice from behind me. I turned to see a small middle-aged woman with heavy eye makeup and a hint of a moustache muscling her way through the crowd towards the man, who despite his fancy spin move still had his eyes closed and was wearing a big smile on his face. She tapped him on the shoulder so hard that I was concerned it might trigger some muscular reflex and cause him to release his grip on the overhead strap and fall on his face, then gesturing to a sturdy handrail close to the door barked, “Come and stand over here!”

The man did not move. The woman sighed irritably and moved up behind him, grabbing him with both hands and pulling him upright in such a way that for a second I thought it was her intention to use his body weight to swing him rather than walk him into the corner. Before she could shift him out of the way, however, the train jerked violently and the woman, along with everyone else around her, staggered to the left side of the car. The salaryman grunted irritably as his body was thrown awkwardly to one side, extended his leg as if to take a step forward, then dropped an inch as his other leg buckled beneath his weight. He hung, the soles of his shoes barely making contact with the floor and his left arm locked, rocking back and forth like a kid who had lost momentum while trying to traverse a set of monkey bars.

Struggling to contain my laughter, I met the eyes of the furry-lipped woman who had tried to relocate the salaryman. Rather than sharing my juvenile amusement, however, she instead looked at me with the exact same expression I can clearly remember my high school French teacher giving me when I once (genuinely unintentionally) mispronounced “à droit” as “a twat”, shoved the salaryman into the corner, put his hand firmly on the railing, and elbowed her way back to wherever she had come from.

For the next ten or fifteen minutes, the man – now safely installed in his new, more secure location – stood quietly, gripping the handrail like an inebriated koala on the trunk of a skinny tree, periodically nodding to himself as if agreeing that this was indeed the best place for him and muttering apologies to no one in particular.

It was then, maybe six or seven stops down the line, that I began to worry that in his drunken stupor our hapless friend might end up riding the train all the way out into the mountainous countryside of West Tokyo and spending the night on a bench in the station, waking the next morning with a monster headache and realising that he was in seriously hot water. At each stop when the doors opened, I, along with the majority of my fellow passengers who had evidently decided that he was far more entertaining than their smartphones, stared to see if the man would show any signs of wanting to exit the train, wondering if he’d even heard the station name being announced. With each station that went by, I began to grow increasingly concerned that this man was heading farther from home, and began to wonder whether I should take him with me when I got off at my station and escort him to the nearest police box. Station after station, town after town, he remained motionless, his eyes closed and a same fixed smile on his face, emitting sounds worryingly close to snores.

Suddenly, barely a second before the automated recording announced the stop before mine, the man’s small, bloodshot eyes pinged open like those of a pet hamster sensing an incoming earthquake. He straightened his back and slowly lifted his head, gingerly releasing his grip on the handrail. His fellow passengers watched in silence as the train slowed, jerked, and came to a stop, waiting to see what would happen. The man, now staring directly ahead and looking surprisingly composed, cleared his throat noisily, tightened his grip on his briefcase, and took a step forward – tragically a split second too early – planting his face firmly into the glass of the train door.

As he staggered back, the doors slid open and the cool evening air wafted into the car. The man paused, shocked but clearly invigorated by the fresh air and the sudden impact, inhaled deeply, and stepped onto the platform in one smooth motion. He turned in the direction of the escalator, stopping for a second as a few more passengers alighted and passed him by, then nodded to himself and strode off down the platform with an air of confidence that neither I nor my fellow passengers could ever have imagined him possessing.

We watched in silence as the doors closed and our train pulled away, the salt-and-pepper haired gentleman now just another dark-suited shape in the throng of salarymen making their way home, nary a hint that just a few moments before he had been compared in the mind of a man from Liverpool to a belligerent toddler and a pissed-up primate.

Feature image: RocketNews24