The Cadences of Rails

Unscheduled Stops in Tōkyō's Spaces of Flow

in Transfers
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  • 1 2019/2020 Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow, Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures


This article explores how urban space produced by the Japanese railway system is appropriated by people for common use in Tōkyō. Drawing from ethnographic research among musicians at a central train station, I explore how individuals enmeshed within the schedules of the commuter network negotiate mobilities that fall outside the purview of railway urbanism. Station tsūro are passageways monitored by rail staff and local authorities, protected by traffic and railway commerce laws, and influenced by competing pressures from the overburdened network and local neighborhoods. Musicians sensitive to these shifting relationships identify leeway within, performing in ways that open tsūro up, producing temporary, finely balanced spaces of encounter and connection. Through these processes, the commuter system creates rail-specific forms of human relationships.

This article investigates how the daily rhythms of the Japanese railway system in Tōkyō create elastic forms of urban space around its train stations, attracting a non-commuting public in search of useable space and social encounters. My focus here is the environment in which the station meets the city, an intermediate space beyond the exits and along the circuitous passageways and tunnels that lead into commercial and residential areas.

I approach the Tōkyō railway system as paradigmatic of train systems around the world but with local specificities, which give rise to behaviors and interactions that can inform broader discussions about how people make themselves at home in the city. Taking the station passageway as a point of focus, the article offers a contribution to studies of collective life within environments of transport by challenging the conception of passageways and their transience as engendering empty non-place.

Station passageways are called tsūro in Japanese and, constructed of the Chinese characters for “traffic” and “path,” relay an injunction of railway infrastructure to move forward and maintain the flow essential to its efficient commuter network. The nature of tsūro as intermediary spaces, however, opens them up to alternative uses by those looking for somewhere to communicate, play, or perform. At Kōenji Station in western central Tōkyō, I conducted participant observation fieldwork between 2013 and 2016 with seventy-seven musicians: men and women aged twenty to forty-five for whom the station was a key performance space. Kōenji Station is located in the middle of the Chūō (central) line; it is easy to get to and yet marginal in its position to the west of the popular Yamanote circle line that skirts around the heart of Tōkyō. As one musician once said to me, “Kōenji is the nearest point of escape from the center.”

Tsūro were the target of negotiation by musicians in their attempts to connect with flows of passersby and gather an audience. Passageways and tunnels have been examined anthropologically within research conducted in other major railway systems, such as the New York subway or the Paris Metro,1 but there remains a dearth of studies that actually demonstrate how intimate encounters occur within these spaces of flow. In the case of Tōkyō, conflicting interpretations of them and contrasting time-space patterns of use invite an investigation of tsūro as a contested space of mobilities. The musicians in Kōenji interrupt station foot traffic, introducing their own cadences into the flow required by law and regulatory frameworks governing the space. I aim to show how their interruptions suggest that some mobilities in the city require a staying in place that intervenes in the movements of others, an unscheduled stop bringing social life into the architecture of travel and transport.

I begin by considering the allure of train stations as emotive spaces of sociality in the metropolis for the general public, and for the musicians who provide the ethnographic backbone of this discussion. I then consider what kind of urban space tsūro represent in the city, with reference to an incident in the 1960s wherein the expulsion of protesters from Shinjuku Station was precipitated by renaming and enforcing a gathering space as tsūro. I move on to investigate how this relates to the contemporary situation at Kōenji Station where policing attempts to maintain the flow of bodies in station space but the space is also influenced by local flows of capital and local cultural contexts of music.

I will argue that the musicians of Kōenji Station are attuned to the ebb and flow of these different pressures within tsūro. They use this knowledge to partially disrupt the rule of movement through these spaces and by doing so discover gaps within which they establish a sonic presence and a connection with others. Their negotiations are delicate, reminding us that train stations are only ever precarious forms of civic space operating under pressure from the demands of the railway system. For the musicians who successfully inscribe upon Kōenji Station, however, theirs is a cadence skillfully adapted to the flow of Tōkyō's railway network.

Movement and Encounter in Railway Spaces

Why would musicians be attracted to a train station? To begin to answer this, I briefly consider the role played by the Japanese railway system in Tōkyō's evolution as a city.

The modern history of Tōkyō's urban landscape since the turn of the twentieth century has been one in which efficient railway infrastructure advanced economic growth and huge urban planning initiatives. The city infrastructure of the Meiji (1868–1912) and Taishō (1912–1926) eras struggled to cope as its population doubled between 1895 and 1923, and the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923 pushed increasing numbers into distant suburban areas.2 From 1919, urban planning became heavily centralized, producing utilitarian neighborhoods that lacked green or open spaces to gather in.3 Scholars have noted that during the twentieth century the proliferation of railway infrastructure saw stations replace or evolve from the multifunctional waterside areas of the Edo period,4 which blended transport, trade, and amusement.5 After World War II, when Allied fire bombings reduced huge areas of the city to ashes, similar patterns of redevelopment and the expansion of commuting suburbs continued with relative neglect of communal areas.6

Literary accounts written at the beginning of the twentieth century illustrate the relationship between railroads and passengers as one of rail technology's impact upon social interactions and possibilities beyond mass transport functionality. Katai Tayama's Shōjō byō (“The Girl Watcher”)7 and Natsume Sōseki's Sanshiro8 both explore the new proximities, discomforts, and thrills of carriages and stations full of public life, and the illicit operation of the gaze.

Economic recovery after World War II was facilitated by new relationships of intimacy and estrangement9 made possible and accelerated by the advance of rail infrastructure. Growth, speed, and shrinking distances enabled the gendered dichotomy of the company man and the housewife. Long commutes became an associated aspect of these relationships, emphasizing this separation of roles as physical distance between stations, and relocating intimacy and devotion from the household to the corporation.

Train stations became the geographic, commercial, and social focal points of towns across the metropolis. Alisa Freedman notes that today's leviathans like Shinjuku Station were not only places where all kinds of urban practices could be observed, but stages for witnessing Tōkyō's rapid social, cultural, and spatial changes.10 Julian Worrall has suggested that this long process, generating a sensitivity to life based prominently around rail travel, has resulted in architectural forms of “railway urbanism.”11 Worrall identifies locales within the commuter network producing rail-specific arrangements of public space as a “domain of common appearance and interpersonal interaction”: the carriage, the station, and the station plaza.12 These observations are echoed internationally, with stations recognized as producing “public spaces of connectedness” wherein private lives are circulated and mobilized along passages.13 The station's liminal spatial situation also emerges, as both an end (of the railway line) and a beginning (of a town), as in Marcel Proust's argument that a train station may represent an essence and the personality of a town—and bear its name—without ever fully being a part of it.14

Qualities of publicness and privateness produced by railway infrastructure create their own in-between forms of urban space. For instance, in Japan the emergence of station depāto (department stores) during the interwar years are recognized as one such site of mixed railway urbanity.15 These spaces have enticed people in Tōkyō and other urban centers to seek them out as sites of social connection and networks that circumvent those established elsewhere in the city.16

Among the Kōenji musicians I worked with, the promise of social encounters and an audience composed of streams of commuters was at the heart of the allure of the station. Some older performers also recalled cultural representations of amateur street musicians being “discovered” on television shows such as Ikasu Band Tengoku,17 and claimed that they were waiting for a music company scout to notice them at the station.

The expense of playing at music venues was another commonly cited reason for choosing the station as a free alternative. The noruma (“quota”) system in Tōkyō, wherein booking managers require musicians to sell a quota of tickets or foot the bill themselves, often creates a prohibitive expense for using venues.18 This situation was exacerbated by my interlocutors’ low wage part-time work.

Over and above their eagerness to avoid noruma fees, most musicians were drawn to Kōenji Station by the promise of something personally rewarding. This has also been noted as a primary motivation of musicians who perform in stations in other parts of the world, such as those in the New York City subway.19 This was certainly the case for two musicians, Harada and Koba, who moved to Tōkyō from Chiba and Aichi prefectures respectively in their early twenties to discover a life for themselves in the city as musicians. The station appears in the lyrics of these performers as a collection of spaces within which they live out enriching experiences and fleeting connections with other people. Harada documented this arrival in his song “Kōenji”: “Kōenji Station, in the light of the evening sun, more beautiful than Cinderella's castle.”20 The following verses chronicle imagined moments in a life still to come in the neighborhood, within the architecture of railways.

I want to watch the sun setting from a modern cafe overlooking the Chūō Line.
In the energy of the moment I want to flirt with a girl in an izakaya21 under the tracks.
In that corner of the town, where Takurō, Yōsui and Kōsetsu sang folk songs
I want to spell out the indescribable days of youth to a gentle passing breeze.

A transience permeates Harada's lyrics: the setting sun, the energy of a moment, the indescribability of youth, which he couples with the liminal qualities of railway infrastructure.

A similar sense of impermanence in station encounters, and a consequent desire to recreate and repeat them, is present in Koba's song “The Moon.” In the verses he celebrates a routine that keeps him returning to the same patch of Kōenji Station in order to enjoy successive meetings with a man who stops to listen to him: “Kōenji, the north rotary, the usual place, as always, let's call him out again.” With each retelling he adds a scene or action that builds the story a little more: “Let's buy kimugi tea at the Seven,22 Let's go there until the morning, the usual place, in front of the shutters, I'll be waiting for you.” Koba traces out a nostalgic sense of place, filling an otherwise nondescript passageway with life and laughter, and a steady, constant drone of open chords.

The station emerges as a nucleus of modern living; a whirlpool of converging life trajectories. This transience at the core of Japanese train stations led Roland Barthes to conclude in 1982 that they are essentially empty structures dominated by departures and a sense of instability.23 Barthes’ perspectives have been controversial, with some alleging Orientalism in his structuralist reading of Japan,24 yet his discussion of emptiness nonetheless points to other forms of possibility, a case repeatedly made in Japanese scholarship.25 I suggest that Barthes’ depiction of the Japanese context as one where emptiness is permanent is mistaken, and that rather this emptiness can be a wellspring of creativity, as I have shown in the context of the Kōenji Station musicians above. In their songs the station appears full of potential, opportunity and encounters. “Instability” may have been an appropriate noun for Barthes to choose when searching for a definitive quality of station space, but as I hope the remainder of this article will show, instability can also create the possibility for presence, rather than ensuring the permanence of emptiness.

The Rule of Flow

Marc Augé locates the train station within a category of transport systems that produce “non-place” as a space that cannot be defined as “relational, historical or concerned with identity.”26 This world, he adds, is one “surrendered to solitary individuality, to the fleeting, the temporary and ephemeral,” which because it never truly exists in pure form is opposed to “place.”27 Yet the very fundamental way in which the daily lives of the population of Tōkyō have become entangled with the railway system questions this continual status of train stations as non-places isolated from issues of relationality, history, and identity.

Augé's work attempts a comprehensive investigation of urban spaces of which transport systems form a part. But what is true at one scale may not necessarily be equally so at another. Mark Pendleton and Jamie Coates brought together a collection of articles examining Tōkyō's railways from the perspective of its circular Yamanote commuter line.28 By simply positioning themselves differently along the Yamanote, the authors produced contrasting interpretations. Train carriages are represented as spaces producing distinct forms of digital sociality, as witnessing interventions to combat the alienations of political and social life, producing moments of personal reflection, and facilitating projects of national belonging and exclusion.29 Yamanote stations and tracks are approached from the perspective of under-the-rail architectures, producing “non-visible” spaces of counterculture and creative projects, and as heterotopic interstices wherein diverse mobilities are discovered.30

Pendleton and Coates recognize the existence of multiple experiences and realities of Tōkyō's rail system, its role as an entity of lines and nodes producing both estrangements and intimacies in response to ever-shifting temporalities.31 In relation to Augé's theoretical argument, it would appear from their observations that the rail network in Japan is capable of producing both place and non-place, and even shifting between the two. This perspective is useful when considering station tsūro in Tōkyō, and at Kōenji Station as local musicians’ chosen site of performance. Like passageways at stations around the world, tsūro are built to be non-place ensured by flow: the continuous movement of bodies through space. Past incidents have shown that when tsūro are claimed as common space, a railway's “injunction to pass on” may be enforced by city administration and its police force.32

In 1969, a group of student protesters no longer permitted to gather on their university campus took to Tōkyō's sprawling Shinjuku Station to hold their political debates. On weekends they were joined by the “folk guerrillas” who sang anti-war songs in the station's West Exit Underground Plaza. Students and musicians gathered, debated, sang, and engaged with the public, and by the height of the city's summer of love their numbers had grown substantially, bringing an even more diverse accumulation of people.33 William Andrews suggests that songs such as Tomo yo (“Friend!”), and the urgency of its lyrics “let's light the flames of the struggle, the dawn is near,” injected added political energy to a scene of obstruction already drawing the heated attention of police.34

Eventually the Tōkyō Metropolitan Police attempted to disband the group, also citing the complaints of commuters and local businesses. In a strategic move, the West Exit Underground Plaza (Nishiguchi Chika Hiroba) underwent a name change to become, overnight, the West Exit Underground Passageway (Nishiguchi Chika Tsūro). Jordan Sand identifies this move as a reaction to the amassing and interaction of strangers, producing unrestrained access to something like common space in the city.35 Once signposted as tsūro, the Metropolitan Police were able to remove the crowds under an assertion of obstruction and the space's injunction of continual movement. In claiming a passageway where there was once a plaza, the move halted the production of place in the West Exit, reproducing the non-place of passageways in other areas of the station.

In the contemporary history of contestation over urban space in Tōkyō, the privatization of public spaces emerges as another force in their regulation. Carl Cassegard demonstrates that attempts by activists between 2008 and 2010 to protect a local homeless community from the privatization of Miyashita park in Shibuya ward were explained in terms of Japanese conceptions of “publicness.” They emphasized the space as interstitial, ambiguous, and therefore accepting of difference.36 The demonstrations, eventual closure of the park, and renovation indicate the tension in urban Japan between private ownership of land and historically rooted ideas of public common usage. I suggest that the activists’ recognition of social life in between generalized conceptions of public and privatized spaces is relevant and useful when considering Kōenji Station tsūro.

The tsūro of Kōenji Station emerge from the north and south exits (Kōenji only has two), wrap around the station building, and snake underneath railway underpasses, producing contrasting flows of people, acoustics, and visibility. To a certain extent these variables determine the degree to which the tsūro are policed and protected in their function as passageways. In connecting station to neighborhood, local commercial, social, and cultural contexts impact upon these spaces and the way they are read and inscribed upon. Flows of commuters under the supervision of Japan Rail East, a publicly traded company, move seamlessly along open passageways into others lined with private businesses. Who owns tsūro therefore depends upon where somebody is within the railway architecture and whose perspective gains the most attention. Flows of capital are to some extent protected by the rule of flow along tsūro, but their ambiguity as a space creates an opening for possible incursions. A local police officer on patrol at Kōenji Station told me that he did not consider the musicians to represent an immediate problem: “I don't think they are doing anything wrong necessarily. There isn't anywhere else for them to play outside, so I won't do anything until we receive a complaint, or they cause an obstruction.”

In Worrall's conception of railway urbanism in Japan, the broad accessibility of train stations produces a range of spaces that resist “community” by facilitating “fine-grained mixing” and the “ceaseless formation and dissolution of small groups.”37 The police officer I spoke to counted on this being the case. People might gather at the station, they might use its environment for non-commuting purposes, but groups should dissolve before disrupting the operation of flow. These boundaries of patience, of publicness and private interest, definitions of disruption, and reactions from groups impacted by passageway incursions, cumulatively affect the capacity for tsūro to become a space of alternative station encounters. The officer's empathetic comments indicate restraint, which also echoes a broader context of Kōenji neighborhood as a town with a rich music culture. In particular, in the late 1970s and 1980s Kōenji was known for its rambunctious punk scene.38 In 2020, the neighborhood remains a melting pot of independent music, dappled with a large number of live venues, rehearsal rooms, and studios.

In what follows, I draw upon an example of station incursions by a local musician who used his performances as a form of dissent. Like the Shinjuku activists, he made his presence known, and at Kōenji he relied upon his knowledge of the station's schedules and flows to perform interventions of stillness.

Honma's Protest

As the manager of local rehearsal studios less than a minute's walk from Kōenji Station's South Exit, Honma could access the tsūro whenever he wished. At forty-two years old he had played in numerous bands and had seen decades of music come and go in the neighborhood. He told me that in his heart, however, he remained a punk musician. This much was evident from our first meeting.

It was a Thursday evening at 8:00 p.m., and Hitomi, a female keyboard player and vocalist, was in mid-song when Honma's powerful and piercing voice cut through the mix. It fired out from the rail underpass fifteen meters away in long, extended single notes like an elongated expulsion of trapped sound. Hitomi did her best to continue unperturbed, but shot intermittent glances in the direction of the underpass. As I moved away in the direction of Honma's sound, Hitomi commented that this was “bad news” because his style of play “does not fit with the station” (Kōenji ekki no rojō ni awanai).

Hitomi's complaint indicates the relationship between sounds and flow in the environment of the station. The tsūro are awash with station noise: the intermittent chirp of traffic lights, announcements, vendors’ and touts’ daily offers, the gatan gatan (ガタンガタン) of arrivals and departures along overhead rails, car horns and engines, station jingles and conversations on the move. The sound of music enters this milieu as an interloper; dissociated with the station but echoing its publicness: claiming not what the station is, but what it can be. When Honma performed in the tunnel under the railway bridge, his discordant sounds ricocheted back and forth within the vaulted arches, reaching the ears of passersby saturated with reverb, as if in the belly of a great amplifier.

Honma strummed his guitar strings with stony intent, producing a simple set of chord changes offering basic accompaniment to his long-syllabled cries. He was tall, broad-shouldered and appeared solid, as though immovable by exterior force. Honma's musicality reflected his motives for performing at the train station.

I want to revive punk spirit on the streets, which I think is in danger of fading out. Places like Kōenji are important to musicians and artists, and we need to protect this neighborhood from changes that threaten not just punk, but all music lifestyles. The station is the most visible place to do this. This underpass has acoustics that amplify my sound even more. I use it to increase my impact.

Future conversations with Honma would reveal that he sensed a culmination of factors to threaten Kōenji's position as a haven for musicians, from rent prices and processes of gentrification, which had already caused some music venues to close down, to the increasingly aggressive policing of music played at the station. The contradiction in Honma's station behavior was that by excessively drawing attention to himself, he had a negative effect on other station musicians. Hitomi was not alone in suggesting that his music would draw more complaints (kujō) from local store clerks, business owners, and perturbed residents, which mobilized the local police to shut down music performances. As in the case of Shinjuku Station in 1969, it was degrees of visibility, extended presence, and sonic impact that aggravated complaints and intensified policing.

Most regular station musicians understood that the grey area of permission and legality of performance at train stations was a buffer that protected them from immediate intervention. Returning to my conversation with local police at the station, officers claimed that they would issue warnings (chūi), if a complaint about noise was filed. One officer suggested that noise and free movement was their jurisdiction, in contrast with the Japan Rail station guards, for whom commercial activities such as CD sales were a greater concern. He said that at the very least they would prevent any risk of obstruction to “station traffic,” which I later confirmed with a Traffic Advice Officer for the Tōkyō Metropolitan Police to be stipulated in Article 77 of the Street Traffic Law (dōro kōtsū-hō).39 Paragraph 4 of this article authorizes the stoppage of any activity that obstructs the free flow of people and automobile traffic, though musicians are not specifically mentioned. Elsewhere, Article 18 of the Tōkyō Road Traffic Regulations (tōkyō dōro kōtsū kisoku) states that a permit is required for any performance likely to draw a crowd, including musical and dramatic performances, speeches, and broadcasts.40

The police officers I spoke to were aware of these regulations regarding use of the tsūro, but exercised restraint in their practical application. For instance, permits were never sought by musicians because officers never asked to see them. Policing an obstruction of flow remained a looming threat, however, when an individual's or group's impact upon the station was deemed too severe. The enforcement of traffic regulation law was inconsistent because tsūro were, under the influence of the railways, unstable. They were not only passageways, but also interstices held in a balance with conditions of the local neighborhood.

Honma's music took a wrecking ball to this balance, and quite on purpose because this was precisely the reaction he sought from his vocal protests and incursions. Far from being confused about the subtle boundaries of permissibility at the station, he knew exactly what he could get away with. One afternoon I found him leaning against the station building in conversation with a policeman. The officer held a clipboard with a white form attached and was attempting to take down Honma's personal details. “I don't have my wallet with me today … ” (kyō wa saifu mottenai … ), claimed Honma in a phlegmatic tone while padding at his jean pockets. Looking unimpressed, the police officer paused for a moment, assessing the stalemate. He then attempted to influence Honma in a battle of silences. Honma was solid, statuesque, and unflinching. Eventually the policeman's patience ran out. He told Honma that he should leave and threatened to remember his face, before exiting in the direction of the police office clutching the empty form to his chest and speaking into his radio. Honma appeared at the station again two days later, and many times after that, statuesque and making himself heard just as before.

A closer look at Honma's behavior in station space reveals that he possessed a nuanced understanding of the relationships at play within the tsūro. Honma usually appeared between the hours of 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m., which both Harada and Hitomi considered the most accessible hours of the evening, when station authorities were at their most lenient. Once Honma had made his presence felt, he left. He never refused to go when told and avoided any more serious confrontations because he wished to return to the station to repeat the process. Honma also drew upon local contexts of protest in the neighborhood. He was well aware that offbeat and low-key demonstrations have occurred with consistency at the station due to the efforts of a local recycle-shop owner and founder of the shirōto no ran (amateur's riot) network,41 Hajime Matsumoto.42 Within these small acts of civil disobedience, sound trucks have also been exploited to fill the streets and station area with interruptions of noise; a practice regularly employed in other forms of political activity and demonstration across Tōkyō.43

In this context, Honma's performances did not “fit” within the boundaries of sound and physical presence that other musicians worked within. Indeed, his ostentatious protest performances aggravated an enforcement of tsūro, as he calculated they would, proving to himself through ejections that he was actively engaged in an ongoing battle for punk sounds and endangered spaces. Rather than highlighting Honma's ignorance of the rule of flow, however, these regular disturbances suggest his close attunement to the flow of the passageways into which he syncopated a cadence of his own.

Living with the Flow

In the final part of this article I will focus on the way musicians work within the interstices of tsūro, in contrast with Honma, to maximize their time at the station. In doing so they exploit the elasticity of station space to open up moments within which they achieve that which Hannah Arendt attributed to public space: the legitimation of the individual through interaction with others.44 It is not my intention here to claim that tsūro are or can become a public space in the exact European sense. The 1969 Shinjuku Station incident demonstrated, claimed architect Teiji Ito, that no plaza existed in Japan as it has done in Greece as “agora” or Italy as “piazza.” It was not possible to fall back on the same established conceptions of what a public space is or should be when claiming urban space as “public.”45 Rather, I claim that the incursions of musicians demonstrate the capacity of tsūro to act as a space of urban mobilities tuned to the requirements of Tōkyō as a city within which daily life is synchronized with the railways. Considering the case of a thirty-four-year-old musician called Fuji, I will explore how the encounters he sought at Kōenji Station, and the routine of performance this required, was only made possible by his sensitivity to the vicissitudes and rhythmic changes that pulse through tsūro each day.

In his monograph on the Tōkyō commuter train network, Michael Fisch sets out to investigate the intimate relationship between the people of Tōkyō and the railway network that operates increasingly beyond capacity.46 Maintaining efficient rail transportation essential to the function of the city under these conditions of over-capacity requires, he argues, a heightened level of commuter sensitivity to “collective coherence.” Fisch suggests that this collective skill allows the commuting public to “finesse the interval” opened up by the network's need to exceed normal operation.47 Recognizing this human sensitivity to an interval ever-present in the railway system, encourages thought about the degree to which leeway, as gaps of possibility, might also be present in associated rail spaces in the city.

When commuters leave the network, file down escalators and out of the ticket gates, they retain their sensitivity to railway space as a part of their skill for living in Tōkyō. In conversation with infrastructure historian Mito Yuko, Fisch considers the way the rhythms of Tōkyō's railway system become etched into the bodies of individuals from a young age. The “driving curve,” for instance, the acceleration and deceleration of trains between stations, is internalized in childhood.48 Just as the regular rhythms of these sounds soothe the body of the commuter, so she or he feels discomfort in their disruption. Commuters become, Fisch argues, “attuned to the system's tacit clues and sensitive to its fluctuations.”49 In connecting the rail system to the neighborhood, tsūro also fluctuate to the rhythms of the train schedule, accommodating both surges of human traffic and intervals of silence. In what follows I will illustrate how musicians also become attuned to the fluctuations of station tsūro, and that this sensitivity, when it informs their performances, allows them to exploit the leeway inherent within Tōkyō's rail network.

Performance that “Fits”

Fuji developed a comprehensive understanding of the subtleties of Kōenji Station tsūro over hundreds of performances. Unlike Honma, he spent hours at the station each time he played, drawn in by the promise of audience- performer relationships, but also encounters that assuaged the loneliness he experienced as a night-shift contract worker who lived alone. He understood the undercurrents of multiple relationships playing out in different areas and their relation to the ebb and flow of station traffic.

I can tell you what to expect depending on the timetable and differentiate between the kinds of experiences and types of people you would meet. When I play early, at 7:00 p.m. or so, people are polite but busy. If anyone stops it is for a short time, and they don't often talk to me. A little later on, perhaps 9:00 p.m., I expect to meet younger people and couples out together. Also a lot of musicians are around at those times. Those are good hours to meet people who are genuinely interested in spending time together. When it gets later, closer to the last train, the oji san (“middle-aged men”) and the drunks and the oddballs appear. The station changes: it can be rowdy, which is sometimes fun, or sometimes annoying or troubling depending on the night. Some drunks give money late at night, some dance and some kind of repeat themselves a lot when they talk, some others request songs. Sometimes the hours after the last train are best, when all is quiet. Just sounds reverberating in the open air and time of your own making.

Fuji's propensity to read the station environment in relation to a rail schedule inhabited by recognizable characters is not uncommon among musicians or Tōkyō residents. Indeed, a very similar description, given by Mito Yuko in Fisch's monograph, identifies the “punctually return home group” between 6:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and the “drink before going home group” between 8:00 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., among others.50 Like Mito Yuko, Fuji is aware of the schedule of the station, and he uses his knowledge of it to intuitively readjust his performances as he navigates its influence upon station tsūro.

Fuji's sensitivity to the rhythms of the schedule was heightened by his need to use Kōenji Station spaces as a place to play music, and in doing so to construct a sense of self determined by his interactions with others as a musician. Fisch touches upon “encounters” within railway infrastructure from a Deleuzian perspective of destabilizing moments, which affect the individual personally beyond the level of their participation in the commuter system. Acknowledging an encounter is to experience a departure from the ingrained structure, and so create “a gap in oneself for becoming.”51 While Fisch employs the Deleuzian encounter to explore people's experience of commuter suicides at train stations, the fundamental point about the encounter as an event that transcends the existing structures of and relationships within a space, bears comparison with Fuji's case.

Fuji believed that it was his ability to slip unobtrusively into the flow of station tsūro that improved his chances of experiencing encounters within them. He was not only engaging in relationships that transcended the fundamental structure of tsūro and their rule of flow, he was opening a space for the legitimation of himself as an individual of consequence. Fuji understood the interwoven fabric of train station and neighborhood life: the schedule's primacy, its rhythms, and the consequent contortions of permissibility along station tsūro.

The point is about finding the sound that fits the environment. At the station I often strum aggressively, allowing me to express myself in ways I cannot in my small apartment block. But I also have to know when and where it is possible. People respond to upbeat, rhythmic guitar when the station is busy. Later on the passages quieten down, and I slow things down then as well if I need to. I try to remain open to the changes, so I know what feels right. If you are going to play here, you have to understand what works at the station.

Fuji was aware that these moments would only ever exist as cadences in the gaps created by his temporary negotiations of the railway schedule. It was not in his best interests to approach tsūro as collective space, because doing so would aggravate the enforcement of the rule of flow; what Peter Eckersall called the “brutal resignification of space” at Shinjuku Station in 1969.52 For Fuji, it was better to keep passageways as passageways.

Fisch's study of Tōkyō railways operating beyond capacity indicates that there is leeway to be found within the transport system due to an ever- present interval. Because the trains must keep moving, allowances must be made for variation within its network. Station tsūro, as the material interstices of train system and town, must also allow for the incursion of everyday life into their spaces. When the balance shifts precariously in one direction, as it did at Shinjuku Station's West Exit, enforcement of traffic law and the primary operation of tsūro will transform them from “an associative and collective space to a linear and functional one.”53 Yet the musicians of Kōenji have shown that an emotional connection to railway spaces is not prohibited by their association with continuous movement. Rather they understand that to be in tsūro means to reflect changes of flow and rhythm in their music performances. Their sensitivity to the railway schedule allows them to open up intervals within it, creating a negotiable urban space unlike any other in the city.


The railway system in Tōkyō creates a flow through carriages, along train tracks and platforms, and out through ticket gates, affecting urban spaces in which the daily life of the city unfolds. Its tremors are felt along station tsūro across the metropolis as they connect people to the network.

This article has explored station tsūro an interstitial space caught in a push and pull of transport function, flows of capital and alternative public use, offering the allure of human connection despite their injunction of movement. Where other studies have informed our understanding of particular events in railway spaces, the cultural impact of railway lines, and even the relationship between human beings and commuter networks themselves, I have attempted to look at tsūro as passageways bridging the rail system and the city. In doing so I highlighted how a station contains qualities of both, shifting in balance under the influence of transport systems and human behavior. The musicians demonstrated that the resulting instability can accommodate presence and affective relationships, rather than signifying emptiness as claimed by Barthes.

Sensitive to the rule of flow, tsūro expelled those who openly challenged their principal function, with negative impacts detected as obstructions. This process was evident in the repeat ejections of Honma from Kōenji Station. Closer inspection, however, revealed that Honma was fully aware of the limits and consequences of his actions. His attunement to the system informed him when and how to interrupt flow in the passageways, and in doing so intervene in the movement of others by staying in place: a performance of mobility found in stillness.

A railway network constantly trying to keep up with a schedule under increasing human demand will require slack in which it can flex and adjust. Drawing upon Michael Fisch's theory of “finessing the interval,” I suggested that sensitivity to the railway schedule has opened up the possibility for creating leeway in tsūro for those who can read their fluctuations and act upon them. Fuji's presence, his music performances and his relationship with others in station spaces were syncopated into intervals he could inhabit. He played for hours on end, multiple times a week, in order to redraw connections in the city.

Train stations in Tōkyō produce urban spaces that, because of their connection to a system of transport, change across the course of a day. This creates the potential for tsūro to facilitate mobilities beyond the transportation of commuters and to act as temporary spaces of performance, sanctuary, association and encounter. Events at Kōenji Station teach us that train stations at the heart of towns and cities can act as a habitat of social life, albeit one that pulses with the rhythms and schedules of railway lines. These stations are places of flow, but in accommodating the performances of the musicians their passageways also contain the cadences of social life.


Acknowledgements: This article is based upon multiple fieldwork trips undertaken in Japan between 2013 and 2016. The research was sponsored by a Japanese Government (MEXT) Postgraduate Scholarship, the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation's Postgraduate Studentships, and a Santander Mobility Award. The British Association for Japanese Studies supported my post-fieldwork phase through a John Crump Studentship. I remain indebted to Dr Fabio Gygi, Professor Trevor Marchand, Professor Tom Gill, and Professor David Slater for their supervision, advice, support, and friendship. Finally, I would like to thank the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures for supporting my research with a Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellowship.


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Japan's Edo period lasted from 1603 until 1868.


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Worrall, “Railway Urbanism, The Production of Public Space,” 3–4.


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All translations from original Japanese song lyrics are my own. Both sets of lyrics in the article are used with permission from the musicians.


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Marc Augé, Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London: Verso, 1995).


Ibid., 78–79.


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Mark Pendleton, “Bringing Little Things to the Surface: Intervening into the Japanese Post-Bubble Impasse on the Yamanote,” Japan Forum 30, no. 2 (2018): 257–276,; Keiko Nishimura, “Surechigai Sociality: Location-Aware Technology on the Yamanote Line,” Japan Forum 30, no. 2 (2018): 240–256,; Jennifer Coates, “Circular Thinking: The Yamanote Line on Film,” Japan Forum 30, no. 2 (2018): 224–239,; Joseph Hankins, “Yamanote's Promise: Buraku Stigma, Tokyo's Trains, and the Infrastructure of Social Belonging,” Japan Forum 30, no. 2 (2018): 186–204,


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Pendleton and Coates, “Thinking from the Yamanote,” 155.


Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (London: University of California Press, 1984), 112.


Jordan Sand, Tokyo Vernacular: Common Spaces, Local Histories, Found Objects (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 51–53.


William Andrews, Dissenting Japan: A History of Japanese Radicalism and Counterculture, from 1945 to Fukushima (London: Hurst and Company, 2016), 116.


Sand, Tokyo Vernacular, 55.


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The shirōto no ran network is composed of a number of cafes and other venues where ownership and responsibility for their operation is shared between members. The emphasis is to create alternative sites of counterculture based upon equal access, sustainability, and the rejection of profit seeking.


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Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958; 2nd ed., London: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 55, 180.


Sand, Tokyo Vernacular, 62.


Michael Fisch, An Anthropology of the Machine: Tokyo's Commuter Train Network (London: University of Chicago Press, 2018).


Ibid., 18.


Ibid., 49.


Ibid., 51.


Ibid., 72.


Ibid., 177.


Peter Eckersall, “The Emotional Geography of Shinjuku: The Case of Chikatetsu Hiroba (Underground Plaza, 1970),” Japanese Studies 31, no. 3 (2011): 333–343, here 340,



Contributor Notes

Robert J. Simpkins is the 2019/2020 Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow at the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures. Specializing in youth, creativity, and precarity, his work also concerns issues related to urban space and contemporary music cultures. His doctoral research investigates the lives of musicians seeking a career in the music industry in Tōkyō, the adversities they face and the readjustments they make in order to keep going. He explores how a train station forms the center of their performing lives, and challenges common categorizations such as the division between public and private space. E-mail:


Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies