Japanese buses are mobile libraries. Of course, there aren’t any shelves of books. But they are ridiculously quiet. Everyone either speaks in hushed tones or not at all. And you dare not breathe too loudly lest you disturb the peace and quiet. (That is unless you are on a bus filled with school children…but that is entirely another matter!) Don’t jangle your keys. Don’t shuffle about. Most importantly, do not use your cell phone; not even for texting, according to some old ladies. I was “strongly urged” by an older lady that my cell phone needed to be completely off, and, indeed, she was obliged to turn it off for me. Yes. The hallowed space that is a Nishitetsu bus will not be desecrated by your noise and or text messages!
Why is it so deafeningly quiet on buses here in Japan? The buses I am used to back in the west are loud, late and loathsome. I don’t miss them at all. But, often I find it uncomfortably quiet on the buses here. I ride four buses a day, five days a week. That is about two hours of quiet time for me for five days of the week. There are the intermittent announcements that, rather than provide information, are more like chimes on a meditation soundtrack. I just can’t conceive what it’s like being a bus driver. Unless you’re a loner and enjoy long quiet drives (or a parent with many noisy children), then that’s a serious amount of silence for any person to sanely endure for hours at a time.
Imagine my surprise when one of the silent brothers of the Nishitetsu fraternity spoke to me. I was settling in to my afternoon meditation a la Nishitetsu bus when I heard what sounded like yelling over the intercom. It was even more disconcerting because I was the only passenger on the bus and I’m a foreigner. My initial thoughts were, “ I have inadvertently desecrated the hallowed halls of the Nishitetsu bus, and now I have to bear the consequences.” I responded politely and waited to hear my charges read out (over the intercom, of course). “Where are you from?” was what came out (in Japanese). Really? The silence had driven this dear man to the edge. He couldn’t stand it! He had to speak to someone. I obliged. We carried on friendly banter until… someone else boarded the bus. Then we were thrust back into silence and solitude, never to speak again. We both assumed these unwritten roles (silent driver; silent commuter) as if it were scripted in some grand Japanese play.
The question remains- why? Why am I made to feel completely disrespectful if I carry on a conversation on the bus? Why did this friendly bus driver seem to altogether forget my existence in an instant to maintain the silence? It must be noted that the Japanese are not a particularly rowdy crowd. Fukuoka is not like Kingston or New York where you hear music bumping on street corners everywhere and public buses are anything but quiet. But, just plain silence? On more than one occasion I have watched some poor old man frantically search for his screaming cell phone he forgot to, or simply didn’t know how to, put on manner mode.
Perhaps within the term “manner mode” lies the answers to my questions; manners. Is it really just an issue of minding your manners? No one really needs to hear details about your monotonous job or your raunchy weekend plans. Worst yet, nary a soul needs to hear any of the nonsensical gibberish that young people are obsessed with these days. That ride on the bus is your time to relax a bit and enjoy a quiet moment with yourself, albeit on a public bus, filled with people, but, who are, no doubt, doing the same. Countless epiphanies have befallen me on those silent bus rides. They range from major insights on life decisions to what I like to call “lesser epiphanies”, like what to make for dinner. However, more often than not, the silence simply lulls me to sleep, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But, really, can we please lighten up a tad on the buses? I don’t want to feel like the scourge of Japanese society for rummaging through my abyss of a bag for my house keys.
And as for my bus driver friend, did we ever speak again? Unfortunately, we haven’t been alone on the bus since that chance encounter but whenever he passes me on the street I get a toot and a wave. I wave back and silently wish for the day we can break the rules again! I’m sure he feels the same. Shhh…
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn171, Mar. 2013)
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