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The butterfly in the subway

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By Jared Braiterman

What makes a city desirable? After living in Tokyo for just two years, I realize that what passes as normal in a large U.S. city now seems peculiar, unnecessary and even unpleasant.

Case in point: While waiting for a bus in Manhattan this summer, my mother reminded me that I’d need the exact fare.

“Of course, I have a few dollars in my pocket.”

“No, no,” she says. “You need $2.25 in coins.”

Exact fare means nine quarters, or more coins if you’re using dimes and nickels. New York City bus drivers neither make change nor accept bills.

In Tokyo, people often ask whether I came here for work. At first, my impulse was to explain the specific motivations that led me here. Later, I learned it was simpler to smile and say “Yes.” But the actual reason I am in Tokyo is because I enjoy living here. What attracts me is the mix of infrastructure and culture, the built environment and the people, that can be found in few, if any, other dense urban areas.

Walking and taking transit in U.S. cities, you soon realize that the world’s wealthiest country places little value on what is public, free and shared. Subway restrooms have been closed, ostensibly to prevent terrorism but more likely to save money.

The long recession has prompted cash-strapped governments to cut back on the most basic public services. The state of Hawaii reduced its school year, and Colorado Springs turned off a third of its streetlights. In nearly every city and town, already inadequate public transit systems have undergone service reductions and fare increases.

Japanese stare in disbelief when I explain that the San Francisco bus and subway system has no schedule. Trains are supposed to arrive in 10-, 15-, or 20-minute intervals depending on the time of day. No explanation is given when they don’t appear. It’s also unremarkable to wait 30 minutes and then see three buses arrive in a convoy.

By contrast, Tokyo really does earn its reputation as a transit paradise. Watching parents take off toddlers’ shoes before letting them stand on seats makes me feel like I’ve come from a different planet. Equally eye-opening are the elementary school students traveling alone, or the adults soundly sleeping with briefcases and valuables perched on racks high above them.

Clean and safe public spaces in Tokyo reflect and reinforce a level of social harmony and respect for others that are startling to Americans and Europeans. When you’re not worried about dangerous neighborhoods and personal safety, you’re free to wander and explore your surroundings anywhere and anytime. Traveling by foot offers a human scale and social interaction lacking in places where cars are the primary mode of transit.

At least until recently, Americans were proud of their high standard of living, their new cars and their McMansions. For me, true luxury is the ability to circulate in a crowded city with ease and lack of fear. I am happy to live in a typically small Tokyo apartment when I have such easy access to a city that continually surprises and enchants me.

Last week, on my way into the nearby Tokyo Metro station, I saw a uniformed agent racing up the stairs. Who or what was he chasing? I felt the adrenaline rush of fear and anxiety that once seemed normal in the U.S. but, looking closely, I saw that he held in his hand a butterfly. As he descended back to his underground office, he blushed when I remarked on his care for this winged insect.

Living in dense cities, many Japanese are unaware of the uniquely rich qualities of their shared spaces and urban life. Many assume that life must be better abroad. I feel fortunate to be here.

Jared Braiterman, PhD, is the founder of Tokyo Green Space (www.tokyogreenspace.com) and a Research Fellow at the Tokyo University of Agriculture.

This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

73 Comments
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For Americans who have no public tansportation Japan maybe really looks like heaven. For Europeans who have similar transportation system, many public facilities and better social security and care maybe it is closer to hell. Depends on the view, it is so relative.

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ps the collapse of capitalism in its most wild and severe form is imminent.

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very nice read. LoveUSA similar transport system in Europe? Name 1 country, nothing in Europe equals Japan. Social security however I agree.

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The transport system? I really doubt anywhere in Europe comes close to Japan's. It's excellent.

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European subway systems are not that equal to japan as many are older and thus less convenient than Japan which are fairly new and designed for convenience.

Overall public transport system I would say equal.

Love the system that my home-town put in place(only public transport system that actually makes a profit).

They decided on zones for the pricing. The whole town(capital) is ONE zone and one ticket can take you from one end to the other(regardless of what form of transportation is used or transfers).

For montly commuters there is a monthly pass that costs around Euro60 and you can ride a whole month as much as you want in the city. Cost works out to commuting to work and back for 2 weeks. So Park/Ride is common for intercity workers.

Plus, they also offer day-passes, 2/3-day passes, 1 week passes, etc as we get a LOT of Tourists they love that they can buy a ticket that suits their stay.

Very nice article and we should get more like it.

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The good ol' USA had the car manufaucturers buy out and dismantle the growing rail system in the US in order to increase dependence on cars. Now we look like utter and complete morons. The system in Japan is the best I have ever experienced. For 6 plus years.

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Excellent public transportation in Japan. But they need to keep things running a little later, maybe till 1 or 2ish.

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I'm shocked to hear that you need exact change (in coins) to ride the busses in NY. They really don't take any bills? No timetable in SF shows how disorganized their system is.

I really do enjoy not having to be on my guard when out and about in Japan. This is a society that works in many ways.

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For Europeans who have similar transportation system, many public facilities and better social security and care maybe it is closer to hell.

Oh, like Paris, where you have to flip that silly little knob to open the doors? And the trains are full of people asking you for money. Or, London where the trains are dirty, never on time, sometimes stop halfway through the journey forcing you to get off, and have signs at stations telling you how good or bad the service is on that day?

Europe does have a social security system light-years ahead of Japan though.

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The transit system here is great, but remember that is a trillion yen industry. It isnt cheap. You have to pay for such good service and convenience. And everyone uses it.

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LuveUSA, no way you can compare ANY European country with Japan with respect to public manners and public transportation. I've been to most and there is none eve hinting at approaching the comfort and cleanliness one can find here...

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Oh, like Paris, where you have to flip that silly little knob to open the doors? And the trains are full of people asking you for money. Or, London where the trains are dirty, never on time, sometimes stop halfway through the journey forcing you to get off, and have signs at stations telling you how good or bad the service is on that day?

No, more like Germany, Holland and Switzerland. Oh, and Scandanavia. Also, not all of Japan has AMAZING transport either, like where I live. We have tiny trains which stop at every hole in the hedge and no option for expresses anywhere.

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I also like the tokyo transit system, but I wish they'd offer more discounts to frequent users, suika/pasmo holders, etc.

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Another Japanophile, yawn... And why is everything always compared to the boring USA? Most of the world is not Americand and most foreigners in Japan aren't either. If you put articles by non Japanese how about much less from Americans!

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stevecpfc I'm European but I agree with the article, without being a "Japanofile". therefore you fail to make any point...

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@citizen12

Also, not all of Japan has AMAZING transport either, like where I live. We have tiny trains which stop at every hole in the hedge and no option for expresses anywhere.

The article is talking about Tokyo trains.

Good point about the other European train systems though.

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Because of the business relationship with the US that built Japan after WW2, Japanese will almost always first and foremost compare everything to America. The No#1 economy. In Asia no one compares to other places as often because of so much influence from the westerners across the Atlantic. Love it or hate it the USA has influenced more in the world in the past 100 years than anybody. There are exciting places in America and boring ones too. Just like some exciting cities in Europe and boring ones too. And most of Australia and New Zealand. Boring. And this isn't my take but all my mates who left down under to Japan or California. Hopefully now, other countries including the US will get more serious about public transportation and learn from Japan. But that is a big dream.

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Nice article.

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Am I the only one that finds public transport in Tokyo awful? the trains are overcrowdd and overpriced. In the rush hour it is more crowded than in a train in India because at least in India people are allowed to stay on the roof. The buses are even worse. They stop every 10 meters at traffic singnals, they are stuck in traffic jams and also never follow their time tables, especially on rainy days.

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Am I the only one that finds public transport in Tokyo awful?

I would say if not the ONLY one, close to the only one. The transportation system is probably the best in the world here.

The manners are a different issue. Live here more than 10 years and you will see they ar not as polite as you think (groping, elbows in your guy, shoulder knocking when you walk past) There are a lot of low-life losers, but at least they DON'T HAVE GUNS

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It is nice to see someone writing about the MANY GOOD things in Japan, and nicer to see the numerous positive comments. Most comments tend to be very... ummm... can I say negative?

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fully agreed with the article .......

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transportation system is great but manners in big cities are sorely lacking.

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I think it's easy to get grumpy with train service in Tokyo because we have such high expectations of it. When I first came to Japan I was told that the trains were ALWAYS on time. And they are ... except when they're not. Sometimes it's just a minute or two, and sometimes it's 5, 10, 20+ minutes. Sometimes you're stuck on the train because someone had to commit suicide on your line or a line that intersects with your line. Or you have to wait a half hour or more at the station because the train got held up.

When you're told it's the bestest transportation system in the whole wide world, you do develop high expectations. So when the system doesn't meet those expectations, you get annoyed.

On the other hand, if your expectations are low, you're always pleasantly surprised.

And yes, the buses here are dreadful. Super expensive, never on time, stuck in traffic, and overstuffed. The only time my bus was ever on time was when it was leaving the station, and then it was always totally jam-packed. And with the way the drivers mutter, I was always worried I would miss my stop because I couldn't see the sign board in the front. Someone needs to teach bus drivers and train conductors to speak clearly. They almost never do.

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They stop every 10 meters at traffic singnals, they are stuck in traffic jams and also never follow their time tables, especially on rainy days.

@ LoveUSA Can't agree with you on this. I find the buses to be great and I much prefer my daily commute by bus than by Metro. Never more than a few minutes late, and more often than not right on time or even early. Even on rainy days.

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OK, give Tokyo props, it's transporation system is top drawer. But, all that means is that you get to get whisked rapidly and precisely on time from one visually unimpressive (actually down-right ugly) section of the city to another. Personally, I'd much rather wait a few minutes extra if need be and enjoy the beauty of San Francisco or Paris or the architectural variety of London than simply get to another boring, grey, concrete part of Tokyo efficiently.

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Monkeyz.

Buses depend on route. Outside my ap we had buses every 2-3 minutes and they had their own lane during rush-hour.

Turned the 17min walk to 4min, granted deadly crowded on rainy days as everybody refused to cycle.

But agree buses are pricey. My biggest gripe here is the multiple companies, granted gotten smoother since we got Pasmo/Suica but still lods of unneeded costs.

Granted spoiled from my home-town where everything is goverment owned and thus tickets, etc carry over.

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I hope all the Japanophiles are aware of the HUGE nationbal debt that was run up building this "wonderful" public transport system and how it can no longer be afforded??

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Agreed on most points, but why do they have to cover most buildings in bathroom tiles?

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I hope all the Japanophiles are aware of the HUGE nationbal debt that was run up building this "wonderful" public transport system and how it can no longer be afforded??

The Sapporo system roughly covers its operating costs, but it has yet to address the debt incurred by construction, and the first line went in for the 1972 Olympics.

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What national debt?

Are Seibu, Odakyu, Mita, etc(long list) owned by the goverment?

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coming from NZ and Australia,,,,i love the transport system here! the buses are heaps cheaper here! also it is nice to have no grafitti on the trains, and the seats, when available are clean,,,oh and the nice bum warmers in winter if u ever experienced trains in Sydney,,,you will LOVE Japanese trains! imagine a stinking hot Sydney summer, and the aircon goes off,,, or you are traveling on a train, and the door didnt close,,,and the train continues to go,,,,,hmmm and of course the graffiti, beer cans, gropers,,, buses are a joke in Auckland NZ, I was shocked when i went back for a visit, no wonder every one who can, drives! they are never on time, and cost so much !

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The trains are efficient and run on time. Isn't that something people say about dictatorships?

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"For me, true luxury is the ability to circulate in a crowded city with ease and lack of fear"

That's true luxury ? Musn't have had much of life before coming here...

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Clean and safe public spaces in Tokyo reflect and reinforce a level of social harmony and respect for others that are startling to Americans and Europeans.

The authors words mirror the sorry social state of the US best expressed as "Me, me and me first".

As for Europeans, I do not agree. Where I come from we still look after each other and we oppose what is called "Americanisation". I am more startled at the coldness and lack of human interaction one sees in Tokyo; in other words the growing problem of むえんしゃかい。

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Odd, JR east and JR west are both listed companies. Don't see anything strange in their financials....

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Completely agree with the article. And the comparison does not only apply for the US. The same can be said about the increasingly slummified European capitals.

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WilliB.

Guess you been to all those places you put judgement above. Somehow doubt it.

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Yeah, it's exact-change-only in NYC, but most people use the metrocard nowadays anyways; same metrocard for buses to subways to boats to trains, etc. And it's the same price no matter where or how far you go, so no need to guess the cost. No need to re-pay either so long as you remain within the system. And it's 24 hours.

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Walking and taking transit in U.S. cities, you soon realize that the world’s wealthiest country places little value on what is public, free and shared. Subway restrooms have been closed, ostensibly to prevent terrorism but more likely to save money.

Nonsense. We place too much value on letting the gubmint dictate how we will live. There is no reason why New York's subway couldn't be privatized, run for profit and its security force allowed to arrest and have prosecuted the people who use the restrooms for shooting up or whatever, except that the state is now so thoroughly "liberal" that the likelihood of privatization is dead. Tokyo and much of Japan "works" better because of the homogenous population and the still strong shame-based ethic.

Japanese stare in disbelief when I explain that the San Francisco bus and subway system has no schedule.

Maybe they are too young to remember when JR was still the grossly inefficient, debt-ridden and fraud-perpetrating national line - "Kokutetsu"

I stared in disbelief to hear from older Japanese that before privatization JR employees would hit the sento on their "lunch breaks" for a nice long soak, on the tax payer's juu-en dama.

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man I have read this same article many times over the years LOL

While Tokyo has lots of trains & buses the problem isnt the system its the people, TOO DAMNED MANY OF THEM! Thats why about 8yrs ago I moved my office outta Tokyo & now its a short drive away, ahh bliss.

Oh & I too have saved many butterflies, dragonflies, bees & hornets that come in for a visit, even saved a 150cm rat snake from being squished in the parking lot because everyone was scared to touch it haha, hey JT do I get a medal or perhaps you can post this blurb as an article!

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Well it's easy to get used to it but there's a need to switch back to alert-mode when back abroad. However lately people should be in alert-mode everywhere, sadly.

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If the subways are as safe as everyone claims, then why are there women-only carriages?

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Junnama

Odd, JR east and JR west are both listed companies. Don't see anything strange in their financials....

The dept from when JR was privatized is still there. It is being payed off by the tobacco tax. Thats the main reason why cigarettes have become so expensive, to finally get rid of the JR dept! I am from Hamburg, good working public transport system, one ticket only when changing buses and buses on the main routes the whole night through.

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The Japanese train system is truly a paragon of excellence compared to a typical US city where automobiles are favored in every possible way. Parking spaces in particular are required in some areas in such a number as to forcibly spread businesses and residences further apart, creating a vicious circle of car dependence and making a subway system untenable.

I'm hoping that as the baby boomers age, their declining eyesight will lead to a reappreciation of the fact that not everyone can drive a car, and that the next spike in oil prices that is sure to come will lead to a decreased dependence on gasoline in favor of electric trains.

As for paying your bus fare, it's been a few years since I took a bus in Manhattan, but when I was in college across the river in New Jersey, if you put in more than the required fare, the next person got the benefit of your excess. Many times I got a 10-cent discount because the person stepping on before me only had quarters for a $1.40 bus ride.

Since the Manhattan bus fare is a multiple of 25c, it looks to me like the problem is not that you need exact change, but that the buses simply don't take bills. Or can you not ride the bus with three of those newfangled dollar coins?

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Fact is, most Americans can drive to work and park for free. Try doing that in Tokyo. Way to look at just one aspect. You can't possibly think most people in the Tokyo met. area are happy taking those severely overcrowded trains with stinky salarymen and chikans all over the place.

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I couldn't agree more with this article. Love it. Thank you! :-)

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Man, what a pathetic picture the author paints of the US. In my home that all is normal and Japan is no special place. Funny to see how downright crap the US is.

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I love Tokyo, and I agree with a lot of what the author is trying to convey. But the U.S. isn't that bleak. Sure, public transit sucks, but that's not the only thing that makes a city.

The author said it himself - he's been in Tokyo for two years. Still the honeymoon phase, perhaps. All cities have their own unique features and ills. Were the author a woman, perhaps, he may have a different tune to sing about the safety of Tokyo and its trains. I may be afraid of getting mugged in New York, but I'm also terrified of being molested and grabbed in Tokyo. I lived in Minneapolis for three years and nothing ever happened, but in Tokyo for three years and I was almost raped. Doesn't mean I still don't love Tokyo and would move back there if I had a good job, but I've seen enough of many different cities to know that no place is perfect.

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Tokyo and much of Japan "works" better because of the homogenous population and the still strong shame-based ethic.

MisterCreosote, maybe long-term job security for all workers--whether they are employed in the public, private, or "third" sector--has something to do with it as well.

Your obsession with demonizing government and therefore making the tiresome distinction between the "efficient" private and "inefficient" public sectors (what is "efficient" about a corporate CEO in America making 1000 times his average employee?) isn't relevant in a country that prizes corporate social responsibility and harbors deep suspicions of American-style "shareholder" capitalism.

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So from this article I got Japan = Tokyo. Okay, well, what about the rest of the country? I really so like Tokyo's public transit system in terms of convenience. However it isn't all of Japan, but it's the part most rosy eyed foreigners see. I mean, sure it's great if you can walk, but mobility impaired (seniors, handicapped) people are SOL. I think a country with an ageing populace, Japan needs focus on making things more accessible. I come from a smaller Canadian city, but it's fairly accessible to ride either bus or train, with multiple elevator points, and kneeling buses, with special sections for wheelchairs and such, and very helpful staff. Don't see alot of that in Japan. I guess no one there cares, since those people are "mendokusai!" Glad I don't live in Tokyo (anymore)

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I love living in Japan - whether as a foreigner or just blending with the locals. Tokyo's still a bit expensive but for convenience, mutual courtesy (taxi drivers aside) - nobody can beat Japan. Quality of life is high.

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Fact is, most Americans can drive to work and park for free. Try doing that in Tokyo. Way to look at just one aspect. You can't possibly think most people in the Tokyo met. area are happy taking those severely overcrowded trains with stinky salarymen and chikans all over the place.

There are some good public transportations in America, but truth is, no matter how good the public transportation, Americans prefer their own private space a car provides than sharing any public transportation any day. The dream of any American teenager is to drive a car in high school, instead of riding the school bus. One could do stuff in one's own car that one can't in public, to get one thru the grind of the day.

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Neither New York nor Tokyo is livable.

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This article is accurate... for a tiny little part of Tokyo, which is a tiny little part of Japan. Apart for a few big cities, transportation in Japan is in a state of disrepair. I lived in inaka for some time. There was a JR station a few kilometers from our home. The station was old and dirty (smoking men everywhere, had not been painted for 30 years), but the train was OK (new rapid trains a few times an hour, most trains were old countryside-type stopping at every station). No bus service (even though the whole population of this countryside town was 50000). No sidewalk except around the station. There wasn't any public lighting on some road, not all the streets were tarred. I have been to some Tokyo area (in the east) or Chiba, and the transportation system is also not as good as in rich Tokyo.

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Piglet, it sounds like you're describing the town where I live, except the population isn't that high and we got a sparkly new no-smoking station with escalators and lifts a few years ago. Most trains stop at every station, but maybe once or twice an hour there are limited-express and rapid trains. No bus service, but just lately they've started up a demand-taxi that's a bit like a chartered mini-bus service. I've never used it, but apparently it's handy for the oldies. I go almost everywhere by bicycle, and the lack of traffic on the roads makes cycling a real pleasure.

The lack of public lighting in the inaka is because artificial light at night upsets the growth of the crops growing in the fields on either side of the road.

It's a much more pleasant place to live than Tokyo.

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Ok, so you've discovered that America's public infrastructure has been stagnating and crumbling for the past few decades, while the rest of the world has moved on. Not just Japan, but Canada and Europe look at America's oddball phobia of anything remotely "socialist" and shake their heads in amazement.

It wasn't always this way, but thanks to the Tea Party's turnout in the elections, get ready for at least another two years of stagnation Stateside. They're Really Angry -- but at what? Precisely the progressive society you talk about in your article.

So I think the article is a nice description of the shock most Americans feel when they discover that not only Japan, but the rest of the world has moved on, but I bet many readers are going, "um, yeah."

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LoveUSA:

" For Americans who have no public tansportation Japan maybe really looks like heaven. For Europeans who have similar transportation system, many public facilities and better social security and care maybe it is closer to hell. "

Only in your imagination. Have you ever been to Europe? Name one large city whose public transportation system is as good as Tokyos. Welfare systems, yes. For now. But they all creaking at the seams; they were never designed to accommodate millions of unemployable immigrants. So that is also changing rapidly.

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I grew up in Europe and the transportation system on average is comparable.

Agree that the welfare systems are creaking but they have done so for many decades.

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Zenny:

" Guess you been to all those places you put judgement above. Somehow doubt it. "

I have not been to Reykjavik. Otherwise, I can´t off-hand think of a European capital that I have not been to. Besides, I was commenting on large cities, not on small towns. Again, none of them is as convenient, clean, and safe as Tokyo.

By the way, I understand the Reykjavik public transport system is non-existent.

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Haven't been to Reykjavik myself.

But grew up in an european capital and been most european and many capitals overseas.

I think it is fair since Tokyo is a capital city to compare it to other capital cities. Not so?

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Zenny:

" I think it is fair since Tokyo is a capital city to compare it to other capital cities. Not so? "

And thats what I did.

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Folks are arguing things that are not relevant. Tokyo is just about the largest conurbation in the world. For this massive amount of people, the public transportation system is excellent. sure it's crowded but that is why some choose small towns. New York is very liveable as well as Tokyo. To me as a resident of each for over 5 years I find tokyo's system more efficient but in times of stress you can easily find a helping hand in New York. basically because people are not afraid to chat with a stranger. and if you look lost or in trouble someone will say.."are you ok?" That is my experience. also architecture is not exactly grey Tokyo's forte but there are some nice spots. But as for transportation only, for a city this size if you can't find anything good about it you shouldn't be living in a city this big.

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Clean and safe public spaces in Tokyo reflect and reinforce a level of social harmony and respect for others that are startling to Americans and Europeans.

get out of NY and you'll be surprised. liberals and their "bad american" cliches...

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NY subways are like cattle cars compared to Tokyo ones. And the vaunted L.A. subways are all hard plastic seats, no comparison to Tokyo's soft ones.Tokyo has the most comfortable and accommodating trains in the world bar none.

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@EbiChiri

Tokyo has the most comfortable and accommodating trains in the world bar none

Nah. Fukuoka beats Tokyo hands down. Replace "Tokyo" in your quotation with "Japan" and I'd agree though.

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Certainly I agree that Japan's trains are cleaner, on time... But at the same time, the writer is male. I have never heard of someone being raped on a train in the US or the Uk (perhaps it has happened) nor do any other huge cities have such issues with molesters on such a regular basis. I also dislike that the trains in Japan stop running so early compared to many places. At least cities like London and whatnot have night buses so you don;t have to fork out money for a taxi or a hotel. Take the good with the bad but just don't forget to mention the bad when writing such fluff!

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Transportation here is heavenly good. I've been living in Japan for four years and save for the times I moved from one place to another, almost never needed a car. I come from Puerto Rico and back there trains are, oh wait, they NOW have a train.

@ Cleo: "The lack of public lighting in the inaka is because artificial light at night upsets the growth of the crops growing in the fields on either side of the road."

Thanks a lot for that explanation, that answers my complaints to the pitch black dark roads where I ride my bike at night.

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When I am charging my Suica card, I always use 10,000yen bills at the ticket machines without any hesitation.

In North America? Heck no. That would be the most stupidest thing someone can ever do in their entire life. I wouldn't even let the machine eat my $5 bills in North America.

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Yeah, hard to argue with the author here. People in Japan don't realize how bad things are in the US transit system, and people in the US have no idea what they're missing in public tranist.

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tmarie, you never heard because you never heard. In NY rapes happen in the train, in the station, and people watch. It's pretty ridiculous, and it's actually way safer on Japanese trains if you're talking about rapes. Groping on the other hand, is a problem but it's gotten a lot better now that they're enforcing the law.

Train molestors are in every country. It's weird because exactly the places you named are dealing with it right now. New York, London, Hong Kong, South Korea, the list goes on. Japan's not the only country that's implemented female only cars. It's simply the first.

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Certainly not saying it doesn't happen in other places but I would be shocked if groping were more a problem in any other country compared to Japan. As for "enforcing", not nearly enough.

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Soon the butterflies in Japan won't be able to fly and will be able to be caught by all and sundry.........

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