Grand Prize Silver Winner: Crossing Shibuya

By Aaron Gilbreath

Within Tokyo’s populous Shibuya ward lies the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing. By some estimates, 2,500 people cross here during rush hour each time the signal changes. Locals call it “The Scramble.” Every day, over two million passengers pass through neighboring Shibuya Station, commuting to work and enjoying the area’s countless shops and restaurants. Many of them pass through The Scramble. When traffic lights turn red, they all turn red simultaneously, stopping ten lanes of automobile traffic and sending pedestrians from five separate crosswalks into the massive intersection. For nearly one full minute, people flood the street in what seems an explosion of human buckshot. To the casual observer, the surge resembles chaos ─ all these bodies, weaving and darting, moving in different directions across each other’s paths. Yet there is order to it, a choreographed chaos. As Los Angeles Times writer John M. Glionna said in 2011, “Despite so much humanity inhabiting such a confined space, there’s rarely a collision, sharp elbow, shoulder-brush or unkind word.” When you watch footage of The Scramble, you can’t help but wonder what holds this system together. How do people remain so well-behaved?

Tokyo residents learn to be aware of people around them and to share the city’s close quarters. Although Tokyo isn’t the world’s densest city ─ a few cities in India, China and Bangladesh are denser ─ Tokyo is one of the densest. 11,300 people live in Tokyo per square mile, compared to Mumbai at 80,100 per square mile, and Surat, India at 75,000. Tokyo space is scarce. It’s expensive. Because it’s precious, people respect it and give each other whatever room they can spare. They expect the same in return.

The reason The Scramble succeeds is culture. Busy places like Trader Joe’s in Manhattan require staff members to hold “End of Line” signs to help create order and civility, and too many Americans create traffic jams by refusing to let other cars merge in front of them on the freeway. But in Japan, the communal values and sense of responsibility that make capsule hotels work are the same values at work at Shibuya crossing. Crowded or not, pedestrians are largely considerate, and in places like the crossing, the combination of cultural factors fosters harmonious interactions and a polite type of madness. This uniquely Japanese species of conscientiousness is called omoiyari, and it applies to spatial awareness. “It means the active sensitivity to other people,” anthropology professor Merry White, and author of Coffee Life in Japan, told the Wall Street Journal. “It anticipates the needs and desires of other people. It’s not broad-brush, it’s fine-tuned.” Schools teach children omoiyari. That doesn’t mean places like the crossing doesn’t drive people crazy.

I spent a few days in Shibuya, first observing and walking The Scramble, and then interviewing pedestrians on the street. With the help of an old classmate’s bilingual niece, I asked people how they go about crossing here, if they have particular techniques, how crowds affect them and why they think The Scramble functions so smoothly. I also asked about a unique gesture that pedestrians supposedly use as a turn signal, called tegatana o kiru, or ‘sword hand.’ A lot of videos of The Scramble exist, but I had yet to find a detailed article about its inner workings in English. I wanted to understand it. One idea I kept wondering was whether group dynamics in Japan could teach Americans to improve the ways we get along. A cynical part of me doubted it. We were too far gone. But another part of me hoped that if we Westerners learned more about how the Japanese people made teeming shared spaces work, maybe we could learn to be more cognizant and respectful of each other. With half the earth’s seven billion people now living in cities, and the world population projected to reach 10.5 billion by 2050, we had better learn, because our future looks a lot like the crossing.

* * *

I first visited Shibuya on a Thursday afternoon. I was headed to the famous Disk Union record store. I feared I might get lost, so I drew myself a map. If you explore Tokyo, you eventually get lost, spending a lot of your time disoriented and confused, and once I got out of Shibuya Station, every direction looked the same. Was that north or south? Shibuya, like Shinjuku and Harajuku, was one massive circuit board of soaring glass towers striped with vertical signage and flashing lights. I knew the great crossing was nearby, but I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see anything. Tokyo swallows its compass rose and devours the sun, leaving visitors with little natural sense of direction, only GPS on your phone if the battery works and you could get a signal, neither of which worked for me.

A large map stood on a sign near the station exit, so I studied it. The shapes vaguely matched those on my drawing, though the image didn’t instill confidence. I looked around. Two young women and a man huddled nearby. When I asked for help, they smiled and nodded. “I’m looking for Disk Union,” I said.

“Record store.”

“Disk Union,” they kept saying. “Disk Union.”

Together we studied the map as they talked amongst themselves. While we stared at the maze of streets, the guy eventually found it on a map on his phone, and the group determined which way to walk. Smiling, they flashed a thumbs up. “Come with us,” one woman said.

They led me along a busy sidewalk beside the enormous station. They were nursing students with the Shibuya Red Cross. As we walked, one woman told me, “I went to New York, um─” Her gaze trailed off into space and she laughed. “I buy shows, gifts. Empire State Building. I went up to see the lights.” She looked at me as if for cues, then remembered: “My friend─at night.” She crossed her arms in an X to signal how her friend didn’t want to go out. “She was scared. But I wanted to go at night. To have fun.” Fun and danger, two basic ingredients in world travel. Here I was alone at sunset, being led not mugged by friendly strangers once again, as I had this entire trip.

“New York at night can be scary,” I said. “Nothing to worry about here. It is safer here.”

“Yes it is,” they said in unison, proud of this fact about their incredible country.

I’d imagined my first time at Shibuya Crossing as some profound experience that, like losing your virginity, I would have with intent. After preparing myself mentally, I would pause for a moment and draw a deep breath before diving into the throng and giving it the undivided attention of all my five senses. Instead, like your first time having sex, what happened happened spontaneously and quickly, without any of the imagined ceremony.

The three friends and I walked. When I looked up, I was standing on the edge of the world’s busiest intersection. There was the famous two-story Starbucks looming overhead. There was the big black and yellow L’Occitane en Provence cafe. And at my feet stretched the white painted lines of one of the five crosswalks. I’d viewed this in countless photographs. I’d built it up in my mind. Now here I was, with people gathering around and in front and behind me by the hundreds, their bodies forming a huge coalescing mass that snaked down two nearby streets.

Shoppers, commuters, school girls, teenagers, punks with died blue hair – the crossing contained a cross-section of the city. Businessmen’s fancy leather shoes clicked as they ran to their trains. Graying ladies shuffled as fast as they could, their hunched bodies dwarfed by the ruler straight skyscrapers. The nursing students kept talking, but their voices sank into the hum. I nodded blankly as my head spun to take it all in.

Maybe the first time was better without the buildup. What images couldn’t capture was the sensation. This gap between skyscrapers created a massive hall where the open air felt like the center of a sports arena, and the frigid winter wind blew through the vacuum, taking in the breath of thousands of commuters in this spot where tense, bustling Tokyo finally stopped walking for a moment and paused between appointments. Even more astounding than its appearance was the tension. The space held a sense of impending movement, of mounting inertia as all of those people pooled like water behind a dam, building pressure and waiting, all waiting, for that moment of release.

The signals said don’t walk and remained red. Tiny cabs and boxy vans rushed through the intersection, hugging the curves and seizing their moment before the cycle turned over and the crowds closed in.

The mob and I waited. And waited. The crowd behind me hardened. The cold air blew. As the Japanese proverb says, “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down.” Then it happened. The green light flipped a switch inside us. We walked, all at once, as a body. But it wasn’t a body. It was thousands of tiny organelles that composed a cell, pinging and bouncing inside the intersection and somehow staying within the lines. The crowd was enormous, and moving in it made me wonder if this was how spawning salmon felt. Your individuality dissolved. You relinquished yourself to the group, and yet, somehow, you retained your autonomy as you weaved through the group, choosing how you maneuvered, or how you closed your eyes and didn’t maneuver at all, but instead walked forward, hoping to avoid impact with the people shooting past you, and waiting until it ended.

Pedestrians darted. They ducked. They did the New York City shoulder-tuck where they drew in their arms and pivoted their torso to avoid brushing each other. Some cut diagonally across peoples’ trajectories in order to increase efficiency, since the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and why make a big arc when you can make a beeline? The human buckshot fired from multiple muzzles, yet everyone remained calm. Those who ran seemed to to make the light or catch a train, not from panic. Most walked, calmly, coolly, and everyone in their path adjusted accordingly. Like a symphony, the collective result was miraculous in its complexity, with the component parts moving apart and in sync to create an ensemble that erased the individual. There was no me, no you or them. There was only we, this stream of bodies, passing without colliding.

The signal allots a full minute, but within seconds we had crossed. Like most important moments, this one passed before I could take it all in, and the event was so uneventful to my guides that they hardly noticed. They’d talked the entire time, asking me about America and music, then leading me past restaurants and clothing stores, and finally, to the record shop.

“Here it is,” the man said. There it was: one of the record stores I’d long wanted to visit. I felt excited to shop, yet my mind remained on the previous block. It felt like I’d just experienced one of the wonders of the modern world, and no one was talking about it. Hadn’t that been incredible? Didn’t they know how that was completely unique? The students smiled, and when I thanked them for their help, we all shook hands and the second woman said to me, “Have a good time in Japan.” Her kindness crushed me, and I felt ashamed that my Japanese was so limited that I could only reciprocate in English. They waved as they walked off, merging with the crowds that streamed through Shibuya. And once again I was alone amid the millions.

With a list of albums to find, I ducked down a narrow spiral staircase into the basement and pawed through crates of records and CDs for two hours. When I emerged, I spent time on the sidewalk, watching the swarms. I’d lived in New York for a year. I used to navigate Grand Central Station at rush hour. This was different. Two days later, I came back to speak with pedestrians to understand how this worked. As one Tokyo resident told me: “Crowds? They don’t bother me. This is organized. Everything is organized in Japan.”

* * *

Before Shibuya became a transit hub, the Shibuya family built a castle here in the 11th century. The land was rolling. The family farmed. Centuries passed. In the early 1600s, a Tokugawa shogun named Ieyasu built a castle in what’s now the Tokyo area. Back then, Tokyo was a fishing village called Edo. Kyoto was Japan’s capital, as it had been for eight hundred years. But that shifted in 1603 when the Tokugawa began their nearly 300 year rule, marking the time called the Edo Period which was defined by peace, economic growth, internal cohesion and isolation from the increasingly globalized world. Ieyasu made Tokyo his military headquarters, and the Shibuya family eventually abandoned their castle as Japan’s local clans relinquished power to the Tokugawa.

During the 1700s and 1800s, villagers moved to Tokyo for work. The small towns dotting the area swelled, and their edges began to connect, growing the collection of villages into one massive city, and filling the swaths of open land and swamps that lay in between. By 1800, over a million people lived in Tokyo, making it the world’s largest city. As historian Edward Seidensticker describes in his book Tokyo Rising, despite how huge Tokyo had become, in the late 1800s, Shibuya was still in the country, separate from Tokyo. That changed when the first Shibuya Station opened in 1885 to handle what eventually became the Yamanote Line. “It was with the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War,” Seidensticker writes, “and especially the latter, that Shibuya began to turn into something more than a sleepy country village.”

Although Allied bombers destroyed much of Tokyo during WWII, people rebuilt it and quickly got back to living. As the population grew, so did the train lines, the stations and the need for electricity, and the Tokyo subway system grew into the most efficient and complex subway in the world, where trains almost always run on time.

If you’re a tourist in Tokyo, you’ll take a train to the hot spots: Shinjuku, Harajuku, Ginza and Shibuya. These are sakariba, which Seidensticker defines as bustling places “where crowds gather.” In Shibuya at night, lights from giant billboards and TV screens creat subtle flashes that make it look like God is flickering the cosmic dimmer on and off. Car headlights cast pedestrians’ shadows deep into the intersection. Night crowds are thinner but no less monumental.

People keep their eyes forward or aimed at their feet, whites hovering above paper surgical masks. It’s hard to tell if they’re uncomfortable or terrified. Their faces give little away. One night one teen did look horrified. Maybe he wasn’t used to Tokyo crowds. Maybe he was from inaka, the sticks. Otherwise, most people look confident, or at least blasé, as if this is just the way things are, no big deal.

Cars seem anxious, probably because they know the city favors trains and pedestrians. Some turn too late and get stuck in the intersection, where the crowd encases them and blocks their escape. One cab got stuck by a mob in the center of the crosswalk. Completely enclosed, people streamed all around it. The car sat swallowed, like cop cars during riots in America. Once the crowd thinned at the end of the cycle, the cab inched forward and wiggled free.

Now that I’d crossed it, it was time to go inside. So on one sunny Saturday, I stood on the street and asked pedestrians about their strategies for not running into other people. Interestingly, many didn’t realize they had a strategy until pushed to reflect on it.

Akari, a twenty-four-year-old graphic designer in a black coat and maroon ski cap, worked in Shibuya and had lived in Tokyo her whole life. Her technique? “I figure out which people are going to come right in front of me in the moment, and somehow avoid those people. I avoid people and kind of go forward diagonally.” Akari didn’t think Japan was too crowded, only certain Tokyo wards like Shibuya and Minato. “If you go a bit further out,” she said, “like Taitō Ward or Nerima Ward, it’s not too crowded.” The Scramble didn’t bother her, but having to commute home on the crowded Den-en-toshi subway line did. So did Harajuku’s Takeshita-dōri, a street she found so stressful she avoided it entirely.

Yōhei Kanata, twenty-nine, grew up in Osaka and moved to Tokyo three years ago. He had a simple technique: “Well, I can kind of see the route that I’m going to take in front of me. Like I know I want to cut through, like so.” Crowds were normal, so they rarely irked him, though he did get frustrated by drunk commuters who got too close on packed trains when he was tired after work. “They stink,” he said, “like reek of alcohol. Plus, they sway around.” The weird young punk kids called yankī also irritated him. “They’re always around yelling about something. When I see that I’m like, ‘What’s up with these guys?’ That’s about it.”

Skateboarding prepared thirty-four-year-old engineer Miwaya for The Scramble. Dressed in green pants, a green ski cap and a black knee-length jacket with a fur collar, he’d moved to Tokyo from Kushiro, Hokkaido ten years ago. To avoid bumping pedestrians, he stood close to the street, so when the light turned green, he was in front of the crowd. He laughed when he admitted this. “Is that too obvious? Everyone is trying not to run into others as they walk. Sometimes you do run into people not looking in front of them, but that’s rare.” He focused on what was in front of him and didn’t look to the sides. As a skater, he was good at maneuvering.

A young woman from Kanagawa, outside of Tokyo, tried to avoid Shibuya crossing on weekends. When she came here, she adjusted her speed to the pace of those around her. “If you do that you don’t usually run in to people,” she said. “Also, uh… I guess other than that I just am careful to look around me. I’ve never really thought about it. But yeah, it’s about the speed you walk. If you run or something, you sometimes run in to people around you. So I just try to follow the people around me, and then usually it’s fine.” In places like this and Tokyo Station, where Japanese country people and gaijin tourists go, she found it harder to walk, because they don’t know how to behave. But stations like Shinegawa and Ebisu are easier to navigate, because the businessmen and locals know which side of the sidewalk to walk on, how to correctly ride the escalator, and are generally more aware. “In the stations, it’s clear that you’re supposed to walk on the right or left side,” she said quietly, “but in this intersection there’s no division like that, so people kind of cross freely.” With people coming from The Scramble’s other side, she just looked directly in front of her. “I’m prepared to come to a crowded place,” she said, “so, how to put it… So I don’t really get annoyed at it unless I’m in a hurry.”

Hiroyo Murakami, fifty-one, lived in the quieter Sagamihara suburbs, but she grew up in Tokyo and its crowds. To her, you either accepted that this was the way things were, or you left. Although she recognized that the crossing’s scale made it world famous, she didn’t navigate with any method. “I just try not to run in to anyone,” she said. Wearing a red plaid scarf, black leather boots and pink sparkly nail polish, she found my questions about crowds interesting. “Well, maybe that’s one of Japan’s unique qualities,” she said. “You can’t walk peacefully. …Well, in more rural areas the streets are bigger and there aren’t as many people walking around, so it’s more calm. There’s also a lot of nature around, like mountains and such. So emotionally, it’s easier to feel at ease.”

Event planner Ryō Suzuki grew up in the suburbs of Kawauchi, Saitama and bought a house in a part of Shibuya that was close enough to work that he could avoid riding packed rush hour trains. At age forty, he’d had enough of that. For years he rode the Saikyo Line from Saitama, one of Tokyo’s most crowded. It was exhausting. On days off, he’d recuperate by avoiding busy places. During the week, he’d try to commute outside rush hour. Since he was in administration, he could choose when he came to work in Shibuya, so he changed his commute time, because he didn’t like it. A lot of people don’t like it. “Even just that change from being frustrated in the mornings by the crowds has been great,” he said, “so the last three or four years I’ve felt much better. It’s totally different.” He found Tokyo too crowded. “Definitely. It’s the worst. But I guess that’s just how it is.”

Despite being strongly influenced by crowds, and even after working near Shibuya crossing for so long, Suzuki had never thought about how he crossed here. “Oh, well if I do have a technique, it’s probably subconscious,” he said. “Nowadays there’s lots of people that are looking down at their phones while they walk, right? So there’s lots of people that don’t pay enough attention, which means you have to be more careful.” He squinted and thought more about it. “I mean, I’m sure a lot of people are kind of looking even if just out of the corner of their eyes, but there’s also those who really seem like they’re going to run in to you. So yeah, it does seem actually kind of dangerous. You’ve got to pay attention. Other than that I’m not really conscious of anything.”

Sixty-three-year-old architect Yōko Andō crossed the same way every time. “I stand and wait at a spot where I can cross to where I want to go in the least distance,” she said. “I just try to make sure that I can get around the people coming towards me. I think if you slow down a little bit you can get around people without running in to them.” Wearing in a long red dress and a wool sweater, she kept her hair in a clean, trim bob. Originally from Yokohama, she’d moved to Tokyo thirty-five years ago when she got married. Since she’d studied in Tokyo, it wasn’t a big adjustment. She only got annoyed when people on phones suddenly stopped in front of her. “Young people like to talk while they walk,” she said. “In Shibuya especially there are a lot of young people that walk slowly, so sometimes I do wish they’d speed up.” She wanted me to know that even though Tokyo was congested, not all of Japan was; the countryside was nice.

Example A: Kazushige Tanase, the forty-five-year-old local government official who lived in the spacious, forested Mie Prefecture and was visiting Tokyo on business. He didn’t have a method for crossing.

“Although one time I did turn away from it. I came out of the station, and there were so many people that I just decided not to try to cross.” He smiled and shook his head. “I’m here as a tourist though, so I just decided to go somewhere else. I’m from the countryside, so seeing so many people is a rarity for me.”

For nineteen-year-old Moe Kawamura, the crowds were too common. Dressed in an army coat and tan Ugg boots, she’d come to Tokyo from Yokohama last year for high school and said the train to Shibuya Station was way too much for her. The crossing was worse. To get through it, she held her backpack and purse in front of her so it didn’t brush anyone. That was her only technique. Being surrounded by people all the time drove her nuts. “Sometimes I feel like I’m being kind of pressured from behind and the people don’t leave for a while,” she said with a shrug. She found Tokyo’s density especially annoying when she was tired. “I go to school in Takadanobaba [Shinjuku], but the trains, even the one yesterday, are just completely packed. It’s really terrible.”

Twenty-six-year-old engineer Sassa Takahirō had no problems with crowds or Shibuya crossing. “Doesn’t bother me at all,” he said. “I just walk however I want. I’m not careful of anything in particular, but I’ve never run in to anyone.” Japanese cities were crowded by nature, but he felt the country met that challenge by being highly organized and efficient. “I’ve never had any unpleasant feelings about it,” he said. “I think Japan does things right.” Prepared and organized himself, he wore a black North Face fleece coat and a huge backcountry pack, equipped for the January cold and anything that came at him. Unlike the others, he actually knew of the pedestrian hand gesture I’d read about, tegatana o kiru. “It’s like a sword,” he said, demonstrating. “Japanese sword.” Although he didn’t use it, he saw some older people who did, though mostly as a joke. “Young people don’t use it,” he said. They need their hands for their phones.

* * *

I never saw sword hand at The Scramble, not once. When it finally appeared, it was inside a men’s room at quiet Sendagaya Station. A businessman in a dark suit and SARS mask was coming around a tight corner by the urinals. When he saw me there with my rolling luggage, he cut his outstretched hand ─ held right in front of him, like a fin ─ and turned the corner. It shocked me, and also disappointed. The one place I saw sword hand was here? Inside a five-urinal bathroom occupied by two people? That wasn’t what I’d imagined.

Later that day, another businessman did it while coming out of a narrow bathroom at a smoky izakaya near Shinjuku Station. It was late. He was drunk, but that didn’t affect his efficiency. When the bathroom door swung open, his eyes locked on mine, his hand went up straight and pointed forward, and he slipped past me back through the crowd toward his seat. There it was, sword hand twice in one day, but no more. It was worth the wait. Seeing how clearly the technique advertised intent and made sharing a tight space more manageable, I wished I could use it back in America, but people wouldn’t know what it meant. They’d probably think I was preparing to use karate to steal their wallet. Funny, in that tiny train station bathroom and smoky izakaya, the men didn’t even need it. I could see them. They saw me. But in The Scramble where sword hand seemed the most practical, no one used it. Like most gaijin, maybe I was missing something. “Sumimasen,” I said while we slipped past each other at Sendagaya. The man nodded and stepped to the urinal, then I slipped out onto the street.

Aaron Gilbreath is a nonfiction writer in Oregon. His stories have appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times, Paris Review, Brick, Saveur and Kenyon Review. An editor at Longreads, his book of personal essays, Everything We Don’t Know, came out last year, and he just released his new book This Is: Essays on Jazz.

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