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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 11.2 (1999) 106-133

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Intimate Alienation: Japanese Urban Rail and the Commodification of Urban Subjects

James A. Fujii

It is a puzzling fact that boys take such an extraordinarily intense interest in things connected with railways, and, at the age at which the production of phantasies is most active . . . use those things as the nucleus of a symbolism that is peculiarly sexual. A compulsive link of this kind between railway-travel and sexuality is clearly derived from the pleasurable character of the sensations of movement.

(Freud 68)

The protagonist in Tayama Katai's 1907 short story "Shôjo-byô" ["Girl Crazy"] is thirty-seven-year-old Sugita Kojô, a man who, as husband and father of two young children, exhibits exactly the compulsion linking sexuality to railway identified by Freud. At one time a promising writer of girls' fiction, Sugita is now a lowly, salaried worker at a publishing house that produces cheap magazines. Unable to let go of what has become an obsession with schoolgirls and young women, his working hours are spent in reveries of his encounters with them during his morning commute. 1 The commute provides the only relief from an otherwise dreary life, as he stealthily observes the young women who enter his compass of scrutiny, eavesdropping, for example, on the conversation of a schoolgirl whom he has inspected at close quarters in the crowded trains, noting everything from a small birthmark behind one ear to the coquettish lilt in her conversation with a friend (170):

There was a reason he was certain that she must recognize him, and why she was so familiar to him [literally, mi-shitte iru]. . . ; she would board the train at Yoyogi station every day at the [End Page 106] same hour to go as far as Ushigome. He had never spoken to her, but sitting across from her he would think, "such a bountiful figure, with such fleshy cheeks, ample bosom, . . . what a splendid young woman." (168)

Ishihara Chiaki and his co-authors aptly observe that this odd sense of familiarity arises from repeated encounters with people who nonetheless remain strangers. Katai's compound verb mi-shitteiru--to know (thoroughly) by sight--signifies a new relationship born of repeated sightings in close quarters, one that does not involve or lead to conversation, friendship, or even visible signs of mutual recognition and acknowledgement.

We are told that earlier in his career, Sugita had experienced some success as a writer of popular girls' fiction [shôjo shôsetsu]. The rise of this genre in Japan around the turn of the century had coincided with sudden and widespread social awareness of young girls, who had been given a new identity as students with the passage of mandatory education laws. The popularity of these works would fall rather quickly, only to rise again with renewed vigor in the early decades of this century, but the protagonist Sugita continues to write even after the genre has lost its appeal. His obsessive interest invites only scorn and ridicule from the literary establishment. Already a man whom the times have left behind, Sugita is a tired, white-collar worker who punctually commutes from his shabby rental home on the outskirts of the city to his office, and the tale focuses on his obsession with young women who ride his commuter trains. 2 From Sendagaya station--just one stop closer to the very heart of Tokyo from what would become the site of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics--his daily commute begins and ends with a walk alongside cultivated fields and groves of zelkova trees, past imposing gates of daimyo mansions, beyond the cattle ranches, down an oak-lined path, to his rented house in the shadow of a little knoll. This bucolic scene of 1907 Sendagaya is marred, however, by the effluent spewing out of smokestacks at nearby factories. There are no scenes of Sugita with his family or with friends (if he has any), and his co-workers make an appearance only...


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pp. 106-133
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Archived 2004
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