Every so often, video clips of the insane overcrowding of the Tokyo railway system are shown on television programs or circulated via social media across the world. Typically, these depict frantic white-gloved station-masters shoving exhausted businessmen into impossibly crowded trains, attempting desperately to shut the doors before an umbrella, a briefcase or even a small child pops out again. From these images, we might surmise that such scenes are better suited to an episode of ‘Monty Python’ than a functional modern transportation system. Rarely do viewers ask: if the trains are so packed in Tokyo, why do so many people continue to use them? This query is especially pressing given Tokyo’s calm and uncongested roads and bike-friendly sidewalks. The answer is not simply that the city’s rail system is unrivalled in its speed, efficiency and cleanliness, but that travelling on the trains is the central shared act of civic life in Tokyo. And nowhere is the Tokyo train system’s excellence and importance better exemplified than the loop line connecting the city’s major centres: the Yamanote line.

The Yamanote line is used by around 3.7 million people every day, roughly the total current population of Panama or Georgia. We might compare this with the five million who use the entirety of New York’s subway lines (all four hundred and sixty-eight stations) or the 2.7 million who travel on all the London Underground twelve lines. At peak times, train run every two minutes, and the line becomes a constantly-moving floor that travelers can jump on and off. Often it takes considerably less time to wait for the next train than it does to walk from one end of an individual platform to the other. Traversing the entire loop of twenty-nine stations takes about fifty-nine minutes by train or around twelve hours by foot [1].

The Yamanote is the central thread in Tokyo’s comprehensive and sometimes confusing weave of railways and subways. The historical reason for this is that, before the War, the Ministry of Railways insisted that private railway companies terminate their additional lines at government-run Yamanote stations. As a result, Yamanote stations like Shinjuku and Ikebukuro became major urban centres (seven-hundred and sixty-thousand passengers now embark or depart at Shinjuku every day). The Yamanote line is actually a combination of two lines that were merged in 1909: one that originally went from the northern Akabane station to the southern Shinagawa; another that shuttled between the northern stations Ikebukuro and Tabata [2]. In theory, the Yamanote actually begins in Shinagawa, which has a ‘zero kilometers’ sign to prove it, although in practice most trains depart and terminate out of the depot in Osaki. The Yamanote is also still being extended: in 2012, the company that runs it, Japan Railways, announced it was constructing a new, as yet unnamed, stop between Shinagawa and Tamachi, due open before the beginning of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics [3].

As well as being a railway line, the Yamanote is a gateway, dividing the city between downtown (inside the loop) and residential (outside) areas. ‘Yamanote’ literally means ‘mountain’s hands’: a fitting label for an immense structure that conveys huge numbers across distant locations. Traditionally, it was the name for the affluent, upland areas of the city west of the Imperial palace, popular with the aristocratic warrior classes, as opposed to Shitamachi, east of the Sumida river, where lower-caste merchants and artisans once lived [4]. However, Yamanote no longer signifies a class barrier. Other Tokyo lines may cater for specific social demographics: the Ginza line, for instance, is spotted with mature ladies with elaborate hairstyles carefully sculpted to match their expensive handbags; while the Chuo is the territory of the disillusioned middle-aged salaryman. In contrast, the Yamanote’s inclusive coverage of so many different urban centers make it universal.

The Yamanote line is so cheap, efficient and useful that almost everyone in Tokyo uses it at least occasionally. Like the weather in England, it is a constant source of conversation (‘Did you get a seat today’? ‘Have there been any delays’? ‘You’ll never guess what happened to me on the Yamanote the other night…’). The inside carriage provides a venue for a wide variety of activities: most commonly looking blankly into the middle distance or into a smartphone-screen; but also applying make-up, chatting, cleaning oneself, gossiping, hanging out, reading, sizing up other people, sleeping and studying. In 2013, as part of the celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the lime green cars, one couple exchanged marriage vows on board a specially-reserved Yamanote train. And in August 2016 a train decorated to resemble athletic fields, swimming pools and other sports facilities, images of Japan’s athletes, and words of encouragement (such as ‘We want to see your best smile’) was in operation to mark the Rio Olympics [5].

At rush hour, the large crowds on the Yamanote create a palpable tension, as everyone tries desperately hard not to get irritated by being squashed and the inevitable incursions on personal space. I once witnessed a somewhat Yogic businessman attempting to finish off a presentation on his laptop while standing in the middle of the rush-hour crush, his PC delicately balanced on one arm while he used the hand of the other to manipulate the screen, his legs stretched out as far as possible to balance himself. At other times, I have bumped into friends and acquaintances, shared travel tips with visitors, and begun conversations with total strangers. Worryingly, the Yamanote is not in fact the most crammed line: the Sobu line operates at two hundred and three per cent capacity between the stations of Kinshicho and Ryogoku, while the Yamanote is at its most congested between Ueno and Okachimachi at a mere two hundred and one per cent capacity.

The Yamanote line functions as a replacement for a more conventional civic center. According to the French writer and theorist Roland Barthes, Tokyo is a paradoxical city because it has a ‘sacred “nothing”’ at its center [6]. Barthes argues that, while most major global capitals are centered around a famous square (think, for instance, of the National Mall in Washington D.C., Tiananmen Square in Beijing or Trafalgar Square in London) Tokyo’s notional center is the Imperial Palace⎯a surprisingly modest construction that is visited infrequently and hidden behind a moat⎯and the city’s major national cultural and governmental sites are distributed across different parts of the city. But Barthes was wrong: Tokyo’s center is not a hole but a circle. The Yamanote provides the universal experience that unites all Tokyoites; it is the glue that holds the city together.

[1] See J. D. Lawrence, ‘Tokyo’s Yamanote Line: More Than You Ever Wanted To Know’, Deep Japan, www.deepjapan.org/a/4472 for these and further details.
[2] Information from: Edward Seidenstecker, Tokyo from Edo to Showa: 1867-1989: The Emergence of the World’s Greatest City (London: Tuttle, 2010).
[3] See Kyodo Jiji, ‘Architect Kengo Kuma to design new station on Tokyo’s Yamanote line’, Japan Times, September 7 2016.
[4] Information from Seidenstecker.
[5] Kyodo Jiji, ‘Train featuring Japanese athletes debuts on Yamanote Line’, Japan Times, August 1 2016.
[6] Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs (1970) translated Richard Howard (London and New York: Hill and Wang 1982) p. 32.