Drinking Salt in the Dawn
Someone once told me that the Shibuya Scramble intersection is organized chaos, a piece of Tokyo at its unrehearsed best. In the sidewalks, crowds of black wind and hair wait. The red traffic-light man waits too. Vehicles cross and rush, and still. Green-blue lights flicker on in every crossroad. Then comes pedestrian paradise.
Strip the Shibuya Scramble intersection of all activity, and there are two major roads, forming a giant black X. Draw a square tightly around the X, creating four white isosceles triangles. Welcome to Shibuya. These four white triangles represent the stores that lead fashion for Tokyo. Crossing the triangles, from one store to the next, requires a strip of white zebra lines: a white diamond square upon the middle of the black X—or, in other words, a run-of-the mill pedestrian intersection.
But this is Japan. 250,000 hurried people cross this intersection per day, all in pursuit of lost time. It makes little sense for them to follow the outline of a square when they can cut straight across. Instead, when the green lights flicker on, 2,000 people cross in 35 seconds, moving directly or diagonally. The scrambled crossway system routinely stops all traffic. This is the mechanics of the Shibuya Scramble: This is pedestrian paradise.
Apparently, the system itself can be traced to a Denver-based traffic engineer with slight Methodist leanings, and his curious daughter who jay-walked often on her way to school. Henry Barnes hated the normal traffic procedures for intersections. He thought pedestrians needed voodoo charms or four-leaf clovers to escape accidents. He also did not believe in bothering God with problems he could fix on his own, as he states in his autobiography, The Man with the Red and Green Eyes. So he reintroduced an earlier concept: the scrambled traffic crossing.
Barnes’s first trial run for the Scramble was in September 1951. He slept for an hour and a half in a car parked near the trial intersection—a restless sleep. He had to succeed, or else it was an unpaid trip back to his rural Colorado hometown. The mayor and the city council of Denver had long supported motorists’ votes over those of pedestrians. Barnes was determined to tilt the odds in favor of the two-legged.
Yet when the trial began, and metal cars locked into position, framing the intersection on all four sides, there were very loud honks. The street froze. Pedestrians didn’t know what to do and scuttled at the curb. Both man and motor stalled, and crowds began to form. A few people hurried across the streets the normal way, straight across, from one white triangle of the X to the other, armed with newspapers and extended arms. Barnes held his breath, along with the newspapermen, whose pens were poised to report the sad failure of the traffic engineer.
But the adventurous ladies of Denver started to experiment with their newfound freedom. They crossed diagonally, forwards, backwards, dashing back and forth. One of them got so carried away that she thumbed her nose joyfully at motorists as she finished her sixth diagonal crossing. By the end of the day, according to City Hall reporter John Buchanan, people were so happy with the new intersection that they were dancing in the streets. Cars stopped yelling, and the wait for traffic was reduced, thanks to the new system now baptized the “Barnes Dance.”
50 years and 5,000 miles from Denver, people dance with unrehearsed precision in the Shibuya Scramble. They are masters of utmost control. Pedestrians religiously adhere to traffic laws, and there are no mad dashes into traffic. The Japanese have eliminated the search for lost time.
In Shibuya, the pedestrian scramble—the Barnes Dance—works, as 2,000 people converge on the small crossing at once. Without large volumes of people, the Scramble actually has negative effects. It wastes time for motorists, and studies show that it increases the level of accidents, because drivers in a hurry use pedestrian time to fly across seemingly deserted streets. Without a crowd, there is no use for the Scramble. “The Barnes Dance was a waltz,” writes Barnes in his memoir. Until forty years ago, however, its Japanese equivalent was largely a waltz without dancers, today’s crowds.
In 1968, a young man with a poet’s eyes but a businessman’s spine walked up and down the suburban valley of Shibuya. Shibuya, until the early 1970s, was a prosperous part of suburbia, a railway terminal on the way to the more popular Shinjuku or Ginza. Many referred to Shibuya as “Tokyu Town” due to the famous Tokyu department store, which catered to wealthy, middle-aged patrons shopping for high-end products and electronics.
This young man’s name was Seiji Tsutsumi, and he was the head of Seibu Department Stores. In five years, this scion of one of Japan’s wealthiest families would transform “Tokyu Town” into “Seibu City,” molding this nondescript, distinctly middle-aged neighborhood into a glittering temple of fashion and youth.
Seiji Tsutsumi wasn’t your typical Japanese business magnate. He was terrible at golf, for one, and he wrote poems until 3 a.m. each night. All he owned was a chain of department stores, a tiny fraction of the all-encompassing Tsutsumi business empire. But what he lacked in a traditional business background—he had been a student revolutionary and Communist in his youth—he made up for by reading the pulse of Japan’s future. Tsutsumi understood that the post-war generation of savers and purse-counters had now become parents, and that their children—an influx of baby boomers with no memory of war—were starting to spend. And he managed to diagnose their collective cry for individuality, which served as the source for his next project: a PARCO in Shibuya.
PARCO was a boutique-style department store that emphasized individuality for a generation that, according to Lesley Downer’s biography The Brothers, had “everything they could possibly want.” Instead of electronics Tsutsumi sold fashion, and instead of sturdy home goods he sold an image, one that, though fleeting, defined personalities and advocated a certain lifestyle. Tsutsumi became patron to the avant-garde, the experimenters, the youth who would detract from tradition to become artists and writers willing to be “unaccepted.” He capitalized on the sense of alienation and the loss of identity pervasive among many who felt themselves to be no more than human cogs in what was becoming the banking and industrial capital of the world. He advocated taste and glamour and an aesthetic that could be found in, say, French fashions and cuisine.
By the time he was done, Shibuya typified modernity for Tokyo. He filled the white isosceles with glamour instead of suburbia. By the 1980s, instead of middle-aged matrons, it was well-dressed, chic Japanese men in ponytails who flooded the Shibuya Scramble, accompanied by thin girls dressed in modish black. A brilliant advertisement agent for PARCO, the young Kiyomi Kuragami, built the image of PARCO itself. In one of her most iconic commercials, Oscar winner Faye Dunaway, her black lace veil covering a face of sophisticated perfection, spends a long, sensuous minute cracking, unpeeling, and eating a hard-boiled egg. Her dry voice-over pronounces, “This is a film... for PARCO.” In another commercial, a French ac-tress, Dominique Sanda, smokes, glitter coating half of her face. In a voice-over, a male narrator states, “She is a mother. She is an actress. She is Dominique Sanda. PARCO.” Both are close-ups. Both women are alone.
A profound sense of alienation pervades Seiji Tsutsumi’s literary work as well. Perhaps it’s be-cause of his constant battle of identity between poet and businessman. Perhaps it was the student within him who had rallied for communism, grappling with his present position as the head of a burgeoning capitalist empire. His prose is powerful, gripping, and bleak. The brutal, confessional style that defined the postmodern Japanese literary novel is apparent in many of his autobiographical works of fiction. In an excerpt from a poem entitled “Letters from America,” he describes his loneliness:
People line up who have forgotten they
were once created by people and
flow like magnetic sands on a magnet.
There, on the continent that was
proclaimed to be new, love is no
more than a crudely fashioned
I, like you, am alone and drink salt in the
In the Shibuya Scramble, people continue to line up in crowds, flowing like streams of sand on a magnet. It is controlled chaos, restlessness expressed through consumer goods. The customers Tsutsumi attracted in pursuit of self-recognition coalesce, and combine, in the crowd.
In 2008, a truck ignored a red light and ran over five pedestrians in a crossing in Akihabara, between Chuo Way and Aoyama Crossing. People at the scene thought it was a traffic accident, and rushed over to help. Then Tomohiro Kato, the driver, got out of his truck. He approached the men and women aiding the victims and took out a combat knife.
He was dressed in a black t-shirt and off-white trousers. After years of perfect grades and filial obedience, Kato stabbed 14 people and ran away into the crowd, screaming. A young police officer grasping a gun told him to drop his knife, or he would shoot. In a land where gun homicide deaths are in the single digits, the knife dropped before the gun.
The Akihabara Massacre took place on a pedestrian paradise: a scramble. The police cancelled the scramble for weeks. To prevent imitators, they said, blaming the system instead of the individual. When webs are so thickly intertwined, it is hard to pick apart each of their lines.
In the midst of a crowd, Kato felt his impermanence. He had outlined his plan in minute detail on an internet forum before carrying it out: He said he considered himself lower than trash, because at least trash gets recycled. “If it had been me, I would have smashed into the Shibuya Scramble,” someone commented on another online forum the day of the massacre. “Too many people,” replied Anonymous. Two other users streamed videos from the scene of the crime. Cars. Ambulances. Fire engines. Green tarp to cover the bodies. For ‘Lyphard,’ one of the U-streamers, it was all very exciting, as for the thousands who watched online.
A minor novelist immediately churned out a parallel story. A character types on an Internet forum that he is going to drive into the Shibuya Scramble, because he wants to kill to gain attention. The book title states, in black letters on thick, white paper: It Didn’t Matter Whom. Kato later testified that he had written on the forum not to gain attention, but because he wanted the police to stop him. The book received disappointing reviews.
A red man blinks at all crossing points, warning pedestrians to get off the streets, as motor traffic starts to flow again. Thirty-five seconds later, he turns green. Every ninety seconds, it all repeats.