Although the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are almost four years off, the station master at the city’s train station already seems to be running his own kind of marathon every day. Seth Doane has sent us a Postcard From Japan:
It’s home to Japan’s super-sleek shinkansen, or bullet train, and is a stop for nearly two million passengers riding 3,700 trains every weekday.
This is Tokyo Station. And at the center of this universe, clad in white, is the station master. Like his trains, Takashi Etoh keeps a tight schedule.
Doane raced around trying to keep up with him, as he began his rounds at 8:50. “It’s vital for me to check on things with my own eyes,” Etoh said.
“Let’s make it nice and tidy,” he instructed a cleaner. On the platform he told another worker, “Don’t catch cold!”
“You seem to really love your job,” Doane said.
“I do!” Etoh agreed. “Well, after my wife! But I’ve been with trains longer.”
“Does your wife ever get jealous?”
“No. We have a saying in Japan: ‘It’s good to have a husband who’s healthy and absent!’”
This station, really, is his second family. His employees call him Oyakata -- Japanese for “parent.”
At the start of his day we found Etoh doing calligraphy, painting the character “en,” which means “connection” -- his favorite word.
“From cradle to grave, we encounter millions of people,” he said. “The few we share our workplace with are precious.”
And he bows whenever he enters or exits the station.
“It mentally prepares you for customers,” he told us, “and shows them appreciation.”
Doane watched as he saluted trains, stopped for a quick picture, and monitored the cleaners who turn around these trains in seven-minutes flat.
He has almost 500 employees; he considers them his kids, and one of the most important parts of each day is about to happen: He serenades each and every employee on their birthday.
“It creates a connection,” Etoh said. “Everyone’s birthday is that person’s most special day.”
The station itself, built in 1914, recently celebrated its 100th birthday. It’s lucky to be standing.
“In the 1980s it came within a hair’s breath of being demolished,” said Azby Brown, an architecture professor and New Orleans native who has lived in Tokyo for 30 years.
Brown showed Doane how one side of the newly-renovated station is modern … the other, facing Japan’s Imperial Palace, is more traditional. “You would not think this it’s the same station; it’s sort of schizophrenic,” Brown said.
“It was really a symbol of the Japanese empire. It has this grandiose, classical, kind of dignified appearance. The other side was really like the backside of the city. It was always a little dustier and just more business-like.”
“You have the super-modern on one side meeting the almost old-fashioned on the other,” said Doane.
“Definitely old-fashioned. And yet when this building was built, this was the peak of modernism.”
Today, it boasts a labyrinth of shops, its own hotel and bar, even a signature “Tokyo Station” cocktail [Gin, Sirop de Grenadine, Suze and lime].
And it’s remarkably clean, save for some wrappers Etoh snatched up … and a little dust he noticed behind a computer.
Doane said, “We watched you go around and pick up the trash, at one point you went down, you picked up a piece of trash and you showed it to people nearby. Why?”
“I’m trying to set an example,” Etoh replied. “Tokyo is the gateway to Japan. For the Olympics, we’ll have visitors from 200 countries. We can’t speak the same language, but we can show a spanking-clean station.”
Sipping one of those “Tokyo Station” cocktails, we toasted to the whole idea of this place -- and to making a connection.