Tokyo Arrows

A long hallway at Heathrow airport once totally freaked me out. Jetlagged in from Tokyo, I followed the one sign directing me towards baggage check. After a few minutes, another hallway cut to the left. No advertising, no sign, just a hallway. Other jetlagged people stumbled forward, but I turned back with my mind in a muddle, immobilized.

I realized what I needed was an arrow. Living in Tokyo, I’ve become addicted to arrows. Over the years of commuting, I’ve grown dependent on arrows to guide, direct, protect and keep me moving in the right direction. In Tokyo, arrows stream pedestrians, both of which there are no shortage of, all the time, everywhere.

How many total arrows are plastered over station walls, signs, street corners and sidewalks in Tokyo? As many as there are directions, as many as there are people to follow them. The arrows rise constantly over the heads of pedestrians like thought bubbles of where to go.

You can tell how crowded an area can get by how many arrows there are. In stations like Shibuya and Shinjuku, arrows abound, flying overhead like the first attack in an old Japanese samurai movie. In some neighborhoods, the arrows are confined to discrete signs pointing the way to a clinic or local museum. But they are always there.

Fortunately! Without those arrows, Tokyo could not function. What would happen, I sometimes wonder, if all the arrows were removed? Everyone in Tokyo would head the wrong way—or worse—half of Tokyo would head the wrong way. The city would grind to a confused, irritated halt, like me in Heathrow.

Arrowless chaos would not be pretty. People would be searching overhead for guidance, stopping suddenly, backtracking, finger-searching cellphone maps, bumping into each other, barely missing bumping into each other–in short committing all the disruptions that never happen in a normal, arrow-laden Tokyo day.

No one looks good lost. Being lost in Tokyo is one of the few times stone-faced Tokyoites openly express exasperation and embarrassment. Their faces scrunch up and frown and redden and squint. It’s unpleasant to see. Though Tokyoites generally hurry past the lost and confused, the internal thought of stopping to help always pops up, slowing even the confidently directed.

It’s true I don’t like to be embarrassed should other people think I don’t know where I’m going. The arrows let me slip smoothly in to Tokyo’s pedestrian traffic and appear to know my way around better than I actually do. When going someplace new, I can glance arrow-ward and find where I’m headed. I’m spared the shame of misdirection.

Most times, though, following arrows is less choice than necessity. In peak crowds, to go against the arrows is to invite disaster. A crowd moving in the right direction can speed you along; but a crowd with even one person trying to buck the flow throws the entire crowd out of whack. To change direction, you have to flow downstream angling gently to the side until you can find a saving pillar, wall corner and opening to reverse course. Then, you look for the arrows back the other way.

Arrows proliferate when construction is going on, which is often. You can sense the irritation when temporary arrows prod people out of their ingrained routes. The short-term arrows are pasted on walls and pillars, apologetic for the inconvenience.

Over the years, I’ve resigned myself to trusting the arrows. Following one wrongly read arrow can put you a long way from where you want to be. Ignoring the arrows can spill you out the wrong exit out of a station with a twenty-minute walk to right yourself. Of course, you then need to follow the arrows back through the maze, sighting more carefully, paying closer attention.












Though I appreciate the smooth flow and admit the simple, obvious utility, at times I feel like I’m being ordered around, as if I’m filling in some pattern pre-written for me. I feel like I’ve been trained, like a Pavlovian dog for some trick, the trick of walking in a crowd. I’m crowd-trained.

Some days I feel like I’m led from arrow to arrow as if playing a board game. I feel like I’m moving towards the prize at the end, rewarded along the way by not smashing into people. Other days, the arrows feel like commands, relentless, inescapable, unavoidable. I like the arrows ordering other people around, just not ordering me around. But I always capitulate.

And there are more and more arrows all the time. It’s strange that the more cellphone navigation apps there are, the more arrows are put up. Are we more in need of being herded than ever? Is the proliferation because of the foreign tourist boom? Are people just more lost than ever?

I wonder if there’s some other symbolism underneath it all. The phallic shape, even when bent and curved, is undeniable. Little triangle-rectangle shapes move the entire population of the city around. Could it be that easy? Are they symbols of power? Some kind of mind-body control? A message from the deep state? Or are the arrows a step forward in urban planning and civility? A thoughtful, helpful politeness in a refined city?

All of those I guess. I feel the arrows keep everyone on track not just physically, but also psychologically. They are visual shouts of “ganbatte” (don’t give up, persevere). They float overhead encouraging and hopeful, a reassuring sign that there IS a direction and you are heading in it, your passage marked by each arrow, one after the next, left behind.

January 14, 2017

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