The following was written by me on August 22, 1996 while living in Kyoto Japan. I refer to this event in the About Me page of this website.
I witnessed the pathetic end of a rather sad life today. A young woman killed herself beneath the wheels of a commuter train. Her life ended this afternoon at 12:33, and now some dozen hours later I cannot think of anything else.
Leaping in front of commuter trains is a common method of suicide in this part of Japan. In other parts it is relatively rare from what my friends tell me. Most suicides choose a station with a beautiful view and near a bend so that the train drivers have no warning. As some stations are only served by local trains, these are also more popular as the express trains fly through them – often at speeds approaching sixty miles an hour. On stations where the bullet train pass, they do so on outer, inaccessible rails with tall fences constructed to deter the jumpers.
The young woman chose Tofukuji station on the Keihan line – a station on a bend affording a pleasant view of the eastern mountains of Kyoto. It is also served by local trains only. So at 12:33pm, just before a Kyoto-bound train was to pass through the station and pass my Osaka-bound express train, she threw herself onto the rails. I’ve heard that when the suicides jump, they instinctively land on their feet. I wonder if this girl did the same. Did she stand and see the train driver’s stunned face? Or was she looking at the eastern mountains?
There is a wall of air that surrounds any fast moving object, and hitting this is the equivalent of hitting concrete. The would have sucked her body under the train carriages, dragging it along for several hundred yards until the train stopped. Supposedly death is quick, though I’ve often wondered whether that last instant of life stretches for the doomed, turning into infinity. In all the dangerous scrapes I’ve survived time seemed to become quite elastic, with seconds stretching into minutes before reality snapped back on itself and the flow of time resumed once the crisis was over.
My Osaka bound train had been scheduled to pass it’s Kyoto-bound counterpart at the station. Her leap changed all that. Both trains stopped, with mine halting a car length or so from where she laid beneath the wheels. Any commuter knows the rhythm of her train or bus, and the sudden slowing down of the train broke me away from my newspaper and awakened numerous dozing passengers. A group of high school boys at the very front of the train began chattering, and as the train came to an abrupt halt, I knew there was trouble. The driver scurried between a window and a telephone and the high school students along with some curious old people stood up. I moved forward expecting the worst but drawn forward nonetheless by the irresistible force that draws strangers towards the site of a tragedy.
She laid face down on the tracks beneath an axle, her body covered by the shadow of the passenger car above her. The high school students and the old people began asking each other, “Is it a man? A woman? From the heap laying on the tracks we couldn’t tell. The driver of our train left and trotted to her body, putting on some latex gloves as he did so. I noticed some station attendants appear, each removing his white gloves and replacing them with purple-colored latex ones. One of the station attendants carried a green tarp which they spread on the ground next to the body. They lifted her gently from under the train, and I was surprised by how limp her body was.
I understand that there are those such as paramedics, firemen, and police who know how a dead body looks when it is moved, but to someone whose experiences of death are thankfully few and far between it is quite stunning. When dead bodies are moved in movies, they never look like that. To me it looked as if the station workers were picking up an odd shaped sack of cement. There was no muscle control or rigidity to the body whatsoever. She was completely, impossibly limp. It may have looked like a sack of cement to me but it wasn’t. What those men laid gently onto the tarp had moments before been human, and I suddenly felt sick.
As they arranged her body on the tarp we saw the gold watch on her arm. It was a slim watch, obviously a woman’s, and the students and the old people said almost in unison, “It’s a woman.” For having a five hundred foot long train run over it, her body was surprisingly intact. The head and all the limbs were all where they were supposed to be. She wore blue jeans and was barefoot. She probably had been wearing shoes which had come off during her death since no one walks barefoot in the street of Japan. To be honest I forget what top she wore, but I can see the watch clearly. It was a gold watch, a slim woman’s analog. Had it been a gift or had she purchased it herself? How often had she looked at it, and had she used it to time her death?
As they carried the body across the rails in front of our train the Japanese boys twittered excitedly among themselves as an old woman gazed upon the scene solemnly. The station attendants and our driver hefted her body onto the train platform and blood gushed upon the concrete, eliciting shouts of “Gross!” and “Disgusting!” from the high schoolers. I found myself shaking and noticed that some old people sitting on the train station platform turned their bodies away from the scene only a few feet away from them, gazing up the tracks and waiting for the next train to come and take them away from the little human drama unfolding nearby.
They were not alone. I noticed that quite a few people remained in their seats on the train throughout this little drama. Some of them were reading newspapers or the ubiquitous comic books which occupy the time of so many Japanese when they aren’t working or sleeping. Others simply stared into space, off in their little worlds seemingly oblivious to this scene. Others waiting in the train which had hit the woman looked annoyed as they looked back and forth between their watches and the station attendants, as if their fidgeting would send the body quickly to the morgue and get the train back on schedule. Their train conductor no doubt was making the same train announcements as ours throughout the ordeal – apologizing for the inconvenience and promising we would soon be underway.
And soon we were as our driver returned, removing his latex gloves as he entered the train. The train conductor announced his thanks and appreciation for our wait. The woman’s body laying covered by the tarp, station workers beside it, slowly slid past outside our windows as our train continued on its journey. Next stop Fushimiinari, famous for its Shinto shrine dedicated to prosperity.
We returned to our seats, the students still chattering excitedly. I stared at the newspaper and at the article I had been reading but couldn’t concentrate. At this paragraph the woman had been alive and I hadn’t known it; at the next she was dead, and that I knew.
No doubt some would scoff at my apparent naivete and sensitivity regarding this woman’s suicide. My wife and I are expecting our first child in two months, and we were warned that parenthood would make us more sensitive to certain events and stories in the news. Perhaps that explains why I have spent the past hours thinking about that watch and that girl, imagining the future.
Somewhere a person was living their life and received a phone call that changed it forever. Their lives, along with those of her family, were now part of a very ancient play in which loved ones are mourned and their bodies consigned to oblivion. The funeral would last several days, and from what I know about Japanese funerals, they are quite extraordinary affairs. Given the state of her body, the family may forgo the usual dressing of it and placing it in a futon, as if the dead were asleep at her family home. On the next day she would lay in an open wooden casket with a large portrait of her hanging above as a Buddhist monk chanted and incense filled the air. Later she would then receive her death or spirit name, the name which would appear on her gravestone. This practice where the dead are given different names makes tracing ancestors by searching headstones in cemeteries impossible. But the Japanese maintain meticulous family histories, some of which go back a thousand years. Finally on the third day she would be cremated.
Funerals are always bizarre affairs in any culture, so perhaps what I’m about to describe isn’t as strange to some as it was to me. But I find the custom of Japanese cremation to be downright spooky. The Japanese cremate their dead at a much lower temperature which burns away the flesh but leaves the bones. Afterwards the bones are removed from the oven and laid out before the family members. Each member then uses a pair of large wooden chopsticks or tongs to pick up a bone and place it into a special ceremonial box. The rest of the remains are then added to the box with the skull placed on top. The box is then covered and carried home where it remains for several days until the family gravestone is opened. One student told me about her grandfather’s funeral. She mentioned the smell and the warmth emanating from the box as she carried it home. Small ceremonies where a Buddhist monk chants, burns incense and rings a bell are then carried out forty nine days, one year, three years, seven years and thirteen years after death. Each year during the Bon holiday in August her relatives will come to her gravestone and pour water over it as they offer a prayer to her soul.
And so it shall be for this girl whose broken body I saw on my way to work today. I will never know her name nor what drove her to a death which mildly inconvenienced several hundred passengers on the Keihan line for a few minutes on a hot summer day in Kyoto Japan.
Post script: There was no mention of her death in the local media. I don’t know whether this omission was meant to protect the family or because such acts are relatively common here.
Update: The woman has been dead almost 18 years now. Her broken body has faded into shadow, but the raw emotion of this scene still stirs within me. The watch remains clear.