To Be a Pilgrim

In the early 1990s, before Japan’s bubble economy burst, a leading newspaper in the US published a large photo taken on a winter’s morning of rush-hour commuters in Shinjuku Station (or possibly Tokyo Station – the same applies to both) heading down the stairs. As if by agreement, all the commuters were gazing downward, their expressions strained and unhappy, looking more like lifeless fish packed in a can than people. The article said, “Japan may be affluent, but most Japanese look like this, heads downcast and unhappy-looking.” The photo became famous.

Tsukuru had no idea if most Japanese were, as the article claimed, unhappy. But the real reason that most passengers descending the stairs at Shinjuku Station during their packed morning commute were looking down was less that they were unhappy than that they were concerned about their footing. Don’t slip on the stairs, don’t lose a shoe – these are the major issues on the minds of the commuters in the mammoth station during rush hour. There was no explanation of this, no context for the photograph. Certainly it was hard to view this mass of people, clad in dark overcoats, their heads down, as happy. And of course it’s logical to see a country where people can’t commute in the morning without fear of losing their shoes as an unhappy society. The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimageby Haruki Murakami.

Reading the above part of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel made me smile, as I always do against fine humor. Such humor is not uncommon in literature, where somebody with a “simple mind” approaches to a seemingly intricate issue with a fully down to earth solution. An immediate association is Mr Dick (Richard Babley) in David Copperfield, I guess. I also interpreted the above excerpt as a lovely critique against the foreigner’s, let it be a journalist, a researcher or just a visitor, twisted gaze towards another society. Especially, while practicing social research in a foreign country, there is this risk of misunderstanding or misreading sociological phenomena, and reaching totally imaginary conclusions. There comes the importance of sociological methods.


Kirmizi, Meric, 2014, “To be a pilgrim,” Asia Times Online, September 22, 2014, (Retrieved December 20, 2016,


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