Photo: Franck Barre / CC.

Crossing Shibuya

What can we learn from the world's busiest pedestrian intersection?


Within Tokyo’s populous Shibuya ward lies the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing. By some estimates, 2,500 people cross here during rush hour each time the signal changes. Locals call it “The Scramble.” Every day, over two million passengers pass through nearby Shibuya Station, commuting to work and patronizing the area’s countless shops and restaurants. Many of them pass through The Scramble. The traffic lights all turn red simultaneously, stopping ten lanes of automobile traffic and sending pedestrians from five separate crosswalks into the massive intersection. For nearly one full minute, people flood the street in what seems an explosion of human buckshot. To the casual observer, the surge resembles chaos ─ all these bodies, weaving and darting, moving in different directions across each other’s paths. Yet there is order to it, a choreographed chaos. As Los Angeles Times writer John M. Glionna said in 2011, “Despite so much humanity inhabiting such a confined space, there’s rarely a collision, sharp elbow, shoulder-brush or unkind word.” When you watch footage of The Scramble, you can’t help but wonder what holds this system together. How do people remain so well-behaved?

According to UCLA Asian languages and culture professor William Bodiford: “[Tokyo] Natives get used to negotiating tighter spaces. They’re raised to be very aware of one another, notice their surroundings.” Tokyo is one of the densest cities in the world (though with 11,300 people per square mile, it has nothing on Mumbai, which has 80,100). Space in Tokyo is precious, people respect it and give each other whatever room they can spare, expecting the same in return.

The reason The Scramble works is culture. Where busy places like Trader Joe’s in Manhattan require staff members to hold “End of Line” signs to help create order and encourage civility, and too many Americans create traffic jams by refusing to let other cars merge in front of them on the freeway, the Japanese share a sense of responsibility for the orderly function of the many communities they belong to, and a respect for the harmony called ‘wa.’ Crowded or not, pedestrians are largely considerate, and in places like Shibuya crossing, the combination of cultural factors fosters harmonious interactions and a polite type of madness. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t drive people crazy.

I spent a few days in Shibuya, first observing and walking The Scramble, and then interviewing pedestrians on the street. A lot of videos of The Scramble exist, but I had yet to find a detailed article about its inner workings in English. I wanted to understand it.

* * *

Exploring Tokyo, you’re bound to eventually get lost, and once I got out of Shibuya Station, every direction looked the same. Was that north or south? Shibuya, like Shinjuku and Harajuku, is one massive circuit board of soaring glass towers striped with vertical signage and flashing lights. I knew the great crossing was nearby, but I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see anything. Tokyo swallows its compass and devours the sun, leaving visitors with little natural sense of direction and at the mercy of GPS. My phone had no reception, so I studied a large map near the station exit. The shapes vaguely matched those on my drawing, though the image didn’t instill confidence. Luckily, a group of helpful students offered to guide me.

I’d imagined my first time at Shibuya Crossing as some profound experience that I would have with intent. Instead, like losing your virginity, it happened spontaneously and quickly, without any of the imagined ceremony. When I looked up, I was standing on the edge of the world’s busiest intersection. There was the famous two-story Starbucks looming overhead. There was the big black and yellow L’Occitane en Provence cafe. And at my feet stretched the white painted lines of one of the five crosswalks. I’d seen this in countless photographs. I’d built it up in my mind. Now here I was, with people gathering around and in front and behind me by the hundreds, their bodies forming a huge coalescing mass that snaked down two nearby streets. Shoppers, commuters, school girls, teenagers, punks with died blue hair — the crossing contained a cross-section of the city. Businessmen’s fancy leather shoes clicked as they ran to their trains. Graying ladies shuffled as fast as they could, their hunched bodies dwarfed by the ruler straight skyscrapers. The nursing students kept talking, but their voices sank into the hum. I nodded blankly trying to take it all in.

What images couldn’t capture was the sensation. This gap between skyscrapers created a massive hall where the open air felt like the center of a sports arena, and the frigid winter wind blew through the vacuum, taking in the breath of thousands of commuters in this spot where tense, bustling Tokyo finally stopped walking for a moment and paused between appointments. Even more astounding than its appearance was the tension. The space held a sense of impending movement, of mounting inertia as all of those people pooled like water behind a dam, building pressure and waiting, all waiting, for that moment of release.

Tiny cabs and boxy vans rushed through the intersection, hugging the curves and seizing their moment before the cycle turned over and the crowds closed in. We, the mob, waited. And waited. The crowd behind me hardened. The cold air blew. As the Japanese proverb says, “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down.” Then it happened. The green light flipped a switch inside us. We walked, all at once, as a body. But it wasn’t a body. It was thousands of tiny organelles that composed a cell, pinging and bouncing inside the intersection and somehow staying within the lines. The crowd was enormous, and moving in it made me wonder if this was how spawning salmon felt. Your individuality dissolved. You relinquished yourself to the group. And yet, somehow, you retained your autonomy as you weaved through the group, choosing how you maneuvered, or how you closed your eyes and didn’t maneuver at all, but instead walked forward, hoping to avoid impact with the people shooting past you, waiting for it to end.

Pedestrians darted. They ducked. They did the New York City shoulder-tuck where they drew in their arms and pivoted their torso to avoid brushing each other. Some cut diagonally across peoples’ trajectories in order to increase efficiency, since the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and why make a big arc when you can make a beeline? The human buckshot fired from multiple muzzles, yet everyone remained calm. Most walked, calmly, cooly, and everyone in their path adjusted accordingly. Like a symphony, the collective result was miraculous in its complexity, with the component parts moving apart and in sync to create an ensemble that erased the individual. There was no me, no you or them. There was only this stream of bodies, passing without colliding.

* * *

Before Shibuya became a transit hub, the Shibuya family built a castle here in the 11th century. The land was rolling. The family farmed. Centuries passed. In the early 1600s, a Tokugawa shogun named Ieyasu built a castle in what’s now the Tokyo area. Back then, Tokyo was a fishing village called Edo. Kyoto was Japan’s capital, as it had been for eight hundred years. But that shifted in 1603 when the Tokugawa began their nearly 300-year rule, marking the time called the Edo Period which was defined by peace, economic growth, internal cohesion and isolation from the increasingly globalized world. Ieyasu made Tokyo his military headquarters, and the Shibuya family eventually abandoned their castle as Japan’s local clans relinquished power to the Tokugawa.

During the 1700s and 1800s, villagers moved to Tokyo for work. The small towns dotting the area swelled, and their edges began to connect, growing the collection of villages into one massive city, and filling the swaths of open land and swamps that lay in between. By 1800, over a million people lived in Tokyo, making it the world’s largest city. As historian Edward Seidensticker describes in his book Tokyo Rising, despite how huge Tokyo had become, in the late 1800s, Shibuya was still in the country, separate from Tokyo. That changed when the first Shibuya Station opened in 1885 to handle what eventually became the Yamanote Line. “It was with the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War,” Seidensticker writes, “and especially the latter, that Shibuya began to turn into something more than a sleepy country village.”

The Allied bombers destroyed much of Tokyo during WWII, but the Japanese rebuilt it and quickly got back to living. As the population grew, so did the train lines, the stations and the need for electricity, and the Tokyo subway system grew into the most efficient and complex subway in the world.

If you’re a tourist in Tokyo, you’ll take a train to the hot spots: Shinjuku, Harajuku, Ginza and Shibuya. In Shibuya at night, lights from giant billboards and TV screens create subtle flashes that make it look like God is flickering the cosmic dimmer on and off. Car headlights cast pedestrians’ shadows deep into the intersection. Night crowds are thinner but no less monumental.

People look forward or down at their feet, whites hovering above paper surgical masks. One teen I saw did look horrified. Maybe he wasn’t used to Tokyo crowds. Maybe he was from inaka, the sticks. Otherwise, most people look confident, or at least blasé, as if this is just the way things are, no big deal.

Cars seem anxious, probably because they know the city favors trains and pedestrians. Some turn too late and get stuck in the intersection, where the crowd encases them and blocks their escape. One cab got stuck by a mob in the center of the crosswalk. Completely enclosed, people streamed all around it. The car sat swallowed, like cop cars during riots in America. Once the crowd thinned at the end of the cycle, the cab inched forward and wiggled free.

Now that I’d crossed it, it was time to dissect it to see how it worked. So on one sunny Saturday, I stood on the street and asked pedestrians about their strategies for not running into other people. Many didn’t realize they had a strategy until pushed to reflect on it.

Akari, a twenty-four year old graphic designer in a black coat and maroon ski cap, worked in Shibuya and had lived in Tokyo her whole life. Her technique? “I figure out which people are going to come right in front of me in the moment, and somehow avoid those people. I avoid people and kind of go forward diagonally.” Akari didn’t think Japan was too crowded, only certain Tokyo wards like Shibuya and Minato. “If you go a bit further out,” she said, “like Taitō Ward or Nerima Ward, it’s not too crowded.” The Scramble didn’t bother her, but having to commute home on the crowded Den-en-toshi subway line did. So did Harajuku’s Takeshita-dōri, a street she found so stressful she avoided it entirely.

Yōhei Kanata, twenty-nine, grew up in Osaka and moved to Tokyo three years ago. He had a simple technique: “Well, I can kind-of see the route that I’m going to take in front of me. Like I know I want to cut through.” He held his hands out straight, like a fin, and demonstrated the way he weaved between pedestrians. Crowds were normal, so they rarely irked him, though he did get frustrated by drunk commuters who got too close on packed trains when he was tired after work. “They stink,” he said, “they reek of alcohol. Plus, they sway around.” The weird young punk kids called yankī also irritated him. “They’re always around yelling about something. When I see that I’m like, ‘What’s up with these guys?’ That’s about it.”

Skateboarding prepared thirty-four year old engineer Miwaya for The Scramble. Dressed in green pants, a green ski cap and a black knee-length jacket with a fur collar, he’d moved to Tokyo from Kushiro, Hokkaido ten years ago. To avoid bumping pedestrians, he stood close to the street, so when the light turned green, he was in front of the crowd. He laughed when he admitted this. “Is that too obvious? Everyone is trying not to run in to others as they walk. Sometimes you do run in to people not looking in front of them, but that’s rare.” He focused on what was in front of him and didn’t look to the side.

A young woman from Kanagawa, outside of Tokyo, tried to avoid Shibuya crossing on weekends. When she came here, she adjusted her speed to the pace of those around her. “If you do that you don’t usually run in to people,” she said. “Also, uh… I guess other than that I just am careful to look around me. I’ve never really thought about it. But yeah, it’s about the speed you walk. If you run, you sometimes bump in to people around you. So I just try to follow the people around me, and then usually it’s fine.” In places like this and Tokyo Station, where Japanese country people and gaijin tourists go, she found it harder to walk, because they don’t know how to behave. But stations like Shinegawa and Ebisu are easier to navigate, because the businessmen and locals know which side of the sidewalk to walk on, how to correctly ride the escalator, and are generally more aware. “In the stations, it’s clear that you’re supposed to walk on the right or left side,” she said quietly, “but in this intersection there’s no division like that, so people kind of cross freely.” With people coming from The Scramble’s other side, she just looked directly in front of her. “I’m prepared to come to a crowded place,” she said. “I don’t really get annoyed at it unless I’m in a hurry.”

Hiroyo Murakami, fifty-one, lives in the quieter Sagamihara suburbs, but she grew up in Tokyo and its crowds. To her, you either accepted that this was the way things were, or you left. “Maybe that’s one of Japan’s unique qualities,” she said. “You can’t walk peacefully. …Well, in more rural areas the streets are bigger and there aren’t as many people walking around, so it’s more calm. There’s also a lot of nature around, like mountains and such. So emotionally, it’s easier to feel at ease.”

Event planner Ryō Suzuki grew up in the suburbs of Kawauchi, Saitama, and bought a house in a part of Shibuya that was close enough to work that he could avoid riding packed rush hour trains. At age forty, he’d had enough of that. For years, he rode the Saikyo Line from Saitama, one of Tokyo’s most crowded. It was exhausting. On days off, he’d recuperate by avoiding busy places. During the week, he’d try to commute outside rush hour. Since he was in administration, he could choose when he came to work in Shibuya, so he changed his commute time, because he didn’t like it. A lot of people don’t like it. “Even just that change from being frustrated in the mornings by the crowds has been great,” he said, “so the last three or four years I’ve felt much better.”

Sixty-three year old architect Yōko Andō crossed the same way every time. “I stand and wait at a spot where I can cross to where I want to go in the least distance,” she said. “I just try to make sure that I can get around the people coming towards me. I think if you slow down a little bit you can get around people without running in to them.” Wearing a long red dress and a wool sweater, she kept her hair in a clean, trim bob. Originally from Yokohama, she’d moved to Tokyo thirty-five years ago when she got married. Since she’d studied in Tokyo, it wasn’t a big adjustment. She only got annoyed when people on phones suddenly stopped in front of her.

Kazushige Tanase is a forty-five year old local government official who lives in the spacious, forested Mie Prefecture and was visiting Tokyo on business. “One time I did turn away from it. I came out of the station, and there were so many people that I just decided not to try to cross.” He smiled and shook his head.

For nineteen-year-old Moe Kawamura, the crowds are too common. Dressed in an army coat and tan Ugg boots, she’d come to Tokyo from Yokohama last year for high school and said the train to Shibuya Station was way too much for her. The crossing was worse. To get through it, she held her backpack and purse in front of her so it didn’t brush anyone. Being surrounded by people all the time drove her nuts. “Sometimes I feel like I’m being kind of pressured from behind and the people don’t leave for a while,” she said with a shrug. She found Tokyo’s density especially annoying when she was tired. “I go to school in Takadanobaba, Shinjuku, but the trains, even the one yesterday, are just completely packed. It’s really terrible.”

Twenty-six year old engineer Sassa Takahirō had no problems with crowds or Shibuya crossing. “Doesn’t bother me at all,” he said. “I just walk however I want. I’m not careful of anything in particular, but I’ve never run in to anyone.” Japanese cities were crowded by nature, but he felt the country met that challenge by being highly organized and efficient. “I’ve never had any unpleasant feelings about it,” he said. “I think Japan does things right.” Prepared and organized himself, he wore a black North Face fleece coat and a huge backcountry pack, equipped for the January cold and anything that came at him.

None of this demystified the process for me. It felt like I’d just experienced one of the wonders of the modern world. Hadn’t that been incredible? My correspondents smiled at me sympathetically and waved as they walked off, merging with the crowds that streamed through Shibuya. And, once again, I was alone amid the millions.