"pushers" on Tokyo subways

Does anyone remember the (really, really old) Straight Dope about the “pushers” (oshiya) on the Tokyo subways whose job it supposedly is to cram as many commuters as possible into crowded subway cars during rush hour? And the part about how some of them are retired Sumo wrestlers?

Well, I’ve been here in Tokyo for six months and I have ridden plenty of crowded trains at rush hour. I have yet to see any pushers at all, let alone retired oSumo-sans. There are station employees who stand near the trains as the passengers board, but they seem to be there mainly to make sure everyone gets on safely (many folks run at the trains at high speeds). I have never seen them touch anyone. And none of them look remotely like retired Sumo wrestlers, although I suppose they could have lost some weight…

So what gives? Was Cecil actually wrong, or was he just pulling everyone’s leg and I’m too dumb to realize?

By the way…since there isn’t actually anyone to push you on to the train, the way to get into a car that is already filled past capacity is as follows:

  1. run up to the door
  2. turn around so that your back is facing the door
  3. brace your hands against the inside of the car just above the doorway
  4. step backwards on to the train, pushing every other passenger in the vicinity out of the way using your butt.
  5. hold this position until a)someone else comes along and does the same or b) the doors close…at which point you can relax and the force of the crowd behind you will force your entire body against the door. After a while, you will learn to sleep in this position just like everyone else.

A link to the column is appreciated. Most of the old columns are online and you can find them by searching the Straight Dope Archives

The column in question is Getting pushy on Tokyo subways: the sumo solution

Welcome to the SDMB, and thank you for posting your comment.
Please include a link to Cecil’s column if it’s on the straight dope web site.
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Cecil’s column can be found on-line at the link provided by bibliophage.

The column can also be found on page 27 of Cecil Adams’ book «The Straight Dope».

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“As a rule, two oshiya are assigned to every downtown station, each man covering half of each two-car subway train.”

Two-car subway trains?!?! TWO-CAR trains?! WTF?! What subway system anywhere in the world runs two-car rapid transit* trains at rush hour? Chicago is a fraction of the size of Tokyo, and CTA runs four- or even six-car trains on Sundays and late nights, with eight-car trains at rush-hour.

Maybe Tokyo wouldn’t need pushers if they just ran longer trains. :slight_smile: Or, though it’s a microscopically-slim possibility, the great Cecil may have made a mistake.
*As opposed to streetcars/light rail cars running in a tunnel, to preclude an objection from Green Line (Boston) or Subway-Surface (Philadelphia) riding Dopers. But AFAIK Tokyo has no streetcars, much less streetcars operating in subways.

I didn’t catch that one…got too hung up on the sumo-san. Rest assured, rush hour trains in Tokyo are at least eight cars long, and some of them split into two different directions (four cars each) after passing through a few stations in one piece (which always makes me imagine Jean-Luc Picard at the helm of the train). I suppose it’s possible that there were two-car trains at the time of the article. But I seriously doubt it. Although, if that is the case, it might (as you suggest) be the reason they used to have pushers (but don’t anymore).

Another quick note…I also must confess that I have never actually ridden the “subway” at rush hour. I have ridden other morning trains. But the crowd factor does not change. Although the companies are different. Mabe the National Railway System (JR, which I ride) is too polite to push its passengers, but deep in the bowels of the city the subway companies can get away with it?..

Keep in mind that the column was written about 20 years ago (give or take 3). A lot can change in 20 years, but not Cecil’s near infallibility.

Last summer, in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, I boarded a train on the city’s MetroLink light rail system. I felt someone aggressive pushing me through the door. I was surprised, because I’d never encountered such a thing on the MetroLink. Once on the train, I turned around to discover…the pusher was my wife! She’s never been to Tokyo, and I don’t know where she picked that up.

I lived in Japan for two stints in 1988 and 1990-91. In '88 I was in Nagoya, which is known as “Japan’s Detroit,” only half as attractive and twice as many people. Never saw a subway pusher, except on a trip to Osaka, where there were pushers at one of the main train stations during rush hour.

Second trip was to Nara, which (among other things) is a bedroom community for Osaka in one direction and Kyoto in another. Never saw pushers in either Osaka or Kyoto on that trip, but then again I was rarely on subways in either city at rush hour.

So, it’s possible that if there still are pushers, they’re only at the really big stations and only during rush hour. Does your commute take you through Shinjuku? If not, maybe swing through one rush hour just to check it out - if you don’t see any, I’ll bet they just don’t exist anymore.

Just noticed that you only take JR, not the subway - I think you’re right, JR never had pushers.

I spent a year and a half in Tokyo in the mid 90’s. I never saw any official pushers, but I pushed a guy into a train once because his backback kept the door from closing. The door snapped shut, nearly taking my hand off, and everyone looked at me like I was nuts.

I have ridden trains and subways in Tokyo at rush hour. One time I picked up my foot to itch it and it literally took 10 minutes to find some space to put it back down. My general rule of thumb was that if there were less than 6 people touching me, I didn’t consider the train crowded.

Someone who could finally help me answer my question!

You might be right about JR vs. subways. One of these days when I manage to get up early enough or have the day off but wake up at 7am with an odd sense of ravenous motivation I might check out rush hour on the subways.

But I was wondering…were the pushers you saw specifically employed for pushing? I know that might be a little difficult to figure out…but could you at least tell whether or not any of them were former sumo wrestlers?

I went to Nanzan University in Nagoya for nine months back in 98-99. I always thought of it as Japan’s Cincinnati, because it’s big and ugly and boring but all the people think Nagoya is hot shit. Plus it’s got all these foods that Nagoyans think are culinary masterpieces and closely guarded secrets that are actually only vaguely tasty. For example: compare miso-nikomi udon to skyline chili, miso-katsu to graeter’s ice cream. I can’t think of anything to compare to La Rosa’s pizza…but I’ll work on it.

When I took a vacation in Japan in 1998, I rode several crowded subways and trains, but I never noticed any pushers. I did note that the people were very efficient at getting on and off and no one seemed to mind the crowding although I found that being squeezed in the middle of a crowd of people on the local Osaka-Kyoto train was most uncomfortable. Especially since I was given nothing to hold on to.

The only thing that saved me is that I’m 6’5" so I had access to some fresh air.

As for running small trains, I believe the St. Louis light rail (whose exact name escapes) runs the same trains regardless of the time of day or special event. I’ve been stuck in a huge line waiting to get on a train after a Cardinals game ends. Once a Cardinals game ended the same time a Blues playoff game ended and there were two huge crowds of people waiting to get on.

Mound City residents are not as efficient about getting on and off public transit as the Japanese are.

Ifve lived on and off for 13+ years in Tokyo. Ifve tried escaping several times, but keep getting pulled back.
Anyway, the Oshiya is not a myth they did and still do exist. Both underground and above ground rail used to have them. Ten years ago, they were very common on the busiest lines. I experienced them on the JR Chuo line (Tokyo & Shinjuku stations to Western suburbs) back then. Underground, the Marunouchi line (East-West central artery) was unbelievably packed. Since then, much has happened to improve on the Tokyo morning rush hour. First, timetables improved. JR added more trains and you would find that for a busy line like the Chuo, trains are spaced at intervals of four to five minutes between trains during the morning rush hour. Next, they have been building a lot of new lines, especially the subway. Just this last December, they officially opened the new Oedo line, which goes in a great big circle around Tokyo and ends with a snip towards the Western suburbs crossing both the Chuo and the Marunouchi, relieving them even more. So if you are currently frequenting some of the above lines, chances are the Oshiya is no longer there.
But donft despair! If you truly wish to experience the sensation of some stranger grabbing your ass and pushing you into a train so crowded your lungs canft fully expand, then allow me to give you a few recommendations.
The Tokaido starts at Tokyo and goes Southwest to Yokohama and on towards Kansai, but it is the stretch between Tokyo and Yokohama that will undoubtedly guarantee an Oshiya moment during the morning rush. Oh yeah, canft beat that intimate body contact with complete strangers at 8:00 am. Another line you might be lucky is on the Odakyu from Shinjuku to Western Suburbs, this one is South of the Chuo on a parallel course.
So the next time you want to be able to get so close to a stranger you can count the hair sticking out of his ears, you know where to go.
As for me, a few more months in Tokyo and Ifm making another escape attempt, this time to Singapore.
P.S. Just a note of interest. The word Oshiya does literally mean gPusherh. Oshi meaning gPushh and gyah being a suffix describing what some body does. It also has a close resemblance to the word gOshirih meaning gAssh. So you see, that nickname for that task was no accident. It is a play on words.


Okay…so there are definitely pushers on the trains in Tokyo that I am just not having the good luck to see. Now please, please, PLEASE, people…don’t forget the most important part of the inquiry:


I’ve already given up on figuring out whether they are employed specifically as oshiya or if they are just regular old eki-in performing part of their daily duties. I mean, how would you tell, unless they were wearing big signs that said “oshiya” or, better yet, a full mawashi.

I would be very surprised if I came across Chiyonofuji or Konishiki working on a train platform. However, there could be retired Rikishi working as Oshiya. Allow me to elaborate. As you know, there are six different levels within the Japanese Sumo hierarchy. Within each level, there are different ranks. They say advancing in rank in Sumo is like climbing a mountain. Itfs relatively easy to climb at the bottom, but it gets more difficult the closer to the summit you get. Rikishi like Chiyonofuji or Konishiki made it to high ranks in the Makuuchi division (the top level). Chiyonofuji retired as a Yokozuna (highest rank), and Konishiki got as high as Ozeki (second to the top). These guys would not be working as Oshiya as they have gained fame and fortune. So, letfs go deeper. The average Rikishi begins his career at around age 15 when he is practically adopted by a Heya (Stable). From that point on, the Rikishi, eats, drinks, sleeps, Sumo, going through various ranks until they reach their 30s. The average Rikishi retires in their early to mid 30s. If a Rikishi hasnft reached the Makuuchi or at the very least Juryo division by the time they are 30, then they probably should have listened to Mom and gone to University. There are hundreds of Rikishi below the Makuuchi and Juryo divisions. The ones that retire having never gone beyond the Makushita division will leave not only with the shame of failure, but also a lack of high-level education. (Although, I should point out some Rikishi do attend University). I am only guessing, but I think it is a fair assumption that some of these guys may have been hired to be Oshiya. A very good probability indeed.


Just a clarification.

“Rikishi” is the general description for a Sumo wrestler in Japanese. It is not a rank within Sumo.

In addition, for those interested. In Japanese, one uses the word -san after a name. This is the equivalent to Mr. Mrs. Ms. or Miss. Rikishi have a special title; -zeki.
To take the above example, were you to be addressing Konishiki, you wouldn’t call him Konishiki-san. You would call him Konishiki-zeki.

I hope this will help you avoid any faux pas if you were ever to find yourselves face to face with a Rikishi.


You have to admire the industry of the Japanese. In the US the best that we can do is send our retired boxers to the casinos to be greeters. Although I suppose they could push if they needed to.

That’s boxers as in fighters, not as in underwear. But it is an interesting idea for a casino theme.