The Strange on a Japanese Train


The Strange on a Japanese Train

Notes from the Obstacle Course
Dr. Michael Peckitt

The doors slid open on the nearly vacant subway car and a mass of passengers piled in. All the available seats were filed in a wild flurry.
Well, almost all.
People either spurned the empty seat or ignored it as if it were occupied.
Baye McNeil
Hi! My Name is Loco and I am a Racist

The films of Alfred Hitchcock have nothing on the reality of travelling by train in Japan. It’s true that trains in Japan are regular in most areas, on time (most of the time), and seemingly can take you anywhere. From the Yamanote line in Tokyo, that encircles the Metropolitan to the Shinkansen, or bullet trains, the Japanese railway system is cool, possibly the best in the world. However a train in Japan is also the ideal place to observe the weird and the wonderful in Japan, trains can often offer an interesting insight into Japanese social mores. So in this blog I will present to you the (mostly) good, the bad and the just plain weird about travelling on the train with a disability in Japan. Breaking with the traditions of Sergio Leone movies, we shall start with bad.

The Bad: Gaijin Avoiders

Most don’t mind but you may find that some Japanese people simply avoid sitting next to foreigners. Sometimes this is for reasons which are entirely non-sinister, they only have a couple of stations stops before home, so don’t see the point, or maybe there are letting a family member sit down.  But those are the only two good reasons, as Baye McNeil notes, if there is an empty seat next to you, the reasons for its being left vacant are rarely good, there are some Japanese people it seems that are afraid of foreigners, so much so they rather stand than sit next to them.

The (Mostly) Good: Priority Seats

There are seats put aside for the disabled, elderly, pregnant and the young, these are the ‘priority seats’, usually a couple of benches at each end of each carriage.  People (I say people, but it is usually a female member of the population that actually gives her seat up) do usually give up a seat to those in need, save for the exception of the odd salaryman, who either pretends to be asleep or, on occasion is drinking a can of beer, if the latter is the case he is often met by death stares from his fellow natives that seem to say ‘stop letting the side down’, quite heartening actually, to see such concern for the Japanese public self-image.

When I first moved to Japan, I thought simply that may hosts are very gracious, often giving up their seats for me, and do not mistake me, they are kind, but recently I have noticed another aspect to the act of giving up your seat, a darker side to the exchange.

The act of giving up your seat, especially if it is a very busy train, is a very public affair.  You get up and give your seat to another commuter, and it will often be to a foreigner, disabled, elderly person or someone who is pregnant.  People may have to make room for you as you get up and they sit down, so people do notice when give up your seat.   That it is noticed, imbues the act with a certain performative character, almost as if the one giving up is playing the central role in the play ‘helping the unfortunate on the train’.  There is certain rules and moves to this role, which like a Kabuki actor, you must execute with no deviation from the script.  Here are the rules:

  1. Once you accept the role of ‘seat giver-upper’ you may show no signs of physical fatigue yourself.
    You may have had a long day at work, it maybe a Summer’s day, but if you give up your seat, you may not sweat, you may not sigh, you may not yawn or show any signs of fatigue at all.  It would simply be bad form to give up your seat to the physically encumbered, and then look like you were complaining that you were tired.
  2. You may not sit down, even if another seat becomes available.
    That’s right good Samaritan, giving up your seat means you can never get it back, you are condemned to a vertical train journey.  Even if most of the seats are free in the priority seats section and person you gave it up for has left the train. This is really a sub-section of rule one, of not showing fatigue.
  3. You must stand in front of the person who now occupies your seat, hanging from the handle bars.
    Why be charitable unless you can guilt the person you helping?  That is the only reason I can think of to explain why people do this.  If they were trying to help me as a disabled person they would sit down, and therefore be out of my way.  But no, even if you motion towards an empty seat, they will not take it.  Maybe they have yet to compete the final act of their ‘priority-seat martyr’ Kabuki play, that of suffering by having to stand despite the many empty seats.
  4. You can expect lots of gratitude.
    And of course, being brought up to mind my P’s and Q’s I begrudge no one a few arigatogaimashitas – Thank Yous.  But there are some for whom that is not enough, and a saviour complex quickly develops.  You came on this train, sat down, then got up and with selflessness of Samurai facing battle, you gave up your seat to the disabled foreigner or pregnant lady.  You stood there, hanging from the stabilising handle bars for thirty minutes, eschewing the empty seats that you could have sat on so that people could see you giving up your seat, and recognise as the Saviour and Protector of the Priority Seats and all you got for that was one measly arigato? Unbelievable!

The Weird: The Passenger Allergic to Sitting Down

This last is much rarer; I have never observed this phenomenon in Tokyo but have experienced it twice this year in Osaka, each time on the Osaka Monorail system. It is a kind of advanced form of (2 and (3 from the last section. You have to picture the scene. The train is quite busy, many people are on it, but few are actually sitting down, the majority are holding on to handle bars and standing in front of the seats. When I first witnessed I thought, maybe they are only on the train for one stop, but know some stood for ten minutes when there were perfectly good seats available.

I cannot explain this phenomenon, as I said above it is rare, but I see it happen often enough. I have often wondered if it is simply an expression of the (in)famous Japanese politeness, that maybe if all your friends and co-travellers cannot sit, it more sociable to stand and talk. Maybe when it comes to the priority seats, they stand in order to let the needier sit, if I was being charitable, I would like to think that was the case. Either way, their standing has the effect of simply blocking the way to the seats, maybe Japan should consider being less polite so to free up space on the train?

Luckily I don‘t need the seat, mine‘s the next stop!


Dr. Michael Gillan Peckitt is an academic who lives in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, Japan. He runs the Japan and disability related website ‘The Limping Philosopher’ (https://thelimpingphilosopher.wordpress.com) and you can find him on Twitter @Peckitt.  Check out his ebooks on Amazon.