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Train etiquette in Japan: More of the 'don'ts' than the 'dos'

Train travel is, for the most part, a joy in Japan. Clean, efficient, frequent, intuitively common-sense, not bank-breaking on the wallet, and increasingly multilingual. Most people come away from Japan rightly singing the praises of the nation’s train systems. Part of this glowing reputation has to be down to the people riding them; mostly polite, mostly ‘group’ conscious, and mostly obeying of the rules and common train etiquette. Mostly … 






There are rules for a reason, though; without them some people wouldn’t care. Even with them, some people don’t, but the numbers are probably reduced. In Japan it’s not unusual to see polite appeals from authority for passengers to pay attention to rules, situations regarding safety, and the desired etiquette that comes with shared spaces and services. Interestingly these polite appeals tend to have more of a presence than the blunt threat of fines or legal action that you might find in other nations. Some anti-authoritarian types might sneer, ‘Rules are there to be broken.’, and foreigners in particular are often unwittingly guilty. So, to avoid surprise, embarrassment, and causing upset among the locals let’s take a look at what one can expect to find in terms of rules (written and not) and common etiquette on Japan’s trains. These would be more of the ‘don’ts’ rather than the ‘dos’ for Japan’s trains.


*In this case, we are talking more about commuter trains, urban subways, and local inter-city services, although some of this will apply to high-speed long-distance train travel, too.






Openly changing the baby’s nappy


I’ll just throw this one in to get us off to a flying start.


Yes, this is something that happened on a train in Tokyo. A family of three; mum, dad, and baby. They weren’t Japanese, and maybe where they are from it’s OK to occupy the space of five people to get the baby’s nappy changed while the train is in motion. There was no attempt to conceal … anything.  


Likelihood

If I see it again in Japan, I’ll be astonished.


Reaction

Perplexity. I mean, they haven’t even made a sign for this sort of thing!

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Talking loudly on the phone


This expat went home for Christmas. On the packed train from arrival city to hometown I was completely caught off guard by how loud someone was talking on their phone. The whole carriage was privy to the latest dating disaster. Perhaps my surprise was down to having been in Japan for good while. Anyway, talking loudly on the phone isn’t cool over here. When it does happen there’s usually at least some cursory effort to cover the mouth, speak in more hushed tones, and end the conversation as quickly as possible.


Likelihood

Don’t be surprised if you see it, but it’s unlikely that someone will have a full blown conversation that everyone can hear. It’s often older people, a bit confused by the situation, shouting into their ‘talkin’ device’ as is often their want.


Reaction

Highly likely to attract stares and the odd tut. Nothing more.

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Sitting in the 'courtesy seats'


Most train carriages (not all) have a couple of ‘benches’ at the end referred to as 優先席 / yūsen seki  / courtesy seats. These are for the elderly, expecting mothers, those with small children, and those carrying an injury or disability. Everyone else is free to sit in them, but the idea is that these seats should be given up to those who need them.  


Likelihood

Almost a given. Some people just don’t care, even in Japan. You’ll also find though, that some people just won’t sit in them even if they are free. Others will give them up as is asked. There’s an ongoing debate over here as to how old a person must appear before offering them a seat, lest you might cause offence. Ever polite, eh?!


Reaction

Nothing. If you don’t give up your courtesy seat there appears to be zero consequence, even in the form of a dirty stare.

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Switching phones to manner mode / turning them off


Switching your phone to manner mode on the train is pretty much given train etiquette in Japan. The only time it isn’t is when someone’s forgot, or, elderly types who’ll never get to grips with these things. When a phone does go off on the train it’s funny to see people trying to figure out who it belongs to and, more importantly, that it isn’t their own. What’s even funnier is when the guilty party answers the thing!


There are signs around the courtesy seats that ask you to turn off mobile devices during busy times. It used to be that you were asked to turn them off in those areas regardless of how busy they might be. Downgraded! With good reason, no one turns their mobile devices off.  


Likelihood

You’ll hear the odd phone every now and then, but not so often that it stops being a surprise or cause for a suppressed chuckle.


Reaction

Usually controlled panic as people try to establish that it’s not their phone. Plenty of looks but not much more … unless you answer it!

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Applying make up


An interesting one this. It bothers some people as much as at leaves others totally nonplussed. Generally the remit of young ladies who’ll get their kit bags out and start doing something with their eyes (Can you tell it’s a man writing this?).  


Likelihood

Well, it must be pretty high given that there seems to be an ongoing debate about whether or not this is OK.


Reaction

I’ve never seen it confronted but the tension in the air when it happens is often palpable.

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Loud music


Back home, young punks will just go ahead and openly play music from the speakers of their device. Confronting them about it could mean being in the next morning’s newspaper, so most people (unless they’re built like a tree) just have to tolerate it. This kind of ‘noise pollution’ is almost unheard of on Japan’s trains. You will ‘hear’ however, music coming from some really poor quality headphones. What troubles about this the most is that guilty parties seem oblivious to it. Another cause for concern for those in the vicinity listening to their own music is that they might wrongly become the object of blame.  


Likelihood

Pretty common. Not a daily occurrence but nothing to be surprised about.


Reaction

I do know people (expats) who’ve been confronted about this (by locals).

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Coughing


Would it be fair to say that Japan is on something the equivalent to Defcon 1 during influenza season? Compared to back home the nation really tries to get on top of this with instructions on how to wash your hands, appeals to rinse mouths and, of course, those surgical masks (there’s a business I wish I’d invested in). Openly coughing isn’t cool anywhere, is it? Doing so on a train in Japan less so. On the same train in influenza season … 


Likelihood

Plenty of coughing? Yes! It’s almost always covered though, even if it’s some old dude coughing into his pornographic manga for all to see.  


Reaction

Coughing openly on the trains in Japan is highly likely to encourage cold stares, tuts, and under-the-breath complaints.

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Food / drink


A bit unclear on this one. In the research for this piece on train etiquette I saw more than a few articles warning readers not to eat on Japan’s inner-city trains/subways. You will see it though and there are no fines or punishments to be aware of. Of course, candy, chocolate bites, consumables of this nature are par for the course. Onigiri are also popular, and you’ll occasionally get a whiff of a MacDonald’s (although it’s usually being rushed home to be eaten).  


Coffees are common and nobody would bat an eyelid if you supped from a bottle of pop. The problem with drinks on trains is usually caused by the types that can’t be bothered to take empty vessels away with them. It’s a minor irritation to have to take up a seat with a discarded can perched between your feet. What if people think it’s mine when I get off? What if I knock it over and it starts rolling about the carriage? I mean, these are concerns you just don’t need in life, do you?


Likelihood

A full blown bit of dinner is unlikely. Snacks and nibbles, nothing to get excited about. Empty cans and cups, every now and then.


Reaction

Typically nothing although I have seen the well-meaning make people aware of their discarded cans/wrappers as they attempt to alight.

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Drinking alcohol


In Japan it can feel as if old men are a law unto themselves. They’ve reached that point in life where they’re not going to change and they are very comfortable with that. This is exacerbated by the pace of change that’s going on around them. Typically, it’s these men that you’ll see drinking booze on trains. An attempt is usually made to cover up the drinking vessel; plastic bag, hand towel, maybe even the classic brown paper bag but there’s not much to be done about the smell.


Likelihood

Every now and then, especially on commutes home from work.


Reaction

Nothing

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Not waiting for people to alight before boarding


There are markings on a lot of train station platforms in Japan indicating where waiting passengers should line up, either side of opening doors. Most people do so accordingly, until the doors open, when there’s often someone who steps right in front of them, getting in the way of people who are trying to get off.  


Likelihood

High, without wanting to stereotype, the guilty parties are often middle-aged women.


Reaction

Not much that is noticeable although you do see people (like me) making a point of looking like it’s a hassle to get off the train because of the people in the way.

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Rushing onto trains


If there is a rule that is most openly abused in Japan, it must be this one. Reminders are everywhere telling passengers not to run onto trains as doors are closing.  Few people pay attention.  Understandable really.  It's not likely to stand up as an excuse for being late to work; Sorry, but I was told not to rush onto the train!


Likelihood

An everyday occurrence.


Reaction

It should be no surprise that other passengers are nonplussed about people doing this.  

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Rucksack on the back (on a crowded train)


There are plenty of signs around trying to discourage people from doing this. Personally, I’d have thought it to be intuitive, but it seems the signs are needed, if not totally effective.


Likelihood

Unfortunately high. Sometimes it’s tourists, sometimes student types. It doesn’t make it any less annoying though.  


Reaction

On a crowded train, no one wants to cause a scene. They just want to get home as smoothly and as quickly as possible. You might get some over exacerbated ‘squashes’ in the back, but not much more.

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Falling asleep on the person next to you


Locals have a high propensity for falling asleep on trains in Japan. A lot of people are able to do it with some measure of decorum and control. Quite a few people aren’t. Snoring is not so common. You’ll occasionally get the odd jaw-dropped pose. There’s also a good chance of some rocking and a head settling on your shoulder at some point. I don’t know about others but I find this almost psychotically annoying. 


Likelihood

High, especially on commutes home from work.


Reaction

Sometimes nothing. Sometimes harassed and flustered huffing, puffing, and staring. Sometimes light shoves (especially from me). Others will just get up and stand rather than be subject to it. I’ve yet to see it verbally confronted.

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Vomiting 


Spend any decent length of time in Japan, and you’ll see someone vomit on the train. Usually because they're drunk. The Japanese are remarkably tolerant of this, although those doing it are unlikely to be extended the hand of sympathy. 


Often there isn’t even an attempt hold things in until the next stop and to race off the train, or even just use some kind of container (you will sometimes see those with plastic bags prepared though). No, often times people will slump forward and project right there. What happens then is a partying of the masses that would impress Moses. It’s quite funny to watch unsuspecting passengers spot the resulting empty seats from the platform, rush on to get settled, only then to realize the situation. At the next stop, if a station official should be present, the guilty party might get escorted off the train. Not in a threatening way, just as a matter of pure customer service.


Likelihood

High


Reaction

Nothing to be feared. They’ve seen it before. They’ll see it again. They’ll just get out of the way (and maybe put a towel over their nose)!

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Manspreading


On a former commute to work I used to see this young Japanese lad sit in the same place every morning and spread his spindly legs like they were guarding a massive suitcase. There was no suitcase. I was unfortunate to be forced to sit next to him on occasion. I’d do so in such a way as to try and force him to shut his legs a bit. I maybe got about an inch of leeway but nothing more. One time another Japanese lad of similar age who I feel had been paying attention to this manspreader took a chance to sit next to him. So ensued a battle of wills to see who was going to back down. It got a bit testy and ended with a strange hand gesture in front of the manspreader as the other guy alighted.  


Likelihood

Not that common but you will see this form of train-etiquette abuse from time to time.


Reaction

Not much more than someone shifting about trying to passive-aggressively get the manspreader to stop spreading. As we know with the manspreader though, they generally don’t care.

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One wonders if we’ve barely scratched the surface with this look at etiquette on Japan’s trains but hopefully this will be enough for the traveler and/or Japan newbie to get started and avoid causing much of a scene.  It's worth noting that confronting social disorder and the disruption of common norms is generally not the done thing in Japan, hence the rather mild reactions that have been listed here. Nonetheless, even if the reaction to abuses of train etiquette are absent, these things are still felt.




If you’ve got any other rules or common forms of etiquette on Japan’s trains that need to be highlighted, please mention them in the comments below.






For more content like this ...

What's The Cost of a Day's Train Travel in Tokyo? (JR)

Moving To Japan? ... (A look at the taboos and cultural banana skins you might slip on in Japan)

 




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DaveJpn
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I was the backpack guy recently.
Didn`t realize the train (which is usually not so crowded) was getting super full until it was too late.

Taking off the backpack would have been an even bigger inconvenience for everyone

Well, I just bottled up my shame and vowed not to do it again. That will hopefully please the commute-gods

Kasajizo

@Kasajizo Ha! These things are easily done! And, yes, it probably would have caused more bother to take it off than it would have been worth. We're sure the 'commute-gods' have seen worse! We have for sure!

City-Cost

You didn't include the people who run to get seats, or those people who even though they already have a seat on a busy train, still race to get the seat at the end when someone vacates it. Super, super annoying.

DaveJpn

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