Sep 17, 2018
I was ten weeks pregnant with my son when I was issued a special pregnancy badge by my local children’s welfare department. Round in a distinctive pale pink, it features a cute graphic of a smiling mother-to-be and a smiling baby in a rounded curve that turns out to be her stomach. “おなかに赤ちゃんがいます,” it declares. Onaka ni akaachan ga imasu. There’s a baby in my belly. It was intended to be attached to my bag and, upon sighting it, other people using public transport would then give up their seats for me.
I didn’t have to commute during peak hour especially often, so I was often able to find a seat on the buses and trains I used. More often than not, the badge’s key use was to ensure I wasn’t asked to give up a seat myself, whether it be a regular or a priority one.
On the few occasions I did board a bus or a train and discover the seats were full, I had the unusual experience of suddenly feeling invisible. Standing in front of the priority seats and trying to make eye contact with the passengers occupying them, they suddenly seemed to fall asleep or become very, very absorbed in their smartphones.
Only twice was I offered a seat during my first pregnancy. In both cases, I initially refused the offers, because they were both made by women who were entitled to the priority seats themselves. The first time was by a woman with a young toddler, who gave me a look of profound sympathy and insisted. The second time was by an elderly lady, with a crane no less. I refused repeatedly, and she gave up, instead spending the remainder of her trip looking in disgruntlement at the two young women next to her who were pointedly ignoring us. The situation was no better during my second pregnancy. I had to use the crowded peak hour trains more often, but I still only got only a total of five seat offers. A couple of those, however, were from commuters about to exit the train at their home station and simply pointing out their vacant seats which, while better than nothing, isn’t quite the same thing. Again, all the offers came from women.
Was it because I was a foreigner? I can imagine that being used as a justification, the idea that communicating that they wanted to let me sit down being deemed impossible. I doubt this is the reason, though. I often see other people who are obviously entitled to the priority seats similarly being ignored, whether they are also pregnant or with another special need. In one memorable incident, I saw a pregnant Japanese woman on a peak hour train, clinging to one of the overhead straps and swaying in a way that had little to do with the train’s movements. The seat immediately in front of her got vacated at a station but, before she could sit down, a businessman in his 50s or 60s rushed to sit in it himself.
The politeness exhibited by the Japanese collectively is often marveled at, and this lapse is somewhat shocking. One possible reason is the anonymity that commuting offers. One commuter blurs into another and it is highly likely that you will never see your fellow passengers again. It’s somewhat connected to the whole chikan problem of groping on crowded trains. It doesn’t matter if your polite facade disappears and you behave badly for a bit if no one knows that you did.
It’s also harder to feel empathy for complete strangers and easier to justify ignoring it if you do. Maybe that elderly man will get angry if you offer him a seat and remind him that he’s old. Maybe that parent with the baby is more comfortable standing. Maybe that wasn’t actually a pregnancy badge you saw on that woman’s bag and how embarrassing for her if you imply she looks pregnant when she isn't. If they really wanted a seat, they would just ask, right?
More Japan-specific cultural and social factors possibly likely come into play as well. Japanese work culture is grueling, and with stagnating wages, the idea that even the most difficult of customers are kings and complicated hierarchical systems, it can also feel pretty thankless. A seat on the commute home doesn’t seem like that much to ask for given all the other rubbish they have to endure. Perhaps it is also the culture of gaman, the idea of enduring whatever comes your way.
To return to the treatment of pregnant women in particular, there’s also the idea of women’s place in society. Sexism is hardly specific to Japan, nor are complicated ideas about precisely how much or little you should talk about pregnancies, but there is still a deeply entrenched idea that women with children are about to become, or already are, housewives. They belong at home, not on a Tokyo train at 6pm. Among salaried men in particular, it is popularly considered a much easier life than that of the harried Japanese worker.
So what can be done? Short of major social shifts, with most evidence indicating they are depressingly not happening, there are two seemingly simple solutions to the problem. The first is education and public awareness, making it glaringly and unavoidably obvious that the priority seats are for people with special needs. Unfortunately, that is already happening. There are plenty of signs in and around public transport, verbal announcements (often in English as well as Japanese!) and posters line the stations, all of which are reminding passengers that priority seats are for those in need. Obviously, this hasn’t fixed the problem.
The next solution that gets thrown about whenever anyone complains is that all we need to do is ask. If you need the priority seat, ask for it. Get the attention of the occupant however you can, regardless of how “asleep” they are, and ask for the seat. Contrary to whatever excuses people dream up, you do not even need all that much Japanese to make it clear you are entitled to sit there. Be the change you want to see!
Of course, it isn’t really that simple. Amid all the suspiciously healthy-looking people that tend to occupy the priority seats, there could be someone who actually does have a disability. Not all of them are obvious to a casual stranger on the train, after all. Even I, obviously foreign in appearance and manner, felt reluctant to ask someone to give me a seat when there’s a chance they may have been as entitled to it as I was. Japanese people who have been culturally engrained to put up with whatever comes their way are even more unlikely to be risk that confrontation.
Short of some sort of big, public embarrassment happening, other solutions are rather limited. The failure to give priority seats to people who actually need them is an unfortunately widespread problem and disappointing behaviour for a country that is lauded, and lauds itself, for its politeness.
I'm Australian and married to a Japanese (post)man. We live in Chiba with our two children, where I work as an English teacher. I try to post something here once a week, and I also have a personal blog over at http://lyssays.wordpress.com/