5 Rules of Train Etiquette in Japan (that you should never break)

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Things that are okay in your home country might be socially acceptable in Japan.

Actually, that’s one of the first things anyone learns when they travel abroad. Train are no exception. I originally wrote this post as a passive aggressive attempt to spread information on the internet, in hopes that at least a couple foreigners planning to visit Tokyo might read it.

Train etiquette in Japan really shouldn’t be that difficult. Or so I thought. But I had the weirdest surreal moment in the world a couple months after I moved to Tokyo because a group of tourists were smoking on the train, which is probably the biggest “No-no” for train etiquette in Japan. It is so much of an understood social taboo that they don’t even have any “No smoking” signs (or vocal announcements) on the train, unlike their constant cellphone usage rules.

In any case, I wanted to make a quick post about train etiquette in Tokyo, just because there are several people I would love to give this advice to, but don’t feel like burning that many bridges. Instead, I’m just going to passively write this in hopes they see it someday.

And, of course, to help travelers coming to Japan.

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Train etiquette in Japan: the Do’s and Don’ts of Riding a Train or Subway (listed in order of importance)

1. Don’t smoke on the train.

Smoking in public spaces is illegal in most parts of Japan. You can actually get fined (not serious amounts) for smoking while walking or smoking in prohibited areas. While enforcement is low in most places, trains are one of those super-prohibited places, like hospitals and schools, where you actually will get in trouble for smoking.

Nearly every train station has a clearly labeled “smoking room” or “outside smoking area” where you can light up. Generally speaking, if you don’t see signs saying you are allowed to smoke, just assume it is prohibited in that area.

If you need to smoke, use the make smoking rooms.

A smoking room in a Japanese mall

In very public areas, such as in the middle of a festival or at a rally, they will have smoking rooms for you to use. Generally assume that you can’t smoke freely anywhere in Japan. Even my college campus has a (steadily decreasing) number of designated smoking areas, even though the entire campus is 150 acres. The only exceptions (I think) are clubs, (some) bars, and (most) concerts.

So yeah. Seriously. Don’t smoke on the trains.

2. Don’t talk on your cellphone on the train or subway.

This rule is a bit more obvious; they have signs everywhere, and make public service announcements (in both Japanese and English) every couple minutes.

It is alright if it is only for a couple seconds, like if someone calls you while you’re on the train, it is acceptable to answer the phone, whisper “sorry, I’m on the train, can I call you back in ten minutes?” and hang up. You don’t have to ignore the call. Likewise, if you are chatting on the phone, waiting for the train, try to finish your conversation before you get on board the train. If you can’t you do get about 10 seconds of “grace period” to finish up your call before other passengers get annoyed at you.

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3. Turn your phone on “Manner Mode” [マナーモード] (otherwise known as silent mode).

Japan has this wonderful thing called “Manner Mode,” which is the American equivalent of “silent mode,” but it sounds nicer. My cell phone has a “Manner Mode” button that I can press and hold to turn “Manner Mode” on and off.

You are told to keep your phone on “Manner Mode” while on the train, as to not bother other passengers in case someone calls or texts you. You will hear announcements every five minutes in both Japanese and English, reminding you to keep your phone on “Manner Mode.”

Trains are typically pretty quiet, so a beeping or ringing cellphone is pretty obvious. Of course, no one is going to kick you out of the train if your phone goes off… (I doubt anyone will kick you out for breaking any of these rules) but it’s kind of the same feeling as if you phone went off when you were sitting in that one class you hated. No one really cares (too much), but it is still embarrassing.

[For more on Mannar Mode in Japan, click here]

With my phone, I only have to hold down the center button for 3 seconds before it switches into “manner mode.”

4. Give up your seat for old people, people with a handicap, people who are injured, pregnant women, or people with small children.

While trains do have a “priority seating” area, many people who qualify for “priority seating” choose to use the regular seats. I don’t know why. Perhaps they are worried about being shown up by an older (or more handicapped) patron or the “priority seating” area is too far of a walk.

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Priority seats are usually a different color than normal seats

Needless to say, if you are sitting in the priority seats and someone who looks like they could be tired/damaged/carrying a child in any way, shape, or form, give them your seat. That’s pretty straightforward.

However, just even if you’re not sitting in the priority seats, you should still give up your seat. You can tell if an old person wants your seat because they will stare at you.

Once you make eye contact, the seat is as good as theirs. As a result, you often see old people camped out in front of tired youth – who are hiding behind their cellphones and avoiding eye contact. It’s funny. And kind of sad.

So you give up your seat. Good for you. The unfortunate part is that half the time, they won’t take my seat right away. In fact, if you ask someone if they want your seat before you actually get up out of the seat, they will almost always say no (even if they were making said eye contact). If you get out of the seat, tap them on the shoulder, and point to the seat, they will say things like “oh no, I’m fine” or “are you sure?” or “don’t worry,” before staring at the seat for a couple seconds, making sure no one else wants the seat, saying “thank you,” and finally sitting down.

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But when they say “oh no, I’m fine,” or “don’t worry” it’s the same as if you ask your girlfriend “do you want me to wash my hair more than once a week?” and she said “oh no, it’s fine” or “don’t worry.” It’s not fine. Generally speaking, if sitcoms and the internet have taught you anything, it’s that when your girlfriend says “it’s fine,” it really is never fine.

Much in the same way, even if someone protests and says they don’t need your seat, I will bet you a serious amount of yen that if you get up, point to the seat, and start walking away, they will say thank you. They just want to be polite about it (like when you go out to eat with someone and both people fake wanting to pay the bill a couple times in hope that the other person really will treat them). Let them be polite, but also let them have your seat.

And, of course, the other half of the time, they will just say “are you sure?” while they are in the midst of actually sitting down. They might be too tired to do the full extent of politeness – but I really do like this response much better.

And then they will probably turn to whoever they are riding with and say something like “foreigners these days are so nice.”

Last note on “giving up your seat on a train in Japan” etiquette, and then I will move on. Actually, I wish I didn’t have to write this next part, but I’ve seen it happen altogether too many times.

Let’s give them names: person A, person B, and old person C. Person A will get up out of their seat and move towards old person C, trying to get them to use their seat. And then, person B (possibly who didn’t see person A or old person C), will notice the empty seat and sit down. Then person A will turn around with old person C in tow, only to find the seat occupied. It is the most uncomfortable and awkward thing in the world.

Don’t let that be you, please. If you see someone get up out of their seat, watch where they are going before you sit down. If they exit the train, you’re safe. If they are aiming for an old or pregnant person, for the love of God don’t be “that foreigner” who takes the seat. Please.

5. Be careful of body odor.

I’m serious.

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Imagine being stuck in a train like this full of people with bad body odor. I imagine that is what hell feels like.

See, here’s the thing about Japanese people. Because of genetics, most don’t have body odor (to learn why, watch this awesome video). The only time I’ve ever seen my fiancé (Ryosuke) use deodorant was when he used my lavender-scented stuff one day for fun, just so he could “smell me every time he sniffed his armpits.”

I’m not even going to talk about that.

So the problem with being foreign (specifically white) in Japan, is that it’s really hard to get deodorant that works. And by deodorant, I mean the good stuff. I’m not talking about the weak aerosol spray on stuff that lasts for 30 minutes – tops, I’m talking about the heavy-duty stuff that will stick with you throughout the day.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been stuck next to a foreigner on one of the last trains (and by “stuck next to” I mean “smashed up against”), and said foreigner stunk. Like worse than a gamer the third day of a Texas summer anime convention.

If you are prone to getting bad body odor, I’m sorry. I really do pity you. Pack lots of heavy deodorant from America (or whatever country you come from). But don’t make everyone else suffer too. If you smell and you’re going to be out all day, bring one of those small aerosol cans and freeze your pits right before you get on the train (especially if it is crowded).

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Those are the five main taboos of riding the trains in Japan. For your reference, there are a couple more, but they are more “minor” things. If you’re interested, just check out this post.

[Check out: 6 More Things People (especially foreigners) Need to Stop Doing on Trains in Japan]

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About Grace Buchele Mineta

Born and raised in Texas, I am a part-time blogger on the search for the next greatest adventure. In my spare time I enjoy writing, drawing comics, and traveling with my husband, a boxing businessman from Japan. Contact: Website | More Posts

23 Comments on 5 Rules of Train Etiquette in Japan (that you should never break)

  1. MOST Japanese people don’t have body odor? I agree that it is not as strong as for whites or blacks, but they do smell bad in summer as well; even women. Sitting on the subway in summer is definitely no picnic over here.

  2. Dara Harris // 7 October, 2014 at 3:41 am // Reply

    Lol, and then there are the times when you offer a person in their mid-to-late middle age a seat, they decline, and you want to insist, but you also wonder if you’re insulting them (by calling them “old”.)

    I also had a friend who was wearing a dress that made her look a bit bloated, and she told me that earlier in the day, she had someone who thought she was pregnant offer her a seat XD Awkwarrrrd~

  3. I’ve been to Singapore several times, and I have a relative living over there. In Singapore, the rules in the MRT are 99% the same as in Japan (give your seat to the elderly, pregnant women, people with children, and injured and/or handicapped people).

    The difference is, in Singapore, a person in the above category don’t hesitate at all to take a seat offered by a younger person. So, if young person A offers his seat to an elderly B, B will directly say thank you and take the seat. I’ve done this several times myself, and the elderly I offered my seat to thanked me right away and then took my seat.

    I didn’t expect the Japanese people don’t share the same respect as Singaporeans. :/

    • Hahahaha. It actually really frustrates me when Japanese people refuse the seat a couple times. I’m not from such a polite culture, so I don’t like trying to FORCE someone to do something.
      I’m always tempted to be like “oh, you don’t want it. Ok. I will stay seated.”
      But that would be mean…

  4. Regarding smoking – I would have thought it would be the default position to not smoke indoors anywhere unless you see someone else do it.

  5. I don’t know WHY, but while I had lived in Shinjuku for one month, I had experienced it three times that the people that I offered my seat seriously declined it.
    They weren’t polite, they didn’t want to use my seat. And I actually had imported 10 bottles of deo, so I definitely didn’t stink, I used proper japanese to even explain fully that I offer the seat, why and all. No, they didn’t want it. No, they prefer to stand.
    I walked away, nope, they didn’t want to sit there. Of course a passanger that entered on the next station took the seat soon. BUT its not like they didn’t want the seat for leaving in one or two stations. When a japanese person offered their seats, they gladly took it. And they left later then I did (and I went all the way from Kanda to Asakusa with the Gizamoto line which is a ten minutes ride).
    I felt honestly insulted that it was seemingly that they didn’t want to take the seat that a foreigner offered them. I can’t explain why they didn’t want the seat other then that, because they accepted the one that someone else offered. At one point, a man even offered his seat and then sat down on mine. I felt like being in a bad comedy movie.

    Even though I of course also experienced very cute and nice old people. My best memory was, when a group of five women entered while I visited Niigata and was on my way from Niigata station to Takada station and one bench had three people on it while I sat alone on the other. They argued about who would sit where, so I just stood up, offered my seat and sat next to the three people. The women gladly took the seats to all sit next to each other and were very nice, even offered me advise on where a amazing teahouse is.
    In fact, I learned that the chance of meeting nice and open people is ironically higher outside of Tokyo then inside it, despite most tourists being there.

    • That’s so weird…

      I had a couple instances where I got up to offer my seat, they said no, I said yes, they said no, I walked away, they waited a station, and then sat down. I guess I’ve found that unless the person is really old (or has a young kid strapped to them), they will rarely take your seat.

      I have no idea why you got stiffed trying to offer your seat, though. That’s sad.

  6. Giving up seats to elderly, expecting mothers are just not happening here in Tokyo, basically not much manners here.

  7. great tips! just curious but i understand we shouldn’t make phone calls/answer phone calls on the train..but what about having a small and quiet conversation with friends on the train?

  8. While to me, giving up my seat to an elderly or pregnant person is a no-brainer, in Japan, it seems that passenger rarely do this, even though there are signs asking that they do. In fact, Japanese people seem to ignore the elderly on the train, by blocking their vision with a newspaper or video game, pretending to sleep, or just looking down at the floor. To acknowledge the elderly would obligate them to give up their seat. In Korea, the same experience is the exact opposite. They have seating specifically for the elderly and if a younger person sits there, even accidentally as a foreigner might, they will be chewed out by some Koreans. It is interesting that people believe the Japanese place so much emphasis on respect and honor, especially in regards to a persons age or status, but it seemed to me, that Koreans care much more.

    • I’ve never been to Korea – so I wouldn’t be able to comment on that. I thought that Japanese people were very polite (at least compared to America) in the whole “giving up your seat for an elderly/pregnant person” (because I see it rather often), but I guess people could do it, well, more.

      I have seen instances where someone knows they should give up their seat, but doesn’t. It’s few and far between, but it makes me mad (especially when they are sitting in the handicapped/priority seating)

  9. Are there black people in Japan ?

  10. Great article! :D
    On the opposite of stinking, I think foreigners shouldn’t wear too much perfume on trains (or anywhere in Japan for that matter). When I found out nobody was wearing perfume (only clothes conditioner is enough it seems), I kind of stopped using mine… I felt like I was bothering everyone, seriously. So I put only deodorant. One day I was on a train, and I smelt an overdose of Axe perfume. I thought “I wonder if it’s a foreigner…” Well it turned out it was, and at that time I felt ashamed. I mean, it’s better than a stinking person, but still…

    • Yeah, I have noticed foreign men tend to douse themselves in Axe body spray. I’m actually allergic to perfume – stepping anywhere near the perfume section of a supermarket will send me into a sneezing and coughing fit, so I really REALLY hate it when people wear too much perfume/Axe.

      Surprisingly enough, I agree. I would rather a stinky person wear NO deodorant than drowning themselves in the stuff… Life is so complicated, isn’t it?

  11. wat smelly otakus in japan? they dont count?

  12. Lol, yeah right.

  13. I was proud of wearing your deodorant!! hahaha
    very interesting post as always :)

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