Train etiquette in Japan really shouldn’t be that difficult. Or so I thought. But what is normal in one country might be offensive in another; things that are perfectly acceptable in your hometown might not fly in Tokyo. And, every month or so, I see a group of travellers who faux pas bad enough to make ME (a fellow foreigner) feel mighty uncomfortable. Uncomfortable enough to occasionally step in and offer some guidance.
Which, to be fair, only happened once, because they 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.
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.
Don’t even smoke while you’re waiting in line to get on the train. Yes, this is actually a serious rule. All train stations should have a “smoking” room somewhere in the station where you can smoke; they also probably have a “smoking area” outside the station, with ashtrays and signs.
In fact, smoking cigarettes is prohibited in most areas of Japan. It’s not illegal, it is just considered a “nuisance” to other passengers, and therefore is not allowed. Japan is all about protecting and preserving the “community” over the whole.
So they make smoking rooms.
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 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.
3. Turn your phone on “Manner Mode” [マナーモード] (otherwise known as silent 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… 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. And a little bit awkward (depending on your ringtone).
This also goes for texting.
Japan is cute enough to give “silent mode” a better, and cuter name: “Manner Mode.” Because people with good manners don’t have loud, obnoxious phones.
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.
Yes, they do have their “priority seating” area, but sometimes that is full of other older, equally-handicapped people with possibly more children. Or, the person in question, doesn’t feel like they deserve to take up one of the valued “priority seating” spots.
In any case, 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 because you’re not sitting in the priority seats doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still give up your seat to an elderly person. Does that make sense?
Be chivalrous. It feels good. You probably don’t need the seat as much as they do (and if you do, just awkwardly look down and don’t make eye-contact. That way you won’t be obligated to give up your seat).
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. 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.
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.
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. They usually don’t have body odor. 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. 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 the guy 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).
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.
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