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Attention: Sitting next to foreigners is forbidden

by Thomas Dillon

“Do I smell?”

My Japanese wife can tell the question is loaded. She squints at me and wonders if I am not the same.

“No worse than usual,” she answers, her eyes wary.

“Then do I have bad breath?” I lean over and breathe on her. She does not faint, neither does her skin peel off.

“No,” she coughs, “I find garlic refreshing.”

“Then, do I look especially violent? Like an ax murderer perhaps? Or say a junior high teacher?”

She shakes her head. “You look pretty much like you sound — stupid.” She then jumps to prevent any further drain on my intelligence and commands I get to the point.

Which is that once again I have received cootie treatment on the Tokyo trains . . .

Riding the local home from work, I plopped in an open space and watched the car quickly collect passengers. So many that in but a few stops the entire train was packed like a pickle jar — with a hand hanging from every strap and a bottom sunk onto every seat. With one notable exception.

No one sat by me.

Now, the majority of commuters in leg-dead Tokyo view open seats the same way lions view meat. Yet, every so often most foreigners experience the “two-seat” phenomenon, where people treat us like reefs in shallow water: all ships steering clear.

Discrimination? Maybe — but I feel the trigger behind this phenomenon is often just a single awkward person. The unexpected sight of a non-Japanese sparks a moment’s confusion. Followed by hesitancy. Then embarrassment at having hesitated. To save face, the timid person decides to stand.

People nearby note the individual directly before the open seat is not claiming it and thus assume something is wrong. That from his or her closer vantage point the hesitant passenger can see something they cannot — perhaps a hunk of fungus hanging from the foreigner’s ear, or still-fresh paint coating his sleeves.

No one moves — assisted in their reluctance by the laws of physics, which clearly state only folks named Tarzan should swing about on a barreling train.

As for people 2 meters or more removed: The wall of passengers prevents them from even realizing an open space exists. For all they know, the seats could be lined with naked Bond girls, passing out diamonds. Such is the luck of positioning on the trains.

For years I had a programmed approach to those people reluctant to sit by me. I would go to extremes to make myself appear safe. First, I would scoot so far from the opening that the person on my other side would have to push me off their lap. Then I would grin happily at the standing passenger as if cramming for an idiot exam, a saccharine expression calculated to communicate welcome. A look that said, “Please sit down! I won’t bite you!”

Of course, it never worked. In fact, it seemed to make some people ill, but I kept trying.

That kind of patience has long since left me. These days I snarl up at the person with a decidedly different expression. A look that says, “Sit down or I am going to leap up and gobble your ears off!” This doesn’t work either, but is considerably more entertaining. For me anyway.

Then there is my wife, who never worries about the people sitting next to her — because she never sits down. She always figures there must be someone who wants a seat more than she does, and if she is riding with me, she is right.

Still, even I yield to the elderly and infirm. Not so eagerly, for as one of Tokyo’s over-worked minions, I like to rest my weary bones as much as anybody, but I understand that many passengers have needs superseding my own.

My peak experience in this regard happened one morning on the Sobu Line. At the initial stop, on marched a troop of old folks — enough elderly to sink a small island. And I mean elderly. Maybe only a handful of teeth among the lot of them, and even less hair. Perhaps heading for a wrinkle convention somewhere in the city.

A woman across the way, herself in her 50s, promptly gave up her spot. I followed suit and clunked slowly to my feet.

But that was it. The rest of the salaried men and women sat and yawned while the patriarchs stood. A great granny settled into my ex-seat and another granny hunched on her lap. Meanwhile, sitting beside them, a 30-year-old business fellow flipped through a comic book.

I’ve heard it argued that the culprit behind such myopia is the very concept meant to prevent it — the “Silver Seat.” Because certain areas are specifically reserved for those in need, some passengers feel it thus unnecessary to relinquish regular seating. Perhaps instead of a rule delineating only special places for extra care, the entire portion of every single train should be prioritized for the needy. In other words, all seats should be Silver Seats.

Then we need a further rule banning conspicuous openings next to foreigners. Individuals breaking this rule should be forced to take the foreigner out to a nice sit-down dinner — or be ordered to walk to work, an approach guaranteed to prevent the “two-seat” phenomenon.

For in the end, nothing appreciates an open seat more than a pair of aching feet.