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Tokyoites foot bill for Metro finger-wagging

by Matthew Chozick

If you scoot around Japan’s capital on Tokyo Metro, chances are you can call to your mind’s eye Bunpei Yorifuji’s manner posters. You’ve probably snickered at Yorifuji’s innuendo-laden slogan “Please do it at home” and, like me, look forward to seeing his silly etiquette lessons debut each month in the 170 participating subway stations.

We, the general public, overwhelmingly support these posters, according to an ongoing Tokyo Metro poll. Yet, after speaking with commuters around Tokyo, it seems that the campaign’s popularity hasn’t necessarily translated into improved decorum on the subway.

“They are f—ing hilarious,” said Jenny Atkins, a 26-year-old English teacher I met at Nippori Station. “Keep them coming!”

The reason Yorifuji’s messages do keep coming is for “customers to comprehend manners to comfortably use the train,” according to the Tokyo Metro Web site. However, these messages, in politely nudging us to act civilly, avoid addressing our more vulgar problems. If we comb through the posters with a critical eye, we see that limited resources are getting hosed on phantom fires (like pulling troublesome mountain climbers off the metro) while sobering, legitimate issues — particularly molestation and suicide — garner little attention. With this in mind, I spoke with commuters in the world’s most expensive city about whether they ought to keep footing the bill for this finger-wagging.

One poster advises women to apply makeup at home, not on the subway. I briefly interviewed a female perpetrator of the manner crime — a 24-year-old secretary — on the Tozai Line. She held a square mirror in one hand, applied eyeliner with the other, and somehow managed to answer my questions at the same time.

“Do you feel immoral?” I asked.

“No! I’ve got to wear makeup and don’t have time to put it on at home.”

“But you’re making it difficult for other people to use the train, right?”

“I’m not hurting anyone or taking up more space then I would reading manga,” she said.

She suddenly stood up, plopped everything into her Louis Vuitton handbag and got off at Kudanshita.

Donella Dedo, 32
English teacher/artist (British)
Plenty of salarymen I know hate girls that put on makeup on the train, although drunken salarymen are my biggest complaint! The drunken salaryman poster — I love that one!

John De Perczel, 26
Postgraduate student (American)
I’ve been collecting pictures of those all year. They’re great! I love the vague translations. With “Please do it at home” the possibilities are endless!

Riho Sawasaki, 18
Student
I have never seen passengers exercise on the trains, and manners are as obvious as how to use chopsticks. Why not save lives by putting up more suicide guards with the manner poster money?

Akihisa Shindo, 52
Salaryman
Japanese are brainwashed into thinking that applying makeup on the train is bad. We are not individualists like you foreigners, so people are afraid to use makeup on the subway like in your country.

Keiko Suzuki, 67
Retired
Young people should know better than to use makeup on the subway. We don’t need manner posters! I only once saw a man doing pullups on a train in the 1960s, but I haven’t spotted it since.

Her position was well articulated: This woman pays the same fee to use the train as the manga-reading businessmen on either side of her, so, assuming nobody gets injured by her eyeliner, shouldn’t she be able to use the same amount of space in whatever way she sees fit?

No, the train is not a space to work on one’s self-image, Yorifuji’s posters make clear. One even portrays exercise as crass, depicting a man performing pullups on a subway handrail with a tag line of “Do it at the athletic club.”

Never have I spotted anyone using the subway as a gym. And, of the people I interviewed, only Keiko Suzuki, 67, could recall seeing upper-body training on the trains, a manner crime she vaguely remembered occurring around 1960.

Manner poster content reflects regular surveys conducted by the Association of Japanese Private Railways. Perhaps problematically, the system relies on passengers with the time and motivation to submit complaint forms. Retirees plausibly represent the lion’s share of survey respondents, which could be why Mieko Watanabe, a 25-year-old pharmacist, told me she sees the posters’ real message as “Mind the gap — the generation gap.” And while seniors certainly deserve a representative voice, the reality of, say, periodic gropings of their granddaughters might not be as pressing as, for instance, a woman leaving the house without makeup on.

Yorifuji does not have the resume of a skittish conservative, though he’s racked up a great deal of experience running these kinds of campaigns. After opening his own Tokyo design firm at 27, Yorifuji first put together smoking etiquette posters for Japan Tobacco. Yorifuji’s recent works spill wildly across genre and topic: He does film, commercial design, promotion, performance art, illustration, book bindings and writing. His books reflect a range of topics from the body’s decomposition in “Catalogue of Death” to healthy defecation in “Uncocoro.” Yorifuji has won prestigious awards, including the Tokyo ADC Award, Nikkei Advertising Award, Japan Typography Association Award and Kodansha Book Design Award. He even manages to maintain a maximum five-star rating on almost all of his Youtube videos.

Given Yorifuji’s accolades, we can be pretty certain his design team does not come cheap. Even without the budget data, which is kept under tight wraps, perhaps we ought to be asking Tokyo Metro if this campaign is as necessary as it is popular.

To be fair, a few of Yorifuji’s messages do try to address legitimate concerns — dangers, even. Past campaigns, for instance, have tackled salarymen passing out drunk on rows of seats and leaping on board trains through shutting doors. Yet the cause of recklessly rushing to the office and boozing after work has little to do with acknowledging train manners; rather, these social problems are anchored firmly in Japan’s business culture. And, since Tokyo Metro cannot extend its reach into offices and business etiquette, we might have to just write off some good employees as bad passengers.

Reesan, blog writer on Loneleeplanet.com, has declared the campaign a failure. Reesan, like many other bloggers, has posted photographs of manner violations juxtaposed with Yorifuji’s artwork: a man sprawled drunk on a row of seats with his hand dangling onto the floor in the pose of a Yorifuji character, for example.

Must Tokyo Metro, which has some of the world’s most expensive fares, fund manner reform?

Riho Sawasaki, an 18-year-old student, believes not, because “manners are as obvious as how to use chopsticks.”

Of course, how one uses chopsticks or even silverware reflects, like the manner posters themselves, a historical sedimentation of taste. And these posters muddle through the awkwardness of framing Japan’s shift of mores into rights and wrongs, dos and don’ts.

“Why not save lives by putting up more suicide guards with the manner money?” suggested Sawasaki.

And surely any additional effort to stop molestation would be welcome? Why not rethink how our money is spent on improving the schlep to work? You can leave a comment at your local station.

Yorifuji and Tokyo Metro may have gone too far in softening the manner posters to make them palatable. It is as if the Metro authorities want to have their cake and eat it too. However, they ought to remember that eating underground is, if you’ve seen the newest poster, decidedly uncouth.

Tired of views from the streets of Tokyo? Motivated enough to do something about it? E-mail community@japantimes.co.jp if you are interested in collecting vox pops from your area.