National / Media | Japan Pulse

Survey on commuting gripes in Japan spurs wider societal complaints

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

Nothing unites Tokyoites together quite like complaining about daily commuting by train. And it’s a worthy gripe — morning and evening rides practically dispose of the idea of personal space altogether. Being packed tightly with other people also exposes us to all sorts of oddball and annoying behavior, either above or below ground.

With this in mind, what train-based behaviors irritate other commuters the most? The Japan Private Railway Association released its annual ranking of inconsiderate behavior at stations and on trains in late December, compiled from information gathered from various train companies and more than 2,500 passengers. It comes after a year in which plenty of online discussions — or, more accurately, arguments — came about as a result of riding the rails.

The ranking revealed that a number of daily occurrences attracted plenty of votes. Applying makeup and playing music through headphones loud enough to bleed out both landed in the top 10 (Nos. 8 and 5, respectively), as did being drunk (No. 7). A few other highlights include eating food on the train (No. 10), rude boarding and exiting behavior (No. 4) and reading physical media such as magazines or books (a surprisingly low No. 16 — I’ll take lipstick application over somebody opening a newspaper in my face any day).

However, taking the top spot is something that, at first glance, seems slightly unexpected. The way people carry bags comes in at No. 1, with a follow-up question clarifying that the main source of frustration comes when people wear backpacks and similar items on their back instead of moving them to the front.

Many online agreed. An article on Toyo Keizai Online covering the ranking went viral, with people noting how annoying bags can be. It appears this has been a gradual development. A Soranews24 post on the survey results notes that complaints about bags has moved up from ranking No. 12 in 2009 all the way up to No. 3 last year before going to the top in 2018. Some speculated this is because more salaryman have been using backpacks and knapsacks in recent years, resulting in them popping up more frequently on daily commutes.

As rankings go, however, plenty had differing views of what should have been at the top — or, at least, higher up. Folks who don’t line up in two lines outside of the train, “otaku smells” and “molesters” were mentioned. Others zoomed in on the backpack topic, with some wondering if a better bag for transit could be designed, or asking whether trains themselves were too narrow and were actually to blame for all this. And, of course, a select few wondered if the people who were actually getting annoyed so easily were the real problem, with some blaming the media.

One of the more interesting points brought up regarded how this ranking was unfair to kids. Considering how many schools require students to use backpacks — and how many of them in Japan use trains — some users thought this attitude toward bags on the train was toxic.

It wasn’t a wrong way to approach the topic, seeing as one notable web-based moment earlier in December centered around kids aged even younger than elementary school. User @kannekolaw tweeted about hearing a mother repeatedly say, “Do not push in, I have a baby” on a crowded train, and yet that didn’t stop more commuters from squeezing in. The user went on to argue that the trains should have child care-only cars, which prompted a wide-ranging discussion online. Many echoed the original situation, with some calling for more flex-time for workers and another breaking down how a crowded train at rush hour could result in the death of a young child.

They might be onto something. Some Twitter users reflected on their childhood, when salaryman would ask kids riding the trains solo where they were going to help them rather than treat them coldly. However, venturing into the comments on Togetter revealed plenty who weren’t nostalgic but ready to blame the country’s infrastructure, which jams too many people into Tokyo and doesn’t adjust for crowded transit.

Barring a major societal shift in how the government approaches public transportation, work-life balance and urbanization … well, expect those online complaints regarding overcrowded trains to keep on coming. Entire pages on Japanese matome sites collect random rants from people, ranging from riders ignoring the loud ringing of another passenger’s phone to “guerilla defecation.” Plenty also fantasize about leaving the train system behind forever to the point where books have been written on the subject.

Good luck finding a way to make that dream come true. Until then, just remember to flip your backpack to your frontside, try to get off the train in an orderly manner and know the internet will always be there to hear you vent about your daily grind.

Kosei Nagashima contributed to this report.