Our Lives | BLACK EYE

The empty seat on a crowded Japanese train: 10 years on, the ‘gaijin seat’ still grates

by Baye McNeil

The first writing I ever published on life in Japan was for a blog I launched in 2008 — 10 years ago this month, in fact — called Loco in Yokohama. And in recognition of this occasion, I would like to revisit the blog post that got the ball rolling for me, career-wise.

The first post on my newborn blog was titled “An empty seat on a crowded train.” If you’re a conspicuous non-Japanese living here who rides the trains or buses, or goes to cafes or anywhere in public where Japanese people have the choice of sitting beside you or sitting elsewhere, then you’ve likely experienced the empty-seat phenomenon with varying frequency and intensity.

I had been living in Japan for four years before I wrote that post, during which time the empty seat and I were constant companions. Our relationship has gone through several phases in the 10 years since, and during that time we’ve gotten to know one another very well. You could even say we were intimate. And like with most intimate relationships, there comes a point where you’ve got to accept your partner, flaws and all, or call it quits. Interacting with the empty seat in this way helped me arrive at an idea that sustained me through the most trying period of my tenure here. And that idea was this:

Before one can make peace with Japan and the Japanese, one must first make peace with the empty seat (in all its manifestations) and all that it signifies.

I had that thought on Oct. 16, 2008. Then I sat down and wrote that post. And that thesis — this desire to make peace with this defining Japanese behavior, and with what was going on inside me that made peace an imperative — became the driving force of what was to become one of the most talked-about blogs around these parts, as well as one of the most respected books on expat life in Japan: “Hi My Name is Loco and I am a Racist.”

So, let’s fast forward 10 years …


I’m on the train, taking full advantage of the extra space I’m allotted so often by my fainthearted fellow commuters. The car was full but the seat beside mine was empty.

I noticed it, of course, but on any given day the amount of attention I pay it varies from too much to as little as possible. This was one of those as-little-as-possible days, for I had my iPhone on my lap and was playing 8 Ball Pool on it.

But, life, as it has a habit of doing, intervened.

I looked up to see that the train had pulled into Jiyugaoka Station. The person sitting on the opposite side of the empty space beside me got up, collected himself and got off the train, along with a good number of the other passengers.

As the boarding passengers filed in, I told myself not to pay them any mind. I hate that spat-on feeling I get when I see Japanese people, clearly eager to sit down, spot the empty seat near me, actually make an instinctual move toward it, then, once their eyes take a gander of me, abruptly alter their trajectory and scurry away.

I closed my eyes, nodded my head downward towards my iPhone, then re-opened them. I took a deep breath, and before I could exhale, I noticed two tiny legs standing before me. I looked up to see a mother and daughter who had boarded the train.

The mother’s eyes and mine met as she pointed and aimed her daughter at the seat beside mine — frankly shocking the crap outta me. The youngster, all of 4 or 5, resisted though, and cried “Kowai!!” (Scary!!), eyes brimming with fear. She grabbed and clung on to her mother’s leg for dear life, eyes transfixed on me.

This response, however, restored order to my world — the world her mother had rocked off its axis by directing her child to sit beside me.

It’s such a rare occurrence (as in this is the second, maybe third time in 15 years) that my mind started trying to solve the puzzle. I prayed it wasn’t meant as a punishment. I envisioned the little one acting up in a Jiyugaoka candy store, pouting and crying over some sweets she was denied, and the mother behind an embarrassed smile saying to herself, “You gonna pay for this outburst, you little miscreant!” And here I am, the perfect foil to use to dole out some payback!

But when I looked up at the mother, all I saw in her face was genuine dumbfoundedness and humiliation at her daughter’s reaction. I swear she would have died of an overdose if embarrassment were made of aspirin.

But there was something else there in her eyes and expression. Not payback, though. Something I couldn’t get a read on.

Generally, when this kind of thing happens, if I’m acknowledged at all, the parent will adopt a mien that suggests they are thinking, “Thank god he’s a foreigner and has no idea what my child said.” It’s almost cute, like this fear I tend to generate is some well-kept secret, like the body language of the child doesn’t scream the meaning of the word.

At least I tell myself it’s almost cute.

I braced myself for the next move. How will mama address this? Reinforce the fear? Ignore it, as if it’s to be expected and nothing can be done about it? These are the two most popular options, and I expected nothing less now.

I tried to turn away. Nothing’s worse than witnessing this type of irrational fear justified or normalized. But the rubbernecker in me seized control of my neck and commanded, “Take it like a man!”

But, to my utter surprise, this woman did nothing of the sort. Instead, she took the seat beside me herself and planted her daughter in the seat on the other side of her.

She glanced my way, smiled warmly, nod/bowed and said, “Sumimasen” (Sorry about that. Kids … whatchagonnado?).

I shook my head and waved it off, with a sympathetic and indulgent “Iie” (Don’t sweat it. I work with kids every day and they say the damnedest things).

Instinctively, I slid away from her as far as I could, which was about half an inch or so. I do this whenever people sit down beside me. I’ve found that this gesture tends to alleviate some of their discomfort (and there is almost always discomfort).

I’m not talking about physical discomfort; generally, there is sufficient space for a person to sit beside me without having to squeeze in. Besides, I really don’t care about anyone’s physical comfort. It’s a crowded train. Nobody is supposed to be truly comfortable, and to expect to be, particularly here in Tokyo, would seem to me to be irrational.

I’m talking about mental discomfort, evidenced by the persistent appearance of shifting, fidgeting, inching away, sometimes even scratching, and an inability to remember what to do with their hands or to sit still and relax.

The mother must have noticed me sliding away, for she glanced at me sideways, then down at the little sliver of seat that appeared between us because of my scooching, and kind of smile-bowed again.

I just grinned.

I returned my attention to the iPhone, deciding to write it off as an anomaly I’ll likely never get a satisfactory explanation for. Life is full of them.

Every so often, I noticed, peripherally, a tiny head poking out from the other side of mom. It was the little girl’s. Whenever I would turn my head her way, she’d duck back behind her mother, in that peek-a-boo way children do. Her face was still sour, though, like she hadn’t made up her mind whether I was kowai-worthy or not and was wondering what the hell her mom was thinking trying to seat her beside me.

Around the third or fourth time she peek-a-boo’d me, I waited with my face in her direction for her to re-emerge. When she did, I turned away. Then, I waited for her to duck her head back behind her mother before I turned her way again and waited. When she re-emerged this time, before I turned away, I caught a glimpse of a smile on her face.

Then, I noticed we were pulling into my station, so I stood to disembark. As I made my way for the door, I turned one last time. The little girl was looking at me. Her fear was gone replaced by what could have been glee. She waved at me and said, “Bye bye.”

I waved back, glancing at her mother. This time I could read the expression on her face.

It was gratitude! And I knew exactly how she felt, because the feeling was mutual.


In case you’re wondering, no, I haven’t made peace with the empty seat. And I never will. I’ve yet to hear a justification for it that doesn’t involve an ignorant race-based presumption, misjudgment or irrational fear, so it continues to reside high on my list of problematic aspects of life here.

And no, the frequency of its appearances has not ebbed. Not a lick. It remains an indelible aspect of life here and I’m as aware of it as I ever was.

So, has anything changed in 10 years? Does the episode described above represent any change at all?

Yes, one significant change resulted in my ability to fully appreciate the episode above. I’ve made some attitude adjustments. Over the years I’ve come to think of the empty seat less as an antagonist and more as an ally. It’s a journalist, working undercover for an underground news outlet, reporting daily on the state of affairs in Japan. And, when I ride the trains, buses or go to cafes or even walk down the street, I’m tuned in.

Unfortunately, this periodical is often the purveyor of dispiriting news, but on occasion it has wonderful stories to share. Like the story of a mother who flat-out refused to raise her daughter to abnormalize non-Japanese in any way. And how she, with a simple gesture and a single word — “sumimasen” — signaled to her daughter (and no telling how many other passengers in that commuter car) her intolerance of both the empty seat and, more importantly, the fear that produced it.

I’d like to think that she, like myself, has not made peace with the empty seat, has no intention of letting her daughter make peace with it, either, and felt that during rush hour on a subway car full of the faint-hearted was the appropriate time and place to assert her stance.

If so, then that feeling, too, couldn’t be more mutual.

Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. Online at www. bayemcneil.com.

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