Baye McNeil’s recent Black Eye column, “A decade on, revisiting the empty seat,” garnered a great deal of attention. Here are some of the responses received by The Japan Times over the past couple of weeks.
All my questions answered
I am a black Malawian student at Naruto University of Education in Tokushima Prefecture, and I can testify to having the exact same experience as that explained in the article.
I never knew if I was the only one in this dilemma, and I was really confused as to what was going on. Now, this article has explained it all and has answered all the questions I had about this situation.
Keep sharing those experiences and help us foreigners understand Japan better through them.
Naruto, Tokushima Pref.
A decade? Try ’40 years on’
I was very interested to read Baye McNeil’s article on the “gaijin seat.” Actually, I was surprised!
The reason is this: For two years (from April 1977 thru April 1979) I lived in Tokyo and experienced this phenomenon often on my daily train ride from Shinjuku to Daikanyama, and experienced this furtive eye-glance phenomenon. At that time, gaijins were a rare oddity and I just assumed my blond hair and tallness stood out. I myself would furtively glance when I saw another “gaijin,” wondering what their story was.
But that was 40 years ago! I assumed that with the influx of foreigners and international exposure, things would have changed. Loved those two years I lived there and was awed by the kindness of the Japanese.
Do what brings you comfort
I’ve been a Japan Times reader for many years, and I’ve been to Japan approximately 50 times in over 20 years, on business and holiday. I was just in Japan during Typhoon Jebi.
I’ve been to many destinations in Japan. I take JR, private railways and Metro lines regularly. And I’m African-American. So I’ve had people come up to me and touch me out of curiosity (not just in Japan).
I have to say that I have rarely experienced the phenomena described by the writer. None of the experiences come to my mind as particularly traumatizing.
Public transportation is uncomfortable, annoying and intrusive. People have a right to eke out any level of comfort they can. Whether it’s women-only train cars, or not sitting next to someone that makes you uncomfortable, as long as it does not move into the realm of American ’50s-style segregation, I do not think this is a big problem. We all just want to get to our destination as quickly possible with minimum interference from other passengers.
The stranger in your kitchen
I lived in Japan for 12 years and have, of course, experienced the gaijin seat phenomenon.
Here’s how I understand it: The Japanese people have an intimate yet conflicted relationship with space. They will accept having no space on a crowded subway car, when of necessity we are all crushed together, but given the option of standing or sitting next to a gaijin, most will choose to stand. Why?
Imagine you wake up one morning and a stranger is sipping coffee in your kitchen. This is the best analogy I can think of to describe their ethnocentric/xenophobic emotional condition.
I don’t begrudge them this. I don’t like it. It is insulting on one level, but I accept their feeling just as I do their innumerable acts of kindness, going out of their way on many occasions to help me.
So, all things considered, it was a great privilege to live in Japan and get to know the people and the culture.
Fear or awe beats small talk
I’ve been living in Kumamoto for about 15 years. I came in my early 20s and really today still look to be in my 20s. I’m around 177 cm and of slender build, Caucasian. I dress mostly like a Japanese school teacher, or at times I guess like a West Coast kid.
I think the factors behind this “gaijin seat” also relate to age, race, gender and size. Not that any of those are reasons to be afraid of someone legitimately, but I think it is a factor.
I don’t like people sitting next to me, so perhaps this is a factor. Kumamoto is also less crowded than Tokyo, so often there are plenty of seats. I don’t notice this at all. I don’t ride public transport that much either. I do think, if I think about it, it has happened, perhaps.
In Kumamoto on those rare crowded trains (we do have them at certain hours in certain places every day — just nothing like Tokyo scale), lots of people don’t take empty seats. We don’t have many foreigners here so there are plenty of Japanese types who don’t get sat next to too. I think Kumamoto folks are less used to this crowding so they end up being shy and so on.
I have been chosen over Japanese as someone to sit next to on many occasions, to my chagrin. I would have liked the open space. Sometimes it was an attractive female, so there was I guess a positive side to it. And then there are the chat-ups, which are horrible — those are people looking for free English conversation and/or just to marvel at the spectacle of a foreigner. I much prefer an empty seat and distant fear to being gawked over like some rare animal.
Japanese are shy and, especially in the countryside, usually inexperienced with people from outside their culture. There isn’t a lot of overt racism, but there is definitely fear and anxiety. Then there is awe. What can you do? Those who work in Japan in education are doing the only thing you can: teaching, interacting and so on with these people, often kids.
If we do a better job of humanizing ourselves in the classrooms I think these types of issues — this fear, anxiety and awe at the mere sight of foreigners — will diminish. Until there is a perk of extra space on the train. For what it’s worth, I love it.
What I don’t like is strangers asking me where I am from for no damn good reason (and the several minutes conversation they’ll try to strike up that is always the same, covering the same topics, questions and pleasantries — all super-annoying after 15 years).
Hope this opens Japanese eyes
My name is Shannon and I just read the “gaijin seat” article after seeing someone mention it on Twitter.
Reading that story made me very sad. I’ve studied Japanese for years and plan on going to visit Japan next spring. I have heard of things such as this but didn’t know it was still so prevalent. Especially when people like Swedish YouTuber PewDiePie tell stories of having office workers fall asleep on his shoulder, it’s a bit disconcerting.
I don’t want to say it is a “race” thing, but I hope perceptions and stereotypes surrounding certain people cease to exist altogether. I know that must be the worst feeling in the world, living in another country and every so often little things happening that remind you that you “do not belong.” It’s all a bit sad.
I am reminded of being on a train here in New York one day, and I think it was Shichi-Go-San. There was a family on their way to one of the local festivals. One of the children kept repeating “Okāsan, koku-jin desu; koku-jin da” (“Mom, it’s a black person, it’s a black person”) each time the black conductor would pass. I looked around and there were no Japanese people in the vicinity, so obviously she thought nobody understood her son’s words. However, she said nothing to correct his speech, and I wondered how living in New York he had never seen a black person before. Or if he had the same reaction each time he saw a white person.
I have met many kind Japanese people and eavesdropped on remarks concerning me in conversations they thought I could not understand. I have yet to have a really “bad” personal experience, but some people seem to receive this reaction no matter what. It’s really a shame that despite someone’s good intentions, they are still met with fear and even hostility.
I hope this changes in the future. So many in our global community enjoy Japanese culture and wish to learn about it. I hope this doesn’t discourage anyone from trying to engage with the culture, and I hope this opens the eyes of some native Japanese who may not see this as a problem.
Kill them with kindness
Thank you for this wonderful story. I have quite often experienced the gaijin seat phenomenon. My wife, a Japanese national, insists that it’s because of my size, but I’ve lost weight since I’ve moved here in July, and yet I still am subject to the same treatment.
I chalk it up to irrational fears and try my best to diffuse the situation. I go out of my way to be extra kind, oftentimes offering my seat to an obasan (older woman) as she enters and eyes it wearily. I feel that killing them with kindness helps to dispel the irrational fear people may have. If I can change the mind of one person, I’m happy, especially if it’s an older Japanese person.
Thank you for a great story. I’ve also started blogging about my experiences since moving here, titled “I’m Too Big For This Place.” I hope you’ll check it out sometime!
Setagaya Ward, Tokyo
The opposite of what I saw
I lived in Japan in the ’70s but I never came across this. People, if they knew some English, would strike up conversations with me. I found this pleasant because this only happened in country buses, never in London ones. In trains, very rarely did people speak to strangers.
I would be walking along the road to my room. People would catch me up to chat, usually starting off with “Atsui desu nē” (Hot, isn’t it?) or “Samui desu nē” (Cold, isn’t it?).
I only saw the avoidance of gaijin when I went into a large shop and a young girl assistant would pretend not to see me or move away. I quite understood this. She thought she would not understand me.
Instead of talking, find out why
Not to diminish the idea that the empty seat is not an issue, but I believe one would have to commission a study to actually find out why people — whether Japanese or not — choose not to sit next to someone. There are too many variables to include — gender, race, sex, time of day, age, location — and the list could continue.
Yes, one can sit and think of their reason why someone will not sit next to them. The same can be said when an end seat becomes available — people will move. Why?
For me, more room and easy access to the exit. I am partially handicapped. But that is just why I do it.
Or consider the person who likes his “man spread” and just gets up when feeling boxed in, as one black male told me some time ago.
With so many other issues facing me as a foreigner who chooses to make Japan my home, the empty seat is not a primary issue. Thus, I attempt to not let it occupy space in my head during my train commute.
This issue garnered a lot of attention on social media — many different opinions, which should be respected whether on-topic or not, and regardless of the words used to illustrate a point or provide an example of wider global issues.
So perhaps, instead of just talking about the issue, take action and find out why this occurs, whether in 2008 or 2018.
Two decades of train tales
I noticed this phenomenon on first moving to Japan and asked several Japanese people about it. I received five answers in a row of “They are probably worried that you might start speaking to them in English.” I replied, “Why would I start speaking to strangers on a train?” I mentioned this to a sixth person who said, “That stuff about English is just rubbish. They just don’t want to sit next to a foreigner.” Honesty at last!
I made my peace with it early on: “If you’d rather stand than sit next to me, more fool you and more room for me!” I’d sometimes smile and stretch out to emphasize that I didn’t care (or pretended not to).
Once, a white woman from New Zealand was raving on about how racist a practice it is and I replied that, as white people, we are not used to being on the receiving end of it and, perhaps, it gave us a tiny, tiny insight into how people of colour are treated in our own countries. I thought of Britain in the 1970s: I can just about remember as a young child how no one would sit next to a black person on the bus until only one seat remained — even if they had to walk to the back to get the other seat. At least seats weren’t left empty, I suppose.
Years ago, I heard an amusing story from a foreigner about how an elderly woman saw and then rejected the seat next to him, then walked on down the carriage only to return as the other seats were quickly filled. By that time, someone else had taken the seat, so he got up and offered her his own seat. She took it with a fair bit of embarrassment.
I think things have changed over the last 20 years. These days, I don’t often have the luxury of extra space. I was thinking recently how university-aged and people in their 20s usually just sit down without a thought. I guess they have interacted with more foreigners.
Having said that, most older people also now take a seat next to me. Probably uniform-clad children are the group least likely to sit down, but they are usually just giggling and saying, “You sit down!” “No, you!” However, I have noticed that, recently, It’s the Asian tourists that people seem reluctant to sit next to …
From The Japan Times Online
Short and sour
This article seems very alien to me. I lived in Japan for seven years and I never once experienced this “gaijin seat” incident at all.
J. DAVID SIMONS
Imagine dealing with this as a child. Once when I was 10 or so years old, I rode on a crowded bus with that empty seat the whole way. Still bothers me 55 years later.
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