Being a student at an American university in Tokyo, I often have the opportunity to talk with foreign students who are living in Japan for the first time. These conversations frequently include the oft-heard complaints about commuting via the capital’s extensive rail system.
Anyone who has lived here for even a short period has heard these laments, and perhaps felt the same way: “The trains are too crowded,” “People shouldn’t stand in front of the doors,” “I hate being squished” and so on.
Reading Baye McNeil’s Oct. 17, 2018, article about the “empty seat” on a crowded train reminded me of my own experiences with rail travel on my first visit to Japan 11 years ago. Conscious of the concept of the “ugly American” international traveler, I was determined to adhere to Japanese norms as much as possible, which included train etiquette. I abandoned my concept of personal space, I was quiet (or at least used my “train voice”), I put my phone on silent mode and I was more courteous than I’d ever been. All that changed one fateful day in 2011.
I was waiting for a train at Asakusabashi Station during the morning rush and the Sobu Line was packed. I needed to catch an early shinkansen, so I did what I had seen so many locals do; I backed my way into the train, barely fitting inside the door. And then it happened; after the station chimes and just before the doors closed, someone shoved me off the train. I turned around as the doors closed to see a salaryman avoiding my stare.
I haven’t experienced anything like that during my current stay here, but the moment completely changed my attitude toward train etiquette (I’d love it if someone could tell me if the commutes in other parts of Japan are as brutal as Tokyo’s). However, I am still quiet, courteous and sympathetic to everyone’s need to get where they need to go. If that means sometimes getting crushed inside the train, I am OK with that. But I also understand that surviving the Tokyo commute can be cutthroat, and being too courteous can result in sometimes being “pushed out.”
So my advice to frustrated newcomers to the country is to surrender, don’t take things personally, and walk, cycle or take the bus whenever you can. Given all the bad news about climate change, there’s never been a better time to promote walking and cycling.
If being stuffed into a crowded train makes you angry, you will be angry on a constant basis in Tokyo. One thing I’m trying now is commute meditation. Time yourself taking deep, full breaths for one minute and count how many breaths you achieve. Then, when you’re on the train and starting to stress, breathe that number of full deep breaths and see if it helps. I haven’t come to a verdict on that yet.
Accept the fact that we’re going to see more tourists in the run up to the Olympics, and they are not going to know how to navigate train etiquette. Remember that you were in the same position once and would’ve been grateful for small courtesies. If that doesn’t work, remember that sitting in a car for hours on end isn’t much better.