Here’s an illuminating little tale: In the early years of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), a Japanese official was sent to France to study the police system (which, incidentally, was replicated here). Traveling across the Paris suburbs in a crowded train one summer afternoon, the official was assailed by acute stomach pains, which could only be relieved by going to the men’s room. The train car, however, was packed, and even getting up from his seat proved very difficult.

The official took the only way out he could think of. He unfolded his copy of the French newspaper Le Figaro on the floor, quickly did his business on it, folded up the incriminating evidence and lobbed it out the window. Unfortunately, the bundle struck a railway employee working beside the tracks. The next day Le Figaro included an item about the incident, citing it as an example of the sheer rudeness and backwardness of “Orientals” in general — and the Japanese in particular.

When the news reached Japan, the Meiji government was mortified and public lavatories were soon installed in every train station in Japan, no matter how remote. Back in France, the official reportedly said: “Hokani tedatega arutodemo? (他に手だてがあるとでも, What else was I supposed to do?”)

Old sins cast long shadows — and it seems public transport in Japan is still trying to overcome the embarrassment, because train stations (usually working with the local government) have always put up constant admonishments about taboo train behavior.

In the 1930s, notices warned workmen to “daitaibu wo kakusu yō (大腿部を隠すよう, cover the thighs)” in public, since these men were apt to raise the hems of their kimono and tie them around the hips for ease of movement — a tradition among manual laborers dating back hundreds of years. In the 1950s, stern signs on station walls told men not to spit, blow their nose into their hands, urinate, vomit or engage in fights on the platforms. In the 1990s, posters featuring young, winsome women in dark suits let everyone know: “Chikan wa hanzaidesu (痴漢は犯罪です, Groping is a criminal offence)” — though when a salaryman met his death at the hands of teenagers involved in the descipable practice of oyaji gari (オヤジ狩り, hunting middle-aged businessmen and old men), it was treated as an isolated incident.

More recently, posters featuring celebrities of the month say with pouting seriousness: “Dame Zettai (ダメ ゼッタイ, No, Absolutely Not)!” — to drugs. Oh, and get tested for HIV while you’re at it.

The world changes, as do rules for riding the rails. Judging from current fashion trends, exposing some thigh is perfectly OK. But we do have to turn off cell phones in the vicinity of yūsenseki (優先席, designated seats for the elderly, expecting mothers and physically challenged). We can’t lean against doors, we’re never supposed to run to board a train, we must turn down the volume on headsets, refrain from carrying large rucksacks strapped to our backs and carefully fold our umbrellas away so they don’t drip on other passengers.

Taking the train has become a touchy issue (pun intended). Rather than make eye contact, we stare with fierce concentration at cell-phone screens. We listen to unceasing announcements about where the train will stop next and how we must watch our step and take all our belongings when getting off. And now there’s talk of installing security cameras in each car, so let’s not even think about misbehaving.

Still, the Japanese are indomitable when it comes to spending time on trains — some manage to be as relaxed and comfortable as if in their own homes. Children head this list, kicking off their shoes and kneeling on the seats with foreheads pressed to the window or, more common these days, lost in whatever game they’re playing on nifty little Nintendo DS players. Adult men on the platforms used to practice their golf swings with their umbrellas; now they tune into their headsets and recede into private worlds. Young women are famed for shanai keshō (車内化粧, putting on their makeup in train cars) — always an instructional performance when it gets to setting false eyelashes. And the undōbu (運動部, school sports teams) kids carry huge, bulging equipment bags, separate carry-cases for bats, rackets and basketballs — all often piled between legs that end in large, chunky sneakers. Ravenous from practice, they tuck into onigiri (おにぎり, rice balls) and other snacks — and sleep with their mouths gaping open.

None of this behavior is acceptable. We all know that from reading the bills and notices around us. But hey, when stuck on that long and dreary commute again, what else are we supposed to do?

Coronavirus banner