Commuting to and from work during peak hours in Tokyo can be an utterly soul-destroying experience.

With passengers jammed in like sardines in a can, the suffocating conditions on many trains can elevate stress levels and cause tempers to fray. Given the sheer number of people who use trains to get to and from work each day, there’s literally no place to hide.

Imagine, then, how much more difficult such peak-time train journeys can be for pregnant women, parents with children and people with disabilities.

Commuters are generally as accommodating as possible as far as mothers using strollers on trains are concerned, and yet the friction between the two camps appears to be on the rise.

According to a 2014 survey conducted by Kobe Women’s University research associate Yukiko Nishimoto, 73 percent of stroller users felt they were annoying other passengers when traveling inside crowded trains. In 2009, about 66 percent of stroller users canvassed in a similar survey expressed the same opinion.

In some cases, confrontations can really get out of hand.

On Sept. 28, 2015, an unemployed 64-year-old man was arrested for allegedly punching a 1-year-old child in a baby stroller in an underground passageway at Tokyo Metro’s Yurakucho Station.

“I was upset because the stroller was blocking my path,” the man said reportedly told police. “I feel that I did something awful.”

Strollers have regularly appeared in a list of things people who commute by train generally find annoying that is compiled by The Association of Japanese Private Railways each year.

Founded in 2012 and incorporating 72 separate railway entities, the association is tasked with improving safety and helping train services to operate as efficiently as possible.

The annual survey, which is conducted via the association’s website, asks commuters to select behaviors that irritate them during their journey. Choices include such things as using mobile phones, loud conversations and improper seating.

While these three complaints typically top the list each year, strollers were ranked as the 10th most annoying item among 16 irritations in 2009, the first year it was added to the list. In 2014, strollers were ranked seventh.

The association did not include strollers in its latest survey, which was conducted in December 2015.

“It’s not bad manners to bring a stroller into a train carriage, it’s an essential part of raising a child,” says Masashi Nakano, a spokesman for the association. “We decided not to include it in last year’s survey for this reason.”

Nakano says the decision also falls in line with a change in policy at the transport ministry in relation to using strollers on trains.

In 2013, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism set up a committee to examine the use of strollers on public transport.

The committee created a logo to identify areas that catered specifically to strollers, amending regulations to give priority to stroller users.

“An increasing number of passengers were using strollers (on public transport) and so the panel was set up to facilitate understanding between parents and commuters,” says Nishimoto, a founding member of the committee.

Nishimoto is an expert on the use of strollers on public transport and has spent the past 10 years studying the issue. She says the experience of having had a child herself was invaluable.

“I soon realized that the situation is very different if you’re traveling on a train with a stroller instead of being by yourself,” Nishimoto says. “I had to pay greater attention to the passengers around me because my stroller was taking up more space than I was used to.”

Nishimoto recalls several heart-warming experiences, when complete strangers offered to help her carry her stroller onto the train.

“At the same time,” she says, “there were always some cold, icy stares.”

According to statistics compiled by the Foundation for Promoting Personal Mobility and Ecological Transportation between December 2012 and March 2013, an average of 1-2 percent of all passengers at three stations used strollers on public transport, up to 30 times more than wheelchair users.

Figures from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism show that roughly 700,000 to 800,000 strollers are sold nationwide each year. About 1.1 million babies are born each year.

“About 90 percent of passengers with infants use strollers and this figure has been increasing in recent years,” Nishimoto says. “Japanese parents historically used to carry infants on their backs in public but we need to revise this habit to ensure children’s safety.”

Utsunomiya University professor Nobuaki Omori, who is also on the transport ministry panel, says Japan can be ranked alongside Western nations in terms of barrier-free public facilities.

However, Omori says, the general public has been slow to embrace people with special needs on public transport.

“Elementary schools have included lectures on barrier-free facilities in their curriculum for the past 10 to 20 years,” Omori says. “No one knew about the term about 30 years ago.”

Changing attitudes

In 2000, the government passed legislation on barrier-free transport to promote accessibility in stations, as well as on trains and buses.

“After barrier-free legislation was enacted, facilities such as train stations and shopping malls have been redesigned and equipped with elevators,” Omori says. “Although the steps were primarily taken to assist wheelchair users, the changes have also made it easier for parents with strollers to use trains.”

Since 2000, a number of rail companies have modified their facilities in line with the legislation, adding elevators and multipurpose restrooms to assist passengers with disabilities.

The legislation also requires each train to set aside at least two areas for wheelchairs. Parents with strollers are now encouraged to utilize these areas as well.

In 2014, East Japan Railway Co. unveiled a new commuter train to replace the current E231 series that is used on Tokyo’s central Yamanote Line. The new E235 series is expected to replace all trains operating on the Yamanote Line by around 2020.

In addition to its cutting-edge technology and sleek design, the new series features a space that has been set aside for wheelchairs and strollers on every car.

“Our biggest mission is adjusting the environment to establish a rail network that is safe for all passengers,” says Ryosuke Watanabe, a JR East spokesman. “We have tried to increase commuter awareness of strollers when using trains, ensuring that they understand the issue.”

Although Watanabe is unable to provide specifics, he acknowledges that incidents similar in nature to the alleged assault at Tokyo Metro’s Yurakucho Station do occur. He says JR East plans to improve barrier-free access for people who need assistance and educate staff to be more aware of passengers who require extra assistance.

“We ask our staff to proactively approach the elderly, people with disabilities and other passengers who might require additional help,” he says. “Given that Japan has a society that is aging, it’s important to give everyone equal opportunities and, as a result, we will endeavor to find ways to improve our services.”

Other rail companies are also getting in on the act. The Yokohama municipal subway has extended the stoppage time of its trains to assist commuters with strollers or people with disabilities since summer 2015.

Saitama-based Seibu Railway Co. has also announced that it is developing a new commuter train series that provides more space for people in need. Scheduled to commence operations from spring 2017, the new train is expected to include carriages with “partner zones” that are dedicated to passengers in wheelchairs and people with strollers. The extra space will be created by reducing the number of seats that are available.

Omori believes that many rail companies in Japan have made an effort to improve facilities for parents with strollers. The next step, he says, is to change attitudes among commuters.

“Only about half of all train stations in London and Paris have elevators, but it’s common to see passengers helping out by carrying strollers up and down flights of stairs,” Omori says, adding that domestic rail companies aren’t incorporating renovations into their stations that would help people in need of assistance, despite launching campaigns to raise public awareness about the need for extra space.

Public awareness of areas devoted to strollers is still quite low.

According to a government survey of 1,653 people in December 2015, 45.9 percent of respondents said they either had not seen or did not know about the stroller logo. Just 24.9 percent of respondents reported that they had seen and understood the logo’s intended purpose. The government wants to increase public awareness of the logo to 50 percent by 2020.

Silent alert

Parents with strollers aren’t the only group of train users to experience difficulties on public transport. Pregnant women can also get a raw deal during peak travel times.

In 2006, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare unveiled a maternity badge that alerts other commuters to a passenger’s pregnancy. Upon seeing such a badge, passengers sitting in priority seats are encouraged to give up their seat for the expecting mom.

The badge is given to women by local ward offices as part of their pregnancy kit. In addition, seasonal magazine Hajimete no Tamago Club, which is published by Benesse Corp., includes the badge in each edition.

More recently, many rail companies, including JR East, have included the logo on the window near priority seats in an attempt to remind passengers to give up their seats for pregnant women.

“The maternity badge suits the reserved nature of many Japanese,” Omori says. “It allows people to help others in need without engaging in conversation.”

Going one step further, insurance agency Happy Planners and design outfit Yorozuya created a badge that can be used by ordinary passengers to indicate they are willing to give up their seats to those in need.

The badge can be clipped on shirt pockets and bag straps and comes in the striking colors of yellow or pink.

Tokyo has also promoted the use of a help badge (officially called a “help mark”) since 2012, encouraging people with medical conditions to wear them if they require a seat.

“In 2011, the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly came up with a way of helping passengers with invisible disabilities,” says Kazuko Shino of Tokyo’s Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health.

The badge, which features a white cross and heart on a red background, is used by passengers with imperceptible medical conditions such as prosthetic legs and women at early stages of pregnancy.

Users of the badge can also add a sticker to the side of the tag that lists details of their medical condition and a contact number in the event of an emergency.

“For example, people who have difficulty hearing can simply flip over the tag to request that a conversation takes place in writing,” Shino says.

“In that sense,” she says, “I believe the tag could prove useful in other contexts. Maternity badges make it immediately obvious that a woman is pregnant, and a number of women find wearing this badge to be too intimidating. This is why some expecting mothers prefer to use a help badge.”

The tag is currently distributed by Tokyo Metro, Toei Bus, Toden Arakawa Line, Nippori-Toneri Liner, Yurikamome and Tama Monorail, which also display stickers inside their cars. It is also distributed by Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health offices.

“According to a survey we conducted last October,” Shino says, “nearly 50 percent of people with a medical condition knew the help badge existed. However, it needs to be promoted more aggresively if the general public is to become familiar with it.”

Shino called on JR East to feature promotional material for the badge inside train carriages. However, JR East spokesman Watanabe says the company is not planning on introducing the badge, explaining that the rail giant is constantly striving to provide high-quality services to passengers with medical conditions.

Nevertheless, the help tag is starting to get recognition nationwide. It is scheduled to be distributed in Aomori and Kyoto prefectures from April.

“As of July 2015, we have distributed more than 85,000 help tags. We have also received orders outside of Tokyo, which suggests people are beginning to be familiar with something that only started a couple of years ago,” Shino says.

“Some people with medical conditions prefer to commute without assistance,” she says. “On the other hand, a help tag can help identify those who, in fact, appreciate and require assistance.”

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