National

By design, for manners or security, backpacks increasingly being worn on the front in Japan

by Sarah Suk

Staff Writer

Backpacks, as the word suggests, are designed to be carried on people’s backs. But there are a growing number of people in Japan who hold these bags in front, especially on trains and buses.

For several years railways have been urging passengers to place their backpacks on baggage racks or carry them on their front when on crowded trains to prevent the bags getting in the way of people standing behind them, as the holders are often unaware of what is happening outside their view.

The calls have become part of their promotional activities to discourage bad manners while riding on trains and other forms of transportation in densely populated regions.

In urban areas, train conductors and station attendants make occasional announcements asking passengers to avoid actions such as rushing onto trains, talking on their mobile phones and carrying their knapsacks on their back.

Operators serving the Kanto region, including the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Bureau of Transportation, which runs the Toei subway and bus systems, and Odakyu Electric Railway Co., have also come up with promotional posters and brochures that encourage users not to cause nuisance to others.

An Odakyu official said it has been using posters since at least fiscal 2005 to urge people not to carry their backpacks behind them, in response to rush-hour incidents such as those bags getting stuck between closing doors and causing train delays, as well as trouble arising among passengers.

“We are asking passengers for their cooperation so that everyone can use our trains in a pleasant manner,” the official said. “We feel there have been fewer incidents after putting up posters and having station attendants and conductors make announcements asking passengers to hold their bags in front.”

In March, 20 railways in the Kansai region in western Japan collaborated to put up posters describing situations in which people carrying their rucksacks on their backs disturbs other passengers.

The posters show drawings of a passenger squashed by two backpacks, a mother and her child separated by a large knapsack, and rucksacks and other luggage blocking the train’s doorway, and urge people not to create such situations, such as by carrying their backpacks on their front or putting them on overhead racks.

The firms included Hanshin Electric Railway Co., which links Osaka and Kobe, and Keihan Electric Railway Co., which serves Osaka, Kyoto and Shiga prefectures.

A man carries his backpack on his front at JR Tokyo Station in November.
A man carries his backpack on his front at JR Tokyo Station in November. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

The move has even spread to the bag manufacturing industry, with Ace Co. this summer releasing a slim rectangular backpack designed to be worn on a person’s front.

“Because more and more people are carrying rucksacks on trains and are becoming attentive to having good manners, we developed a backpack designed to be less obstructive inside trains,” said Ayane Yamada, a public information officer with Ace.

“The pockets are designed so it’s easy to take things out of the bag when it’s carried in front, either on both shoulders or just on one side,” she said. “Backpacks are generally thought of as bulky, with a large capacity, but this product is designed to have a relatively small width and doesn’t bulge too much even when you put things in it.”

Yamada said the bag-maker hopes to keep calling people’s attention to holding their bags in ways that do not cause problems for others in places such as crowded trains.

While accounts vary, humans are thought to have carried goods on their back in some form for as long as they have existed. Framed rucksacks are said to have come into use around the 1930s, and the unframed modern backpack made of nylon and zippers was created in the 1960s.

Balancing the weight on both shoulders makes it possible for people to carry heavier loads, while carrying it on their back frees up both hands.

But one of the modern-day concerns over having the bag on one’s back is the possibility of pickpockets getting at their contents. Trains and buses are not the only places where such incidents can happen, and some people are seen carrying their backpacks in front around town as well.

Aya Shintani, a 29-year-old woman who works in Tokyo, said she almost always places her backpack on her front wherever she goes.

“It’s convenient because I can reach into my rucksack without having to remove it from my back, and it feels more secure because I can see it,” she said.

But Masafumi Ozaki, a chiropractor in Shizuoka Prefecture, warns that carrying heavy backpacks on either side can lead to physical problems such as a stiff neck and shoulders, as well as lower back pain.

“People say shoulder bags and handbags are bad for their body because they carry them on one side, while rucksacks are balanced on both sides of the body,” he said. “But carrying a rucksack that is packed with heavy things can cause people to stoop their shoulders to counter the weight.”

Ozaki suggested ways to alleviate the harmful effects that heavy backpacks can have on the body.

“It’s better if the rucksack is placed higher up and close to the body, but the shoulders inevitably get stooped to deal with the heavy load … so I recommend a light stretch, like knee bends and extending your arms above your head, after putting down rucksacks or any other bags,” he said.