Scenario: You are congratulating yourself on having snagged a seat on a crowded, early morning Tokyo train, when out of the corner of your eye you spot a woman standing nearby who appears to be pregnant.

You know you should offer her your seat, but she’s a little too far away to call out to her without attracting attention, and it could turn into an embarrassing scene.

Plus, is she really pregnant? How can you know for sure? You can’t get a good view of her bag to see if she has a badge that confirms it. And what if you offer her your seat, and it turns out she’s not really pregnant at all? What if she thinks you’re just suggesting she’s overweight?

Maybe it’s best just to sit tight and hope that someone else will offer her their seat first. Oh, if only there was some way of sending out a signal without having to go through the awkward social experience of actually interacting with a stranger on a train!

Fellow commuters, help is at hand.

Yusuke Shiino, a 31-year-old IT worker who is on a yearlong paternity leave after becoming a father for the first time in December, has created a badge designed to be worn by able-bodied train or bus passengers to show that they are willing to give up their seats to those who need them.

“Pregnant women wear badges on trains to show that they’re pregnant, but even so, there are still people who don’t give up their seats to them,” Shiino said in a recent interview. “I thought if people who aren’t pregnant wore this badge, it would make it easier for pregnant women to ask if they could have that person’s seat.

“That was one reason,” he continued. “The other reason was that it takes courage to offer up your seat to someone. So even if the person sitting down can’t say anything to the pregnant woman standing up, it makes it easier for the woman to ask for the seat.”

The badges, which are designed to be attached to bags, bear the message, “I will give up my seat. Please ask,” and feature the same pictograph that appears on the badges commonly worn in public by pregnant women.

Most trains in Japan have designated 'priority seats,' but able-bodied passengers often use them and are unwilling or unable to give them up to those in need. | GETTY IMAGES
Most trains in Japan have designated ‘priority seats,’ but able-bodied passengers often use them and are unwilling or unable to give them up to those in need. | GETTY IMAGES

Shiino came up with the idea after riding the train with his pregnant wife in November last year. An elderly woman offered to give up her seat to let Shiino’s wife sit down, but they refused, telling the woman she should keep it for herself. When the woman insisted, and no one else on the train offered to give up their seat, Shiino began pondering the social etiquette involved in using public transport and resolved to do something to create a more welcoming environment.

He began selling the badges over the internet in early January at a price of ¥380 each, plus an extra ¥120 for postage. Just over a month later, he had sold 6,000 badges.

“Some have been bought by businesses and hospitals, and some have been bought by individuals,” Shiino said. “With individuals, it tends to be people who have gone through the experience of pregnancy, whether that’s mothers or fathers. It could be women who have had seats given to them in the past and want to help out women who are pregnant now. It could also be people who have hesitated over offering their seats in the past.”

Most trains in Japan have designated “priority seats,” which are intended to be used by the elderly, pregnant women, people with physical impairments or people accompanying small children. In reality, however, able-bodied passengers often use priority seats and are then unwilling or unable to give them up when someone who needs them gets on.

Some people have argued that having priority seats creates a distinction in people’s minds between seats that are expected to be given up to people who need them and seats that aren’t. Priority seats, proponents suggest, should be scrapped in order to create an atmosphere where able-bodied passengers are expected to give up their seats regardless of where they are sitting.

Shiino acknowledges that his new badge could create a similar distinction between people who are willing to give up their seat and those who aren’t, but he thinks it is more likely to lead to a general change in attitudes.

“If the badges become commonplace and most people on the train are wearing one, that means most people on the train are willing to give up their seats,” he said. “If that’s the case, there will be no need for badges any more. It’s proof of kindness.

“At the moment, with no badges, you don’t know whether someone is willing to give up their seat or not,” he said. “But if the badges become commonplace, you will know that Japan is a place where people are willing to give up their seats. It will become an easier place for pregnant women or anyone else who needs a seat to ask for one.”

Japan has one of the busiest rail networks in the world, with an estimated 1.2 million passengers every day using Tokyo’s Yamanote Line alone. Passengers are expected to stay quiet and keep to themselves while riding on busy trains, and talking on phones is frowned upon.

Last year’s Rugby World Cup, when hundreds of thousands of overseas visitors traveled to Japan for the tournament that ran from Sept. 20 to Nov. 2, caused something of a culture clash, with exuberant rugby fans singing loudly and mixing with locals on the way to and from games. Some Japanese passengers joined in with the party atmosphere, while others complained about the noise and intrusion.

Shiino believes Japanese commuters should take the positive aspects of the experience on board.

“People from overseas will approach people on the train to ask for directions,” he said. “They will speak to strangers with little inhibition. That shouldn’t be considered unacceptable. Japanese people have a kind of rule that says they can’t talk loudly on trains or go up to strangers and tell them they have a cute baby or ask if they’re pregnant or whatever. There’s an atmosphere on Japanese trains where that’s not done.

“In Japan, people only think about themselves when they’re on the train,” he continued. “It’s difficult to take an interest in other people when that’s the case. If you have a smartphone, you can get engrossed in that and you don’t have to take any notice of the people around you.”

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