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Regarding the March 4 Kyodo article “Elderly force subway to rethink ‘all priority seats’ policy“: The policy of setting aside priority seats on trains is often criticized for reinforcing discriminatory attitudes toward the elderly and pregnant women, as the system literally demarcates and even isolates them from other passengers.

In this sense, the Yokohama Municipal Subway’s 2003 controversial initiative to declare ALL its seats “priority” might have been considered well-intended when it started, with the hope of eliminating the physical distance between the able-bodied young and others. The move became a fiasco, though, as complaints piled up that few passengers would give up their seats for anybody. This has prompted the Yokohama Transportation Bureau to plan for “super priority seats” this summer. While the new plan may better assure the complainers of more comfortable train rides, it will again widen their alienation, effectively belying the original intent.

The wonder is how this project managed to survive for nearly 10 years. Imagine the emotional strain on those repeatedly forced to consider whether the stops on their train commute coincided with the arrival of those whose age or infirmities would be impossible to ignore. Be they stressed-out “salarymen” or students in desperate need of a place to leaf through school assignments, trains are crowded with people who want seats. No one should be allowed to intervene and decide who needs a seat the most.

Also noteworthy is the apparent arrogance, or excessive optimism, of those who rushed to complain of their fellow passengers’ indifference to relinquishing seats. If they expected their old age and pregnancy to automatically win them seats, they clearly overestimated the degree of self-sacrifice that the Japanese are capable of. Just because we spawned global applause with some beautiful examples of altruism after the 3/11 disasters doesn’t mean the same miracle can happen on the train, especially when hesitancy combines with the passivity of young Japanese today.

Passengers sham sleep or deliberately keep their eyes riveted to smartphones to avoid the glares of the elderly. Besides, they easily shy back just imagining their public humiliation if their offer to give up their seat was rejected by those who claim, perhaps angrily, that they are not old enough or are not even pregnant.

Amid such inner struggles, the grumblers should just speak out on their needs, rather than hope that their silent stares at a young person’s forehead will appeal to his or her remorse.

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.

tomohiro osaki

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