Keith Kim over at Seoulistic did a really great post about etiquette on Korean trains. If you visit or live in Korea I highly recommend it. Also, here’s another nice blog post from a New Zealand person living in Korea too.
As I was reading Keith’s post, I was surprised to see that the rules are nearly identical to the ones in Japan. Although I’ve never lived in Japan, I visit yearly and ride the trains constantly. These days, I often ride by myself if I am meeting friends and such, because I am comfortable enough with the language and etiquette, but it was a little intimidating in the early years. Some socials rules I figured out right away, some I learned through my wife. So, I was inspired by Keith to post similar rules and helpful phrases for Japanese trains. All credit goes to Keith though for the inspiration.
As Keith explained, there is priority seating on Korean trains and subway. Likewise, if you ride a train or bus in Japan, you will see a section called yūsen-seki (優先席) which just means priority seating. Based on my limited experience, it’s best to avoid these seats unless you are elderly, pregnant or with kids. I sometimes let my daughter sit on these seats, while I stand so that elderly passengers can still use them. Just because some Japanese are rude and sit there doesn’t mean you should too.
Train cars in Japan will usually have them located near the ends of the train car, near the door to the next car. The ones on the buses are usually located near the front, so if you don’t need them, it’s probably best to just move toward the back.
Offering a Seat
I try to do this routinely when I am in Japan. If I am on a busy train, and I see a mom with a child standing, or maybe an elderly person, I try to offer my seat. You can do this by saying something like dōzo suwatte kudasai (どうぞ座って下さい) or something along those lines. If that’s too long, a friendly dōzo will suffice. No one says anything, but I hope it helps improve the image of foreigners in Japan, as well having some basic manners.
Just as Keith said about escalators in Korea, the same rule applies in Japan: if you’re riding an escalator, move to one side. That way, people in a hurry can move past. Usually, it’s very obvious because during busy times, everyone stands on one side of the escalator. I have forgotten this rule a couple times in my early visits to Japan and my wife scolded me quickly. If you pay attention, you can see people running to catch another train so if you don’t want to block these people of course and make them be late.
If you’re the one trying to hurry through the escalator and someone is in your way, just say a polite but audible sumimasen (すみません) and they should jump out of your way.
Getting On the Train
One rule I’ve noticed in Japan, that may or may not apply in Korea, is a simple rule about getting on the train. Most train platforms have markers on the pavement where the train doors will be, and might have lines as well. You’re supposed to queue up between these lines. If they don’t have them, just queue up where the markers on the pavement are.
Once the train arrives, expect people to come out first, so step to the side first until they’ve come out. Then you can step on.
I’ve noticed that Japanese don’t always follow this rule, but if you’re a foreigner you may want to be extra polite because people in Japan have few encounters with foreigners, and you want to be a little extra-sensitive about your image.
I’ve been on Japanese trains many times when it’s crowded. Worse, I usually am carrying my daughter, which is really, really hard to do when the train is moving, and you’re hanging on to a handle, while carrying a 30-pound girl in the other arm. :p
But space is an issue in Japan (just as it probably is in Korea), so you have to get used to tight spaces.
Sadly, some men (chikan 痴漢) take advantage of this to grope women, and if you don’t want to get mistaken as a pervert, it’s a good idea to keep your hands down as much as possible, or up where it’s safe (i.e. reading a book). In other words, if the train suddenly jerks, you don’t want to accidentally grab the women next to you. This was something my wife warned me about.
Also, if you’re carrying a bag or backpack, and you can’t it on the racks above the seats (which you should do), put it between your feet so other people don’t trip on it, or hold it in front of you (over your stomach, not your back). That way you don’t hit people behind you when you turn.
On Japanese buses, try to keep the aisles as clear as possible, too.
I didn’t realize this until I lived abroad, but Americans have very loud voices. I am especially loud, even by American standards, and get scolded by my wife sometimes when we’re in public, but I’ve noticed in Europe and in Asia people tend to talk more quietly.
What this means is that when you’re riding the trains or buses in Japan, keep your voice at a reasonable level. On trains in Japan, usually the only people I hear being loud are the teenage boys, but it doesn’t give you an excuse to do the same. If you don’t want to look like a stupid, rude foreigner, keep the volume down.
A lot of people in Japan doze off. Sometimes, they fall asleep on my shoulder too. If you’re sleepy though, try to keep to yourself and don’t fall on someone else.
Japan’s rail system is quite nice, and also very complicated. You can go just about anywhere in Japan by riding one or more lines, but if you’re not familiar with the lines, you might get confused or overwhelmed. Thankfully there are maps, like the one shown above.
The key to remember is that all railway lines are color-coded, so that if the Nambu line is yellow (which it is), nearly all train maps in Japan will show a yellow line for the Nambu line, and train platforms will also have color-coded signs too so you know you’re on the right one.1
If you’re really lost, and don’t even know which line to ride, you can try to ask one of the train staff using some polite, common Japanese: Sumimasen. (place) ni ikitain desu ga, dono densha desu ka? (すみません。〜に行きたいんですが、どの電車ですか？) You might be able to even say as little as Sumimasen. (place) ni ikitain desu ga… and they’ll understand your point.
Then again, if you’re visiting the Tokyo area on vacation/tourism, chances are you’ll almost exclusively be riding the super-useful Yamanote line anyway. It’s light green, by the way.
One Last Bit of Advice
And for the love of Pete, PLEASE do not be like these guys.
Thanks again, Keith!
1 While riding the Tube in London, they also used nicely color-coded lines, easy to understand maps and a nice pay-card that was easy for foreigners to setup and use. The Picadilly Line is the most useful for visitors because it links Heathrow Airport to Picadilly Square, Hyde Park and nice hotels around there. Much cheaper than riding a taxi too, as we learned the hard way. :p