Okay, summer vacation is over at last, and I suppose it’s time to quit slacking off on these blog posts. Or at least it’s time to try. We’ll see how that goes. Today, though, I’m particularly motivated, due to some things that happened on my morning commute that still have me fuming here at the end of the day.

The Japanese people are justly famous for their manners. Every interaction is governed by a strict system of social etiquette and protocol, which vary in formality according the circumstance. People are generally very polite to friends, family, colleagues and strangers alike. I’d be surprised if someone here would tell you to go to hell without adding “please”.

I’m noticing more and more, though, that there are some situations where a certain level of what can only be called rudeness is allowed to creep into people’s behavior. Shoving your way through a crowded train car is just one obvious example, and it happens all the time.

From the outset today, my commute was unusual. So here are three things that all went down this morning that have my panties in a bunch, and the first one involves noise.

Now, ordinarily my morning commute is pretty uneventful. It’s always quiet. Almost nobody is talking. And certainly no one is using a cellphone, which is completely taboo. On the line I use, I’m even lucky enough to get a seat from time to time.

But today was not just another day. As soon as I boarded the local train at my neighborhood station, I was immediately assailed by the high-pitched whiny voice of some unseen guy yelling loudly in the car behind mine. I couldn’t really make out what he was saying, but it was clear he wasn’t just having an argument with somebody. The guy was hollering nonstop for the full ten minutes it took me to get to my transfer station. Just ranting to himself at full volume. Who knows, maybe he was mentally ill, or maybe he was still drunk from the night before. But it was completely out of the ordinary and extremely strange, and was very off-putting.

Funny thing is, no one batted an eye at this weird behavior. Minding your own business is big here. No one wants to get involved in some public spectacle. It’s easier to just ignore it and pretend nothing’s going on, and that’s exactly what happened today. This person was still shouting when I got off the train, and not a soul had told him to shut his yap. I puzzled over this unusual turn of events as I waited to board my express train.

Turns out, the day was just getting started.

Like most big cities, Tokyo’s train cars provide priority seating for people with injuries or disabilities, people traveling with small children, pregnant women and the elderly. Anyone can use them, but if someone in the aforementioned priory classes shows up you’re supposed to offer up your seat. This is common around the world, obviously, but in a place where manners are so closely observed you would probably think such a system would function flawlessly in Japan.

It does not.

More and more lately, I’m noticing older people or folks with little kids who board the train and are studiously ignored by the younger, able bodied people hogging up the priority seats. Usually these clowns pretend to be asleep, or they just stare at their smartphones and act like they don’t notice, and everyone else in the vicinity just seems to accept it. It’s a tolerated form of rudeness.

Priority seats are to be yielded to the elderly, the infirm and expectant mothers. Unfortunately, not everyone adheres to this rule.

This morning, I was standing near the priority seats toward the end of the car, as I usually do. Those seats were all occupied by the standard assortment of thirty- and forty-something year old salarymen. Then at the next station an older lady with a cane boarded the train, and took up a position standing directly in front of the priority seats. She was obviously extremely frail and was having a tough time standing there, but not a single person offered her a seat.

I get some of the arguments people might make against offering an elderly person a seat. Maybe you don’t want to insult someone or make somebody feel old by offering her your seat. Maybe pride or decorum might prompt the person to refuse if you do. But in this particular case the woman was obviously infirm, as signified by her cane and the fact that she looked like she was ready to topple over at any moment. And yet not one of the people she was STANDING RIGHT IN FRONT OF could be bothered!

I stood there, angrily trying to figure out what I could say in my poor Japanese, and what the reaction would be if I did. Five healthy adult males, staring at their phones and completely ignoring this woman whom there is no way they hadn’t noticed — especially since she was nearly bowled over when some slob shoved his way off the train like he was afraid he wouldn’t get off in time and would have to live on it for the rest of his days. Hell, she nearly landed right on top of the nearest jackass who should have been giving her his seat. It would have served him right if she had.

Eventually one of these guys disembarked, and the poor old lady was finally able to sit down. Watching the pained expression on her face as she slowly lowered herself into the seat had me seriously wondering what would have happened if it had never become available. It didn’t look like she could have stayed on her feet much longer.

I was happy the woman with the cane had gotten a priority seat, but I was still stewing over the situation when the trifecta was completed.

In Japan, pregnant women are given a little badge called a “maternity mark” to put on their bags so people in priority seats know they’re expecting. There has been some debate about whether these maternity marks are appropriate, but to my mind that debate is misguided. They are a perfectly efficient and suitably subtle way to make the situation known, in the hopes that some kind soul will yield up a seat for the mother-to-be.

Maternity Badge
The maternity mark signifies that a woman is expecting a child, and should therefore be afforded access to priority seating on board Japan’s trains.

So there I stood, grumbling to myself over the treatment of the frail old lady I had just witnessed, and I happened to glance through the glass door into the next car. Lo and behold, not three feet away from me was an obviously pregnant woman, complete with visible maternity mark, standing silently in front of the priority seats. Standing. Said seats were completely occupied by riders apparently unwilling to stand up for a while and let a pregnant woman take a load off. I watched through the window (in completely non-creepy fashion) for about 40 minutes, but when I finally left the train she was still just standing there.

So, some weird guy shouting at everybody (or nobody), and a bunch of people refusing to offer priority seats to an elderly lady who could barely stand and a pregnant woman. All we needed was a panhandler and someone smoking pot on the train, and I would have felt like I was riding BART into San Francisco.

I know, I’m spoiled. These aren’t exactly traumatizing events to witness. I realize that the ride I’ve just described would make someone on the New York subway think they had died and gone to heaven. But my real point here is that maybe Japan’s vaunted politeness cuts two ways. Yes, nearly everyone is well mannered, considerate and polite. But only nearly everyone. So when someone pulls a dick move and knocks over an old lady as he blunders his way off a train, everyone else is too polite to say or do anything about it, and such behavior is therefore effectively tolerated.

I think this is how a few people get away with being such passive aggressive jerks on trains. Everybody else is so polite that they can get away with it.


2 thoughts on “Tolerating Rudeness in Japan

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