Talking about the subway.

(A disclaimer: I am by no means an expert on riding public transportation in Japan, especially for a non-native.)

The Nagoya subway map.

I’ve taken the subway quite often in Nagoya, both this semester and while I studied at Yamasa. I’ve been on plenty of buses and above-ground trains as well, but the subway is where I spend most of my public-transport time in Japan. In a country known for its courtesy and adherence to rules, I’ve noticed a lot of behaviors that break those expectations.

Riding the subway here tends to go something like this: People enter the station and go through whichever gate they want, using a ticket, day pass, or some form of prepaid passcard. They descend to the platform and pick a spot: there are marked areas showing where the car doors will be when the train is stopped. Passengers are supposed to form two lines there, and when the train arrives, they move to the left and right of the door to wait for everyone to finish disembarking before boarding. Each car has padded benches for people to sit: the longer benches in the middle can hold seven people, while the end-car benches will take three or four. The shorter benches are called “Priority Seats,” and are designated primarily for the elderly, the injured, pregnant women, and people with infants. The rest of the car is for standing, and a number of hand-rings and bars are provided for support. Phones are requested to be put into “Manner Mode” (ringer on vibrate), and headphones are requested to be kept low. People are also not supposed to talk on their phones while on the train. When the train comes to a new station, exiting passengers leave first, allowing new passengers to board.

This is generally the way it happens, but there are always a few who try to take shortcuts. For example:

  • Forming a third line beside the existing two (adults only).
  • Boarding and then pushing past everyone to grab an empty seat first (old women only).
  • Intentionally taking up more than one seat on the longer benches.
  • Talking on the phone or loudly chattering with friends.
  • Exiting the train and then tarrying, slowing everyone down behind them.

You might expect that younger people would be the worst offenders, but it’s the adults who seem to go against the grain more. I’m told that the old women who dive for seats do so because they’re used to people denying them a place to sit, conditioning them to proactively grab a seat even at the expense of politeness. I find that if someone’s crowding what would otherwise be an empty seat, standing nearby and looking meaningfully at the gap is often a good way to remind them that they’re taking up too much room (and they’ll often move). The exit-stragglers generally get a second or less before the line behind them surges forward and forces them to go, but when trains arrive and leave in the same minute, even a second is a long time. As for the third-line folks, it’s a crapshoot for them, since the people who were waiting already have better access to the doors when the train arrives, so they don’t always get the advantage they were hoping for. (Loud people exist in all walks of life, so they’re scarcely worth mentioning.)

It’s the kind of thing that sociologists and psychologists could spend years studying, especially with the vast number of research sites and subjects available every single day. For me, it’s a source of both frustration and amusement. In the end, though, no matter what rules are broken, I always end up getting where I need to be.


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