When catching trains in Japan, especially in the more crowded cities like Tokyo or Osaka, you may find yourself wondering why the journey is so quiet, despite the number of people squished like sardines in a can, into one carriage. A few thoughts may flow through your mind like, perhaps they are on their way to work or traveling alone and don’t want to be disturbed.
However, on the odd occasion where a cell phone has gone off on the train when someone has forgotten to switch it to silent mode, it appears to be an embarrassing struggle until the person reaches their phone to push the caller away. Also, in very rare occasions, they pick up, mumble something quickly and then hang up again.
So, what is happening, why do the Japanese choose not talk on the phone when using public transport? Let’s take a closer look at the three main reasons.
If one talks on the phone, unfortunately, everyone in the vicinity is involved in the conversation, no matter if they want to or not as they are forced to listen. They start to imagine and complete the unheard responses in the conversation which has interrupted their current reading, thinking, or sleeping, as you will notice that a lot of commuters often grab a quick nap on their train journeys.
On the other hand, there is privacy and sometimes it’s connected to shame. Especially when it comes to private disputes, most people don’t want strangers involved. In most cases strangers do not care and have no interest getting invested in other people’s problems. Whereas in general, people abroad don’t think twice about spending hours talking on the phone on public transport but in Japan, it is considered unacceptable when riding public transport.
Many trains have signs that kindly ask to refrain from talking on the phone. Some stations have posters that address train etiquette, too. So, next time you catch the train or bus, be courteous: if your phone rings either refuse the call or quickly pick it up and explain that you are on the train and that you will return their call once you have hopped off the train or bus.
As a tourist traveling through Japan, adhering to all of the Japanese etiquettes can be difficult, so I hope this has helped at least clear up the etiquette around making or taking phone calls when using public transport in Japan.