If you have come to Japan, you’d be overwhelmed by the respectful manner of the Japanese. But when riding public transportation such as bullet trains or buses, it’s not hard to see young people sitting on the seats while there are some elderly standing. So of course this will lead you to doubt why these respectful and polite people don’t give up their seats for those who are older than them?
In most countries, showing respect and priority for the elderly is considered as a good sign of having manners in young people. But if you spend enough time in Japan chatting with elderly people, you’ll see it’s not just about being polite, it’s about handling appropriate social skills!
After one and a half years in Japan, where I got to spend a lot of time chatting with elderly while waiting for the bus, I realized the Japanese elderly are also very open-minded and friendly. I asked my neighbor – (an elderly lady who is also my landlord) about what I saw when I used public transportation and she explained that whenever she get on the bus and someone offers her a seat, she would come up with the thought: “Ah~ Am I becoming so old that I need a young man to give me priority?” This would remind her, “You’re getting old!” Also, she was sure that there are many other people in the same situation. I myself once suffered the same awkwardness when I offered my seat to a woman and her children in the bus, but the result was, no matter how much she kept saying thank you to me, she resisted sitting on that seat.
Recently, a Japanese friend just told me: “Even if you have the good will of offering your seat, it doesn’t mean other people have to accept that kindness of yours”. There are some people who are afraid they will cause you “inconvenience or trouble” or simply “don’t want to receive your pity”. As a matter of fact, because Japan is a country which has a growing population of the elderly, their perspective on giving priority to “elderly” somehow different from most other Asia countries.
With Japanese people who don’t want to be seen as “elderly” or “causing trouble for others”, if you insist to offer them a seat, then the best thing to do, according to my experience, is to pretend that you’re about to get off the bus at the next stop. Just stand up and walk toward to the bus exit, or to another cabin (if you’re on the train). Just stand up and leave the empty seat, if people see that empty seat and if they are willing to sit, they’ll go directly and take the seat themselves.