Trains in Japan are notorious around the world for their timeliness, cleanliness, convenience, and the general civility and cooperation practiced by their riders. In fact, just several years earlier, Japan made international headlines when a women, who fell and got stuck in the gap between the train and the platform at a JR East station in Saitama, was rescued when forty passengers and JR staff managed to push the train enough to free her. Reportedly, the train resumed running just eight minutes later.
Riding trains in Japan is serious business, and while the Japanese may not vocalize when they disapprove of your train manners, it most certainly won’t stop you from feeling out of place and looking like an idiot. Here are some tips to make riding trains in Japan a more smooth and pleasureful experience.
At larger stations, there are often many trains that stop at the same platform but have different destinations or speeds. Once you have identified what platform number your train leaves from, you must figure out which line to stand in and wait. It is not polite to mob in Japan because it can be troublesome to other passengers trying to pass by, and standing in line helps people get on and off the train and platform smoothly. On the platform, there are marks on the ground or on the walls across the train platform, often denoted by triangles, circles, and color combinations, that show where the train doors will open. These signs will also show the boarding point number and whether there are priority seats (seats reserved for the injured, disabled, elderly, or expecting mothers) within close proximity of the doors.
Different trains are marked by different symbols, so it is important to consult the information board to check the time of the train, its mark, and the numbers from where you can board. For example, in the picture below, if you wanted to take the local train to Kyoto, you should line up on the side of platform three at any of the points marked with circles at boarding locations 3 through 6.
Especially when taking the train in the morning from a large and busy platform (and before your morning coffee), it is important to take care to line up in the right spot, otherwise you might end up on the wrong train and a missed plane away from your next big adventure.
During rush hour, it is good manners to form two lines in front of the boarding points while waiting for your train. Otherwise, the line may easily extend to the other side of the platform, causing trouble for other passengers. When the train arrives and the doors open, the lines will move over to either side of the doors, forming a sort of V-shape that allows the passengers inside the train to smoothly exit. Once all of the passengers exit, it is okay to get on, boarding in order.
In Japan, it is not polite to carry on a conversation on your cellphone while riding the train. Therefore, it is quite common to see people who happen to get a phone call on the train ignore it, or pick it up just to say in a hushed voice that they are on the train and will call back when they get off. Cellphones should be put in silent mode or manner mode to avoid disturbing other people. Sometimes, there are train cars that request passengers turn off their cellphones to create a space where people with sensitive medical equipment, such as pacemakers, can safely ride, and the train staff will not hesitate to tell you to turn your cellphone off.
Japanese pride themselves on the consideration they show for the people around them, which is why tourists often remark on how peaceful and civilized Japanese society is. In Japan, it is a general rule of thumb to thoroughly consider how your actions could affect or disturb the people around you, and abstain from any behaviors that may do so. On the train, this includes sitting on the ground or placing your luggage or bags scattered on the ground, putting on makeup or other grooming, sitting with your legs spread wide apart, reading a newspaper without folding it to make it take up less space, crossing your legs, or listening to your music too loudly so that other passengers can hear it leaking from your headphones. While some of these social rules may seem kind of strict, the majority of Japanese follow them, so you may feel embarrassed if you accidentally engage in some of these behaviors and the people around you give you stare and give you strange looks. Plus, who actually wants to hear Justin Bieber or some other musical tragedy blaring from someone else’s headphones?
Let’s practice good train etiquette while in Japan.