Japan is a country with many rules. There is no need to worry too much if you do not know all of them, as most of them are manners and not criminal offenses! But you will likely notice some differences between Japan and the rest of the world when it comes to etiquette on public transport.
This article will talk about one specific rule, which is that on public transport you should not talk on your phone. If you travel by subway or train in all areas of Japan (even busy and crowded cities such as Tokyo and Osaka) you will probably notice everyone is quiet.
People will not talk on their phone, and will even rarely talk to one another. If someone is talking on their phone loudly, it is likely they will get a few judgemental looks for doing so! Similarly, if someone’s phone starts ringing loudly, it is an embarrassing ten seconds of fumbling to quickly silence their phone.
Japanese society is all about not invading other people’s own space and privacy, and refraining from talking on the phone on public transport is just one representation among others.
Read on to find out three main reasons for this silence.
It can not be overstated how important privacy is in Japan, and how seriously Japanese people take it. In public places, people are expected to consider how they are invading people’s privacy and should refrain from doing so.
It is regarded as a real invasion of privacy for someone to have a private conversation on the phone if there are others around who can hear what is being said, and are therefore forced to listen.
On trains and buses in Japan, people are using their travel time to sleep, think, work, or just calmly sit and read. Many people work long hours in this country and are under constant stress. The train or bus ride remained a quiet moment, lived as a kind of “decompression chamber” between private and professional life.
Therefore, do not be surprised if you get a few dirty looks while talking on the phone on public transport. In some cases, someone may even confront you and gesture for you to finish your conversation.
Related to the need for an expectation of privacy for each individual, there is also the fact in Japanese society, people tend to keep themselves to themselves. They often won’t get involved in public disputes, listen to other people’s conversations, or get involved in other people’s business. Equally, if a person is having a public dispute with someone, they would expect no one to intervene nor to try to make the situation even more complicated it is already.
Obviously, this is a controversial part of Japanese society. There have been reported cases of women being sexually harassed very publicly on public transport, with people not getting involved even though most people would agree they would need help.
So it makes me wonder, would anyone help me if I was in trouble in such an obviously dangerous situation?
The western world seems different from this, with people often standing around to witness fights or arguments taking place, getting involved in public disputes, and definitely not taking issue if they can hear another person’s chat on the phone.
It makes me wonder how Tokyo will manage when it will host the Olympics in 2020. There will be many people on public transport, from many different cultures and countries. It could be a cultural shock for both Japanese and people coming here for the first time!
You may notice that many trains will have clear notices reminding passengers to refrain from talking on the phone. Some stations will also have posters with etiquette guidelines in English, too. Train travel has a clear etiquette that goes with it, of which not talking on the phone is just one of them.
Another unspoken rule of politeness you may wish to observe (although I have seen some Japanese doing this), is to not eat while on public transport. If you eat while in transit, especially if the food is smelly or hot food, you will be sure to get a few looks from fellow passengers. However, this rule does seem to go out the window late at night, when people have been drinking and want some junk food on their way home!
Further, and similarly to most parts of the world, you should give your seat up for people who are elderly, disabled, pregnant or have small children with them. Although there are allocated priority seats for people who need them, you will be expected to give up your regular seat, too. If you see someone staring at you angrily for a while, it probably means you should give him your seat.
As a tourist traveling through Japan, adhering to all of Japanese etiquette can be difficult, so I hope this has helped at least to clear up the etiquette around making or taking phone calls when using public transport in Japan.