Why Don’t the Japanese Give Priority to the Elderly on Public Transportation?

  • People are often impressed and overwhelmed by the manners and politeness of the Japanese. But when riding public transportation such as trains or buses, things get turned on their head. It’s not hard to see perfectly healthy-looking people sitting on the seats while there are some elderly standing. This happens even in the PRIORITY SEAT area. 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 good manners. Japan is no different in most cases, as seniority in hierarchy is very important. So important in fact, that you call older school mates or coworkers ‘SENPAI’, a special word indicating seniority and respect. Why is it different in public transport? Well, there are several reasons being discussed.

    Am I Really THAT Old?

    If you have a chance to talk to some elderly Japanese people, you’ll see it’s not just about being polite, sometimes it’s about handling appropriate social skills!

    Cheophamm, a Japan Info reporter writes:

    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 gets on the bus and someone offers her a seat, she would come up with the thought: “Ahhhh, am I becoming so old that I need a young man to give me his seat?” This would remind her, “You’re getting old!” 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.

    In other words, it’s not like people didn’t offer, but the elderly person didn’t accept.

    Social media is full of similar first-hand accounts:

    Moreover, 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” is somehow different from other Asian countries.

    Do You Really Need to Be On THIS train?

    One of the major reasons people in Japan don’t give up their seat to the elderly, or mothers with children or other people with seat priority, is the crowdedness of the trains.

    Especially in busy Tokyo trains get virtually impossible to get into during rush hour. People who have to be on that train to get to work or school have been known to not give their seat to the elderly or other people who normally have priority. The rationale behind it being that the elderly usually are not rushing off to work, so they should get on a later train. “Do they really need to be on THIS train?”

    A similar mentality is that, since businesspeople are the ones who are working nonstop, they are the ones who deserve the priority seat. While naturally not everyone thinks like this, it’s not uncommon to see tired businesspeople sitting on the train while ignoring an elderly person standing right in front of them.

    A seat on a Tokyo train is such a prize in fact that there has recently been a story of people going so far as to BUY A SEAT from another passenger. This was pre-organized with the person selling his seat online. He would get on the first stop of a busy line, let the buyer know of the car number and seat, and the person who bought his seat for the day would approach him, show proof on their phone of payment and a seat exchange would occur.
    This was deemed against the rules of the app where the man auctioned of his seat.

    Some Tokyoites who have a difficult commute have also said they chose to live at certain stations knowing that it’s the first stop so it would be easier to get seats. Therefore, their rents are much higher, so in a way, they feel like they are paying for the higher chance to get that seat.

    There is also the possibility of waiting for the next train so that you are first in line and have a higher chance of getting a seat. People who have waited for that prized seat, don’t want to give it away, while also believing that anyone in dire need of a seat would do the same and let a few full trains pass. It might sound cruel, but many people have admitted on social media that they have the ‘every man for himself’ mentality.


    People usually hate making eye contact with strangers, so it’s no wonder most passengers on a train in Tokyo are reading books, newspapers, or are on their phones or tablets. Those who are not are probably sleeping, Japan being one of the most sleep deprived countries, where people work punishing hours. Being asleep or absorbed in their reading material, people say they don’t notice there is someone in need of a seat, or notice it too late.

    However, there are also accounts of people being caught pretending to sleep, or not listen, just so that they avoid giving their seat.

    Other times, it is not that the person standing is as if invisible, but the healthy-looking person sitting down has invisible disabilities or injuries. There are people with genetic diseases impacting their muscles and bones, there are people with injured feet that can slowly walk but cannot really stand, people with period pain, people with back pain etc.

    People with disabilities have a special badge issued by local authorities (pictured below). But this badge is not always easy to obtain, or the injury might be temporary.

    There is also a badge for expecting mothers, saving people that mortifying mistake of mistaking a woman with extra weight for a pregnant woman.

    How to Skillfully Offer Your Seat?

    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 is to pretend that you’re about to get off at the next stop. Just stand up and walk toward to exit, or to another car (if you’re on the train). If people see that empty seat and if they are willing to sit, they’ll go directly and take the seat themselves.

    If you want you can gesture to the seat and make sure the person knows you are offering it to them, but in that case it’s even more important to disappear from that train car. Otherwise, people say they feel awkward that someone is standing because of them. In addition, this means that the attention of the whole car will be on them, which many Japanese people find very uncomfortable. So, uncomfortable, they would rather STAND.

    Related Articles:

    Japanese Etiquette: Must or Should?
    Important Train Riding Etiquette in Japan
    Why Japanese don’t talk on the phone when on public transport

    1. Anonymous says:

      This is very true offering seat makes them think they’re so old and they don’t want it, most especially the women in Philippines we call lola to old lady even it’s not our grandma but here don’t ever use that word or else you well live very bad image on their mind you should call them “Oneesan”

      1. eve says:

        Yes, it’s true.. and most people call you ate or kuya even if they basically look older than you – it’s offending…

        1. Anonymous says:

          it is what we call in the Philippines as “RESPECT”

          1. Anonymous says:

            Nobody ask about your bloodyhell philipines

            1. Anonymous says:

              damn you! watch your words..

            2. Anonymous says:

              yeah right! its japan we’re talking here. not any other country!!!!

            3. Anonymous says:

              its true that philippines is a bloody hell :D

            4. Anonymous says:

              I agree lol

            5. One Piece says:

              Philippines a bloody hell? You’re most definitely referring to Manila, the capital city. Life in the provinces are worlds away better than the one you’d find in Manila. Manilenos shit all over their city, they’re the foremost reason it is now a literal hell hole. They just don’t give a shit about our capital city, it’s depressing.

            6. Anonymous says:

              pagbigyan na at iba2 nman tlga tyo ng pag iisip at pananaw. ano nman kung ano pa itawag sten oh sa bansa naten ng mga yan, dna importante un, ang importante ay mahalaga. ???

            7. Sat says:

              Nobody asked you to budge into their discussion about Philippines either. And given that they are comparing the same situation in a different setting, it’s not out of context.

            8. Anonymous says:

              It seems you don’t our country,you cannot even spell it right!

            9. Anonymous says:

              I love everything about Japan but saying foul words about my country makes me cringe and go back from the past(WWII) to see what bloodybloodyhell looks to you~

            10. MissR says:

              With all due respect to you sir/maam, it seems to me that you don’t get the subject of discussion: however, let me enlighten you that we’re talking about “RESPECT” here, which i don’t know if you have or you just have some ill feelings towards our country(i really can’t judge you since i don’t know you, just sayin’). But saying that our country is “bloodyhell” is a reflection of what your country taught you. Just a piece of advise, maybe you know this phrase “Do not do unto others what you do not want to do unto you…” or else ipaDu30 kita dyan!!! :D ;)


            11. MissR says:

              With all due respect to you sir/ma’am, it seems to me that you don’t know the subject of discussion; however, let me enlighten you. We’re talking about “RESPECT” here, which I don’t personally know if you possess(and I really can’t judge you since I don’t know you). But saying that our country is “bl**dyh*ll” as you did, just showed us what your country taught you. A piece of advise to you sir/ma’am, maybe you know this phrase “Do not do unto others what you do not want to do unto you..” or else ipaDu30 kita dyan. :)


            12. Are you trying to be an a******???

        2. One Piece says:

          What’s offensive about showing respect? You’re probably just insecure of your age that’s why you don’t want to be called ate or kuya, lol.

        3. Anonymous says:

          Very well said onepiece. I wont argue on that one. . . Haha

      2. Anonymous says:

        Never “oba-chan” haha

      3. Yeah I see a lot of youths here call their elders “tita” or “lola” even if they’re not related. I know they mean well and it’s the norm here but I still can’t bring myself to do the same because it’s my habit to put myself into other people’s shoes before interacting with them. Hence, I’m always the weirdo for calling people “miss” or “sir” like I’m no native. D:

    2. Anonymous says:

      They value pride and honor

      1. Anonymous says:

        wheres the honor in being selfish???

    3. dellpage says:

      Amazing people

      1. Anonymous says:

        I wouldn’t say that. I’m sure there are as many bad people in Japan as there are in your country.

    4. amit says:

      The sign of seat preference, clearly indiactes to preferred group, not like in India, where seats are reserved to woman, beyond any logic.i wonder,why a teenage or a full grown lady, have the right to ask a guy to vacate seat as its reserve for them.Thats why we r indian.

      1. rurouni says:

        the chances of being eve teased while you are sitting in the bus is far lesser than when you are standing in India. i think thats why women get priority in India

    5. Jenny says:

      I don’t like it.

    6. Hope I can visit Japan!

    7. Anonymous says:

      i like jap elderly. in singapore, it seemed that it is criminal if you dont give up your seat to the elderly. Everyone start taking photos and upload to fb to shame this person. This behaviour is on the rising trend in singapore.

      1. Ohmyohmy says:

        The elderly people in singapore has thicker skin than those in japan. Or maybe they are so selfish that they think of themselves of outmost priority because they are older. Other than that taking photos and posted those in fb for that purpose is so ridiculous for a developed country…

    8. Anonymous says:

      Reserve seat or not, you want my seat, you ask. (Unless you’re like really old or obviously pregnant)

      1. djjd says:

        yes! i agree! huhu

    9. Anonymous says:

      that’s one reason (from many) why I love Japan…

    10. knoll says:

      the most discipline people I have ever seen !!

    11. minmachen says:

      ours apple eaten and now enjoy yours !

    12. Anonymous says:

      oh no! i did this several times when I went to Japan last year :( now I know…

    13. Peejay says:

      Filipinos will see this differently. They will bash a person if that person doesn’t give up the seat to an elderly or to a woman with child.

      1. Anonymous says:

        yes because they love to bash. they see the bad in you

        1. Freesia says:

          Some Filipinos are in born bashers they see all the wrong things you’ve done. I’m a Filipino as well and I’m afraid to post anything on social media.

    14. Anonymous says:

      its a shame not to offer seats to elderly but how about taking pictures without permission? its more criminal and unethical

    15. haiyanSurvivor says:

      In the Philippines, we show respect to elderlies in two manners. For rich elderlies we simply call them with their given names or in many instances with prefixes such as Sir or Madam, e.g., Korina or Madam Korina. For the not-rich elderlies, media broadcasters call elderlies by their names with emphasis on prefixes ranging from Nanay to Lola, depends on the facial looks and degree of hardship, e.g. Nanay Koring or Lola Koring or Aling Koring.

      1. Anonymous says:

        Wow. So elitist in that manner.

      2. Anonymous says:

        yes you’re right maybe japanese elderly cant accept that they are getting old hehehe peace :) all people in this world will going to be old anyway .. :)

      3. Anonymous Coward says:

        Personally, I give up my seat for someone who really needs it. Very old people, pregnant woman, someone carrying a baby, or disable person qualifies. It’s simply about consideration.

        Women and strong old people don’t qualify. :-)

    16. Same in Russia, one elderly woman in a metro rail was really angry that we did not give up our seat to her…but japanese culture is really odd but impressive….

    17. Anonymous says:

      well atleast give priority to the pregrant lady and disabled person,

    18. amor825 says:

      Good info.

    19. Mi says:

      The older you become the more your body gets to be frail and weak its biology so whether the elderly admit it or not they need to be more careful and the younger ones owe it to their elders to treat them with respect just as how they treat their own parents.

    20. Anonymous says:

      this is pride

      1. Anonymous says:


    21. Anonymous says:

      I love Japanese culture, but on that particular case they are really disrespectful. I see pregnant women all the time trying to seat and nobody gives up the seat. One tune I saw a teenager even cut off a pregnant lady that was about to seat, seating in front of her. Being pregnant in the public transportation in Japan is the best tranquilizer. People See your belly and instantly fall asleep.

    22. RaJa says:

      Seems some people praised and appreciated this, because those people just don’t want to give up their seats or give way to the elderly, simply forgetting the Japanese logic behind.

    23. Anonymous says:

      This is true. When we had our family vacation in Osaka last year, we went to a Skiing resort and we rode a train going up to the mountain. I forgot how they call it. I offered my seat to a lady with her 3 year old son, I guess. But she kindly decline my offer and instead asked me where we are from and when I responded “We are from Manila, Philippines”, she smiled and said “Oh Philippines…beautiful!”

    24. Sulesin says:

      In the North Caucasus, old age is not considered than terrible. This honor and respect. Therefore custom required give place the elder. Elder recognize their status as well as its youngest. No one is ashamed of his age. The modern “culture” satirizes of old age.

    25. Anonymous says:

      That may be true, but I don’t think the young people are sitting there thinking “Oh no, I shouldn’t offer this elderly person a seat because even though she is 80 years old she will be offended and feel like she’s old.”
      Admittedly, I don’t get up for someone just because they have a few gray hairs, but I will make way for OLD people to sit down, and yet I’ve never seen a Japanese person do it. And the old people are happy to accept, and I don’t think they’re only accepting because I’m a foreigner. I’ve been rejected with a “daijoubu, daijoubu” once or twice, but they still smile and are thankful for the offer. I’ve seen young people here snag seats from Moms holding young babies before they could sit down here. I’m not saying that Japanese people are more inconsiderate than other cultures, but I think that they worry about themselves first just like everyone else, and that they are not as honor-centered and ‘omotenashi’-having as they advertise themselves to be.

    26. I was in Japan and I offered my seat to a woman clearly in her 80’s and she smiled at me and refused as well. Then she patted me on the head and said:Shinsetsuna kokoro ( which I think means kind heart) a gent next to me informed me that Japanese elderly may be offended if a Japanese person does it but usually will not be offended if a Westerner offers. I waved as I left the train and she gave me a little head bow. It was sweet..

    27. Amin says:

      I think Japanese are just like any other people. Actually Japanese traditions highly emphasizes in respecting the elderly. And it is actually very rude when teens and young people see the utterly old people stand up in the trains while pretending like not seeing anything. This matter is not just for elderly, but I have seen it very common for pregnant and nursing women with their babies who suffer from being in the middle of the train, and it is unbelievable how they are ignored.

    28. ajsdojo says:

      This article is such nonsense. There is some truth in it, yes. But the whole argument falls down when you spend any length of time in Tokyo and you see people not giving their seat up for pregnant women, let alone the elderly.
      Japan really is a wonderful country, but we don’t have to start making excuses for the downsides.
      As a British man living in Tokyo for the last 5 years I can safely say the young and worst still the middle aged Japanese business man have terrible manners on trains. Not everyone, obviously, but an obnoxious majority.
      If it’s not making the infirm, elderly and pregnant stand.
      It’s stretching out on the already mini seats.
      Or there are the people who can’t work their smart phone without elbowing the person next to them.
      Lets not forget the chikkans who operate in plain view on the trains, groping young women, to which no-one so much as raises a voice to help.

      Yes some older people don’t want your seat. But you don’t know until you ask them. As someone brought up to give my seat to the elderly, pregnant etc. I always offer. If they say no thank you, I sit back down. But an unsurprising majority are grateful to sit.

      So I call bullshit on this article.

      Please let’s not ignore and bury our problems Tokyo.

      1. quintusking says:

        From what I see, this article is not encouraging us not to offer seat to the elderly, nor is it defending those young people. It is simply examining and discussing the possible causes of such a phenomena. Are you native Japanese?

        1. Vicryl says:

          For your question, I think it was obviously stated that they are not native. Now, at this point in the article, true, it lets you in on a little something about how things go there.

          But admit it or not, you might just end up asking yourself, “So what? What am I gonna do about it when I get there?”. If you haven’t noticed it yet, this is more or less a tourism site, built to promote the country to those interested in checking out the place. And since “checking out the place” entails making actions, I suppose it obviously leads to some decision-making especially with matters such as when to offer seats in the transpo or some other scenario.

          So forgive us if we have to make up our minds on this issue, but we’d rather work on actions rather than play with our thoughts in the corner.

    29. Anonymous says:

      I don’t know how true this article is about being offended with an offered seat, but I’ve been living and working in Japan for almost 10 years and see how disrespectful most of the commuters can be. I always offer my seat to the elderly, pregnant and anyone else I feel deserves the seat more than I do. It’s disgusting how ppl instantly pretend to fall asleep or not see those who need the seat. And yes, cutting in front or rushing ahead happens. Now that I’m pregnant I experience it myself and as much as I feel the Japanese are well mannered, in this instance they aren’t. I could be squashed in a rush hour train standing at the priority seats area with my bulging 8+ months belly and maybe 20% of the time I get offered a seat. It’s just about personal moral values and common sense of civic consciousness that is lacking.

    30. Anonymous says:

      It seems subways and trains bring out the worst in people. Typically its n urban setting that brings about more aggressive

    31. suk2014 says:

      Its nothing wrong from me even for Japan, Philiphines, Singapore or whatever. Every country have their own culture codes. All you just need is respect each other. For me that offering the sit respect or direspect are on that place culture. If Japan consider as offering the sit is disrespect so just accept it. If Singapore see consider not offering the sit is disrespect also you need to accept. That why in this world there is a word called diversity. And you need to learn so much about that diversity to bring another word called respect. Im proud being Asian because Asian have a variety of culture.

      And i hope that I can learn all of culture each country.

    32. Spence says:

      Meh. I’ve offered my seat to older people frequently here in Japan and they’ve taken it most of the time. When an 80 year old woman gets on the train, it’s common courtesy to not make her stand. No one gets up. Hardly anyone notices her. Regardless of the mindset , when someone is really too old, human decency is to get up.

    33. Guala Nejo says:

      There will always someone here who love to talk/compare it to philipines. Its not wrong but its quite annoying. I mean we’re talking about japan not Phillipines. Im sorry if i spell that one wrong lol

    34. Anonymous says:

      not true- i have offered my seat to elderly, pregnant women and those with small kids–for many many times- at first they might refuse it but after i say *daijoubu- it’s ok in japanese*, they would take it.

    35. Matt says:

      Unusual as when i was last in Japan seats were given up to elderly sure they don’t refer to older people whom don’t consider themselves old enough to require the seat? wondering if this is reflective of that 35% of the population is over 65 years old…… But when i was there i given up hand rails because “obviously” at 6.1″ that i didn’t need it, it wasn’t a stretch to grab the top of the rail… i find that article very inaccurate i will have to watch more carefully to observe this since I’m back over there in 3 months.

    36. sameoldterry says:

      I’ve been in Kansai Area for 8 days, each day travelled by either subway, train or buss and gave my seat to elders or pregnant women at least once every day, none rejected my offer. Most thanked me and took the seat. I’ve also seen japanese people doing this for other japanese people… so idk, it’s either the culture changing (as it should, as someone stated previously, it’s biology and wether old people believe it or not, their bodies ARE older, weaker and more fragile so it’s only obvious that the younger ones give them their seats, it’s simply being respectful), either that aspect is not so popular around Kyoto, Osaka and Nara.

    37. bert says:

      In Korea whenever I got up to give my seat to a grandma on the bus the bus driver would get on the microphone to “thank our foreign friend for his kindness”. That was about 20 years ago, things might have changed since then.

    38. riverofmarch says:

      12 years ago while i was on the bus going to church i offered a seat to a drunk elderly man ,instead of thanking me(wich i do not expect ) hurled words against me , kept on mumbling words mostly i do not understand , that day on until today i refrain from offering seats again.

    39. Anonymous says:

      Maybe the youngsters should not occupy the priority seats in the first place. Sometimes pregnant women are not offered seats, I find this quite inhuman.

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