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.
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:
Gave up my seat on bus for elderly lady couple of days ago. Of course she kept on refusing it, despite her almost falling many times. Seat stayed empty until salaryman got on the bus and took it in front of her. 😔
— Alan Bradburne (@alanb) March 2, 2019
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.
At japan i offered an old man my seat in the train. He gave me a "wtf is wrong with you" look and walked away 😭 https://t.co/sijw3YeLkb
— Rahman (@rahmanafarid) December 25, 2016
Tokyo's rush hour is so bad, workers have to physically push passengers into the train cars pic.twitter.com/zMsJoJXd1J
— Business Insider (@businessinsider) March 24, 2019
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.
— Sonisan (@Sonisan_jp) June 7, 2019
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.
— ハジメ (@bk2_hajime) October 27, 2019
There is also a badge for expecting mothers, saving people that mortifying mistake of mistaking a woman with extra weight for a pregnant woman.
— あゆ🎾ラリーバイザー🔥 (@ayu_rallyviser) October 31, 2019
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.