Tokyo train etiquette: how to be a good commuter

Written by
Ili Saarinen
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Originally posted August 14 2014

Trains in this great city of ours are supremely convenient, always (well, almost) on time, and just all-round awesome. Yes, absolutely, but they can also be claustrophobic, scary and confusing, especially if you’re a Tokyo newcomer and/or riding during the rush hour. There are also quite a few written and unwritten rules of train-taking that, if followed, make everyone’s journey more comfortable, less frustrating and simply better.

Learning these densha dictates takes time, and is often accomplished through the time-honoured method of trial and error, i.e. getting stared at (ooh, the horror) by a grumpy salaryman when one fails to follow the code. Now that’s something you’d like to avoid, no?

So, inspired by our friends over at Time Out London, we’ve put together a 15-point guide to train etiquette: what to do, what not to do, and what you just might get away doing without attracting the dreaded disapproving looks. Study, we say, study, and you’ll eventually be ready to step into the sea of humanity and navigate the city’s awe-inspiring transport network like it ain’t no big deal.

1. DO: Stand on the left. Walk on the right.

The most basic of rules, this one is hard and fast. On the escalators, in the corridors, you name it – walk on the right, stand on the left is the standard. Exceptions are only allowed when the signs tell you they are, which actually does happen here and there.

2. DO: Get an IC card. Use it well.

If at all possible, get a Suica or Pasmo card, charge it up and get moving. It removes the need for playing around with paper tickets, makes passing through ticket gates quicker and even allows you to track where you’ve been. Oh yeah, Suica also has a cute penguin on it.

3. DON’T: Block the doors.

You know that feeling when you’re trying to get off the train and there’s a guy standing right in front of the open door, simply refusing to move? DON’T BE THAT GUY. How much effort can it really take to step outside the train for a few seconds, let everyone else get off, and step back in?

4. DO: Let other passengers off the train first.

This one should be pretty obvious – in fact, failing to follow this rule at crowded times might even get you trampled, so hold your horses.

5. DON’T: Try to rush in when the doors are closing (unless you know what you’re doing).

Known as kakekomi-josha in Japanese, the art of last-second boarding requires practice, and such practice can be extremely dangerous. Getting caught between the doors isn’t a pleasant experience, not to mention it makes you look ridiculous, and every failed attempt causes delays. Sure, the delay may only be 10 seconds, but in a transportation system as fine-tuned as this one, those seconds add up, upsetting the balance, harmony and all that jazz. Besides, the next train will come in a couple minutes anyway, so just play it safe and wait.

6. DON’T: Grope.

No matter how packed the carriage is, chikan will be noticed and may very well land you in police custody. Hands off.

7. DON’T: Talk on the phone.

On Tokyo trains, phones can be used for everything except, well, phoning. Set yours on ‘manner mode’ to prevent any ironic ringtones from waking fellow travellers from their blissful train naps, and if you really can’t ignore a call, a quick ‘I’m on the train’ will defuse the situation.

8. DO: Give up your seat.

Old people, disabled people, pregnant people, people with little kids, you name it – these passengers all need a seat more than you do. Priority seat or regular, it doesn’t really matter. Oh, and if you’re one of those jerks pretending to be asleep when someone who looks like they need to sit down gets on, then shame on you.

9. DO: Plan ahead.

Know which side the doors are going to open on at your station? If yes, try finding a way to move toward that side one or two stops before it’s time to get off – just makes things smoother, y’know. This really applies only when it’s crowded, but when isn’t it?

10. DON’T: Be pushy.

Leaning lightly on fellow riders in order to get in or out is often necessary, but elbowing or body-checking the poor guy standing in your way simply isn’t. Also, there’s no need to push others onto the platform when disembarking – a polite sumimasen will do.

11. BORDERLINE: Eating.

Few of your co-riders will complain about a quick afternoon onigiri on a less-than-crowded local train, whereas messy and/or smelly delicacies are strictly off limits. What’s that? A pizza slice on the Tokyo-bound Chuo line at 7.30am? Get out.

12. BORDERLINE: Makeup.

A quick fix-up is fine, but painting and powdering your entire face in close quarters should seriously be avoided. Don’t even think about cutting your nails, shaving or – uhh – trimming your nasal hair (we’ve witnessed all of the above).

13. DO: Take your trash with you.

Wondering why the trains are so clean? It’s because us Tokyoites don’t litter. Ever. We ignore the ridiculous dearth of bins and bring our trash all the way home, where we dutifully separate it into burnable, non-burnable, plastic, paper and so on and so on. Or just stick it sneakily into one of those vending machine bottle/can holes.

14: DO: Wear a mask (when you’re sick).

Like getting coughed on? Neither do we. When under the weather, it’s common courtesy to wear one of those surgical masks Japan is so fond of, and thus prevent your germs from flying all over the carriage. In case some intrepid foreign correspondent questions you, just tell them you’re protecting yourself from Fukushima radiation.

15. DON’T: Make a scene.

See a newbie or self-righteous ojisan breaking the rules? No matter how much you’d like to, resist the desire to lecture them. Complaining or demonstrating won’t do any good, since there are few things an exhausted commuter hates more than being talked to. Yeah, sounds sad, but that’s the way densha life is. Resorting to the above-mentioned stern and disapproving stare is far less risky.

Got a rule you’d like to add? Let us know.

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