Train etiquette in Japan truly should not be that difficult, yet things are never as easy as they should be. Every month, I tend see a group of foreigners, particularly tourists, who grandly screw up, such simple little things that tend to be common sense to most, bad enough to make me feel highly uncomfortable.
Train etiquette in Japan: the Do’s and Don’t of Riding a Train or Subway
1. Do NOT smoke on the train.
Do not even smoke while you are waiting in line (yes, in line and not just all over the place) to get on the train. Yes, this is actually a serious rule that is strictly enforced.
Nearly all stations have a “smoking” room somewhere on the station grounds where you are allowed to smoke; they also probably have a “smoking area” outside the station, with ashtrays and signs.
Smoking is prohibited in most public areas of Japan in general. It is not illegal per say, it is just considered a “bother” and “troublesome” to other passengers, and consequently is not allowed.
Japan is all about caring for and preserving the “community” rather than the individual. Good or bad, I leave that up to you. In very public areas that gather large amounts of people, such as a festival or at an assembly, there will be smoking rooms or spaces allocated for you to use. Generally, assume that you cannot smoke freely anywhere in Japan.
Seriously, do not smoke on the trains.
Note: In Kyoto, it is now against the law to actually smoke on the streets in general, though many still continue to do so without much consequence. Though, once again, it is enforced in areas of large amounts of people or at stations.
My university campus is even ‘smoke-free’, where they get rid of all the smoking booths and try to enforce the new Kyoto law, though with very little success.
2. Do not talk on your mobile phone on the train, subway, or bus.
This rule is a bit more obvious; they have signs everywhere, and make public service announcements, that are both in both Japanese and English, every couple minutes. It is acceptable and given leeway if it is only for a couple seconds, such as if someone were to call while you are on the train, it is acceptable to answer the phone and whisper “sorry, I’m on the train, can I call you back in ten minutes?” and hang up. You do not have to ignore the call completely, though most do tend to do so.Beyond that though, you cannot keep talking on the phone.
Similarly, if you are talking on the phone while waiting for the train to arrive, do try to finish your conversation before you get on board the train. If you absolutely cannot, you do get a roughly 10 second “grace period” to finish up your call before other passengers get annoyed at you, and possibly tell you off or report you.
3. Turn your phone on “Manner Mode” [マナーモード].
Manner Mode, the Japanese equivalent of Silent Mode, is a must in Japan. Trains are typically pretty quiet, especially in the morning and at night, so a beeping or ringing mobile-phone is bloody obvious.
Obviously, no one is going actually kick you out of the train if your phone does goes off…but it is kind of the same mood if you phone went off when you were sitting in that one class you hated. Japan is 「もえ」 (“moe”/sickeningly sweet) enough to give “silent mode” a better and endearing name: “Manner Mode.”
Because people with good manners do not have loud, obnoxious phones.
4. Give up your seat for the elderly, people with a handicap, people who are injured, pregnant women, or people with small children.
Yes, they do have their “priority seating” area, but sometimes that is full of other older, equally handicapped people with possibly more children (sometimes even with the inconsiderate young adults that ignore the world around them). Other times, the person who deserves the seat in question, does not feel like they truly do warrant to take up one of the valued “priority seating” spots.
Note: Priority seats are typically a different colour than normal seats.
In any case, if you are sitting in the priority seats and someone who looks like they could be tired/damaged/carrying a child in any way, give them your seat. Do not be,
excuse my French, an inconsiderate arse.
Honestly, I would even recommend giving up your seat even if you are not sitting in a priority seat, for it is chivalrous and good thing to do for the elderly or those who need it more than you do. The unfortunate thing is that half the time, they will not take the seat right away.
Typically, if you ask somebody if they would like your seat prior to you actually getting out of the seat, they will virtually every time say “no”. If you get out of the seat, then tap them on the shoulder and point to the seat, they tend to say things such as “oh no, I’m fine” or “are you sure?” before making sure no one else wants the seat, saying “thank you,” and finally sitting down. They will then probably turn to whoever they are riding with and say something like “foreigners/young people these days are so nice.”
5. Be careful of body odour.
Imagine being stuck in a train filled to the brim with people with bad body odour. Here’s the thing about Japanese people; they usually do not have strong body odour. So the problem with being foreign in Japan during hot and humid months, is that it is really hard to get good deodorant, the kind that sticks and works for hours and not simply for 10-30 minutes. If you are prone to getting bad body odour, good luck to you.
Pack lots of heavy deodorant from whatever country you are coming from. Do not make everyone else suffer because you suddenly realise that Japanese deodorant is not strong enough for you. If you smell and you are going to be out all day, bring one of those small aerosol cans and freeze your pits right before you get on the train or have some body-spray/cologne to spray on beforehand.