Tuesday, May 16, 2006


On this morning's commute the fellow sitting in the window seat beside me got off the train, so I moved to the window seat, freeing up an aisle seat beside a young woman who had been standing for several stops. Before sitting down, she looked around carefully to see if there was maybe another seat available. Not finding one she sat down, though she would have preferred to sit elsewhere.

Any westerner (though perhaps mainly males?) who commutes in Japan has experienced this, both with male and female passengers. I couldn't begin to count the number of times the seat next to me on the rush hour train was the last to be taken. I'd stopped paying attention to it long ago, or so I thought. But the other day I realized that I was still subconsciously aware of it when on the train home, while fully absorbed in a book, I nevertheless noticed that the last seat available was being taken by a hurried commuter several rows away! I had been second to last! The minishock had caught my attention.

It's generally not prejudice in the sense we know it in the West (where differences in appearance are not generally as stark as they can be here); it's more like tacit - even subconscious - non-inclusion, as though you're not really 'present' in the Japanese sense, since you're not Japanese. Though there may on rare occasions be some element of conventional prejudice involved, more likely it's simply the fear that the unreadable (and therefore unpredictable) foreigner might turn (horror of horrors!) and speak to the person next to him. It has been known to happen. (It's rare for a Japanese to talk spontaneously to strangers on trains (or anywhere else) in Japan; Hitchcock could never have made his movie here.)

Foreigners are clearly the most likely to turn and ask directions, or even (gulp) say something in English, French, German - who knows what - bringing undesired attention to the unfortunate person spoken to. And because foreigners are prominent and look different, they attract attention de facto, and whoever sits next to them will also by default attract attention, which is not desired.

As for me, I am a touch over 6 feet tall, 180 pounds, with long white hair and two earrings, dress differently and never wear suit and tie, so I certainly don't expect anyone in the exurbs to race to sit beside me. Still, I've been taking this particular train with these particular commuters at this particular time for a dozen years now, and when I lived in Kyoto, another same train for 15 years, so I've had some time to observe the phenomenon. (It's also interesting to be the passive cause of so many dilemmas.)

The phenomenon had at one point begun to slip beneath my notice, when one day a guy from California who worked at our office told me of the satisfaction he'd felt that morning upon watching two commuters race to get the second-to-last free seat across the aisle from him, the loser then having to bite the bullet and sit in the last seat beside the foreigner, knowing that the foreigner had observed the 'contest.' I recognized in my own history the experience of that particular satisfaction, though it hadn't really registered until the fellow mentioned it. It's a feeling akin to that I referred to above at discovering that the last seat hadn't been next to me.

Anyway, it's nothing personal, really, it's just that you're clearly not Japanese and therefore potentially problematic. Someone will probably sit next to you eventually. And it has its good side: there are times when you're the only person on the train with a whole seat all to yourself!


Joy Des Jardins said...

That is the first time I've even had a hint of what you look like now Robert....COOL. Hey, don't those people know they're giving up a chance to sit next to one of the infamous Brady Boys? To heck with 'em.

Todd said...

Natsukashi! Reminds me of the ol' Gifu-Nagoya haul I did day-in, day-out for years. I came to expect the empty seat beside me, even during rush hour, and got to the point of disappointment when it was taken by some desparate-to-sit commuter. The worst was when I'd fall asleep, and some old coot stinking of Suntory & cigarettes would bang his briefcase against my leg until I woke up and he could ask to sit next to me...I know I slouch when I sleep, but for Pete's sake just try a "sumimasen..."!

Anonymous said...

I've been in that situation, where they knew that I knew that they had just competed to not sit next to me, and in that awkward "Shimatta!" silence I wondered whether I should apologize to the loser, being as I'm nearly six-and-a-half feet tall.

Perhaps just as embarrassing is when there is only that one seat left when the train pulls into a station and the door opens for some poor sap who steps into the coach unwittingly, realizes his predicament, and proceeds to make eye contact with five or 10 already seated passengers wo silently offer their sympathy.

This makes me wonder whether, when you (Robert) registered your marriage in Japan, the offending gaijin huband's name was entered into the kouseki in the normal space for a spouse, or whether, as with me, they had already started the custom of writing down gaijin in the space at the bottom of the page for miscellaneous notes.

Mary Lou said...

Gentlemen dont give up their seats to a standing woman any more? sheesh, I MUST live out in the boonies.