Japanese railways are often hailed as an example to follow; their punctuality in particular is admired. Everyone in Japan uses them – all ages, genders and economic classes. I’ve even seen a Buddhist monk on a train! This provides a great opportunity for people watching, but the railways also provide something more – a chance to learn about the culture of a nation.

I’ve split my points (or lesson, if you will!) into two sections. The first is quite light-hearted, but further down I explore some of the less savoury aspects of Japanese society. Don’t read it if it might upset you!

First, I’ll describe a typical Japanese train platform, for those who’ve never seen one. One of the first things you might notice is the information board, continually updated with the progress of the trains. Some of them even have a cute little visual representation of how far away the train is. Further down, you might spot a bench or two, and some vending machines. But on the ground at the edge of the platform, beyond the yellow safety line, you’ll also see some markings. Without exception, these markings are where people start to queue for boarding the train. The reason for this is simple: that’s where the train doors will stop. Always. When it arrives, the lines (there’s often two) will part to either side of the door to let people off, then they’ll make their way onto the train. At the final stop, everyone calmly leaves the train, with some people even waiting in their seats for the crowd to die down.

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Japanese society is very organised, and nothing shows this better than the railways. Everyone knows what to do, where to be and at what time to make everything work smoothly; that’s one reason why it’s so punctual. This organisation fits in very well with the Japanese “group society”. There is a hierarchy, but also mutual support towards a common goal – in this case, getting from A to B with as little hassle as possible. Everyone knows that the system runs much more smoothly if they follow the rules – and it’s your own fault if you’re late for the train!

Keeping to the rules also shows consideration for others. More examples of this are turning phones onto silent mode (known as “manner mode” in Japanese), not making calls on the train (except in between carriages!); wearing headphones on low volume, and keeping arms and legs to oneself, especially when on a crowded train. Of course, Japan doesn’t have a perfect society, and everyone isn’t like the Stepford Wives. You will occasionally see business men sitting in the priority seats reserved for the elderly, the pregnant and the disabled; you will see noisy students sitting on the floor. And not everyone keeps their hands to themselves, but that’s something for later.

While in transit, there are some more observations we can make about Japanese culture. This one you might notice due to its absence. If you spend a long amount of time on trains, even at lunchtime, you’ll very rarely see anyone eating, and then only a solitary onigiri (rice ball). Food isn’t eaten on the move in Japan, and never while walking (outside of festivals). It helps keep the trains nice and clean, aided by the custom of taking rubbish home – there are few public bins in Japan, although you may find some on the train or in the station.

The other thing you can see while on the move is how people pass the time. Sure, you might see someone reading a newspaper (which still sell rather well in Japan), but in the modern day it’s mostly about mobile phones and smartphones. And why not? You can read manga (comics), play phone games, listen to music and send messages to your friends and colleagues. Phone games in particular are very popular in Japan, and the monetised extras are also rather lucrative for the game companies. You will very likely see people sleeping, too, but that’s something I’ll look at more below.

Next, here’s an observation that you might find confusing, perhaps even alarming: an elementary school student travelling alone on a train. However, in Japan, it’s not very unusual to see older elementary school students on the train or bus by themselves. Fairly young children are even left at home on their own. While people in the West might be thinking “child cruelty!” or “it’s dangerous!”, Japan has a different view. Children are expected to be independent from an early age. Japan is also a relatively safe country with a low crime rate, and children are thought of as precious by just about everyone. While accidents do happen, they are relatively rare, so children are allowed more freedom in the expectation that they’ll behave responsibly.

Now, for the second part of my lesson: to delve into some of the less pleasant aspects of Japanese culture. Remember, you don’t have to read it.

I’ll start with something that was more personally upsetting. Once, I got onto a train in the middle of the day. It was heading into Tokyo from the outskirts, but the carriage I was in was rather empty. The few people who were in there were very spaced out, so I couldn’t help but sit near one of them. I ended up choosing a spot a couple of spaces over from an older lady. I was just settling in when I noticed her moving away from me. I took a second to think whether I’d done anything rude, only to conclude that I was even dressed smartly, so that wouldn’t be the problem. The only thing I could think of was that she had moved because I was a foreigner. It’s sad, but true, that there are Japanese people who are distrustful or even scared of foreigners. I realise that the lady may have thought I was the type of foreigner who didn’t follow the rules – some either don’t know or can’t be bothered. It was still hurtful, but that’s nowhere near the worst thing we can learn from trains.

Something that might seem innocuous, which I mentioned above, are the people sleeping on the train. In some ways it’s a marvel to behold – some people can sleep slumping forward so that they don’t even disturb anyone either side of them with their lolling head (it does happen, however). Unfortunately, the reason for this behaviour is the long commutes and working hours of both university students and workers. Some people travel for 2-3 hours on crowded trains just to work and study all day and face the same journey home. Sleeping on the train isn’t an option – it’s a necessity.

This has an even darker side, which is the consequences of overwork. If an employee ends up doing too many hours, they can die. It even has a name in Japanese – karoushi, literally “death by overwork”. While I’ve never seen anyone on a train who looks quite that exhausted, death by train is not uncommon.

First, there are animal deaths. The trains in Japan have to wind their way around the mountains sometimes, and where you find mountains, you will find serow, or goat-antelopes. Sadly, the animals sometimes meet the trains in the worst way possible, which causes delays. Tragically, these delays can also occur due to human “accidents” – suicides by train. Suicide in Japan doesn’t hold the same stigma as it does in Christian countries, but that’s not to say it’s welcomed. It’s still a tragedy. Death by train is particularly hard for families that are left behind – they have to pay for the cost to services caused by the delay. This policy was introduced to prevent people from choosing trains as their suicide method, but it still happens nevertheless.

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Finally, one of the better-known aspects of Japanese trains: the crowding during rush hour. Mostly, it’s simply uncomfortable, and people just have to stoically bear the inconvenience. It’s a perfect mirror of the population though – the mountains cause the cities to be squashed into what little flat land there is. It also means that cheaper housing is further away (particular in the case of Tokyo), and people have no choice but to commute. However, being packed together like sardines in a tin is not only uncomfortable, it provides a hunting ground for unsavoury characters. These are men who take advantage of the tangle of limbs to sexually harass women, often by groping them. This is called chikan, and is unfortunately such a common problem that some carriages are designated “women-only” during rush hour.

That’s all for today class. I hope that you learned something interesting from the lesson today. If there’s anything that you’ve seen or heard about to do with Japanese trains, let me know in a comment!