Proper etiquette is very important in Japan. Unfortunately, etiquette is not my forte.
In a city as dense as Tokyo – 12 million people jammed into an area slightly larger than Des Moines – general rules of propriety are important. For example, if you have a cold, you should wear a mask to prevent spreading germs. Don’t spit your gum on the sidewalk and give up your seat to the elderly.
These are general points of politeness I try to adhere to in my daily life. Well, maybe just the last one. I hate wearing those white masks. They are uncomfortable and steam up my glasses. As for spitting out gum… I mean… they don’t have public garbage cans in Tokyo… so where else am I supposed to spat?
Getting back on track… after living in Tokyo for a while now, you start to catch on to simple rules of etiquette that apply to every day activities, especially on public transportation. When you are a tourist, you can be excused for social blunders, such as walking on the righthand side of the sidewalk rather than the left.
However, now that I have assimilated to Japan somewhat, I find that I have fallen in line with the customs and social norms. Conformity is king in Japan. Sometimes it is best not to fight it. For example:
1) Getting on and off the train requires several steps.
I take the train five times a week and spend about 90 minutes a day in transit. Consternation with fellow passengers can cause your blood to boil. But if you join the lemmings and shut off willful thought for a spell, you can follow the tide to your destination with relative ease.
First, getting on the train. Tokyo train stations have conveniently marked where the train doors will open. They even have painted footprints showing you where to stand. And they open in the exact same spot every time. The proper plan of action is to line up directly in front of these markings. Then, when the train arrives, shuffle to the side of the train, leaving the doorway free and a corridor open for departing passengers. Once they are free, then you board the train.
There are seats at the end of the car designated for senior citizens, handicapped passengers, etc.
Stay clear of these seats. If you do find a place to sit, be sure to scrunch in your cheeks to leave room for other passengers. If you don’t find a seat, there is a delineated order for where to stand. There are three rows of standing room in the aisle. First, line up facing the seated passengers. Keep any backpacks, purses or briefcases in front of you. Leave a clearing open down the middle of the aisle. Should the train continue to fill with passengers, then this middle aisle is the last area of solace for harried commuters. Finally, you should start crowding the area in front of the doors. However, most passengers huddle in the doorway area anyhow, because god forbid they get stuck in the middle of the aisle and they miss their stop.
One of my Japanese students once spent 40 minutes explaining these instructions to me. Some people take these rules very seriously. Of course, Japanese trains are notorious for cramming people in like Pringles, especially after 11:30 p.m. when the last trains start departing. Then all of the rules go out the window. People elbow, push, shove, headbutt their way onto the train. It is not an uncommon sight to see somebody use two hands to shove a small crowd of chowderheaded salarymen off the train in order to get off.
Once off the train, then you have to get in queue for the escalator or stairs. It is best to be the first one off the train in order to get ahead of the crowd. Otherwise you get bottlenecked at the stairway. There is nothing much more frustrating than getting stuck on the stairwell behind some high-heeled lady clomping up the stairs or trailing a teenager whose eyes are glued to their smartphone. People in Japan are notorious for their short legs and even though they look like they are scurrying for their life, you can easily stay with them stride for stride at a casual stroll. Anyhow, your best bet is to get into the fast lane of the escalator.
The escalators have their own form of protocol.
2) Goddamn escalators.
In America, you get on the escalator, and you stand their until you reach the top (or bottom). That is why they invented the escalator, so you don’t have to walk up stairs. In the words of Homer Simpson: “And here I’ve been using my own two feet like a sucker.”
If you do happen to be in a hurry and you need to bound up the escalator, then you make as much noise as possible to clear the way.
Here in Japan they are much more sophisticated. There are rules. Simple rules. Stand on the left. Walk on the right. And never shall the twain meet.
The Japanese developed the lefthand custom from the British. Here they drive on the left side of the road, and you pass on the right. Of course, for some reason Osaka is backwards. In Osaka, you stand on the right side of the escalator and you walk on the left.
When we visited Osaka a few weeks ago this threw Lisa into a tizzy. The custom is not yet ingrained in me, so I adjusted fairly quickly. However, for Lisa, who lived in Tokyo nearly her entire life, standing on the right side of the escalator was like using chopsticks with her left hand.
Of course, there are several things in Japan that make me feel left-handed. Such as the bow/handshake greeting and using an elevator.
3) Using an elevator you say? What’s so difficult about that?
Well, nothing really. Except there are rules of etiquette that up to this point I have chosen to ignore.
Let me provide a little backstory. In Philadelphia Lisa and I lived on the 13th floor. Whenever we entered the elevator, she would smash the “door close” button. I always found this somewhat amusing, because whenever has the door actually closed when you hit the “door close” button? It’s like the CLS CAP button on the remote control. Sure it would be great if it worked, but both you and I know this is a sterile button.
However, when I moved to Japan I discovered why Japanese visitors to America mash the “door close” button like its a stuck vending machine. Because over here that button is actually effective. When you hit the “door close” button the damn elevator door actually closes.
However, with great power comes great responsibility.
If you are going to stand in front of the elevator buttons like one of B.F. Skinner’s pigeons waiting for food, then you are in essence the gate keeper. You need to hold the door open for everyone who gets off or on, then you have to hit the door close button as soon as everyone is situated. You are also then charged with hitting the proper floor button for each new passenger. However, many people don’t do this, so the new passenger is often forced to search for their floor’s button, finger outstretched, knuckles inches from some dude’s abdomen. It’s a little awkward.
Now, the “door close” and the “door open” button don’t say as such. They are written in kanji. As best as I can tell, the “door open” button is green and the “door close” button is black. However, if I happen to be standing at the buttons when somebody is racing to hop on the elevator, I tend to panic and stand rigid, as petrified as a dog in a vacuum cleaner shop.
Since the “door close” button does in fact work, there is the real chance you can look like a real asshole when you hit the “door close” on accident, gliding those doors swiftly shut right in front of somebody’s face. And also, some of the elevator doors in Japan don’t automatically open if you jam your arm or briefcase between them, as is my general instinct. This can be painful.
So instead, whenever I get on an elevator, I stay as far away from the buttons as I can, kind of like my general philosophy towards girls from 1987-1998. As with many things in life, sometimes it is just better to step back and let somebody else run the controls.