Are Train Manners Really Worsening?

December 15, 2008

I’ve been in Japan close to 15 years now, so when I read a recent article in The Telegraph about JR (Japan Railways) starting a campaign to improve people’s manners on trains, the following paragraph:

Five years ago, it would have been unthinkable for passengers on Japan’s crowded trains to witness a female office worker applying make-up on her way to work. But now, grooming in public is commonplace. For some, such behaviour reflects the fact that the politeness and courtesy that was a trademark of Japanese society are fading fast.

…really jumped out at me.

I remember being surprised by people’s manners further back than 5 years ago. I would agree that manners seem to be getting worse, but I don’t think this behavior was unthinkable.

In Japan, the train is a public place, but at the same time it’s a place where people try to save time. Students who choose 3 orĀ  4 hour commutes over living on their own use train time for sleeping, studying, catching up on their emails, and a myriad of other things. It goes without saying that some of them wake up after a two hour nap on a crowded train and want to fix their make-up before getting off and going home.

The five year quote above bothered me because it’s the same thing again, a general statement being made about Japan and never backed up with fact or evidence. I think an argument can be made for gradually worsening manners on the train, but it needs to be more qualified with a little easier to swallow wording than unthinkable.

In this day and age, such a flippant comment is very easy to check, thanks to our good friend Google News. A search for “Japan train manners” turned up thousands of results, many of which mentioned the rampant molesting problems on the country’s trains which prompted the creation of “women’s only cars”. I’m not sure if molesting fits the bill for “bad manners”, but there were enough results to make me continue my research.

Next I limited the search to dates between 2000 and the present. A quick glance down the page gave me several well dated articles about bad manners on trains. There was plenty of data to support my initial impression.

Here’s an in depth article also from The Telegraph about the increasing number of assaults on Japanese trains published in 2001.

Here’s another useful article from 1995 published in the New York Times. This reporter also identifies Japan as “probably the most polite society in the world”… which seems true as long as you do direct translations of the way they “greet each other with apologies”. People who are immersed in the culture and fluent in the language know better than to think of “sumimasen” or “shitsurei shimasu” as apologies (but I digress).

The article is mostly about the molesting problem (yes, it goes back even beyond 1995), but if you get down the bottom there are paragraphs relevant to our present rant.

But efforts are being made to stamp out other discourtesies and establish better subway manners. Inside the train cars, cartoon posters tell people to step aside as passengers exit, avoid whirling zippered backpacks into childrens’ faces and lower the volume of Sony Walkmans.

This seems to indicate that the problem has been around for a while longer than five years.

I don’t deny that the problem seems to be getting worse, but I don’t think it was non-existent in the past. I also don’t think Japan has ever been the politeness Shangri-La that it’s often purported to be in the media.

I don’t think people in Japan are especially rude or especially polite. I think people are people and rudeness is a natural part of human society. Many people who visit Japan are blissfully unfamiliar enough with the language and the culture to spend years here without ever realizing the “naturalness” going on around them.