There are many rules in Japan. Some of them are written everywhere or spoken out loud in announcements but some of them just are there – everyone knows them and everyone follows them but no one says them aloud. Even if you break them, it’s unlikely that you’ll get warned. Everyone will just look at you, be happy they aren’t you and in some cases, hope you get off the train as soon as possible.
In order for you to not end up in situations like this, I’m going to tell you about some rules regarding boarding a train in Japan. This is not an extensive list but it will definitely help you to not embarrass yourself or upset the other passengers.
1. Don’t sit on the floor
I always thought this would be a no-brainer as it’s considered somewhat rude and weird in my country as well but apparently there are countries where sitting on the train floor is completely okay. I have seen many travelers sitting on the floor in trains in Japan, especially in smaller train lines. For instance, I have never seen this happen in JR Yamanote Line (山手線) but I have seen it multiple times in Shoonan Shinjuku Line (湘南新宿ライン) even though I rarely ride the trains of that line. Japanese often sit on the floor in their homes or in traditional restaurants but in general, sitting on the floor in places not specifically meant for sitting is considered dirty.
2. Don’t talk in a loud voice
Even though there sometimes are Japanese nationals who speak loudly inside the trains, it’s more common to end up in a train car that’s unnaturally quiet. No one talks and if some do, they keep their voices low. In case you aren’t in a train car full of noisy school kids or drunken salarymen, you might want to keep the volume low to not draw unnecessary attention.
3. Pay attention to the volume of your earphones
If you listen to music in the train, you should take off the earphones once to check whether the volume is low enough. I sometimes see people listening to music so loudly that I can recognize the song from across the aisle and that’s definitely too loud. I don’t get annoyed that easily as I can’t sleep in trains anyway but I honestly would like to know how the ears of those people can stand that noise. I would be too scared of getting a tinnitus or becoming deaf to do that but I guess some people have a YOLO attitude to anything and everything.
4. Don’t talk in phone
No matter the volume, making phone calls is considered rude in Japanese trains and is officially “forbidden”. You will notice this by looking at the signs in the walls of the trains and it’s also sometimes said aloud in the announcements. Of course they won’t say that talking to the phone is extremely forbidden but in order not to cause trouble to other passengers, they ask you to refrain from talking on the phone. You should also set your phone to silent mode just in case it might ring.
You might wonder what does it really matter if you just make a quick call talking quietly but try imagining a train car where everyone is making those quick, quiet phone calls. Not so quiet anymore, right? Many of the busy salarymen would probably have quite many phone calls to make and answer during their journey to work.
5. Don’t sit on the priority seats
Train cars often have priority seats near the ends of the train car. These seats are reserved for the elderly, those who are pregnant, people with small children and those with disabilities or illnesses. You are allowed to use the seats freely whenever there is no one like this in sight but I would strongly advise not to do so. It’s true that you can always give up your seat when someone who seems to need it appears but it might get troublesome sometimes. Japanese tend to be very modest and many won’t just sit down on a seat offered. There are some who won’t even get near the seats if they see they are already taken – even if they would definitely need a seat. Also, you might be frowned at just by sitting there even if there wasn’t anyone who might need the seat in sight.
6. Don’t use your mobile phone in front of priority seats
You will see Japanese people doing this a lot but it’s actually forbidden and you should actually turn off your mobile phone during the rush hours if you’re near priority seats. I kind of avoid the vicinity of priority seats because of this but if you ever end up near them, don’t play with your phone. I understand that it’s annoying that Japanese nationals can get away with not following the rules but as a foreigner, you unfortunately stand out more if you do something that’s against the rules. And actually, I have seen a Japanese high schooler get scolded by an old man for using his mobile phone in front of the priority seats so it’s not like Japanese people always get away with it either.
7. If you bring a suitcase to the train, do your best to not be in a way of other passengers.
If you have a suitcase with you, stand as near it as you can and aim for the corners of the train or try to get a seat so you can place your suitcase in front of you. No matter what you do, your suitcase will be in a way of someone at some point.
8. Don’t take up more space than the seat of one person
The long benches in Japanese trains are meant to fit a fixed number of people. The fixed number for long benches is the middle of the train cars is usually 6-8 people. You should not sit too widely or place your bag on the seat beside you if the train is even moderately full.
9. Don’t eat inside the train
Even though drinking is allowed and recommended especially during summer, bringing a cup of take-away coffee or something similar is a rare sight so you probably should drink your maccha frappuccino before boarding the train.
10. When boarding the train, line up and give way to those getting off
There are also many customs regarding on boarding and getting off the train as well but the most important ones are to line up, not cut in line and give way to those who get off the train before boarding by yourself. If you are one of the first ones in the line, you should move to the right or left of the doors just before the doors open after the train has arrived to the station. Line up beside the doors so that the people that want to get off can easily walk out and head to either direction.
These are many other rules and customs related to boarding trains in Japan as well but you can get quite far with just these 10 already! Just be the politest and the most considerate to other passengers as you can and you won’t embarrass yourself nor upset anyone.