Trains are not just a transportation means or infrastructure in Japan, but a cultural experience. If your next trip is to a Japanese city such as Tokyo or Osaka, prep for it with this podcast to enrich your Japanese train experience.
Hello world! You are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese. My name is Kyota Ko.
As a Japanese citizen living in Tokyo, train rides take up a significant portion of my daily life. Since Corona, I have been working from home pretty often, but if it wasn’t for Corona, I would be spending almost an hour and a half on the train every week day.
My commute is about 30 minutes one way. But not a few people who work in Tokyo come to the office from residential areas outside Tokyo which means their commute will be close to or over an hour.
Most of us use the train to go out on weekends and this is especially true for younger generations because many of them are just not interested in owning cars. I’m not even a Gen Z – I’m an early millennial, but I don’t even have a driver’s license because I’ve never felt the need for it.
Train rides are an integral part of life in Japan, especially in the city, and today, I want to give you a good idea of what life on trains is like in Japan.
Train services are at their best
So because we spend a lot of time on the train, the quality of the train rides have quite a big impact on the quality of our lives. And so Japanese railway companies have been making a big effort to make our rides as efficient and comfortable as possible.
It starts with making sure every single train comes on time. Railway companies in Japan think a 3 minute delay is worth announcing an apology. And a vast majority of the delays are not caused by the railway companies. They are caused by customers.
The official report from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport says that the number one reason for delays of under 10 minutes are due to customers not getting on and off the train within the scheduled time. It accounts for 60% of all such delays.
So when a passenger tries to make it onto the train as the doors are being closed, the train conductor needs to open the doors for him or her again and that results in a delay of a few seconds for that particular train, but the delay adds up to a few more seconds for the train waiting behind it, and even more for the trains waiting further behind.
Another 12% of short delays are due to helping passengers who become sick. When you have to stand around for a long time on the train and you’re not feeling too well to begin with, you may sometimes collapse. In such a case, you’ll be helped to get off at the next stop by passengers around you and once you’re carried outside at the next station, the station staff there will look after you.
I’m not very proud about it, but I actually have first-hand experience in this. When I was young, I didn’t bother to eat breakfast or lunch one day because I was so busy and I hadn’t eaten much for dinner on the night before, and I was standing in the train for like 30 minutes and I went dizzy and passed out from anemia probably.
Did you happen to know that you are incapable of feeling embarrassed when you are unconscious? I clearly made a scene, but I didn’t see it myself because the next thing I saw was the ceiling of the next station. So let us all eat breakfast.
The number one reason for delays of over 30 minutes is suicide. Some people, one morning, decide to jump in front of the train instead of jumping on the train to work. It occurs rarely, fortunately, but the report says 49.4% of long delays are caused by suicides, and another 24.8% are lunatic persons trespassing onto railways.
But suicides. Never, ever do that because first of all that’s a crime it’s a sin for some of you, and also because they will catch you and fine you an amount just enough that you will feel sorry about being born. Also it’s said that if you succeed in suicide, the railway company will send your family their condolences and also a bill for damages that’s just enough to make them feel sorry about life in general.
The economical impact of stopping a train line for half an hour is in fact gigantic because railways are in effect the bloodline of almost all labor of the city. So anyway, it’s best not to interfere with railway companies. Do not piss them off.
Of course as long as you are not being disruptive, railway staff are like the nicest people on Earth. Many railway companies train their staffers to communicate with visitors from abroad in English, and hospitality is a default code of conduct for all employees.
Even if they can’t handle your inquiries due to language barrier, they’ll go out of their ways to help you out, so if you find yourself lost at a train station in Japan, don’t hesitate to ask for help.
The secret feature of commuter trains
So railway companies have already nailed safety, punctuality and hospitality, so comfort is also something they address. Rush hour train rides are no one’s favorite activity, because you get pushed around by strangers, pressed up against strangers and you get stepped on by complete strangers multiple times every day. Sometimes you can hardly breathe! On really bad days you feel like crap first thing in the morning at work.
So although it has been less crowded in the morning because many people started working from home since COVID, doing something about congestion will help people to not feel exhausted by the time they get to the office, which will help to improve their productivity, which will in turn have major positive impact on the Japanese economy.
You know, talking about this, I just felt like throwing a thought in there. The labor productivity of Japan has been the lowest among the G7 countries for a long time. Why is that? Until recently, Japanese people had worked long overtime hours, which means they were overloaded with work, management skills were generally poor, or employees slacked off in the daytime or all of the above, but I’d like to hypothesize that losing half their energy on the commuter train before even getting to work most probably, also had a bit to do with their low productivity.
Now congestion occurs because during rush hour, the number of passengers exceeds the number of people the trains can carry. So the obvious first idea for how to address congestion is: “Well, why don’t you add more cars to each train?” But I don’t think that’s very possible because that’ll mean all the station platforms of the over 700 train stations in Tokyo need to be extended, and it’ll be a project that’ll take maybe quarter of a century and an astronomical budget to complete, so it’s not going to happen.
So railway companies, or I should say train manufacturers, have come up with a more budget remedy. If you travel to Tokyo, there’s a high chance you will ride the Yamanote Line. It’s the green JR line – the green Japan Railway line that stops at Shibuya, Harajuku, Shinjuku, Ueno, Akihabara and Tokyo station, which cover a lot of the places international guests are interested in visiting.
The Yamanote line stops at many huge stations in strategic locations in terms of commerce and business, so naturally it is one of the busiest train lines in Tokyo. Now, the next time you get on the Yamanote line, please take a look at its doors from the inside.
You’ll notice that the door is not perfectly perpendicular to the floor. In fact it’s shaped like the letter J. So if you trace the outline of the door, starting from the bottom, it goes up at around a 20 degree angle, and then goes straight up towards the ceiling. There’s more room at the height of your legs and above than at the floor.
It wasn’t financially practical to extend or expand the station platforms for JR, so they widened just the internal space inside the train cars so more people can fit. So you have more space to be pushed around in. I’ll post a photo to make my point better in the blog post for this podcast.
Of course it doesn’t resolve the rush hour discomfort entirely, but it does make people’s lives just slightly easier. To me, this “doing everything possible within your control” type of mentality is so Japanese, or Asian I should say.
Many Asian countries are prone to many natural disasters like earthquakes and typhoons, and we’ve learned to suck it up. We wouldn’t dream of defying an uncontrollably large power like nature, but would do everything we can think of to lessen the damage.
Japanese mindfulness seen on trains
If you visit Tokyo in winter, like right now. I’m recording this podcast in February, it’ll be mighty cold. Not like Russian cold, but the temperature gets as low as 0 degrees in Celcius or 32 degrees in Fahrenheit.
And when you get on the train and take a seat, you’ll notice and appreciate that the seats are made of wooly synthetic cloth, and that all the seats are heated. There are built-in heaters under the seats, and they warm people from their butts.
I sat on a seat in a train on a really cold day yesterday and I almost teared up by the thought that there was at least one person who came up with the idea of heating passenger butts and railway companies taking action on it, so that life becomes slightly more bearable for everyone.
Someone was mindful of butts and entire organizations realized the idea. I felt grateful when I realized that I was living in a culture that this actually happens.
The Japanese train experience of yesteryear
Now, since Corona, the Japanese train experience has changed a bit. In a good way, mostly. It’s less crowded, fewer people are frustrated or in a hurry because life has slowed down.
Before, more people had to work long hours overtime so in the evening, there would be lots of really tired men and women sleeping on the train. But it wasn’t that there was a risk of being robbed or pickpocketed. That just almost never happens in Japan. There was a different kind of risk.
So when you’re sitting on the train, there is a slight chance where the person sitting next to you may doze off and use your shoulder as a headrest. Again, they’re extremely tired so these people wouldn’t wake up so easily.
So when I was a naive young man, I would dream of having my shoulder used by a pretty young woman. I think everyone did. It actually happened to me twice during my youth. It was when smartphones were not around so people either read a book or a newspaper, stared at the air in front of themselves, or dozed off. So it happened quite often. It happens less now, I think.
But sometimes you would be sitting in the train and you see it happen across the aisle. But it’s not a pretty young woman who’s dozing off. It’s a tired, greasy middle aged man, or in Japanese, an “ojisan” resting his head on another person’s shoulder. Oh no.
You see the displeased look on the victim’s face. Some people would give the ojisan a nudge as an attempt to wake him up. But that never works. The ojisan would then bounce to the opposite side to rest his head on the shoulder of the person sitting on his other side.
He would get rejected once again, or the new victim may even stand up to change seats, and the ojisan would fall sideways on the seat next to his, taking up two-people worth of space and make a bed for himself, snoring, while people around him would try to pretend he didn’t exist at all.
Nobody feels good seeing that. So actually the sleepy head tilt was a dreaded event on the train. It happens much less now, fortunately.
Another thing about the Tokyo train experience of yesteryear I want to mention here is the hot girl spotting. So again, when I was young and not many people were busy looking down into their smartphones, every time I got on the train and found my spot to sit or stand, the next thing I did was to subconsciously spot the prettiest lady in that train car.
It’s not that I wanted to stare at her. In Japan you’re a freak if you stare at people. But something about my young maleness made me feel the need to acknowledge the location of the prettiest lady in the car. Because you know, if you live in Japan, you live with earthquakes. You never know what’s going to happen. In case something happens, you want to know who you are going to rescue so that you can act quickly. You want to be on your feet.
That’s all changed now. Everyone’s busy on their phones. I’m busy on Instagram or on a cooking app to find out what I’m going to cook for my son the next day, and I don’t have much time to look around. Even if I did look around, potentially hot women would all be wearing masks.
Anyway, trains in Japan are not just a transportation means or infrastructure. They play an integral part in making our lives Japanese. And what’s fun is that you don’t have to be Japanese to experience it. Appreciating all the thought put into making the train ride a pleasant one and people watching on the train are forms of entertainment in themselves. So join us the next time you fly into Japan. In Tokyo, especially.
That’s it for today. Thank you for listening. Please check out my blog at www.metro-classic-japanese.net for more insights into the culture and life in Japan, or if you’re on Instagram, find me at @themetroclassic, and leave me a comment on how you felt or thought about any of my podcast episodes. Let’s talk! And with that, それでは、またお会いしましょう。