These are the seven things you should know before riding a train in Japan. The Japanese are very conscious of how their behavior affects the people around them. There seems to be a set of unwritten rules that almost everyone in society follows when it comes to public behavior. As a visitor to Japan, it’s beneficial to know these rules in advance before getting on your first train.
7 Rules of Japan Train Etiquette
1. Turn off Your Cell Phone Ringer
To give you an idea of my age, I got my first cell phone when I was living in Japan. The technology had just moved into the small flip phone era, and I was proud of my new shiny status symbol. Unfortunately, I was unaware of the hidden rules that surrounded having a cell phone in Japan and was promptly given the stink eye the first time my phone rang while I was on a train.
I was promptly informed by my friend that a cell phone ringer should be turned off and set to vibrate when riding on a train, subway or bus. It doesn’t stop there though, it is basically anywhere that is quiet and there are tons of people in close proximity of each other.
You see, public transportation in Japan is very quiet and often quite relaxing. So when a phone ringer goes off, that peace and quiet that everyone was enjoying is suddenly disrupted.
2. Use Headphones to Watch Videos or Play Games
This rule is an extension of the first rule. No matter how funny a video is or how awesome a new game may be, the sounds alone are just obnoxious noise to the surrounding people. So if you want to watch a video, or play a game, pop in some headphones and enjoy it all to yourself.
3. Don’t Talk on the Phone
Japan is no different than the USA, or any other country for that matter, when it comes to people’s love for their phone. On any given train, subway or bus ride almost every person will have their eyes fixated on their phones. The one thing you will not see often, is a Japanese person talking on their phone while riding public transportation.
If their phone rings, they may answer quickly and in a low voice to inform the person on the other end that they are currently on a train and will call back once they reach their destination. If on the bullet train, they may get up and go to the area between trains to continue the conversation.
4. Keep Your Voice Down
It’s not library quiet so there is no need to whisper, but there is also no need to tell everyone on the train. I often see groups of tourists, from all parts of the world, chatting away as if they were in a nightclub and needed to talk over loud music. This really isn’t necessary because, more often than not, the train is relatively quiet and a soft inside voice would suffice.
The image above is an actual poster displayed in the Tokyo Metro subway stations. It is Japan’s way of telling passengers about the rules of behavior while riding the train.
5. Keep Your Shoes off the Seats
It is customary to remove your shoes before entering a house, a temple and even some restaurants. Shoes are considered dirty and wearing them inside or putting them on a seat is considered a huge faux pas. Taking shoes off and putting feet on the seat is a little better, but still quite unusual. To be safe, just keep your feet in your shoes and on the ground.
6. Don’t Inconvenience Others with Luggage
Just about every train and subway I have ridden in Japan has space above the seats to store luggage. If you are on a long haul train, it is best to put larger bags and suitcases above the seats. The bullet train Shinkansen has ample room to fit even the largest of suitcases with ease. If transiting on a city train or subway, just try not to inconvenience other commuters.
The Shinkansen has very comfortable seats with a deep recline. Some tourists don’t realize that keeping their suitcases at their feet prevents the seat in front from reclining. It is also important to keep the aisles free for people to walk by, so the snack cart can pass and in case of an emergency.
7. Take Your Backpack off on Crowded Trains
This is an extension of rule number 6. Trains and subways in Japan are used by just about everyone. Few people, especially in cities, drive to work. Driving is more of a leisure activity than a necessity. With all of these people commuting every day, trains can get very crowded.
If you’re standing and wearing a backpack, like I often do, you may need to make space on a crowded train. To do this you can either remove your backpack and hold it, flip it around to your front or place it on the luggage rack above the seats. I usually opt for holding it or flipping it around front.
These rules are not written in stone and there will always be an outlier, or two, that ignores the social norms. These rules come from my experience of living and working in Japan and from my Japanese friends that have pointed it out to me, often because I was the person doing it.
Also, Japan has millions of tourists each year from Korea, China, Singapore, Philippines and Thailand. Though close in proximity, these countries have very different social rules than those of Japan.