Japanese train manners: for the most part they’re just common courtesy and being a decent human being. There are though, a few written and unwritten rules of ettiquette meant to speed you along your train ride without incident or bother.
1) Common Courtesy
Give your seat to the elderly, expecting mothers, and handicapped. Since they’re Japanese they will, in good manners, refuse you a few times at first, but don’t be fooled: they really do want that seat. So just get up, gesture to the seat, and say “dozo” (roughly, “please do” in this case.) Then walk away, leaving no room for their politeness to interfere with your gesture of goodwill. (You may then want to watch covertly as they hesitate to accept your old seat, finally doing so after much consideration.)
Now for a bit of cultural knowledge, let’s start on the platform.
2) That yellow line in front of the edge of the train platform
You might call it the suicide line. It’s the danger zone. Don’t step over that while a thousand ton train is speeding towards you. It’s even bumpy so the blind know it’s there. Japan is very courteous to the blind, and those bumpy yellow lines can be found on many Japanese sidewalks and train stations.
3) Don’t smoke
This is of course common sense on the train, but it’s goof manners to not even smoke on the platform. If you need to light up, don’t worry though. There is a special smoking room for those who wish to indulge in the habit. Smaller Japanese train stations won’t have these though, so just do your smoking away–and downwind–from the crowd.
4) Japanese Wait In Lines
If your culture doesn’t, when in Japan, do as the Japanese. Before the train even arrives there will be a line at the marks on the platform that show where the doors will stop. Just be careful as to which you stand in front of, as several types of trains may make stops at that particular platform, and the locations of the each train’s doors may be different.
5) Let The Passengers Off
When the train arrives, it’s good manners to stand off to the side with everyone else to while the other passengers depart. This helps speed things up and lets you get and everyone else get on faster. Just try and snag a sat quick.
6) Priority Train Seats
Snatch a seat quick, especially if you’re in a big city. But don’t sit in the seats marked for the elderly, handicapped, injured, or pregnant. (Unless you happen to be among them.) These are usually marked as priority seats in Japanese and English. So don’t sit in grandma’s seat. It’s just good manners.
7) Women Only
In larger cities, pay attention to which car you get on. The emergence of train molesters who take advantage of the packed cars has created a need for “women-only” cars. (Here’s a link all about them from A Japanese Diary.)
So now that you’re on the train, and hopefully got a seat, let’s move on to in-car manners.
8) No Talking On Cell Phones
When I ask my Japanese friends what bothers them in trains, the first thing they say is “people talking on the cell phone.” On Japanese trains, talking on your cell is bad manners. Texting, email, and surfing the net is acceptable, but only without sound. When you first step on there may be an announcement or some type of sign asking you to put your cell on “manner mode” while on the train, which just means to mute it.
Talking is okay, but quietly.
10) Unstaffed Train Stations
Unless you’re travelling/live in a big city, you may run into mujineki. Roughly translated, this means unstaffed train stations. Usually they’re the tiny neighborhood stations. If you’re getting off at one, the protocol depends on the train line. Sometimes you will hand your ticket to the train staff, other times there will just be a little drop box for you to slip it into. If you have to give your money to the train staff and don’t have exact change, at the front of the train there will sometimes be a change machine you can use. If you ask how to use it, some drivers (with bad manners themselves) will just glare at you and point to it. What they are “not” saying is to just put your bills in the machine. It will then spit out change, which you can use to pay the bad-mannered driver. Just remember that it’s not a fair machine though, and you still need to pay the train staff.
Also, if you get on at a mujineki and don’t see a ticket machine, there will likely be a little boarding slip you can get somewhere near the door after you enter the train. Give this and your money to the staff at your destination station. Even if you miss it you can always just tell the staff “whatever eki kara” (from whatever station) and they’ll tell you how much you owe.
Also, on some train lines with a lot of mujineki, not all the doors will open. Often it’s just the first door of the first car. So if you’re traveling through the country you may want to sit in one of those cars until you know if every door opens or not, lest you miss your stop.
Japan’s train system is extremely convenient, especially if you live in a big city. And now that you’re in the know, you should get along just fine. Will everyone follow Japanese train etiquette? Of course not. I’m not just talking about foreigners either. There will be Japanese who don’t mind their manners too, because rudeness knows neither color nor creed. But, here’s to being better than them.