Subway manners posters have admonished commuters not to whack fellow commuters onto the tracks with their rockabilly hair, avoid grabbing the station employees by their neckties, and stop dying from overwork, but this is the first time they’ve taken on rudeness in time of pandemic.
Dashing onto a car just as the doors close and phone zombies causing head-on collisions have always been frowned upon, but others have joined them in this “nuisance ranking” with new (and slightly unfair) twists.
But did you notice something else about these new “nuisances”? They’re all drawn in comic book style to make it seem like no particular group is being singled out for bad behavior, but all the subway scofflaws except the guy sneezing all over his fellow commuters have red or yellow hair, while most of the victims have dark hair, Japanese clothing, and Japanese body language.
And while most of the egregiously manspreading commuters I’ve seen are middle-aged Japanese men, only foreigners sit with their legs crossed or elbow resting on the empty seat nest to them, and only foreigners who haven’t had shoe etiquette drummed into them from an early age let the soles of their shoes touch anything but the ground.
Drawing attention to the fact that the way you’re used to doing things is less than polite in the country you’re visiting is a pretty legit heads-up, but the one with the woman toting grocery bags filled with bread, butter and wine is pretty obviously aimed at foreign residents.
And unfairly so. It’s true that I’ve never seen a Japanese person burdened with household goods on the subway. You know why? All Japanese know that for a few hundred yen (even for huge rugs and such) the store will messenger your purchases to your apartment so you don’t have to carry it home by train or taxi. Even groceries were routinely delivered before there was a pandemic, because lugging multiple bags up and down the subway steps and onto the train is not for the weak. But most foreigners don’t know about this until long after they arrive, so they end up like the woman in the picture while buying the stuff they need to set up their apartments. And even when they do discover the joys of takyubin, it takes pretty advanced Japanese read-and-write chops to fill out the detailed messenger form in triplicate at the store.
This subtle blaming of foreigners for “nuisance” behavior isn’t completely undeserved, but I’ve seldom seen it called out so blatantly before.
And if you’re up for a deeper dive into the ups and downs of being a stranger in a strange land, I’d like to introduce you to Robin Swann in The Last Tea Bowl Thief…
“Without question, the best book I have read all year.” —Susan Spann, author of the Hiro Hattori mysteries and CLIMB
Writing mystery books set in Tokyo is mostly what I do, but I also blog about the odd stuff I see every day in Japan. I'm a graduate of Stanford University and the Sendagaya Japanese Institute in Tokyo, and a member of the International Thriller Writers, the Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters In Crime. When I'm not in Tokyo, I live in San Francisco. I also host a travel site called The Tokyo Guide I Wish I'd Had, so if you're headed to Japan and want to check out the places I take my friends when they're in town, take a look!