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Subway manners meet covid—with a side of prejudice—in these new posters

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.

Japanese subway manners poster

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.

Japanese subway manners poster detail
The “don’t take up more than one seat” scolding has been expanded to include new beefs about people being obliviously rude when it comes to how other parts of their bodies annoy others
Japanese subway manners poster detail
The “don’t talk loudly or even play loud music with headphones” tsk-tsking has been expanded to denounce the dangers of pulling down your mask to speak, and talking to someone who’s not sitting right next to you. (Most commuters would prefer you not to talk AT ALL, but this elevates it into a legit sin against public health)
Japanese subway manners poster detail
And finally, frowning on “letting your stuff annoy others” has escalated from a schoolboy bonking grandma with his hella huge backpack, to a poor benighted soul who lugs a ridiculous amount of oversized shopping onto the train with her

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

Two women from opposite sides of the globe are both chasing the same missing artifact, but what happens when they discover that neither can get their hands on it without the other?…read more

Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, produces the monthly newsletter Japanagram, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

Jonelle Patrick View All

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!

9 thoughts on “Subway manners meet covid—with a side of prejudice—in these new posters Leave a comment

  1. My first thought when I saw this was ‘why do they all look non-Japanese’? I agree, if you look closer it’s even worse – the majority of the ‘louts’ don’t look Japanese but the ‘victims’ do. There’s a lot of conscious and unconscious racial bias in Japan. I’m not really sure what the producers of this were thinking (if anything). It always surprises me with these things that if there is some intention to get non-Japanese people to modify their behaviour why they don’t have the text in English as well? Is that because that would be considered more overtly racist? Is it because the actual purpose of this is to look down at non-Japanese people? What were they thinking (if anything?)

    You can get these things right. I go to a lot of sento and onsen. ‘Onsen etiquette’ posters are in multiple languages and I’ve never noticed one with racial bias in the characters. I’ll be looking a lot closer now though!

    • And you might not find it, but I’ll be very interested if you do! Thanks for your thoughtful comment—you made me realize that this poster is actually an even better reflection of discrimination in Japan than I first thought. It’s so subtle that hardly anyone notices it, at first. It doesn’t feel like an attack, doesn’t cause life-upsetting damage, doesn’t take a form that provokes marching in the streets. In fact, the artist may not even have realized they were making those choices. But the prejudices are there, running in a perpetual and unstoppable current, through all of Japanese society. The “nuisances” depicted in this poster are so much a part of Japanese culture, that when one foreigner does one of these things on the subway, nobody is surprised. They just nod their heads as it confirms their stereotypes. It sounds like you’ve lived in Japan long enough to feel that constant scrutiny too!

      • Right on. Just to add, maybe it’s just me, but I’ve *never* seen anyone take their groceries on the train in Japan and I don’t know any supermarkets that pack in (US-style?) handle-less paper carriers. Again, don’t know what they were thinking – bags laden with groceries certainly make a more interesting cartoon than a couple of oversized paper shopping bags. In fairness, the victim in this case doesn’t look Japanese 😉

      • True. And whew. But as for foreigners with groceries on the subway…guilty, guilty, guilty! The closest reasonably priced grocery store is two stops away from where I live, so I’m often doing a two-fisted grocery haul from the Nakameguro Tokyu (><;;) (Naturally, the bags are small and I smush them onto my lap to be even smaller, but arg, I must live in the only neighborhood in Tokyo where the produce on offer at my locals must be lovingly hand-raised by the Imperial family, or something.)

  2. Oh, so it’s all your fault :p Admit it, you jump over people to get on trains, spread your legs out and talk across strangers too :p Come to think of it, I’ve never seen this poster either. It’s clearly aimed at YOU 😀

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