Priority in Japan

I feel like I’ve talked about this before. I’m almost sure I have. But it is such an ordinary aspect of daily life. So, here we go.

One of the aspects about my life in Japan that I value, is that I can maneuver the city without needing a car. Sure, I’ve been lucky in them at the three cities I have lived in, from suburban to super urban, have all had dependable and convenient public transportation. I feel comfortable saying that this is the standard over here, even as I have certainly visited locations where owning a car is a necessity.

And, of course, some people just like owning cars. It is something they want in their lives. And cheers to them. I’m simply saying that I am so glad that I rarely, if ever, feel the need to own a car especially in Tokyo.

But, as I ride the train I constantly see bad manners hard at work.

No. Scratch that. What I see is a constant callous behavior that reeks of selfishness.

On practically every car of every train there are designated areas of priority seating. This seats are pretty easy to recognize. They are usually upholstered in a different colored fabric from the rest of the train. Many times even the railing and handgrips are noticeably different.

Priority seats are supposed to be for those with small children, the pregnant, the aged, the infirm. Instead, they seem to be the targets of the Tokyo salaryman. They dash to unoccupied priority seats, plop themselves down, and generally refuse to acknowledge anyone who might deserve a seat.

Even as I write this (on a train) I have watched young salaryman pass by other open seats in order to have a more secluded spot in a priority seat.

Everyday, a majority of those I see sitting in priority seats are not those designated for priority, but salarymen.

Not everyone is bothered by this, of course. And there is some common pushback to complaints about salarymen monopolizing such seats.

1) if the seats are open, anyone can sit there. Sure. On the surface this sounds fine. It’s a seat. Make use of it. But it falls apart in practice. First off, the salarymen seldom move for those needing seats. They feign sleep. Stare into their phones. Or just don’t move.

Combine this with social education teaching most people to avoid conflict, and the salarymen take advantage. Compound it with widespread tales of these men lashing out at those trying to claim seats rightfully theirs, and you lower the likelihood of those with priority even attempting a seat. Why try the seats you know salarymen are gunning for, when you might have better luck with the rest of the train.

True story: when my wife was pregnant with our first child she was warned against asking a priority seat due to a rumor of men getting angry and punching or kicking pregnant women in the belly. There were no news stories that I could find to back up this rumor, but the underreporting and lack of importance on violence against women is so strong in this country, that many saw it is safer to not take the chance.

2) Salarymen work harder than most, so they deserve the seats as well. This claim is such garbage that I barely want to write it, yet it is so persistent that I should include it. Do salarymen work hard? Maybe. I’m sure some do. Or at least they put in long hours.

But while that might make them feel more entitled, it does not make them more deserving. And that is one of the factors. Japan has many good things going for it, but, as a system, it still values the comfort of men far more than the discomfort of anyone else.

This is changing slowly. Women and other minorities within Japan are slowly finding a voice. But men are still prioritized and their bad behavior is still excused.

This is, after all, the country where earlier this June the labor minister, Nemoto Takumi, commented on the issue of business forcing women to wear high heels: “It is socially accepted as something that falls within the realm of being occupationally necessary and appropriate.”

Or, to translate, [I like looking at women in high heels, so who cares if their feet are being crushed.]

To sum up, we can’t give a group of people tacit permission to act in their own selfish interests while ignoring the needs of those we have collectively agreed could use some extra help.

But, there is little to no pushback against the bad behavior of salarymen. They are allowed to do as they please without comment.

In short, this amazing country that actively promotes the superiority of its manners, falls short in many areas especially in the areas that contain priority seating.

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