Often people comment on the civility of Japanese train stations: people queuing on the platform in two lines before splitting down the middle into single file when the train arrives to allow room for those disembarking. The platform is marked to indicate precisely where the doors will open on a three or four door train so that passengers can assemble accordingly prior to boarding. I agree. It is a change from scenes in many of the world’s metropolises. But it is here that my awe of civility ends. Once on the train, something takes over the minds of Tokyoites, possessing them with a “survival of the fittest” mentality, a competitive instinct perhaps born of a need to remain afloat in a city of millions. As soon as the doors open, these lines that have been created in such an orderly fashion cease to have meaning. Passengers begin the mad rush, pushing and scurrying for any available seat, or if you miss out, the preferred area by the door or end of the carriage where you can lean against the railing. The sheer amount of people on Tokyo’s rail network is expected and unavoidable. I have often thought that this problem of overcrowding could be solved by having more trains, but then I quickly recall how often the trains come already (every few minutes) and think that probably the network is at full capacity, and trying to run more trains would be a safety nightmare. It is not the number of people that is surprising but the behaviour of those onboard.
It’s first come, first served. And never mind who you bowl over in the process: an old lady, a mother with a small child… Once I was traveling back home after a long day at work with some heavy bags. A seat became available directly in front of me. From what I have observed of train behaviour thus far, my fortunate location means that I get first dibs on the seat. However, I first scoured the carriage to see if there was anyone who might need the seat more than me but could only see young businessmen. Deciding it was safe to take a seat, I turned to sit down. Within that split second, a man had decided he wanted the seat, slid in behind me and sat down.
I almost ended up sitting on him! My first thought was, “How rude!” And secondly, “You’re a man and you think it is appropriate to literally steal a seat from under a woman?!” It was at this moment that I realized the role gender plays in my perceptions of train etiquette. If this had been a woman, would I have had the same reaction? Probably not. I would have thought it was rude but I would not have responded in gender terms. Is this sexist on my part? Maybe. Old-fashioned? Probably. But part of me believes that men behaving chivalrously towards women is the proper order of things. Men, technically the stronger of the species, should do the “manly” thing and stand. Are women weaker? At least, do we want to be considered weaker? Probably not. We have been fighting for so long to gain equal rights (which arguably have not yet been fully achieved), to say we can do things just as well as men. And, indeed, I support equality, not only on gender grounds. But in terms of physicality, yes, men are stronger.
That’s why women’s tennis matches are limited to three sets, and why men and women don’t compete against each other in the Olympics. It would be considered an unfair advantage for men if that were to be the case, hence the uproar over the recent hermaphrodite revelations. One night when I relayed the seat-stealing experience to my husband, he said, “I agree, that was rude but…” he questioned, “…do you think men should get up for women all of the time?” “Well, no”, I said. “If it is an elderly man or someone who is unwell, injured, or carrying a small child for example, then of course I don’t expect them to. In fact, I would insist they sit down before me. But if they are young enough and fully-abled, then I think they should. Maybe they don’t have to get up all of the time, but I think they should at least offer their seat”. Part of me agrees with my husband’s reasoning. He does have a point. If men and women are truly equal as we have fought so hard for, then men should have the same right to sit as women. But I still find myself continually aggravated as I see yet another person obviously in need of a seat when men who could easily stand don’t budge. They can look these people in the eye but have no conscience to even offer their seat? I stand in frustration as men sit while a heavily pregnant woman stands and an old lady struggles to stay upright as the train sways from side to side, barely able to reach the hand rail. Don’t they care? What if that was their heavily pregnant wife or their elderly mother, would they think differently? When they get old, wouldn’t they want someone to stand for them? So it is in this frustration, I ask somewhat of a controversial question: Is chivalry dead in Tokyo? Well…maybe not dead with no hope of revival. I have to admit I have seen some wonderful acts of generosity and kindness, all be they few and far between. But perhaps Tokyo’s chivalry is suffering some kind of long-term illness awaiting a cure.
Perhaps too, we cannot limit this issue only to Tokyo, but a trend plaguing many of our world’s cities. What will it take for things to change? Well, that depends. We only put effort into finding cures when we think there is a need for one.