Here is a cultural lesson quiz for those of you considering coming to Japan based on a real life situation I recently encountered.
On a crowded train which has just stopped at a station, a woman gets up and leaves the train, leaving an empty seat on the bench. A man standing near the seat waits the requisite 5 seconds to ensure nobody else is going to sit down there, and begins to gather his bags so he can sit down. At the same moment, another woman enters the train and sees the empty seat and makes her way toward it. Unfortunately for both of them, their views of each other are blocked by other people standing in the aisle.
They both arrive at the empty seat almost simultaneously, to each other’s surprise. After a moment of awkward silence, each politely defers the seat to the other.
Question: Who ultimately gets the seat?
Now the savvy Japanese culturalist among you will be quick to point out that I have left out some critical information, which is the ages of the two people. For it would be easy to answer this question if one person was younger than the other ; the eldest would sit. But as I did not engage in an extensive interview with either party and the age difference was not apparent, let’s say that they were exactly the same age.
The next question that you might ask is in what part of Japan this took place. Because, for example, if this were in Kansai, the people might have boldly asked their fellow Osakans to scooch a little closer together and make room for both of them. Let’s say this happened in Tohoku where people are a little more modest with one another.
Finally, there might be those among you who ask why this even matters. The reason it matters is because one day you might play the role of one of these two people and you will thank me for imparting knowledge that keeps you from appearing as a fresh off the plane barbarian from the West.
So now that we have addressed all of the relevant questions, let’s hit the play button on our scenario and see what happens.
Nothing. For the next 20 minutes until both parties reach their destination, neither sit in the seat. Both stand, literally a foot from that precious, inviting seat. And no one else nearby who silently witnessed the exchange will sit down either. The seat has become, for this trip, a throne of shame to anyone who dares sit in it.
Since it was impossible for the parties to determine by social standards who should sit, nobody sits. And anyone standing nearby who tried to sit might as well spit in their faces. It would be like saying “I’m more important than both of you, so I will take the seat.”
The moral of the story : upon boarding a crowded train and spotting an empty seat nobody is trying to sit in, don’t take it. It’s a trap.