Trains in Japan; Quirky Questions I’ve Received Over the Years

Chad Thiele Updated April 13, 2019
Red Train in Japan

This is the first article in a Q&A series. I get asked a lot of questions. I suppose that’s a byproduct of being in Tokyo for over 20 years and putting myself out there to help others.

But hey, it’s fun. And I like helping.

So here are some of the questions I’ve answered several times over the years.

Is Talking on the Phone on the Train Banned in Japan?

No. It’s not banned.

But it’s an essential part of train etiquette in Japan. The Japanese people are generally very polite and talking on the phone in the train is culturally considered impolite.

Riding the trains as a foreigner in Japan, you’ll immediately notice the signs everywhere. Little pictographs are showing it’s wrong to talk on the phone while on the train.

It’s a bit strange… since talking is allowed. Well, quietly talking. It’s equally impolite to be loud and boisterous on the train.

That’s not to say the Japanese are against fun. You’ll see friends laughing from their conversations.

But they are very considerate of others, so you’ll rarely find them talking on their phones while riding the train.

You will see them texting, reading the web, or listening to music — when they aren’t sleeping.

Here is a fantastic video summarizing Japanese train etiquette.

Why is There So Much Advertising on the Trains?

This really isn’t so hard to understand, is it?

Imagine you’re the train company and have all this empty space with tens of thousands of eyeballs staring at it every day.

Just like any business, the Japanese owners of these train companies aren’t going to overlook opportunities to make some extra profits.

Plus it’s more interesting to look at than empty space.

I like to practice my Japanese reading from the kana in the ads. I know my wife gets really tired of me exclaiming “hey, I can read this one!”

Besides, sometimes there are some bizarre ads to keep you entertained — like this one:

Is There Really a Crazy Overcrowded Rush Hour Train?

Yep.

And it really is incredible to see. I’ve paid to get to the platform just to watch it… not to actually get on the train.

Go to any of the major stations during rush hour, and you can’t miss it. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before — even if you’ve seen the video online (I’ll share that below).

There have been people so sandwiched between others their feet were off the ground. They were literally floating.

Check out the train stuffing happening:

I love the comments on this video too: “When I grow up I want to be a train stuffer!” Haha!

A sub-question of this point may be:

Why do Japanese Workers Commute by Train During Rush Hour?

Wouldn’t it be better not to ride the train during mad rush hour in Tokyo?

I imagine it would be, but do you think the workers have a choice? I’m sure they’d prefer not to ride during rush hour too.

Living in downtown Tokyo is very, very expensive — so many choose to live in the Western suburbs. Check out my guide “Tokyo Orientation: Learn The Area, Enjoy The City More” to get your bearings.

How are the Trains So Punctual?

This really is impressive. Trains in Japan are famous for being punctual down to the minute.

While I think part of this is due to the technology built into the system, and the incredibly astute station attendants, there’s something else.

The Japanese consumer.

They’re more demanding than I remember in the U.S. Not in the rude, let’s yell loudly at people temper-tantrum, sort of way.

No. They vote with their yen — with their patronage.

If they’re unhappy with a product or service, they don’t keep using their money on it because it’s the cheapest around. They’re very willing to spend more just to get a product that actually fulfills their needs better.

And so the train companies don’t really have a choice.

Why is the train network so complicated?

Is it?

I mean, is it really any more complicated than any other big city around the world?

The remarkable thing about the train system in Japan is just how connected everything is. Sure, you may need to change trains a few times, but you can practically travel anywhere you want by train (and a little walking).

I think you’ll get used to it. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be using the trains without even thinking about it.

Here’a video that does a great job teaching you about taking the train in Tokyo:

Is it True Small Kids Ride the Train Alone in Japan?

Yep.

It sure is. Can you believe it?

I think as an American, the idea of a child taking public transportation alone is terrifying.

Not in Japan.

Crime is so low, and it is culturally acceptable, that kids can ride the train safely. Adults even sort of look out for the children, especially if they are frequently on the same trip from day-to-day.

Here’s a fantastic video showing an independent 7-year old Japanese girl — including her train ride to school.

Why Do So Many People Sleep on the Train?

This one is pretty simple to explain too.

The average Japanese worker works long hours. They’re exhausted.

Some of them have very long commutes to get back to the suburbs. This is their mini-break before getting home to more responsibilities.

As you can imagine, with the long work hours and then more to do at home, many Japanese are chronically short on sleep.

The real reason people can sleep on the train though is this. The crime rate in Japan is so low. While there are thieves, pick-pocketing is so rare people can comfortably sleep.

Here’s a fun video showing people sleeping on the trains.


That’s all for now. As I get new questions that I feel could add to this article, I’ll add them here.

What do you think? Have you ever wondered the answer to some of these questions?