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10 ways to get a seat on a packed commuter train in Japan

60 Comments
By Percy Gaston

Whether you have traveled here yourself, had a buddy who lived here or just happened to stumble upon a YouTube clip, you most likely are already aware of how packed Japanese trains can get during rush hour.

However, if you are only traveling through Tokyo for a short stint and don’t leave your hotel until after 9 a.m., you will surely miss the tsunami of human flesh flooding stations between 7 a.m. and 8:50 p.m. every Monday through Friday (except national holidays). But those of you like me, who live and thrive in this metropolis, stuffed trains, elbow wars and crushed toes are a daily ritual in the land called Japan.

But no longer. If you follow my 10 tips, I guarantee you will be able to grab a seat on any commuter train during rush hour, starting your day a lot less stressful than most other salarymen.

Stand in front of people sitting down

This is basic. Standing by the door or anywhere else besides directly in front a person already sitting down will greatly diminish your chances of grabbing a seat. Whenever possible, head straight for the an open spot in front of sitter and weigh yourself down like a sumo wrestler after an all-you-can-eat chankonabe party.

Fill in the gap

If you play sports, you probably know what I mean when I say body block your opponent. Line yourself up right in the middle of two sitters and when one of them gets up to disembark, naturally use your body to “guide” them to the exit you want them to use while blocking would-be sitters from grabbing your seat.

Know the popular stations

One basic fact of all humans – even Japanese – is that we are lazy. And all lazy people want to get to work with the least amount of effort possible. Instead of choosing a train car that puts you closer to the exit at your desired stop, pick a train car that lines up next to an exit at a heavily trafficked station. Once the masses exit the train, you’ll find that you’ll have your pick of the litter of the best seats available.

Look out for bobblehead syndrome

These people are my favorites. Anyone who arrives at a station and suddenly peers outside of the train with a “What…where am I??” look on their face is, most likely, about to be getting up soon. Line yourself up right in front of them and enjoy.

Ignore narcoleptics

Sitters sleeping on packed commuter trains are doing so for one reason only – because they can. These people are most likely riding to the last stop (or somewhere close to the last stop). Aiming for this person’s spot is a pointless endeavor.

Babysit the kids

As a general rule, office districts and schools are not usually located in the same place. Although some junior high and high schools are located in the boondocks, most will be in the vicinity of where you actually live. This might take you a few rides but try to remember which stations students wearing a certain uniform get off. Also, as another general rule, the younger the child, the less they will be traveling (and the sooner you will have their seat).

Look out for the elderly

Like young children, the elderly do not travel far. (Note: Watch out for the "bucho" trap; avoid elderly Japanese men in dark suits because they are most likely making the long haul from their happy homes in the suburbs).

Spot who’s left holding the bag

When getting off a packed commuter train, grabbing bags from the above racks can be a formidable mission if not timed right. Sitters making use of the above racks are not worried about the time it takes to grab their bags and shimmy through masses before the doors close because they, like people sleeping on the train, are in for the long haul. Instead of lining up in front of these sitters, aim for those with bags safely placed in their laps or within arms reach.

The end of a chapter

Be on the lookout for sitters engulfed in reading a book but suddenly stop and store it away. If you are not in front of this sitter, get yourself next to this person ASAP because they are preparing to give one lucky person their seat. However, if they fall asleep after closing their book, run the other way.

Fumbling on the train

The last one is based on the same theory as the previous two. Be on the lookout for any sitter fumbling with their bag. This is the most obvious sign that the sitter is preparing to get off the train and your future seat will be vacated soon.

Follow these 10 tips and rest assure that your time riding commuter trains in Japan will be a whole lot less stressful.

© Japan Today

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

60 Comments
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No. 11 Find a gaijin, usually there's a big space beside them.

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knackerz, EXACTLY. just what i was going to post!

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That is so TRUE Knackerz. It works to our favor or at least I think so.

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Haha, so true knackerz.

This list is actually pretty good. You start to notice little things like this when you take the train often. Though the people who sleep on the train aren't always on until the last stop. I've seen people get on, droop for about 10 minutes, and then get off a stop or two later. It amazes me! And I always feel sorry for them, because obviously they must be really tired, haha.

And I am always that person looking outside the train with a bewildered look ("What? Where am I?") on my face after pretty much every stop.

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Great list, I use most of these techniques myself. I went from a n00b helplessly crushed in between the doors to scoring a seat 80-90% of the time.

It's worth waiting an extra couple of minutes to be at the front of the line for the next train - you might not get a seat right away, but you can get in the best position to score one.
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Look crazy, especially in front of a female. Stare them straight in the eyes. Or pretend you have jock itch (or maybe you really do) and deal with as guys normally do. She'll be so creeped out that she's gotta move.

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You also forgot to add the go one or two stops in the opposite direction to the terminal. For example, an Osaka classic: get on the Midosuji (the busiest line in Osaka) at Shinkaneoka ride one stop (less than two minutes) to Nakamouzu (the terminal where the train reverses), sit down and enjoy your seat for the 32 minute ride to Umeda.

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will JT start a train etiquette section? you could squeeze a new tab in between national and crime

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One More really good one: If you can ride the same car every morning. Then, you will start to remember where individual people get up! This takes some time, but when you get it down its worth it.

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I do almost all these, except the narcoleptic one - just this morning got a seat from one of these guys. I'd also add in stand in front of middle-aged women as they're less likely to be working in the city centre (or at all), studenty-types since universities are often located out of centre and people who look alert but aren't reading or playing with phone etc.

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Oh and the empty seat beside a gaijin point is crap and simply not true in my experience, in rush hour anyway. All seats taken all the time.

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Tarento: your comment cracked me up... especially the "(or maybe you really do)"

I know a friend with a bad gas problem who could probably clear out at least a whole row of seats.

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Save money and time. Buy a scooter or bicycle.

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Yep it's golden... Often there will be packed trains with NO seats... except for the 2 next to me. People will just stand... I'll give them space... they'll stand!

Eventually some guy who thinks he's being "international" or something will sit next to me as a statement.

At first I felt a little offended... until I realised I had more space even on packed trains (like a VIP or something.)

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"yokomoc" it's not "crap"... it's very true. People will eventually take the seat, but there's generally a lot of hesitation. If it's a short trip, people won't bother sitting if there's only 1 seat and it's next to a gaijin...

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I agree with yokomoc. I've never come across the 'we won't sit next to a gaijin' syndrome.

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nice list.

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Cleo, the seats beside me are always full, too. I do, however, see some empty seats beside Japanese people, quite often. And I am often the one to fill them.

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I've never come across the 'we won't sit next to a gaijin' syndrome.

Although it's always the last seat left unsat.

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I agree that there is such a thing as the empty-seat-next-to-a-gaijin and it happens quite a bit regardless of whether it has in fact happened to any posters on here. Not to sound snooty here but I am a man of impeccable hygiene and am well dressed for work. Notwithstanding, when I first got here I had an empty seat at least 1 or 2 times for every 10 times I rode the train. That's a heck of a lot more than it happens to Japanese folks. Ever since, out of principle I have refused to sit on the train next to any Japanese no matter how empty and no matter how many spaces there are.

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Is it ok to ask kids to get up for older people? and when they dont take the seat you do? :)

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it's always the last seat left unsat.

No Nessie, can't say I've ever noticed that. Then again I'm not so insecure or self-centred (though I admit I am pretty self-centred) that I see everything around me in terms of 'Japanese reacting to me as a gaijin'.

I do, however, see some empty seats beside Japanese people, quite often.

lol When there's an empty seat next to a Japanese person, it's just that there happens to be an empty seat. When there's an empty seat next to a non-Japanese person it's because everyone on the train is racist and/or has a gaijin complex.

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I start my commute each morning at ChuoRinkan on the Denentoshi-sen. I catch an early train and it is the start of the line so I have a seat. But by the time the train gets to Shibuya, forget about it. However, I recently started shaving my head, and keep a toothpick in my mouth. Absolutely no one will sit next to this Gaijin, which is me. I have also found that wearing flip flops helps. Just keep your nice shoes and socks tucked away in a dirty bag. You can put that on the seat next to you by the way. And, do not throw or recycle old beer cans away. Wash them out, and fill them with tea or coffee, but not strong smelling, as you want them to think you are drinking. Cig behind the ear helps too, and I do not even smoke. And wear a little sign on your lapel that says in English, I no speak Japanese. I get off train at Sapporo, please wake me when I am there. Voila!

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And wear a little sign on your lapel that says in English, I no speak Japanese. I get off train at Sapporo, please wake me when I am there.

Absolutely genius!

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Cleo, exactly. From what I see every day, the main driver behind whether a seat remains empty is the space available. It just so happens that on average, westerners including myself have wider bodies than Japanese (read wider not fatter, for the easily offended), and so what some people see as xenophobia is more like claustrophobia ;)

It might be different out in the sticks, but I'm only speaking from a greater Tokyo perspective, and here believe it or not, westerners on trains are pretty passe.

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I've never come across the 'we won't sit next to a gaijin' syndrome either, but maybe that's because I never travel by train alone? I'm always with at least one of the kids, and sometimes my Japanese hubby too, so perhaps I'm not so threatening as a younger, sleeker, solitary gaijin giving out vibes of confidence? Just looking at the bright side there, otherwise I'd suggest giving out fumes from both ends or something.

LOL at Yelnats claims of his new look! If only it was true, we'd be able to spot him a mile off. Funny thought though, and I can guarantee it would work in most countries. Especially this one, and even if it was a Japanese person with shaved head, beer can, fag, dirty bag & toothpick. Hell, he'd scare me away for sure!

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@Yelnats- Too funny! I do almost the same thing on the Chuo line! Except the shaved head bit, that would be a little too weird for this girl. However, I always get a seat to myself and no chikan, so it's a win-win!

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Yelnats - great stuff! I think I've seen your Japanese twin on the trains. Noone sat next to him either...lol

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dammit

LOL at Yelnats claims of his new look! If only it was true, we'd be able to spot him a mile off. Funny thought though, and I can guarantee it would work in most countries. Especially this one, and even if it was a Japanese person with shaved head, beer can, fag, dirty bag & toothpick. Hell, he'd scare me away for sure!

It does work. I do it.

There are many other ways to get some space too on these crowded trains.

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Not often, but it has happened to me on trains and buses where the only empty seat is next to me and perhaps that makes people think there is something wrong with the space. Doesn't really bother me. I guess some people get sweaty at the thought that they may be asked a question in a foregn langauge. Well done to the education system here. Not.

As to the topic above, a couple of times recently I have been offered a seat by some young person. Do I really look so old nowadays?

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Yeinats - By the time that train gets to Minami-Rinkan you can forget about it. ( Been there done that )

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ALways carry a bag with the tag "Onakano nakani akachyan ga imasu":)

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ataro - What about guys who want a seat?

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ataro - I doubt that would work even if you're a pregnant woman.

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If you're riding the Tokaido Line, get on the green car, take any of the numerous empty seats ( the adjoining cattle cars are packed like sardines ) turn on your cloaking device and enjoy the ride as the conductor walks right by you. ( there's a small chance someone will sit on you, but they'll immediately get up and choose another seat at the far end of the car )

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Amusing! It's been so long since I was a regular on public transport (primarily buses) in Japan, I can't really remember whether people were reluctant to sit next to me. Don't think there was any particularly noticeable reluctance, though.

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zaichik - How the heck did you ever get a seat on the bus? No, wait, that's getting off-topic, it has to be about trains... OK, how the heck did you ever get a seat on the train?

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Great comments, folks.

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Some pretty funny comments. I've seen Japanese guys with shaved heads, and no one seemed to avoid them so I don't really get that one (unless it's the cliche yakuza stereotype you were going for, but then you're missing the trench and sunglasses ; )). I actually did catch one Yak who got off at Shinjuku mid-day. Some uni student type was leaning lackadaisically against a partition, until he looked up and saw the guy standing in front of him. The look of fear on the poor kid's face was palpable.

For all of the hassle, I'd just rather stand to be honest but I guess some of you really do love your seats.

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I think that the "fill in the gap" strategy works well too. Usually when I fill in the gap, the gap widens, because one of the two beside me will get up and move to the other car.

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just glad I don't have to use the trains for work here, yuck. Enjoy folks, not for yourock. One lucky puppy.

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Nessie, if you hope to get your gaijin/seat thesis to hold water, how are you going to defend it against this simple catch 22:

Foreigners cannot possibly be seated on a Japanese train, without having gotten an empty seat on a Japanese train, with lots of Japanese in it. The Japanese are discriminating against themselves. It is the only way to explain the presence of empty seats (in which you sit down) next to them. And if the Japanese discriminate against everyone who IS a foreigner, as well as everyone who IS NOT a foreigner, then really they discriminate against nobody.

Please respond.

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How long before we can just "beam" ourselves to work, as in Star Trek?? Solve all problems!

Really I don't even want to sit down on the commuter train anyway. You can easily find yourself next to the constant farter/ BO emitter/ Cancer stick reeker/bad breath from hell types, with no escape!

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Just stand. Lots of air, no one in your face. Except the ceiling is about a foot shorter than I'm used to.

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"How long before we can just "beam" ourselves to work"

The railways will never allow transporter technology.

"Really I don't want to sit down on the train anyway. You can easily find yourself next to the nearest farter/BO emitter/cancer stick reeker/bad breath from hell types, with no escape"

Heck, you can easily find yourself next to all of those types if you're standing, with no escape!

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Isn't this stuff what anyone who rides for more than a week figures out?

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Stand in front of people sitting down

if u tall enough stand very close 2 them with yo back to them!! They will sure give u the seat

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After consuming Quail Eggs, Uni and beer I have literally cleared out a whole car. Plenty of seats for the choosing.

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In my early years I did the train crap, you quickly figure out these techniques on yr own, thankfully after a few years I was working on my own so I wud head in after the rush but I got so I even hated doing that, now screw it I almost never have to go into tkyo on the cattle cars, I use highway buses sometimes. Now I start & finish most days at home & the office is a 25min drive.

I cud never go back to that non-sense of taking the trains in/out it wud kill me, good luck to you all but no bloody thx!

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Always try to figure out your commute so you're going against the traffic. It's the same here in the US. Ease the stress factor, and you will ease your pain and tension. Sometimes I wonder driving towards the sunrise on Venture Highway in LA is any better than being in a rush hour Tokyo commute. At least on a train, you're only worries are being body slammed by 100 other people. On the road, you're consistently a second away from 65 mph head on collision.

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LOL

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Sowhatnow. I agree, figure your route out first. I had a buddy that said "driving in New York is like going to war." I shot back, "driving in Chicago is like being a military advisor." My trip to Tokyo was made much more comfortable by the trains and a bit of English thrown in on the trains. I can't say I had much luck with a seat. Happy driving in LA. Or best of luck? Whatever.

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I wonder if there is actually anyone, anywhere in the world that is actually stupid enough to have found this article to be of any use?

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Nessie, if you hope to get your gaijin/seat thesis to hold water, how are you going to defend it against this simple catch 22:

Foreigners cannot possibly be seated on a Japanese train, without having gotten an empty seat on a Japanese train, with lots of Japanese in it.

False premise.

The Japanese are discriminating against themselves.

False premise.

It is the only way to explain the presence of empty seats (in which you sit down) next to them. And if the Japanese discriminate against everyone who IS a foreigner, as well as everyone who IS NOT a foreigner, then really they discriminate against nobody.

You seem to be missing my statement of evidence. I'm not making this argument because there is an empty seat next to me. I making the argument that I have notice a tendency whereby the last seat that is taken is the seat next to the foreigner.

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hi guys. ive spent almost 1 year in canada. i wanna give you the japanese perspective. for me, japanese people are willing to communicate with foreigners compared to other countries.

to a woman who says that japanese people dont wanna sit down next to foreigners: i think they just wanted to stand up. sometimes they dont wanna sit down. of course i cant generalize, but probably you just worried too much.

please respond.

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xxxtakxxx

for me, japanese people are willing to communicate with foreigners compared to other countries.

Are you talking about people inside trains in Japan or a science-fiction movie you just watched?

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Umbrella, if that was to happen, cars would be useless, America's, Japans, China's everyones economy would crash with devistating effects, how do I know this because where would all the cars go? what would the manufactures do? think of a space ship as in star trek? or your fantasy world? get real, lightspeed will never be available in life. It would take 4 thousand years to get up to that speed and another 4 million years to get somewhere and another 4 millon years to slow down. I'd rather drive to work, Thank you :) NOTE:::::: that lightspeed times were to the distant galaxy, so, if you can wait out that traffic jam, or that suicidal feeling, I Would appreciate it. :) By the way, (Im only 14 years old)

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Tak, on Tokyo trains, Japanese people are barely even willing to communicate with other Japanese

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Not sitting next to gaijin tends to be more common in Kansai than Kanto. On a packed commuter train, it's every salaryman for him/herself.

I try to ride a really early train in an attempt to get a seat. I use the same train line as Yelnats but at probably a much ealier time. To Shibuya, he's right, it is pretty much packed (although I did manage to get a seat from my stop this morning.) Going back at an earlier time, though, I am almost guarenteed a seat.

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Hmmm ... just shout "Allah akabar !" as loud as you can and the whole train car will magically empty itself :-)

Also, not bathing for, oh say, six months .....

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