A recent article in the media in Japan about the attitudes and behavior of able-bodied passengers toward reserved seating on trains reminded me of one of the few negative experiences I have endured as a disabled foreigner in Japan, and it pertains to the tricky art of acquiring use of the “priority seats.”
For the uninitiated, priority seats are those put aside for the disabled, elderly, pregnant and the young — usually a couple of benches at the end of each carriage. People often do give up a seat to those in need, save for the odd salaryman, who either pretends to be asleep or, on occasion, is drinking a can of beer.
If the latter is the case, the said salaryman is sometimes met by death stares from his fellow natives that seem to say, “Stop letting the side down.” It is quite heartening, actually, to see such concern for the collective self-image. The article pointed out that able-bodied passengers in Tokyo will often sit, at least until a person in need arrives, whereas people in Sapporo would often stand, even if the appropriate person in need never arrives.
It might surprise the reader to learn that, as a disabled person, despite the laudable intentions of the commuters of Sapporo, I prefer the Tokyo way of doing things, at least in this respect. When people do not or cannot sit on these seats, they stand just in front of them, often blocking access to the seat. This is not their fault — there may be nowhere to sit down — but it can make someone who is prone to involuntary muscle spasms worry that the commuter standing in front of them may fall victim to an unexpected and completely uncontrollable whacking. Of course, people might not be sitting down for a variety of reasons — maybe they only have a couple of station stops before home, and therefore don’t see the point.
When I first moved to Japan, rather than question their motives and actions, I simply thought that my hosts must be very gracious, often giving up their seats for me. They are kind, but recently I have noticed another aspect to the act — something that hints at a darker side to the exchange: the possibility that some Japanese people have a savior complex when it comes to surrendering seats.
The act of giving up your seat is a very public affair: You get up and give your seat to another commuter; if the train is busy, people may have to make room for you as you get up and they sit down, so people do notice when you give up your seat. That it is noticed imbues the act with a certain performative character, almost as if the one giving up is playing the central role in the play — “helping the unfortunate on the train.” There are certain rules and moves to this role, which, like a kabuki actor, you must execute with no deviation from the script. Let me talk you through the play.
Firstly, once you accept the role of seat giver-upper, you may show no signs of physical fatigue yourself. You may not sweat, sigh, yawn or show any signs of fatigue at all. It would simply be bad form to give up your seat to the physically encumbered and then look like you were complaining that you were tired. The person for whom the seat is being given up also begins their role at this point, and their first act is to accept the seat: Even if you do not need it, you must endure the comfy chair. Refusal to do so will be met with disappointment, disbelief and sometimes anger from the giver-upper. I have in fact been struck once for refusing the gesture.
Secondly, you may not sit down, even if another seat becomes available. That’s right — you chose to be a Good Samaritan, and giving up your seat means you can never get it back: You are condemned to a vertical train journey. Even if most of the seats are free in the priority section and the person you gave it up for has left the train, at least your fellow commuters will notice your act of generosity: Your transition to Savior of the Priority Seats commences.
Now, the third act: You must stand in front of the person who now occupies your seat, hanging from the handles. Why be charitable unless you can guilt the person you helping? That is the only reason I can think of to explain why people do this. If they were trying to help me as a disabled person they would sit down, and therefore be out of my way. But, no, I’ve found that even if you motion toward an empty seat, they will not take it: The role of seat giver-upper apparently requires martyrdom.
And so to the finale of this piece of theater, although since it is lesser performed, perhaps we should consider it an optional encore. I have had the dubious pleasure of seeing it at least twice, most memorably performed by a 30-something man on the Keio Inokashira Line traveling from Shibuya to Komaba-Todaimae, and, again, a few months ago, by an elderly woman on a Kyoto-bound train in Osaka. This is the part where our hero can expect lots of gratitude for their act of charity.
Being brought up to mind my Ps and Qs, I begrudge no one a few thank yous. However, there are some for whom, it seems at least, thank yous are not enough. In each instance, I thanked them with a single thank you and they looked visibly upset. I paused, bowed and repeated the thanks. I could swear a smile of relief rather than gratitude appeared on their faces. I imagine they thought: “I came on this train, sat down, then got up and with the selflessness of samurai facing battle, gave up my seat to the disabled foreigner. I stood there, eschewing the empty seats so that people could see me giving up my seat and recognize me as the Savior of the Priority Seats, and all I got for that was one measly thank you? Unbelievable!” Well no, actually, that’s just being a good person. Enjoy your journey. Mine’s the next stop.