Japanese train etiquette: how to behave on bullet trains

An important part of life in Japan is propriety and etiquette. It can be surprising to some tourists just how much effort goes into being polite and respectful of others and the environment. Given how widely the trains are used, it should be no surprise that people also take etiquette on trains very seriously. 

With one of the most precise and punctual train systems in the world, impoliteness and inconvenience isn’t taken lightly. As such, here are a few tips to help you get by when travelling on bullet trains with your Japan Rail pass without any hassles. 

Don’t take up more space than you need

This is good manners anywhere, but in Japan, it’s crucial that you’re willing to share space with others. Taking up too much seat space and doing things like having your luggage on seats next to you is considered very rude. If you have luggage, make sure that you keep it close to you, on you, or on the shelves that are overhead.

Don’t eat or drink (on most trains)

In the majority of cases, eating and drinking in public is not polite in Japan. This goes for the train, as well. However, long-distance train rides are considered an exception. If you’re unsure as to where the boundary is, look to see if there are trays and cup holders on your seat. Here, you can buy food on the train or bring your own. However, you should avoid foods with strong smells. Water is allowed on public transport, but not other kinds of drinks.

Don’t smoke

Some long-distance trains, such as the Shinkansen, have designated smoking cars that you can use. Otherwise, however, smoking is prohibited. In fact, smoking in public is not very common in Japan outside of designated smoking areas or restaurants and bars that allow it.

Don’t make much noise

Japanese trains can be crowded, and often people are using them to commute to and from work, so a lot of noise would be very detrimental to their trip. As such, you should do what you can to avoid making too much noise. Playing music or media, talking loudly with your companions, or making a commotion is considered very impolite. If you’re wearing headphones, make sure it’s low enough so that sound from them isn’t audible to the closest passengers.

Be considerate when using mobile devices

Whether it’s a tablet,.smartphone, or portable gaming device, you will see plenty of people using mobile devices on trains in Japan. However, you should use it only in a way that will not disturb the other passengers. Keep your phone on silent mode. If you’re listening to audio, then use your headphones. Similarly, you shouldn’t make phone calls unless you’re on the designated phone area of the shinkansen. If you’re near the priority seating area, you should turn your phone off so that there is no potential interference with pacemakers that older passengers might have.

Follow priority seating rules

There are priority seats that are near the door on most Japanese trains. If there are few people on the train, then you can sit here if you like. However, these seats are designated for elders, people living with disabilities, pregnant women and young children. If they board the train, you should give up your seat from them. Indeed, it’s common courtesy to give up your seat if there are no priority seats left to those who are in greater need of it, just as it is in many countries of the world.

Women-only cars

Some commuter trains will have cars that are distinctly labelled as being for women only. Often, this signage will be bright pink, be in multiple languages, or use the standard Venus/female symbol (♀). If you are a male, you should not board these cars. If you do board one accidentally, don’t step off the train, simply move to the next car.

On exiting the train

When your stop is coming up, it’s standard practice to begin moving towards the doors. This is so that you can get off the train quickly. Most people will automatically move out of the way, but you can catch their attention if they fail to notice you by giving a slight nudge and saying “sumimasen”, or “excuse me”, in Japanese. As with everywhere in Japan, it’s rude to leave anything behind you, especially trash, so carry it with you until you find a bin.

Hopefully, the tips above help you get along without hassle on the Japanese public transport system. Riding the trains and seeing just how punctual they are isn’t just convenient, it’s a tourist activity by itself!