Critical Views On Cultural Cues《#1》
How (not) to make a scene on the Tokyo metro

Lana Tran

As train systems throughout Tokyo are refitted in anticipation of the 2020 Olympics, this working resident questions whether we are collectively running with our eyes closed, or just the metro companies. (Top Pic courtesy of Daniel Alexander Harris)

Five years after moving from Toronto to Tokyo, my former admiration for the efficiency and cleanliness of the metro now feels like a naïve delusion. While trudging home with the overtime pack under sterile, fluorescent lighting is a mere cosmetic trial, and the occasional leg grope (or worse) remains a nightmarish but all-too-common reality for women on public transit, these are not problems exclusive to Japan.

For nearly a decade, public and private advertisements advising passengers on public etiquette have been condemned as patronizing and contradicting. The “Beautiful Choices” campaign run by Kose Cosmetics quizzes riders on proper weight-loss and make-up tricks between weather announcements, while Tokyo Metro ads caution that the application of make-up in public is “undignified”. Posters put responsibility on victims of sexual assault to yell out, while others remind you not to make a scene at the expense of the comfort of strangers. These are symptoms of an illness, and I am not inclined to wait on poor management and design to solve it.

Kose Cosmetics “Beautiful Choices” ad. (via “”)

Tokyo Metro “Please do it at home” ad. (via “”)
How has society gotten to this point? cries this millennial one evening’s ride home. Burdened by the weight of my liberal woes, I stifle sobs only to realize the woman in front of me is also tearing up. Several minutes deliberating whether to offer her the old lollipop in my bag in a humorous but caring gesture before hopping off at the next station (five stops too early) ends with inaction in fear of making aware what she was clearly trying hard to hide. I regret this.

Yes, I do miss the limited and notoriously unreliable public transit in Toronto. While the person yelling on their phone or eating a large, pungent sandwich may infringe on my personal comfort, we are all getting by. I miss the dancing teenagers, or heck, the guy walking his dog up and down the train. It’s unabashed, it’s life. It’s here where, stifling sobs, a stranger once offered me kind advice.

I’m left wondering if Tokyo trains are designed for people at all. What do manners matter when we don’t know how to address deeper societal issues in public? Where are the posters that remind you to check if the person passed out on the platform is still breathing?

As a foreigner in Japan, I feel a collective pressure to not be that foreigner: the failure at fitting into local custom; the one to give “us all” a bad name. As Japan faces increasing international criticism for the treatment of tourists deemed to be impolite, it’s time to ask what the ongoing role of bilateral exchange could mean. It’s time we talked.