Trains provide an excellent location to study a culture. They are at the nexus of so many life patterns: work, play, family time, doctor’s visits, shopping. In a city like Tokyo, people from all walks of life take trains, unlike in the US where there’s a distinct distaste for mass transportation in all but the largest cities.  You can learn a lot about people’s customs by observing the world of trains.

In Tokyo, the train culture is fascinating, both in infrastructure and in people and their behaviors.  The Metro system in Tokyo is complex, and reflect complex negotiations. As a tourist, you can see this from the outside, so what’s normally invisible is quite visible.

1. Train Lines:

The different train lines of the Tokyo MetroThe trains in Tokyo are run by several companies so there are multiple train lines. Not all lines go to all places, so passengers have to transfer many times. Sometimes they even have to leave the station, walk down the block, and enter a completely different station. Also, just because a rider can get somewhere with a particular route doesn’t mean you can return the same way.

Luckily, the stations have station masters, unlike in cities such as NYC where there’s just some poor schmuck selling tokens. The station masters will help you figure out where you need to go and they are unfailingly polite, like all workers in Japan. The station masters wear uniforms that make them easily identifiable.

The station masters readily give out colorful train maps.

Tokyo Metro Subway Map

The train maps are easy to understand once you realize that multiple train companies are involved. The car charts posted at the stations were confusing, and we didn’t understand their purpose until a just couple of days before we left. Each train has about six cars and different cars have different characteristics. Some cars are “slightly air conditioned,” some have wheelchair spots, some are female only during peak traffic time, etc. The chart tells you which car has which characteristics and it also indicates which car to take in order to exit in front of an elevator, escalator, or to transfer to another line. The exits in the Metro are a maze, by the way.

Throughout navigating all this spaghetti, the train masters and the other passengers were always helpful and polite, even though most of them didn’t speak any English. It’s true that Japanese people will actually walk you to the place you need to go if you don’t understand their directions, and if they don’t know, they will go find out for you instead of directing you to someone else.

In all, the level of complexity is amazing, and requires more inside knowledge than the Tube in London or the subway in Manhattan, and this goes beyond a language barrier.

2. Pasmo Cards:

Pasmo Card

To pay for the train, people use pass cards (we used Pasmo Cards). Whoever thought of Pasmo Cards deserves an award for efficiency. The Pasmo Cards create a seamless traveling experience across the maze of trains by simplifying the means of payment. Since fees vary by company and distance, keeping track of ticket prices individually would drive anyone crazy. Pasmo cards are thin metal cards about the size of a credit card with information encoded on them. Passengers load money onto them, and each time you swipe them, the appropriate fee is deducted from the card. The cards require a small deposit in addition to the money you add for travel. The machines used to add money take cash only.

To pay the fare, you swipe the card over a blue sensor. The machine flashes  a read-out of the deducted fare and the remaining yen. The complicated thing about the cards is that you use them when you both embark and disembark a train. The card records your point of entry and charges you the appropriate amount at your exit. If you change lines, which you certainly will, you have to swipe the card for entering and exiting each line.

Card reader

I read somewhere that some cards are commemorative with fancy designs, but we didn’t see any. You can also use the cards to buy things in stores and newsstands in the stations and sometimes even in the convenience stores outside the stations as well.

Japan is the “culture of cute,” so even the Pasmo cards have to be cutesy. Many people have little stuffed animal purses with slots for their cards. People hang these stuffies from their purses or backpacks or they carry them by hand. Some of them are little pouches that serve as purses themselves. So basically people (mostly females) just swipe their stuffies over the sensors. They don’t even have to remove them from the pouch. It’s humorous to watch people wave stuffed animals over the station gates.

Efficiency, sure, but the metal cards are durable and sustainable, plus cute.

Totoro, keeper of Pasmo

3. The actual trains:

The trains are surprisingly neat and clean. The seats are cushioned, upholstered, and only slightly stained and worn. Something like that would never last anywhere in the US. Unlike the Japanese, who are compulsively neat, we are complete slobs, and homeless people and junkies sleep on our trains. Under the seats is a heating system for cold weather. The handholds are hanging circles and they look very funny.

4. Train behaviors:

In Japan, direct eye contact is generally rude, so on the train, people don’t look at you in the face. Most people keep their heads down, sleeping, reading, playing on their cell phones, or just averting their eyes. It’s rather bizarre to see so many people sleep or just keep their heads down. It’s almost like they are robots whose batteries have died.

Japan is also a low touch culture, so I don’t understand why so many people cram themselves into the train cars. People don’t seem to mind being squashed together on the train. I’d seen YouTube videos of how crowded the trains can get during rush hour. Luckily we didn’t experience that on our visit.

People do not eat, drink, or talk on their phones while on the train. They do text or play games, but without any sound. It is also considered rude to peek over someone’s shoulder to see what they’re reading. Most people have sleeves or protective book covers over their books so you can’t really see what they’re reading anyway.

There are tons of posters reminding people of train etiquette: no music, no putting on makeup, don’t take cell phone calls, don’t take up more than one seat, don’t shout, don’t rush, don’t take up courtesy seats reserved for pregnant women or handicapped seats.  Since neatness is ingrained in the Japanese, they don’t even need posters admonishing against littering.

Oh, and walk on the left, not the right.

5. Trash Cans:

There are almost no trash cans on the streets of Tokyo or in the subway stations. Occasionally, there are recycle bins for bottles and cans. Trash cans don’t exist particularly on subways due to the terrorist acts in the mid-90s by a cult called the Aum Shinrikyo, who put bombs in the trash cans in subway stations. I find Japan’s response to this terrorism quite fascinating. They simply restricted trash cans. Even more fascinating, people still don’t litter even if there are no trash cans about. They don’t even trash inappropriately in the occasional recycling bin! Something like that would never work here.

6. Train conductors:

The train conductors wear military style uniforms including hats, gloves, and shiny buttons. Once, we observed a shift change. We observed them standing on the platform, formally bowing to each other, doing a salute thing, and then exchanging what sounded like something scripted (sort of the way the tea ceremony is scripted).

7. Cuteness everywhere:

People-watching on the train is a blast. You can see trends in fashion and style. What stood out for me outside of the unrelieved dark colors of conservative suits for men of all ages was the explosive cuteness. Japanese people are very polite, reserved, and formal. They make up for their reserve with cute. Nearly all females and many males have multiple charms hanging from their cellphones, purses, backpacks, or briefcases. Often, in addition to charms, they have stuffies. I suffered from severe stuffy overload. Many young women decorate their cellphones with stickers and rhinestones. Girls wear long, pink fingernails with rhinestones and airbrushing. They also wear fake eyelashes, really, really long ones. Furry hats with ears are very popular and these hats typically tie under the chin with some sort of fluffy ball of fur.

Mickey and Minnie from Tokyo Disney hanging from my purse

So, to wrap things up, a lot of this you can see on the street, in the shops and restaurants, or wherever, but the train provides a nice intersection of all these behaviors. It’s the perfect anthropological setting to study how Japanese culture is so dramatically different from American culture.


  1. Hey there~

    Well put together post.
    Just a note on the point regarding the garbage cans though…
    There is actually quite a bit more behind it than just the Aum incident.
    I have actually put together a compilation of posts in my post about it here:

    Hope that helps~

    Cheers, and keep up the beautiful writing!


    1. Author

      Very interesting. Nice blog. I will reference it when I teach about intercultural communication.

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