Why do Japanese not sit next to foreigners on trains?

It’s probably not even a majority of people, but it’s very common in Tokyo that the only empty seat on a train is next to a foreigner, and you’ll quite often see someone heading rapidly towards the last seat only to realise that it is next to a foreigner and so remain standing instead. It’s very unlikely that everyone has just one reason, so here is every possibility that I could think of:

– They think that something the foreigner will do, e.g. speak to them in English or take up too much space, might inconvenience them

– The foreigner is making less space available, e.g. through having a puffy coat

– They think they might inconvenience the foreigner, e.g. they’ve heard that foreigners need more personal space

– They think other people on the train might wonder why they chose to sit next to the foreigner

– They are worried that something they do, e.g. fall asleep or fart, might get a negative reaction

– Like ryokan staff automatically reaching for the large yukata for a Japanese-sized foreigner (e.g. me) who is approaching the desk, they assume that foreigners are all larger and so there won’t be enough space

– It’s one particular group of foreigners, e.g. middle-aged men or youths, that they avoid, perhaps even the same group that they would avoid in general (i.e. also if that person was Japanese)

– They want to study English and will be embarrassed to do so next to a foreigner

– They know nothing will happen bad really but the stress of thinking it might make it easier just to stand, e.g. so they can concentrate on whatever they are reading

If anything I think this is becoming more prevalent, so it might be that more people have had or seen “bad” experiences with foreigners such as starting conversations, or taking offence at being slept on. My favourite theory, though, is a general fear of what the other Japanese on the train might think.



  1. Sophia said,

    December 4, 2012 at 1:01 am

    In Australia, when someone sits next to you on public transport it is normal to make eye contact and smile. I did that whenever people approached me on Japanese public transport and they invariably veered away at the last minute. In contrast, if I and texting on my phone or looking out of the window people often sit next to me. It may be pure coincidence, but it did make me wonder.

  2. alexcase said,

    December 4, 2012 at 8:25 am

    That is a very good point and probably one of the major reasons.

  3. Steven said,

    March 11, 2016 at 1:39 am

    Having read a few articles on this topic and presently having two empty seats on either side of me on a busy subway train in Tokyo; I think this article sums it up nicely.

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