Some of my best moments were spent in subways in Japan. I found it the singular most fascinating place to people watch and come to understand the idiosyncrasies that typify the Japanese. There are so many rules both spoken and others that were merely social norms, it was inevitable I broke them. And believe me, I probably broke all of them. Some of them are: do not talk on the train, do not put makeup on, do not eat, do not drink, and especially, never, ever make eye contact with anyone else. They hate that!
However, as a foreigner living there I was something of a curiosity to them and they really wanted to stare. Staring is considered sooooo rude in their culture though. One of my favorite games was watching them watching me trying not to get caught at it. The best way to do this was for me to face the windows as if looking outside the train. The windows are reflective though so I could see them very well. If I turned around to look, they would always be looking away. Facing the window though…..well…you get the idea.
Another anomaly I would experience was the occasional prejudice against me as an American. I didn’t take it personally. It’s just the way they are sometimes. Most often that meant no one would sit next to me on the train. Frankly, I loved and exploited this when it would happen. The train could be wall to wall with riders but no one would sit next to me. What a convenient place to set my purse and belongings! This never bothered me. Moreover, mothers with children would usually have one of two reactions to me getting on the train. They would either take their children and go as far away as they could from me, or, conversely, push their children at me while saying “Engrish, Engrish….practice Engrish.” This always brought a smile to my face.
Another peccadillo of Japanese culture is the premise of pretending to sleep. This is an extremely common and socially acceptable way to avoid having to look at or talk to anyone else on the train. One out of three riders would pretend to sleep. The instant the train stopped at their stop though, they jumped up and were off the train.