Everything I Learned About Life in Japan, I Learned From Riding the Subway
Regularly riding the subway was a new experience for me when I moved to Yokohama, Japan. As a former resident of Honolulu, and before that, a longtime resident of Los Angeles, driving around in my beat up Honda Civic was the only mode of transportation I knew.
Any subway system used to intimidate me.
I’d visit London or New York and be THAT tourist staring at the subway map with a look of nausea on her face, armed to the gills with paper maps, maps on apps, and scribbled notes of precisely how to change from one train line to the next (exit train, turn left, walk 20 feet, turn right, go up the stairs, cry, turn right…).
But then I moved to Japan, and had no choice but to embrace the subway.
Now I’m a true convert. I love the Japanese train and subway system, and I’m willing to preach the good news to anyone who will listen. The trains are ridiculously punctual (never my strong suit), very affordable, and I now take pride in the fact that I can mostly-comfortably navigate some of the busiest trains stations in the world.
Not only has the subway made me NEVER WANT TO OWN A CAR AGAIN, but it has also taught me a lot about life in Japan. With so much time spent in transit, rocking around in a metal box full of strangers, it’s impossible not to learn a thing or two about Japan, the Japanese, and the culture here.
So for anyone moving to or visiting the Tokyo or Yokohama area, load up your Suica or Pasmo card, and pay attention between stops. What you learn while riding the subway, just might help you when you reach your destination.
1. Personal space doesn’t need a wide berth.
Everything feels smaller here, more packed in. The restaurants, the train stations, my bathroom that makes an airplane bathroom seem spacious. Personal space takes on a new meaning in Tokyo/Yokohama, and that includes the subway.
While smooshed into a rush hour express train between Shibuya and Yokohama, feeling like half of Tokyo is crushing your kidneys, it’s easy to internally shout the question, “WHAT PERSONAL SPACE?!”
But what little space you are lucky enough to occupy is regarded with respect by those around you, and the same is expected of you. Everyone is doing their own thing, in their own space. And while it sometimes feels like you’re so close you can see into their brains through their eyeballs, there is an unspoken agreement that, “I will try my best not to inconvenience you, and you will try your best not to inconvenience me.”
The locals here are masters at being in their “own world,” while at the same time being peripherally aware of how they’re affecting you.
This hybrid of consideration and “mind your own business” might be the cardinal rule of navigating metropolitan Japan.
2. “Sorry” and “Excuse me” will take you far.
Sumimasen was the first Japanese word I learned, and with my drunken baby Japanese, is still the word I use most often. Sumimasen is that glorious catch-all word that in regular conversation can mean “I”m sorry”, and “excuse me.”
When the subway car doors open and I’m trapped behind a group of youths who are more intent on their manga than letting me off at my stop, I quietly say, “Sumimasen…sumimasen,” and it’s like the parting of the Red Sea.
When I flip my scarf over my shoulder and accidentally swat the older lady seated behind me? I smile sheepishly, and say, “Sumimasen! Sumimasen!” She smiles back, and nods. The horror of my faux pas ebbs and we’re cool again.
When the mother with the stroller and two toddlers “inconveniences” me by forcing me to move an inch backwards so she can exit the car, she earnestly says, “Sumimasen, sumimasen” and bobs her head as she passes.
Surrounded by a captive audience of strangers, I’ve perfected my knee-jerk “sumimasen” on the subway when I make my inevitable cultural blunders. The time I forgot how headphones work and treated the whole subway car to my wailing rendition of The London Suede’s “Beautiful Ones” comes to mind. “Sumimasens” for EVERYONE on that day — I even got a few amused smiles in return!
I’ve learned that “sumimasen” is a powerful word in Japan. It feels like much more than just a “sorry”; it’s an acknowledgment that another’s time, comfort, and well-being is important too.
Saying “sumimasen” with good intentions and humility has often meant the difference between a pleasant, even friendly exchange and an international incident.
3. Talking to humans is necessary, and less scary than you think.
When I first moved here, I got off the subway at a stop on the outskirts of Tokyo — a place I’d never been before. When I swiped my card to exit, the turnstile gates went up and the scary beeping “X’s” warned me that I had not properly swiped my subway pass when I’d entered the station in Yokohama.
Crap. This meant I would have to talk to the stern-looking attendant watching me from the little office by the turnstiles. This attendant probably didn’t speak English, and my Japanese was barely adequate to order an ice cream cone, let alone explain my conundrum.
I swiped my card again, “BEEP BEEP” — nope. I walked over to a machine to put more money on my card, thinking that maybe if there was enough cash on it, the computer might look past my transgression. I swiped again. The machine all but said, “STOP IT GAIJIN.”
After toying with the idea of hopping the turnstile and running, I shuffled over to the attendant’s window and handed over my card like a kid who had stolen a cookie from the cookie jar.
The attendant asked me, “(Japanese, Japanese)… train station…(Japanese) start?”
I stuttered something like, “I’m sorry…Yokohama…mistake…I’m sorry…I don’t understand…(I think I said something about “English” but it might have been “waffles”)…help?…I’m sorry.”
The attendant took my card, ran it through a machine, and turning to me said something along the lines of, “You didn’t swipe your card at Yokohama. You’ve been properly charged. You can go through.”
Then I went through the turnstile, and lived to sweat another day.
That was my first experience at having to just dive in and speak Japanese whether I felt ready or not. I’ve long since learned that speaking Japanese won’t wait for me to prepare the vocabulary for the day, and if I’m going to have a life here, speaking to people in Japanese can’t be something I’m afraid to do.
4. Go people watching and learn from it.
I sometimes catch myself humming that song from Sesame Street, “People in Your Neighborhood” when I’m on the subway. You get to see so many of those neighborhood people getting on and off the subway car.
Traveling from Yokohama, through the suburbs, and into the heart of Tokyo, the way people dress, behave, and speak distinctly changes. You start to recognize “the businessman,” or “the college student,” or “the career woman.” Watching how school girls talk to one another, or how a couple expresses affection, is all at once familiar and unique.
And while you can’t relegate everybody to a neat little box, watching people on the subway and observing “normal” behavior in a culture has helped me start to figure out where I belong here.
5. You’re going to make mistakes, and that’s okay.
I used to live in terror of getting on the wrong train.
The first couple times I went from Yokohama to Tokyo on my own, I stood on the platform sweating, letting three trains go by, before summoning the courage to get on what I prayed to the Great Kitten in the Sky was the right train.
Eventually I mostly figured out the subway system, but it wasn’t without my share of ending up in some places I couldn’t pronounce. Every misstep was a lesson that I remembered the next time around.
Riding around on the subway really helped me get over my fear of messing up. In a foreign country where I’m learning through immersion, there’s no way I’m going to get by without making a few mistakes.
I’m going to accidentally offend people, I’m going to annoy the cashier when I don’t know that word for “bag”, and at some point I’ll probably end up some place I didn’t mean to be. But I’ll find my way back.
By forcing myself to just get on that subway car (and hoping I end up in the right place), Japan has become that much more of an adventure.