Japan's railway companies try to keep passengers' manners on track

Tokyo  - A young woman in a railway compartment curls her eyelashes while a young cuddling couple does not bother to make room for a man with a leg in a plaster cast. A young man sprawled straddle-legged across two seats leafs through a book.

You can see such displays of rudeness in Japan, at least on posters that are part of a campaign by Japanese railway companies to promote good behaviour among passengers. Many foreign travellers are surprised at the admonitions because Japan, of all countries, seems positively steeped in politeness.

Nevertheless, Japanese railway passengers are peppered with both visual and acoustic reminders of "manaa" or proper conduct, a term that comes from the English word "manners."

"A request of our passengers: Please switch off your mobile telephones in the priority seating area. Elsewhere, switch on 'manaa mode' and please refrain from telephone conversations," says a message on trains' public address system.

Actually, hardly anyone in Japan uses a telephone while riding a train. And whenever someone does, the "perpetrator" typically appears so embarrassed that he or she quickly covers the mouthpiece with a hand.

The Japanese are raised not to disturb the people around them or group harmony. In the words of Gebhard Hielscher, a freelance German journalist who has spent many years in Japan, "polite" and "Japanese" go together like "blue" and "sky."

"Attention! The train is entering the station. Please stand behind the yellow line," says an announcement at Yokohama's Hiyoshi Station. The Japanese form three orderly rows within marked boundaries: white for those whose train is next, red for those awaiting the second train, and yellow for everyone taking the following train.

The platform, as every place in Japan, has an almost scrubbed look. There are no cigarette butts between the rails, no graffiti on the walls - just people, throngs of Japanese who know how to behave.

OK, there are exceptions. Some Japanese hop quickly into a train carriage while the door is closing despite constant warnings against the practice on the public address system and posters. Though such misconduct may be fairly rare - particularly compared with other countries - this makes it all the more glaring.

"We put up signs about manaa so that people keep it in mind," remarked Tatsuya Edakubo, spokesman for the Tokyo Metro underground railway company, in explaining the purpose of the ubiquitous reminders of etiquette. Even when rude behaviour disturbs people, he noted, hardly anyone confronts the source; people complain to the railway company instead.

"We get calls from customers complaining about various kinds of behaviour by fellow passengers," Edabuko said. "That's why we put up these signs: so that our passengers can travel pleasantly by rail." The signs do not state regulations, he pointed out, merely requests for good manners and considerateness.

Basically speaking, politeness in Japan depends on the people involved and the situation. A relationship, however fleeting, is a prerequisite. If a motorist has made eye contact with a fellow motorist who wants to turn into his street, he usually will feel obliged to give way. If he stares straight ahead, though, he is avoiding a "relationship" that would compel him to be polite.

In Japan you can even see wildly dressed punks wait until reaching an ashtray in a smoking zone before they light up a cigarette. On the other hand, Japanese who feel unobserved, for example at night, sometimes simply toss their trash onto the ground.

And Japanese are especially polite to people of higher standing, but often treat subordinates or lower-income people with condescension.

In an effort to keep their countrymen's good manners on track, Japanese railway operators are continually coming up with new ideas. The cleverest is a poster campaign by the Tokyo Metro.

One short, picture series shows a scene not uncommon in Japan: A man on a railway platform practices his golf swing with an umbrella. In this case the umbrella is wet, and raindrops fly in all directions. The caption reads: "Please do this in the garden."

Similar posters are created every year, their motifs changing month by month. This year, popular Japanese illustrator Bunpei Yorifugi was hired for the job.

Takeshi Kuroda, who works for the Tokyo railway operator Tokyu Dentetsu, said he was convinced that such messages worked. "We've always made requests over the public address system," he said. "For the past two years, we've also had signs to meet the wishes of customers who complain.

"We've already noticed the signs' effects as we get fewer calls from customers who complain about people with loud headphones." (dpa)

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