On my nights out, I learned how packed Tokyo trains can get.
Everyone has seen or read about the train-pushers that squeeze people onto trains so everyone would fit. While I was told that this sometimes happens at one or two of the busiest stations during the day, I only saw it once and it wasn’t nearly as bad as this video. More on the order of a guy helping people push coats/backpack straps/briefcases in. The time trains were packed the worst wasn’t usually during the day – but was the last trains of the night. It makes sense too – a whole day full of people trying to get on the last trains of the night or be stranded. Without a doubt, those last trains were the most packed trains I ever saw.
Of course they have the same rules of etiquette as far as letting the aged and mothers have first seating priority – but like anywhere – that isn’t followed to the letter of the law. Still, you can gain a lot of respect from those around you by being the gaijin that surrenders their seat to an older person. I did this a few times and got very approving nods and smiles from the locals. It’s moments like this that remind you that small gestures of courtesy and respect go a long way.
When you do encounter packed trains – the squeezing process is simple. You fill in the obvious spaces – then people behind just keep shuffling and pushing into the car with their bodies (hands by sides marching forward). Squeeze and squeeze and squeeze. This is not an overly gentle process, but not rough either. Nobody throws an elbow or jams briefcases/umbrellas in each other or says anything. It is a nearly silent process no matter how uncomfortable people get. Instead, you just put your body against the people around you and lean forcefully into each other until they move. There’s no over-politeness or ‘excuse me’ like there is here in the US – you often won’t hear a peep from a whole car doing this. Personal space is a very relative term and it’s just understood you’re going to get crammed in so people do not mind leaning pretty hard into each other. As the trains start/stop, lurch and sway, you’re going to get really friendly with those around you. The good thing is that if people are really drunk – they basically can’t fall over anymore – but they might bang heads with you.