active maas

The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

The science of sardines

If courtesy were measured in inverse proportion to the number of pornographic comics you read on the subway, I’d be the politest person in Japan.

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Foreigners here face a curious double standard. On the one hand, we are assumed to be uncivilized wretches incapable of understanding, let alone following, the customs of our host country. This gives us a certain leeway. It means that we’re forgiven for using the wrong form of address when talking with someone.

On the other hand, it means we’re closely scrutinized. Anything that looks like it might be an infraction of the unspoken code of courtesy is pounced upon for an admonitory collective intake of breath, while all around us Japanese people act like animals.


A good example occurred a couple of days ago. After picking my son up from school, we waited at the local station for our train home. When it came, a Japanese man with a double bass in a carry case was standing in the doorway, blocking the entrance. The space behind him was empty.

My son, who is six years old, had no way to get on board. So I asked Mr. Double Bass to give him room using the standard catch-all Japanese phrase ‘sumimasen’ (“excuse me”). When he continued to stare blankly past me, I pushed his bass aside—politely, but firmly. Sumima-SEN.

Mr. Double Bass allowed us to pass and then shifted his bass right back where it was, blocking the entrance. This made me think it probably wasn’t the idle racism I’d initially supposed. He continued to take that stance at every successive stop until we left the train, and Japanese passengers treated him far more brusquely than I did.

I guessed obstructing other passengers was his hobby, or perhaps he viewed himself as some kind of art installation. More likely he didn’t give a shit and he wanted everybody around him to know it.

In any other country, Mr. Double Bass would have had his instrument inserted forcibly in one of his least musical orifices.

Strike that. In any other country Mr. Double Bass would have understood that he was on shaky territory anyway (if the train were crowded, he would be taking up a lot of space excluded to fare-paying, non-wooden passengers) and would have at least tried to be unobtrusive.

Here, the following day my son was told to tell his mother to tell her husband (that’s how it happens in Japan when there’s a foreigner involved) to be more courteous to others.

My son, in effect, was punished for the rudeness of a Japanese man. Gotta love those double standards.


Incidentally, I’m wrong about Mr. Double Bass. He wouldn’t have tried to be unobtrusive because he transgressed. Transgression is a liberator. It is the man who shoves his head and shoulders into the carriage when the doors are closing that then, having delayed everybody while the doors open again to let him in, grunts and snorts his way around the carriage knowing full well that he has already crossed the line beyond standard social niceties. The transgressor is set free to continue to transgress.

Neither am I being racist here. My office happens to be in the heart of one of Tokyo’s expat hotspots. The first thing you notice here are the transgressors I just mentioned — foreigners who, indulging in the petty Japanese illegality of riding their bicycle on the sidewalk, go out of their way to bully that bike through whatever obstacle they find on the sidewalk, inconveniencing everyone around them.

The Japanese can be bad mannered. Foreigners, inflated on their separateness, are universally worse.

Except me, of course. I’m an angel.


Some Japanese customs are tailor-made to be rude. I remember once reading in one of those ‘Gee, Aren’t We Different?’ books that Japan likes to publish about itself something along the following lines: “Don’t be concerned if a Japanese person suddenly stops in front of you, blocking your path. That’s just the way we do things here.” As if a custom can excuse a lack of consideration for others.

It made me want to write my own guidebook for Japanese visitors to my own country of birth: “Don’t be concerned if a British person suddenly smacks you in the face. That’s just the way we do things here.”


Riding a crowded train in Japan is a learned experience. It’s full of unwritten etiquette. Some are obvious: don’t eat, don’t talk loudly (you can always tell when there are Americans on a Tokyo subway train!) and most of all, don’t use your camera. Because Japan is plagued by perverts taking upskirt photos on crowded trains, all cameras here make a loud shutter release noise that you can’t turn off. Be foolish enough to hit the camera button on your phone and you can expect angry stares.

Japan has taken other practical measures to try to prevent sex fiends preying on women in crowded trains. For example, there are women-only carriages during rush hours. Still, I’ve sometimes found myself pressed intimately up against a female stranger in a train. I rarely get to know my wife so well.

It’s not pleasurable since you spend the entire time thinking furiously about The Singing Detective. For her — ugh! Some gaijin attempted coitus with me this morning!

There’s no reason to date in Japan. Just take your prospective partner on a train ride.


Mr. Double Bass is an extreme example of the class of train passenger I call bollards, just to show how impolite I can be in the kingdom of my own head. Bollards are people who stand in doorways or on the walk side of escalators. People who stand on the standing side of escalators I call flowerpots, because in garden-deficient Tokyo you often see flowerpots lined up along the side of outside stairways.

I like flowerpots.

Then there are zombies. Zombies are the people who haven’t yet left the platform by the time the following train arrives.

The only thing worse than being stuck behind a zombie when you’re trying to make your way to your destination is being stuck behind a group of schoolgirls.

Is there a collective noun reserved just for Japanese schoolgirls? There ought to be. I’d go with funkle, which I just made up to suggest an intellectual black hole into which all hope is swallowed. I’ve often been stuck behind a funkle of schoolgirls on my way down the staircase to the platform, watching helplessly as the train I want to take comes into the station, disgorges its passengers, engorges on new ones, and leaves — and I’m still enfunkled on the stairs.


Every carriage has an area reserved for elderly and handicapped people. In theory, you’re supposed to give up your seat for someone who qualifies. I’ve never once seen this happen. Typically, Japanese men grab the seats for themselves, spread their legs wide, and feign sleep for their entire journey.

This lack of courtesy is expected. It means that train stations dole out badges to women to wear to show they’re pregnant, so people will give up their seat for them. (The design is shown above. The caption reads, literally “In my stomach there’s a baby!”) Fat chance. Even when she was near term, I never once saw anybody give up their seat for my wife.

Being in a crowded train in Japan is a fascinating way to experience the science of sardines. Why aren’t there crushing injuries and deaths? As a stubborn, semi-polite foreigner, I tend to brace myself against the shoving as much as possible, particularly if the person whom I’d otherwise crush is a woman. Oh, the chivalry. If it’s a man trying to carve out space for his smartphone, he’s fair game.

No matter how crowded it gets, everyone tries to create their own territory. Nudging is an obvious tactic: you give an exploratory nudge in all directions to see if anyone will give way. If you’re carrying a bag hold it low and bang it against the legs of the people around you in the hope they will be annoyed enough to move further away. (This doesn’t work on me. Whenever somebody nudges or bumps me like that, I move closer to them so they can’t keep doing it.) Use your umbrella to drip water on your neighbor’s feet. In short: transgress. Where else can you do it?

In the open spaces there are no handholds. So people use their neighbors as buffers. You simply let your body lean against the person on one side when the train’s accelerating and on the other when it’s slowing down. Occasionally the person on the outside of the crowd will lose their grip and a pile of people go tumbling. Even still, you’re guaranteed a soft landing. Other people’s bodies are more comfortable than cushions.

How to get off a crowded train? Don’t follow the written custom, which is to nudge your way softly toward the exit muttering ‘sumimasen.’ It never works. Shove forcefully through the bollards because few people will get off the train to make space for you. Being foreign helps.


Born From Ash-S

Robert Maas’s collection of short stories Born From Ash is available to buy at Amazon.

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