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5 Misconceptions About the Trains in Japan

They’re not all perfectly punctual futuristic concepts and none of them transform into giant robots.

By 10 min read

Japan is a train lovers paradise, but some trains are a bit more difficult to love.

Japanese trains are famous all over the world for being high-tech, lightning fast, impossibly punctual and cramming passengers into the cars like Tetris blocks. But what if I told you this was only a half truth?

A capital city is never a reflection of the entire nation. My home country of England is so much more than just London and Japan is so much more than just Tokyo. The trains may be a nightmare scrum in the metropolis, but the majority of Japan has a much lower population and thus the trains — and the way people ride them — are different in a variety of ways.

1. They’re not all new bullet trains

All aboard the SL Yamaguchi steam engine.

Until very recently, my commute to work involved riding a train that looked like it might break down at any moment. It was diesel-powered and had only one carriage that was painted orange to hide the rust. The cover up didn’t work. The seats inside were so small that although they were made to sit four people at a time, realistically they could only fit two. They were incredibly uncomfortable, with 90-degree backrests that were designed for someone with an impossibly straight spine.

The train stations were also grossly outdated, many without ticket gates or often lacking any indication that it was a station at all. Some of these “stations” were little more than a slab of concrete surrounded by nothing but farmer’s fields.

As a total reversal of this, there are many older trains in Japan that have been lovingly maintained. Steam trains especially hold a special place in the hearts of train otaku (nerds) and you can still ride them in many places around Japan. Vintage locomotives  such as the SL Yamaguchi that runs 69 kilometers from Yamaguchi to Tsuwano stations are a big draw for tourists.

One advantage of these old-fashioned trains being around is that they are not as expensive as the bullet trains. For these local trains there is no need to reserve a seat or pay any extra fees, you simply pay for how many stops along the line you want to travel. But while it can be half the price to ride a local train it can also take up to four times as long — so decide what is more important your time or your money before traveling.

Where did this misconception come from?

Japan has been a global leader in train technology since launching the first high-speed line — the shinkansen, or bullet train — in 1964 between Osaka and Tokyo.

Some of today’s bullet trains here are still among the fastest in the world. In fact, the LO series maglev train, destined for the currently under construction Chuo Shinkansen line between Tokyo and Nagoya, set a world speed record of 603 kilometers per hour (375 mph) on a test track in April 2015. (By comparison, the current Tokaido Shinkansen, between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka stations, operates at a maximum speed of 300 kmh).

But as future forward as these bullet trains are, they are not the only trains around. Many trains, even ones in major cities like Kyoto and Osaka — and yes, even Tokyo — can be very slow and outdated.

2. They’re not all overcrowded

We’ve all seen those videos of the train station staff pushing passengers so that they can fit into the ungodly cramped Toyko subway — if you haven’t, just Google or YouTube search “Tokyo rush hour.” Surely, this is proof that all Japanese trains are bursting at the seams with passengers, right?

A train line I used to take often had only 10 passengers on it. We would all get a whole booth of seats to ourselves and then most people would get off at the very first stop. Nobody would get on. By the time I got off, there would only be two or three people riding further into the mountains.

This example highlights a major problem of connecting communities in Japan: that there are communities that are connected by these trains but not enough people riding them to make it sustainable. Train lines are actually shutting down all over the country because of their shrinking population and the large amount of people migrating from the countryside to the cities.

This is even true for smaller cities like Nagasaki or Matsuyama. Traveling on the train there you will regularly get a seat and never be packed in like the poor victims of Tokyo transportation.

Where did this misconception come from?

Tokyo’s population is insane. There are over 20,000,000 passengers who use the trains everyday according to the city’s Earth Life Science Institute and they all want to get to work on time. Those videos you Googled are real and it happens everyday. There are just too many people in Tokyo for any train system to support no matter how big the carriages are or how quickly they arrive.

Trains in cities outside of Tokyo do get busy as well, it can be hard to find a seat at rush hour but nothing is quite like the Tokyo rush hour.

3. There are not women-only carriages on every train

A sign on a Japanese rail platform indicating a boarding point for women-only cars.

The first women-only cars in Japan were introduced on the Chuo Main Line that runs through Tokyo in 1912. They were introduced to aleiviate the issue of chikan, or molesters, on trains.

It is more prevalent on packed trains in larger cities or on certain cramped lines in Tokyo, which can get to 160 percent capacity. One example is the Saikyo Line, which connects Tokyo with Saitama Prefecture and has gotten a reputation for groping incidents.

Some train cars have anti-chikan posters, though, it’s hard to say if these signs actually combat the issue. However, there are women-only carriages on some trains during rush hour so that females, who are by far the most frequent victims of sexual harassment and assault, do not have to be put in a position where groping could happen. Conversely, some men support this as well, so that on packed trains they don’t have to be smashed up against a women and inappropriately touch someone — even on accident. Some men also advocate for “men-only” cars, though that has not caught on.

Where did this misconception come from?

The train chikan is a real thing. In Japan, less than 10 percent of women actually report a train groping or molestation, often because of the fact that they feel they will not be believed.

Ideally, people wouldn’t have to worry about this at all — but the women-only carriages is one way of segregating women from males to simply take away the opportunity to grope someone. The misconception is that all trains have a women-only carriage, but it is simply not true.

The policies about women-only train carriages depend upon the train company, but some have women-only times during rush hour from about 7:30 to 9:30 a.m., some have it throughout the day and others limit it to just rapid service trains, which are more crowded with longer times between stops. The women-only policies are typically upheld on weekdays but not on holidays.

4. You can eat on them

An ‘ekiben’ meal on a Japanese bullet train along with a can of Asahi beer.

Before coming to Japan I was told repeatedly: “Don’t eat on the trains. It’s an unbreakable law and if you do it you not only offend everyone around you but you shame all foreigners in Japan.” Simply not true.

Here in the countryside people eat on the trains all the time. People regularly munch on Pocky or an onigiri (rice balls) during their commute. In some cities like — like Hiroshima or Osaka — you can see people snacking or enjoying a beer.

In the more rural places I’ve seen people eating a full cooked meal that they bought from the supermarket and on the bullet trains people regularly buy ekiben. These are little lunch boxes made especially to be eaten on the train and the name is a portmanteau of the Japanese words eki (station) and bento (box lunch). They are filled with local specialty foods and are a regular treat for travelers.

Where did this misconception come from?

The local trains and subways in cities get packed beyond belief as we’ve already discussed. In this environment if you were to eat anything you’d get crumbs all over the person you were sandwiched next to. A lot of the trains in busier cities don’t have enough seats for everyone and nobody wants to eat standing up because it might be seen as rude. This is less of an issue when there are only five passengers on the train.

5. They don’t always run on time

Obviously, Japanese trains are nothing like the trains of my home country where if the train isn’t canceled or replaced by a bus — that counts as a successful journey. They are far more punctual on average than perhaps any other trains in the world, but there are always some outliers.

Natural disasters such as typhoons and earthquakes can often cause delays that even affect the mighty Tokyo system. In more rural areas, problems such as heavy rain, wind, an accident or an animal on the tracks regularly cause delays ranging from a couple minutes to a couple hours.

Sometimes the trains in the countryside and smaller cities are just delayed for no good reason. This causes havoc for commuters. Many people regularly get up obscenely early to make sure that if their train is delayed that are still on time. This does have the downside of being ridiculously early for work on a good day, but for many Japanese people this may be more of an advantage rather than a disadvantage.

Where did this misconception come from?

Trains in Tokyo run on such a precarious schedule that if one train line were to break down it could really ruin the day for millions of people. At peak times, some lines such as the Yamanote circle loop have trains that run every three minutes.

While trains in the capital and the futuristic bullet trains across the country are pretty good at being on time, it’s just not the same story for most of Japan. The smaller the population, the less likely the train is going to be on time. If there is issue with the line, such as heavy snow, flooding or rock slides the train might not even show up at all.

Trains are a big part of life in Japan. They allow us to commute to work, connect to distant — and not so distant — cities and towns, as well as create endless entertainment for nostalgic train lovers and otaku alike.

The points mentioned above are just a few of the main misconceptions many people have of the train system here in Japan. There are others, such as how some train lines ask passengers to purchase a ticket on the carriage making it more like riding a bus, or how some train doors require you to push a button to get on or off. It’s always quite funny seeing people from the big city trying to figure out why the train doors won’t automatically open for them until a friendly local shows them what to do..

If you’d like to see a different side of Japan — one that moves at a different pace, bucks the big city trends and has a more wistful and sentimental feel — I recommend viewing it on or from the trains outside of the major urban areas.

If you’ve debunked any other train misconceptions about Japan, let us know in the comments! 


Editor’s Note: The content of point #3 in this article has been changed as of Nov. 23, 2018. The original content in #3 talked about sexual assault and groping on the train. After consideration, the topic of women-only carriages as they relate to groping on trains in Japan more accurately reflects the overall topic of this article. 

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