The “Empty Seat on the Train next to the Gaijin” Syndrome…


Lately there has been a lot of talk on the blogosphere (at least the English-speaking one talking about Japan) about something called “micro-aggressions” (by the infamous Debito). I’m also currently reading Baye McNeil‘s book about racism, Japan and racism in Japan. In that book, he devotes a full section to the whole “empty seat” phenomenon.

Before going any further, if I don’t give more details about those “micro-aggression” things and the book, it’s because I’ve been planning posts on both those topics. I’ve been postponing the micro-aggression thing because of lack of time (if you want to know the short of it, I think it’s laughable, and while I was not a big fan of Debito before, now I really think he’s a clown – no, I even refuse to link to him, just google him). I’ll write a review of the book as soon as I’m finished (I’m not because of lack of time too), but so far I think it’s OK.

So onto, the empty seat next to the Gaijin thing. Apparently, the perfect example of racism, micro-aggression in Japan is the infamous empty seat on the train. That is that even on crowded trains in Japan, nobody will dare to seat next to the foreigner, even if it’s the only empty seat left in the car.

This statement always both amused and perplexed me, and I never had the occasion to experience it as when I take the train, it usually tends to look like this.

However, this afternoon, I got to take that train at a very unusual (for me) hour, and it was almost full. I managed to find an empty seat though, one that happened to have enough room for two, possibly three people (note that I didn’t take the closest seat available, as it was much narrower; I wonder what the person I was about to sit next to thought about my sudden change of mind concerning not wanting to sit next to them after all).

And a few minutes later, it happened! An old lady got on the train, saw the empty space, started to walk towards it, spotted me and moved to another empty seat further away.

Yes, my first gut reaction was negative towards her, I admit…

However, hadn’t I just done the very same thing a couple of minutes earlier? I too, decided to go to a seat that’s further away because it was more convenient for me.

And thinking about it, an old lady being a little scared of a strange looking guy (yes, whether I like it or not I am strange looking in Japan, this is what foreigners are, in almost every country, not just Japan), what’s so strange about it?

Still, no matter the circumstances, I just experienced the “empty seat on the train next to the gaijin” syndrome.

And my first thought after that was to actually use this train trip to “study” it. How many people would avoid sitting next to me?

Well, that old lady was the only one, as the train became less and less crowded station after station (ironically the old lady got off at the same station as I do).

So I guess my study is a bit inconclusive, isn’t it?


Yet, this story is not completely over as tonight, returning home on the same train (and this time it almost looked like the way I’m used to it, just a bit more crowded), a middle-aged woman got on the train and sat almost right next to me although there were many empty seats in the car (there were less than 10 people in it).

So, what should we make of this? 😉


Kotoden’s Green Line, where it all happened!



David Billa

David was born and raised in France. After a few years in the US and then back to his home country, life led him to the shores of the Seto Inland Sea in Japan. After falling in love with the area, he decided to show its beauty and all it has to offer with this blog.

9 Responses

  1. Loco says:

    Hey David thanks for the shout, the mention of the book, for reading the book, and giving me a heads up about the post as well.
    What shall we make of this? Nothing.
    Japanese people sit next to me too. Old ladies kids men and women. I would say the numbers about 50/50 just like your day today. Multiply that by eight years of daily train rides and you have a lot of sitting beside and a lot of empty seats. Please don’t get it twisted and be fair Even in the chapter you’re referring to (the first) a man sat beside me. And also keep in mind that the “empty seat” doesn’t only take place when seated in trains. It takes place standing as welllnin the form of a perimeter, in cafes as an empty table, people jump the curl and take to the street or give you an inordinate amount of passing room… It’s a phenomenon, a constant one, that breeches every aspect of life on this island (for Some) but that was not the purpose of that chapter or the book as the title suggests. Please read on and we can have a discussion once you’re done. I think to take it out of context does the story an injustice. As is the case with most stories. I assure you by the end you will have a deeper understanding of the true significance and ramifications of the empty seat phenomenon. Trust me. (-;

    • David says:

      Hi Loco,
      Thanks for stopping by.
      As previously mentioned on Google+, yes, I take it out of context, and I’m fully aware of it.
      This post is more of an amusing (?) anecdote as it happened to me for the first time just a few days I read your chapter (as well as a couple of other blogs who talked about this). What I find funny is the contrast between the empty seat thing, and later the woman who sits next to me although the train is pretty much empty.

      For the deeper stuff, yes, I need to finish your book first, and also find the time to write that other post (which will be long to write and I’m afraid may generate a debate that could demand more time that I can devote to now).

      I will write about your book as promised (and while I don’t always agree with you, I think your reasoning is solid).
      I’m just not sure I’ll write about the micro-aggression BS (whoops, I said it) into details (and while I’ve never agreed with Debito, I also think that he’s a cry baby and needs to grow a backbone among other things).

  2. Rurousha says:

    Anybody who complains about verbal “micro-aggression” should study socio-linguistics, or – if you want to be more mundane – the nuts and bolts of human communication. Formulas and inane small talk? That’s how strangers communicate. All humans, in all societies.

    As for that empty seat, I have the exact opposite problem: Japanese commuters make a bee-line for me. Why? Because I’m small, mousy and quiet.

    If I were that old lady, I would’ve avoided you too. I avoid men whenever possible and sit next to preferably middle-aged women, i.e. people just like myself. So shoot me. Grin.

    • David says:

      I don’t see how some people can take this micro-aggression thing seriously. It seems that political correct ridicule is not enough anymore for some Americans, they needed to go one step beyond and came up with that.

      I avoid men too on the train. I try to sit near (actually facing rather than next) attractive females, so that I get some eye candy during the trip (I hope my wife won’t read this 😉 ).

  3. Locohama says:

    I really don’t understand how you can not take the microagression thing in America, or any other contry where there are majorites and minorities, seriously. I guess some people will get it and some won’t or can’t for a number of reasons, but it still surprises me every time. Perhaps It’s one of the privileges of members of a majority to not get it, but I’ve never been privileged in that way so it’s really difficult for me to understand the insensitivity…I mean, sure it appears to be harmless, but it isn’t. It isn’t outright cruelty on the part of the perpetrator, not purposely malicious. But it’s painful and oppressive nonetheless and it potentially generates Ill will, so it should be addressed, not ignored or disregarded or denied.
    I know the white interviewer who says to me, “wow, you’re so well spoken!” moght not be aware that he said something “inappropriate” he might have even been trying to compliment me. But it’s difficult to accept it as such. That woman that didn’t sit near you might have had her reasons, and I’m sure the reasons vary from person to person, but as I said, it’s 50/50. That’s a lot of empty seats. Maybe this point is a particularly painful one for me because this is taking place in a place I have sanctified holy ground, namely the train. I grew up riding the subways in NY, where this kind of thing never happened. I’m talking 100/0. So the contrast is shocking.
    Of course you can always go the apologist’ route and say that Japanese are blah blah blah so they do this kind of thing, and to many people this is acceptable…but to me, to accept this, that’s kinda racist. To suggest that Japanese are incapable of dealing or shouldnt be required to deal with other humans as equals (for whatever reason)? And then to call a person that pushes back against this ubiquitous and oppressive mindset a crybaby and spineless?. You’ve essentially justified and rationalized xenophobia and racism and inequality and the irrational fear and ignorance that gives birth to these issues. You’ve accepted it, embraced it, and forgive it in advance. No?
    Curious your take on this.
    I don’t shougannai things easily.

    • David says:

      Hi Loco and thanks for stopping by again.
      Let me explain you why the microaggression thing is laughable to me and the reason I think you don’t understand why I find it that way.
      We are from different cultures, background and history. One big mistake you make (as I mentioned on G+) is that you tend to assume that every foreigner has roughly the same culture and background (the American one?). In my culture (the French one), what you call microaggression is a daily occurrence, a constant one, and it has nothing to do with racism, it just that strangers abuse each other constantly for no reason (I have a theory for it, but it’s based on not much and it is pretty off-topic here). To the point that sometimes being kind to a stranger appears suspicious. So you have two choices: growing a thick skin or being depressed your whole life about something you can’t do anything about. That doesn’t mean we’re a bunch of insensitive ones, it just means that we realize that while unpleasant, this type of behavior is also insignificant and if we let it poison our mind and spirit, we’re not gonna go anywhere.
      Also, the majority/minority thing is from your own prism from your own culture. You’re from a multicultural yet extremely racist and segregated culture, I’m from a formerly mono-cultural and somewhat racist (but in very different ways than US racism) culture. While the concept of majority/minority makes sense nowadays in certain parts of France, it didn’t where and when I grew up. Some things you call “Japanese” are simply representative of mono-cultural societies in general. When I was a kid, running into a black person was somewhat a big event, still is in most parts of France, same as white people in almost all of Africa, and same as non-Asians in most of Asia. And it’s a normal thing that people treat you differently when they encounter you.
      You say that I don’t mind it because I’ve always been part of the majority. No I wasn’t. While it’s true that I was never part of a visible minority before Japan, I’ve been part of “invisible minorities” several times in my life. Being a foreigner in the US was one (funny when I think about it how all of the friends I made there were also part of the “invisible minorities” and that I had a very hard time befriending your typical male WASP) and being from a rural area also sets you in some sort of minority when you live in Paris (which I did for a few years after returning from the US). Parisians will look down on you, think you’re a dimwit and whatnot when you’re from the countryside (I assume it’s roughly the same in NYC), which was pretty amusing when people figured out I was more educated and more well-traveled than them.
      What does all that mean? It means that my experience and vision of all of this is very different from yours.
      So yeah, for you, for many valid reasons, micro-aggressions are horrible, racist, not harmless. For me they’re more of a sign of lack of education or even outright stupidity, and I find them harmless because I chose to not be harmed by them. I think that this is my major issue – even possibly my only – with your views on racism. You tend to confuse your sensitivity and experience to “the only right and correct sensitivity and experience to have” and if we disagree, if we have a different sensitivity, we’re either clueless or apologists or similar appellations. Some people maybe are, but some people are not; some simply have a different take on the thing than you do. That doesn’t mean that they’re right and you’re wrong, but it also doesn’t mean that you’re right and they’re wrong. Every right and wrong on this issue is highly personal.
      You know, I’ve always found something very interesting between our two cultures on the topic of offense. In your culture, people say offensive things, other people are outraged, and it becomes the offender’s problem. He/she is the one who gets into trouble, who has to make excuses, etc.
      In my culture, if someone says something offensive and other people are outraged, it’s the offended person’s problem. The logic here is basically that you can’t control what other people say, but you can control how you react and how you think.
      And yeah, the white interviewer who says that you are well-spoken (implied “for a black person” I assume) is being a dick probably without realizing it. But whatever he said, you’re in control of your behavior and reaction to it. But also, you don’t know his story. Maybe he’s a racist, but maybe his only experience of black people is illiterate people from Mali or Benin villages. Who knows? You don’t want to hear what people from my home area sometimes say about black people. And they don’t mean harm, for them a black person is as foreign and alien as a black person can be for a Japanese. But mentioning these villagers from Mali or Benin is not innocent. You also don’t want to hear what they have to say about white people. They don’t mean harm either, but it’s as offensive and uninformed.
      Once again: personal experiences and education.
      Back to Japan, yeah your experience is valid. Yeah, I’m sure it must be aggravating at times. Since I wrote that post, the empty seat happened again to me in a crowded bus, and yeah, I felt a bit aggravated at first when that old lady was about to sit and then she saw my face and went somewhere else. But in the end, yes I do accept it. Not because “this is what the Japanese do” but “this is what people with little to no experience of the ‘other’ do” and that, everywhere in the world, not just Japan. This is what I meant the other day when I said that sometimes you confuse your experience in Japan with anyone’s experience as a foreigner. I could be wrong, but when I read you, I have the feeling that you haven’t spent much time abroad apart from Japan, and that you haven’t met many foreigners apart from the Japanese and the Anglos living in Japan (and even the various Anglos are pretty different from each other as you already know). This is not a criticism. Once again this is your experience and it’s valid. It’s as valid as everyone else’s experience and keep that in mind when you draw conclusions about other people.
      Now I’m not saying that we should just say “this is the way it is, there’s nothing we can do about it.” I just don’t think that complaining about it is the solution, nor getting pissed at people who do it.
      What is the solution then? Not sure, although I think that what we do (no, not blogging, I mean teaching English to kids and teenagers) is extremely important. Beyond a language, we teach those kids that there is a whole world and 200 or so countries out there, not just two (Japan being one, “abroad” being the other). We teach them that foreigners are human beings and not weird creatures. Beyond that, we can’t do much, but that’s already a lot, and that’s one of the reason I don’t get all flustered about it.
      On a final (?) note, when I read your experiences (or the ones of other people in Tokyo and around) interacting with Japanese people, I find them very different from mine overall. I think the main difference is that Kanto being where 99% of foreigners are, people from there have had encounters with them, or hearsay, and they have a bunch of preconceived notions and prejudices about them.
      Where I am, foreigners are a rarity; if I don’t go downtown (and I rarely go these days) I can sometimes spend weeks without running into a foreigner. As a consequence, Japanese people here have less preconceived ideas I think, and while, I get stared at a lot, all the time, everywhere (mostly by old people and kids though), I don’t get many of the inane interactions you seem to get (also people in the West are nicer than in Kanto, that plays a part). It’s even more interesting when I go to the islands. There I’m not even get treated differently from any other outsider.

  4. Locohama says:

    I think you are discussing this with me from a perspective of “this is where I think yu are coming from” as opposed to “this is what you’ve said” or “these are the positions you’ve stated and stand by.”
    I don’t think cliches like “you have to have tougher skin” are fair either. And as far as my background is concerned, I basically grew up in the united nations of America namely new York, with significant exposure to all sorts of nationalities, cultures as well as people from various areas of America. But yes japan is the only country I’ve lived in for a significant time aside from the US.
    As far as complaining versus discussing i’d like to know where you draw the line between the two. If I tell a story about my experience living here is it complaining or sharing an anecdote? If I bring up the issues I confront on a daily basis is it raising issues or complaining? I think that word complaining gets thrown around very easily and is used as a weapon by people to dismiss others rather than allow issues they feel are non-issues to be discussed.
    A couple of other things (I know you don’t want to discuss this much) but I didnt say nor do I believe that microaggressions are necessarily the result of racism. Like you said, which is basically a reiteration of what I say often, they are also a result of ignorance and/or insensitivity.
    We also agree on how to address these things like yourself I think we make a difference just being here and sharing our knowledge and experience and cultures with people. However i think we disagree on how to address them otherwise. I think if that white interviewer or anyone else who commits these paper cut infractions were made aware then their number would be reduced. They are not the natural result of two cultures meeting one another. Maybe such a belief allows some people to accept such behavior here and I really can’t fault them for that for everyone has to find a way to cope…mine is addressing things, raising issues, discussing, activism when necessary and if possible. Every person of any nationality who comes at me with any microagressive behavior will know by the end of our interaction (whever possible…not exactly gonna grab up people on the streets or subways and shit lol) how what they’ve said or done has been received. Unless they have some kind of advantage over me (like the job interview situation, where like you said, one has to suck it up). And I don’t believe anyone should have to endure such things regardless of intent, regardless of intensity, and regardless of ones level of sensitivity.
    As far as being in control of my behavior and reaction, of course I am. I don’t know why you felt the need to overemphasize that. Have I suggested that the other person is in control of me???
    My chosen response varies from person, as Im sure yours does, and depending on the evidence laid out before me, I judge whether that person intended injury, is cognizant of the capacity for injury, is oblivious to the words coming out of their mouths, actions theyve taken, etc… I am in full control of my responses.
    And OFTEN (believe it or not) i opt to not respond at all.
    But whenever I do, you can be sure that someone will come out of the woodwork and suggest that my capacity to judge a situation is impaired because of A thru Z or I’m misunderstanding the situation because of A thru Z…the implication being I am less capable than they are to do so, or that the situation is impossible, essentially unknowable, so it is best to assume the best intentions, or that your intuition and reasoning are defective due to your own prejudices and faults.
    What kind of ish is that??
    Anyway, I thank you for taking the time to discuss this a bit with me. I know it’s a complicated topic and laden with provocations but I strongly feel it is one that needs to be discussed.
    And youre right, I do think you are wrong for feeling differently about this, but my mind is open nonetheless. I know that sounds duplicitous but it isn’t. I have my beliefs and stand by them strongly but at the same time if I am confronted with reasoning that gives me cause to question those beliefs I am not religiously glued to them, if you know what I mean. I am not inflexible.

  5. Cristiano says:

    I think both Locohama and David are right, up to a point. Of course showing “thick skin” and that you don`t care about what has been thrown at you can be a good way to address microaggressions. But on the other side the phenomenon puts you socially in a well-defined position: the subordinate one. While in other countries there can be the same microaggression phenomenon, I know a lot of foreigners being treated as natives after integration. I know for sure that it happens in Italy, Germany and France. What should be avoided and never justified is “legalized” subordination. You are a human being like they are, nothing more/less. You can show thick skin and forget it in order to show that it doesn`t affect you to the other part, but never make them think you are subordinate, or better than you: they are not. Better be conscious about it without justifying it. Japanese people often, in my experience, tend to answer to criticism with “but it happens anywhere else too, right?”, and, when something japanese is particularly great/efficient, they tend to make the other part notice “You dont have this in Italy uh?”. This makes you think about their own images of Japan, and the passive-aggressive education here. You dont want to go on their same level, although sometimes its so framed in the japanese mindset that in order to “speak” with them you have to almost become passive-aggressive.

    • David says:

      Hi Cristiano and thanks for the comment.

      One thing I want to clarify (and sorry Loco if you read this, I thought I had responded to your previous comment, apparently I had forgotten) is that when I talk about thick skin and controlling your reaction, I don’t mean “not lash out at the person in front of you” (well, I mean that too), I mean not let it affect you emotionally.
      I know, easier said that done, but I tend to live by “it’s not about what happens to you, it’s about what you do with what happens to you.”
      And in the case of micro-aggression, I really believe it’s the right solution.
      Of course, in the context of a conversation you can always address the issue with the person in one way or the other (my favorite is sarcasm, personally), but in the case of the infamous empty seat or similar, as you can’t really address the person about it (but you could, but I suspect that it would be counter-productive given the context), you are left with two choices: being emotionally affected by it, or not being emotionally affected by it.
      I choose the latter.
      It’s not about “showing that it doesn’t affect you” it’s about not letting it affect you.

      Now, I agree that in a situation where you can talk about it with the person (a coworker, an acquaintance, etc) and educated them about it, of course you should, regardless of whether it affects you personally or not. Actually, I even think that you can address the situation in a much better and efficient manner when you’re not emotionally “involved” in it.

      (on a side note Cristiano, I think that you are a bit optimistic about the way foreigners are treated in Europe)

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