Negotiating Gendered Space on Japanese Commuter Trains

Brigitte Steger, Department of East Asian Studies, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge [About | Email]

Volume 13, Issue 3 (Article 19 in 2013). First published in ejcjs on 6 October 2013.


This article explores how the public space of urban Japanese commuter trains is negotiated and what this means for public gender relations. In the social context of a train ride, one means by which strangers try to protect their personal territory is by managing their gaze, including averting their eyes through reading and keeping their eyes closed by sleeping or pretending to sleep. There are certain rules of behaviour, especially for women who are under more pressure than men to keep their bodies under control, and for men who derive enjoyment from looking at women. By paying attention to changes in the napping behaviour of men and women, it is evident that while gender-specific and age-related power relations in Japan favour the salaryman, young women are increasingly demanding public space for themselves by deciding how they can occupy this space and behave within it.

Keywords: train, gaze, napping (inemuri), gender relations, groping (chikan), public space.

Negotiating Gendered Space on Japanese Commuter Trains

One of the most widely noted facts about Japanese train passengers is that so many of them fall asleep. Observers might get the impression that Japanese commuters react like Pavlov’s dogs when they get on a train; they look for a seat (preferably at the end of a row), sit down, put their bag on their lap, place their arms around the bag, drop their head down, close their eyes, and fall asleep.

In this article, I explore the public space on Japanese urban trains. I discuss how behaviour in this space is being negotiated and evaluated, paying particular attention to gender and age relations. What do men and women do during the train ride? How is their behaviour regulated and talked about? How do they use this public space and how do they relate to one another? I will argue that an important way in which public space is managed is through the gaze, which can invade other people’s space but can also protect one’s space from the gaze of others. In this context, men are generally the ‘looking subject’, whereas women are the ‘object of the gaze’. Thus the demands on women for decency and decorum are much higher than for men. Napping on the train plays an important role in the ‘management of the gaze’. This kind of napping is called inemuri (‘i’ means being present, nemuri means sleep), a term that refers to the social aspect of sleep rather than its physiological quality, in that inemuri is sleep in a social situation that is not primarily meant for sleeping. My main primary sources are participant observation over the past twenty years, interviews, magazine articles, behavioural instructions for train passengers (so-called ‘manner posters’), and Internet blogs. I will discuss these sources both in a historical and social context and argue that changes in behaviour on the train reflect wider changes in Japanese society.

With legs apart and dishevelled hair

An eye-catching ‘activity’ of both men and women on Japanese trains is that they sleep. When exploring Japanese media to find out what the Japanese themselves make of this phenomenon, I discovered a remarkable gender difference. Men are rarely the object of discussion, and if they are, it is usually related to their assumed exhaustion from hard work. A Google search of ‘image Japanese salaryman’ brings up a large number of seemingly unconscious men in suits standing, sitting, or even lying on the floor. Despite this, the vast majority of comments in Japanese media relate to women, especially young women. For example, in Marie Claire Japon, Anzai Mizumaru suggests that “sleeping women are a symbol of the peaceful state of the country,” as it shows what a safe country Japan is (Anzai 1995:13). More often, however, commentators on women’s sleep express moral disapproval of women’s inemuri, particularly criticising their body posture while asleep. In the article ‘Anata wa daijōbu? Kakkō warui, hazukashii, jōshiki shirazu onnatachi’ (Are you alright? On women who have bad manners, are embarrassing, and do not know how to behave), the women’s magazine an an published the opinions of readers about inappropriate behaviour for women. The following letter from a women’s outfitter, Nagata Mie, is representative of many comments:

I often see women on the train who sit there sleeping with their legs wide apart. If they also have long hair that hangs down like a curtain, this looks very bad. Although I am a woman myself, I don’t know where to look. It really should be taboo for well-brought-up women to fall so fast asleep in front of other people. (an an, 5 February 1993:51)

“Legs wide apart and hair loose”—these are the two issues I encountered most often in the media when it came to young women sleepers. The admonition that women should keep their legs modestly together is neither specific to Japanese culture nor difficult to understand. Indeed, Marianne Wex (1980:331), in her study of male and female body language in Germany, comes to the same conclusion. German media also describe the open legs of girls and women as a soliciting pose, whereas the same pose for men is interpreted as a form of display behaviour (see also Molcho 1993:121–123).

My own observation is that most women and girls on trains take care to sleep with their legs together and in a relatively stable upright position. They normally place a bag on their laps—which is interpreted by Israeli mime artist Samy Molcho (1993:122) as a further “protection of their chastity”—and cross their arms over it, leaning their head forward or to the side, if they cannot hold it up any longer. Children are taught from an early age to put their belongings on their lap in order not to bother other passengers (see Noguchi 2006:158–159); doing so also protects against theft. Although I have kept a careful eye out for such cases, it was not until April 2011 that I observed a young woman in shorts with legs carelessly open further apart than her hips. I assume that most of the women who lose control over their bodies in this way are completely exhausted or drunk, often travelling home on the first train in the morning after an all-night party.

Some (especially younger) women sit with crossed legs, apparently to avoid the open-thigh position. Still, the possible loss of conscious control may cause a problem. Innovative business people attempted to find a solution to this in the early 1990s. They produced handbags that women could put on their laps. On the sides were supports that could be flipped down and used to keep the thighs together. This invention was advertised on television but apparently did not achieve commercial success. The main problem was that many women who had fallen asleep with this device secured over their thighs awoke suddenly at their station and, without thinking of the bag, tried to get off the train, only to trip and fall (Kawai Yū, 25 March 1996).

Even outside the confines of the train and at times when they are awake, girls are trained from primary school onwards to put their knees together when they sit, so as not to expose their underwear. As a result, one seldom observes women with their legs further apart than the width of their shoulders even when they wear trousers, whereas men—whether sitting, walking, or standing—tend to have their legs spread out much more (Getreuer-Kargl 2003:204–220). Social etiquette books, of which many are still published today, instruct both genders in how to sit and stand properly. For men, knees and heels should be slightly apart, for women closed; both should have their body upright (see Iwashita 2002:26–31). The so-called ganimata leg position (literally ‘crab thighs’, i.e. sitting or standing with knees and toes pointed inwards) is recommended to help women avoid the open-thigh position and to create some tension in their bodies more generally. Until at least the Second World War, Japanese girls of all social classes were trained not to sleep with their legs wide open and to avoid moving around during night-time sleep in their futon, while there were no such instructions for boys. A girl or woman was not supposed to sleep in the form of the Chinese character大for ‘big’ (daimonji); the ideal shape was the character気for ki (energy) or the hiragana さsa (Smith and Wiswell 1982:10; Clark 1994:107; Sugimoto 1938:37). Young married samurai women were not even supposed to show their sleeping face to anyone (negao o miseru na). Preparing for ritual suicide (jigai), samurai women tied their legs together to ensure a ‘decent’ posture in death. And the same idea was propagated at the end of the Second World War, when women were warned that they could be raped and were instructed to tie their legs together with the obi (belt) of their kimono, so that if they were killed by the enemy (the American soldiers), their dead bodies would not suggest anything inappropriate.1 Teaching girls “decent sitting postures” was one of the most important aspects of femininity training in prewar Japan (Sugiyama Lebra 1984:42). Likewise, while walking and sitting, women wearing kimono usually pointed their knees and toes slightly inwards, as Kon Wajiro observed in the 1930s (quoted in Gill 1996). While it might be obvious that such leg positions have been influenced by kimono-wearing, keeping one’s thighs neatly together at all times is considered to be proper etiquette for women regardless of their attire. As mentioned previously, this is also true in other countries, but perhaps in Japan there is more emphasis on explicit training through means such as etiquette books.

Men, on the other hand, have few inhibitions and do not have to fear criticism if they sit open-legged or even lean their heads back, which leads some to open their mouths and snore. The latter is, however, considered bad manners even amongst men themselves. By spreading their legs, men assure themselves a certain degree of physical stability, so that they do not topple over easily. While the amount of space taken up by male and female passengers differs, both men and women prefer the outer seats, where one can lean on the handrails. Takayama Izumi, a woman from Nara in her late twenties, confirmed my observations on the sitting position. She too seeks a seat at the edge, sits with legs together, places her bag on her lap and lets her head hang forward slightly (Takayama Izumi, 20 October 1995).

More surprising than the reference to the open legs, however, is the recurring critique of long, loose hair in connection with inemuri by women. I had long wondered about the meaning of this obsession with hair. But then I was provided with an explanation in an interview with Mr. Nagamatsu (pseudonym), a 48-year-old Tokyo ward-official, who placed arriving at work late or arriving with unkempt hair, an unshaven face, and informal dress, in the category of being darashi ga nai.

Darashi ga nai means that this person is believed not to lead a proper life. […] Especially for working people, it is a matter of shame to be called darashi ga nai, isn’t it? […] It depends on each individual case whether one gets promoted or not. But a darashi ga nai person cannot be entrusted with a desirable, difficult assignment. […] It means that this person is not reliable. It means that they cannot put their emotions in order. Maybe order is not the right word […] they cannot control their emotions. In the end, it means that the person is too weak to suppress their emotions. (Interview with Mr. Nagamatsu, 19 December 1994)

Improper grooming is viewed as a sign of unreliability, because it reflects an inability to control the inclination to let oneself go. Thus, a direct connection is drawn between proper hair grooming and the diligent performance of one’s duties. The well-disciplined management of one’s appearance is an important measure in keeping with the requirements of a social situation. The condition of one’s hair reflects the spiritual state of one’s mind and symbolises (both male and female) energy and vitality (Muchi 1993:188; Aramata 2000). This symbolism is most clearly expressed in Japanese horror stories, in which female demons, ghosts and horrible ‘old women’ are always depicted with long, dishevelled hair (see also Formanek 2005:49).2 This kind of uncontrolled female energy is seen as threatening (or exciting), because when a woman stops consciously controlling herself, such as when she falls asleep in public, and if her body posture becomes looser, this is seen as a sign of abandoning herself, which may act as a sexual stimulus for some men and may also be irritating for some women to observe.

I suggest that, in a sense, hair can be likened to bare breasts as secondary sexual characteristics. Historically, Japanese women (and men) have paid much greater attention to hair and the neck-line when considering a woman’s beauty and erotic qualities than to breasts (Chaiklin 2009:40). However, even in Japan, the female breast has been sexualised to a much greater extent than the male breast, even though female breasts have a practical function of feeding infants. Like long, loose hair, depending on the context, bare breasts are not necessarily regarded as indecent. On European beaches, for instance, they have become increasingly common. As sociologist Jean-Claude Kauffman, however, observes in his ethnographic study of the male gaze on women’s bare breasts on French beaches:

naked breasts may only be presented in a state of motionlessness. […] Any uncontrolled movement is seen as unseemly and ugly. By running, walking or jumping across the beach or swimming in the sea with her breasts swaying around, a woman revokes the social convention of rigidity and for this reason no longer enjoys the protection of seeming non-observation (quoted in Löw 2006:122).

By analogy, I suggest that freely moving and uncontrolled hair in public trains seems as irritating to some people as watching bare breasts in motion, while carefully groomed long hair is perfectly acceptable. When a woman falls asleep, and her hair falls over her face, it seems to become erotically loaded, a sign of her uncontrolled sexual energy, and is thus either criticised or watched with appreciation. In addition, the woman might also hide her uncontrolled face behind a curtain of hair. This may give her a feeling of protection from the gaze of fellow commuters, but at the same time may make it more intriguing for others to transgress this protection and invoke their own fantasies.

Thus, despite a general acceptance of inemuri on commuter trains, it is clear that certain rules of behaviour exist, especially for women. I therefore suggest that it is necessary to elaborate three different aspects that help us further understand gender and how inemuri on the train is discussed. Firstly, how can inemuri on the train be understood theoretically/sociologically? Secondly, what is the social context of a train ride and the role of the gaze in communication inside the train? And thirdly, I will consider the function of inemuri, and also of feigning sleep, in the light of gender relations and gender-specific roles on the train.

Theorising inemuri on the train

In order to understand social rules underlying inemuri on trains and other public and social spaces, it is necessary to look at the sociology of inemuri. I have already explained that inemuri refers to the social aspect of sleep within a situation that is not usually considered appropriate for sleeping. Erving Goffman’s concept of “involvement within social situations” gives a clue to the tacit social rules of inemuri on the train. In Behavior in Public Places,he writes: “The rule of behaviour that seems to be common to all situations… is the rule obliging participants to ‘fit in’”(Goffman 1963:11). Social and cultural competence means knowing what is appropriate in each situation (Goffman 1963:24), and behaving accordingly. For the individual, behaving in a situation means being ‘involved within’ it. “Involvement refers to the capacity of an individual to give, or withhold from giving, his concerted attention to some activity at hand” (Goffman 1963:43). This attention is subjective. Outside observers—people present in the same situation as well as the researcher—judge the participant’s involvement based on linguistic expression and body idioms, i.e., the appearance and forms of expression of nonverbal communication. No one can prevent giving information to others about themselves and their involvements through their clothing, hairstyle, facial expression, posture, and gestures (Goffman 1963:37–38).

Goffman’s further distinction between ‘main’ and ‘side involvements’ helps to understand the—mostly tacit—social rules concerning inemuri in situations such as on the train, when nothing in particular needs to be done and where there is no personal connection to other people. Goffman writes:

A main involvement is one that absorbs the major part of an individual’s attention and interest, visibly forming the principal current determinant of his actions. A side involvement is an activity that an individual can carry on in an abstract fashion without threatening or confusing simultaneous maintenance of a main involvement. Whether momentary or continuous, simple or complicated, these side activities appear to constitute a kind of fugue-like dissociation of minor muscular activity from the main line of an individual’s action. Humming while working and knitting while listening are examples. (Goffman 1963:43; emphasis added)

Although a side involvement is described as “a kind of fugue-like dissociation of minor muscular activity from the main line of an individual’s action,” it still makes sense to consider sleeping while on the train a side involvement. Inemuri is not normally the main reason for using a means of transportation (although I have heard and read about people who take the train to catch up on their sleep, e.g. Torii 1995), yet—crucially—inemuri does not endanger the main involvement, namely, travel. Another indication that sleep can be categorised as a side involvement is Goffman’s referral to a specific form of side involvement—an ‘away’ (a concept itself borrowed from Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead), which is defined as a type of inner migration from an activity, such as daydreaming or autistic thinking (Goffman 1963:69–75).

I suggest that sociologically, inemuri on trains and in similar social situations must be seen as such an away or side involvement rather than as sleep. In principle, inemuri is a widely tolerated and frequently practiced side involvement in trains. As a rule of social behaviour, however, the body idioms must be adjusted to the main involvement of the situation to show that the person is socially not asleep. Through clothing, make-up, shaving, and hairstyle, as well as by control of the limbs, the sleeper has to make sure to ‘fit in’ (see Goffman 1966:24–27). Even during inemuri, part of one’s awareness is directed at travelling, attested by the fact that sleeping passengers are still able to observe signals that are relevant for them. The vast majority wake shortly before their station and get off.

Inside the train: social space and the gaze

Public transportation’s particular characteristic as a public space influences the behavioural rules which govern social interaction, including sleeping. But what kind of space is the train? Urban sociologist Isomura Eiichi (1959:83–84, 1976:130) classified urban space into three categories: ‘primary space’ such as the home, ‘secondary space’ such as the workplace, and ‘tertiary space’ such as city squares, market places and public transportation. In both primary and secondary spaces, communication is largely guided by knowing one’s social position in relation to others. By contrast, people use the train in order to transit from one place to another. The characteristic of this tertiary space is that people maintain anonymity and in this sense are ultimately free and equal; social status and upbringing are not problematised. Thus, they only temporarily ‘communicate’ with others and rarely need to consider how their behaviour might affect any further relationship with a specific person on the train (quoted in Tanaka 2007:413).

Nonetheless, even though the space in the train is “open to everyone who has bought a ticket” (Ogatsu 2010:10–11) and train passengers meet without caring about each other’s social status or about building relationships, it is by no means unregulated and unproblematic, not least because the train is a space where complete strangers may come into bodily contact to an extent that it is normally reserved only for intimate partners (Horii 2009:104). The “territories of the self” (Goffman 1971) can be invaded by touch, gaze, sound, and smell (Horii 2009:108). When trains were first introduced to Japan, people had difficulty understanding the social nature of the train ride and negotiating appropriate conduct as this transitional and marginal space allowed for both public and private behaviour. Especially during long-distance travel, most people would make themselves feel at home by taking off their coats (sometimes their shoes), enjoying lunch, and chatting with fellow passengers. Until the postwar era, it was not uncommon to see men sitting on the train in their long undergarments, and this could still be seen in rural areas as recently as the early 1980s (see Hinder 1943:16; Mitch Sedgwick, personal communication, 15 March 2011). The Japanese Railways Operation Law (Tetsudō eigyō-hō) of 1900 suggests that not everyone had such a homely association with the trains and that some experienced the train as rather threatening, as the law forbade violence against railway employees and throwing stones at the trains. It also limited access for certain groups. Men were not allowed to enter women-only compartments and, according to Regulation No. 32 issued by the Metropolitan Police in 1902, the following people were not allowed to board a train: drunkards, sick people with transmittable diseases, and people with dirty clothes that would make other passengers feel uncomfortable. Furthermore, people had to avoid travelling with bad smelling and bulky luggage, and had to refrain from loud singing and noisy talking, as these would inconvenience fellow passengers. As sociologist Tanaka Daisuke points out, apart from demanding hygienic precautions against the spread of diseases, these regulations dealt with all the senses except for the visual one. Compared to other senses, the visual sense and the gaze received very little attention in legal regulations (Tanaka 2007:43–44).

This does not mean, however, that the gaze was or continues to be unproblematic. Studying the history of American train rides, the cultural historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch (2002:71) points out that before the emergence of mass transportation in the nineteenth century, people had never been in the situation of meeting strangers face to face for minutes or even hours on end without needing to communicate verbally. This emphasis on looking over listening in the communication between strangers was a new experience brought about by the introduction of urban mass transport. With people in close proximity to each other being forced to look closely at others, particularly during rush hour commuting, travelling can become an uncomfortable and unsettling experience (see also Freedman 2002:23, 41). With train transport in particular, passengers are almost always seated facing each other. Being stared at by strangers causes discomfort and irritation: “What do they want from me? Is something wrong with the way I look?” As sociologist Martina Löw argues:

It is above all the gaze that palpably overcomes boundaries, extending one’s own space into someone else’s. […] When we construct our own spaces, we can either ignore foreign objects or make use of them to mark the boundaries of this space. [….] this process is socially monitored through gazing techniques. Bodies are protected by spaces; at the same time, however, these spatial boundaries invite conquest. (Löw 2006:124)

Gaze can work in two ways. First, with one’s gaze one can conquer someone else’s boundaries. On the other hand, people employ “an inspection of their surroundings as a means of protecting themselves from gazes” (Löw 2006:127). Techniques of “civil inattention” had to be developed and learned, says Goffman (1963:84), to demonstrate to others that “one appreciates that the other is present (and that one admits openly to having seen him), while at the next moment withdrawing one’s attention from him so as to express that one does not constitute a target of special curiosity or design” and also to signal that one is no threat. (This applies in general. However, cross-culturally, there are enormous variations in such techniques of ‘civil inattention’, often leading to misunderstandings and conflicts.)

It is therefore not surprising that while laws and regulations were quiet about the gaze, certain measures were introduced to prevent the gaze intruding into fellow passengers’ private spheres. The space on the train lends itself to reading and a variety of books and newspaper formats, such as small paperbacks (bunko-bon)and discussion forums (zadankai), were developed specifically for commuters. Newspaper producers adjusted their publication time to the morning and afternoon rush hours so that people could buy them before boarding the train. This helped people not only to make use of the commuting time, but also helped them to avert their eyes from fellow passengers. Already by the early Meiji period, the Japanese were avid readers. One problem, however, had to be solved: up to this point, they had been used to reading aloud. On the trains, they had to learn to read silently, which required a considerable amount of training. From around 1920 onwards, announcements and advertisements were increasingly posted in train compartments, so that people could have something to read, even if they had not brought a book on the train. Again, these were intended to be read in silence without disturbing others. The “management of the gaze” (manazashi no taisei) was thus crucial for the way public space in trains was created and regulated (Tanaka 2007:45).

Gendered bodies

It is important to remember that the bodies which are in close proximity on the train are gendered. Public gender relationships were thus another important issue that needed to be negotiated in the context of public transportation. Notably, men are generally the ‘looking subject’ (miru shutai), while women are the ‘object of the gaze’ (mirareru taishō) (Jack Wolff 1985, quoted in Tanaka 2007:46). Women, as the gender that is looked at, are required to display appropriate conduct—that is why they are expected to keep their legs neatly together and their hair well-groomed; this demand was already raised during the first days of urban public transport. They are also obliged to protect themselves by means of their gaze. This gendered gaze-relationship was used proactively by public transport companies to direct behaviour. In 1925, the city bus company started to employ female assistant conductors to improve passengers’ behaviour and praised them in 1931 in an advertisement that declared that “their treatment of passengers is friendly and a gentle flavour somehow wafts in the air in the compartments (shanai no kūki ga nantonaku yawaraka aji o obiru)” (Tōkyō shidenki-kyoku 1931, quoted in Tanaka 2007:48).

There was also a second group of women for whom public transport was a workplace. In contrast to the assistant conductors, however, they were not a controlling eye on the passengers’ behaviour. Instead, they invited the gaze of the male passengers. An article in the Tōkyō 16 Shinbun of 28 June 1908 criticises the fact that so many young enchantresses (yōfu), or sex workers, were looking for their clients on the train, and demands that an end should be put to this practice. This suggests that the women in the sex trade made active use of the train space to find clients for their business. Many men apparently reacted positively to these offers, but they did not always distinguish between female passengers who were looking for clients and those who were not. In the early twentieth century, secretly watching young women during their commute became a popular topos in the predominantly male literature. Tayama Katai writes in his novel Shōjo-byō (Girl Fetish):

Because watching living beings is more difficult than gazing upon silent nature and sensing that he might be caught in the act if he stared too directly, the man pretended to look to the side and flashed quick glances at the girls. As someone once advised, when watching girls on trains it is too direct to look them right in the face and too conspicuous to watch from a distance, for the other passengers might become suspicious. And so it is most convenient to sit diagonally opposite, at around a seventy-degree angle. Because the man had such a fetish for girls, he, of course, did not need to be taught this trick and instead had naturally discovered it on his own, and he did not waste any opportunity to use it. (Translation Freedman 2010:51; Tayama 1993:679)

This is only one example of describing ‘girl watching’ in novels.4 In real life, male students had made a hobby out of trying ‘unwittingly’ to get into close physical contact with female students commuting to school in crowded trains. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, this ‘hobby’ among the male students of Tokyo University was referred to as “trainology” (torenorojii) (Tanaka 2007:46–47). The students, in Tanaka’s assessment, “discovered the train, in which they could touch other bodies in abundance, as a place to interact with the other gender. And then, as they observed and assessed each other, they actively pursued ‘trainology’ as a way to interact with the other gender” (Tanaka 2007:47). The sources are silent about the reactions of the girls, but considering that this situation was repeated on a daily basis, it is easy to imagine that some of them must have felt tormented. At that time, the notion of sexual harassment did not yet exist, but in 1911 a women-only train, called hana densha (flower train), was introduced during commuting hours in urban areas (Freedman 2010:57; Tanaka 2007:47).

Unfortunately, in his article on ‘body techniques’ in urban transport in the first half of the twentieth century, Tanaka makes no mention of inemuri, even though contemporary sources (cf. Hinder 1943:16; Sansom 1936:29) provide clear evidence that it was common. The obvious explanation for this is that inemuri was taken for granted and, as sleepers do not generally disturb others, the topic was not raised prominently by his sources. Nonetheless, I believe that the history and theoretical considerations elaborated above are helpful in evaluating inemuri and social behaviour on Japanese trains today.

Regulating behaviour on the train

Since the 1970s, the railway companies in Tokyo have used so-called manā posutā (manner posters) to regulate and encourage appropriate behaviour on public transport (Horii 2009:92–100). In recent years, the usage of the mobile phone has been the single most important new issue of regulation. The JR Higashi Nihon Railway Company, for example, demands that people switch off their phones when they sit or stand near the priority seats5 and otherwise put them on so-called manā mode (vibration) so as not to disturb others. People are not supposed to speak on their phone (although they do so on rare occasions for urgent calls, when they speak with a low voice and for a limited period), but instead use it to send and receive text messages and e-mails, play games, or search the Internet. Thus, as with reading books and posters, the mobile phone is mainly used for diverting the eyes and making the best use of time. Phone conversations disturb people not only because of the noise, but also because they make people witnesses to private and sometimes intimate exchanges. They are forced to become voyeurs to strangers’ secrets.

This type of discomfort is obviously related to another issue that has been a subject of emotional debate in recent years: young women applying their make-up on the train, usually on trains heading to urban entertainment centres like Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Ikebukuro. I am always fascinated by how skilled these women are. With a steady hand they curl their eyelashes into shape, and apply eye-liner, eye-shadow and lipstick. However smooth the motion of the trains may be, it is nevertheless quite an art. Women do not brush their hair on the train, as this would perhaps be impractical without a hairdryer and sprays. Moreover, strands of hair would be shed all over the carriage, invading other people’s space and outraging fellow passengers.

Remarkably, after noisy and pushy people, observing a woman doing her make-up ranks highest among what makes people feel uncomfortable on trains. Although people regard this as a new phenomenon, there were complaints about women putting on make-up on the train even in the early twentieth century (Tanaka 2007:46). The women themselves are not always sure why they get criticised. ‘Gdno’, a young woman who had recently moved to Tokyo to live on her own, asked an Internet community on 12 February 2004: “Why is it that one should not put on make-up on the train? Please give me reasons that I can understand.”6 She received sixteen answers. ‘Marvy’ opines, seconded by another blogger, that it is for the same reason as why you should not talk on the phone: “It’s not so much the noise that disturbs people around you, but if you talk cheerfully on the phone with someone, people around you feel neglected. In the same vein, when you put on your make-up on the train, the men around you realise that there is no-one making herself look attractive for them. Unfortunately there are many lonely people like this on the train…”

I am not sure how many men actually feel lonely observing girls putting on make-up, but it is certainly true that these women do not beautify themselves for the sake of their fellow commuters. The reason that they feel free to do so, is that their fellow passengers are completely irrelevant to them. In any case, the majority of the answers point in a somewhat different direction. “It’s like changing your clothes on the train,” says ‘aki73ix’. “If we lose our feeling of shame, with time, people will actually start undressing on the train.”

Seen from a different perspective, the young women who put on make-up, and are thus ‘quasi-naked,’ do not protect themselves from the gaze of others, much as people who talk on their phones to close friends in a public space do not seem to care that strangers listen to their private conversations. Although—as much as protecting their chastity by keeping their legs neatly together and their body upright—they are required to protect themselves by means of their gaze, they do not appear to be overly concerned by this. At the same time as they are being made the object of the gaze, by ignoring criticism, they take the power to define the tertiary space. They ‘conquer’ this space and make it their own. Moreover, they give out the message that the onlookers are social non-persons, not unlike servants of the upper classes in Europe in whose presence it was possible to discuss private matters or get undressed without a second thought.

Supporting this view, ‘hatene’, one of the bloggers, explains to ‘Gdno’ that by putting on their make-up on the train, women deprive men of their sense of social authority and their manly erotic identity. This means that, in the end, girls who put on their make-up in public are threatening the existing social order and power relations. Men and also older women often find this fact irritating; and they are also upset at being made into voyeurs, similar to when they have to listen to people’s private conversation on the mobile phone (although some people might actually enjoy this indiscretion). And this is where inemuri fits into the story.

Inemuri as a ‘social camouflage cloak’

When gaze in close proximity is embarrassing or invades other people’s space, avoiding others’ eyes is a civilising technique that makes this situation bearable. It signals that one does not intend to cross boundaries, and avoids observing other people crossing these boundaries. Closing one’s eyes is simpler than reading or occupying oneself with a mobile phone. Moreover, inemuri, like sleep in general, can release people from social ties and demands (cf. Schwartz 1973:20) and is also a kind of inner migration. It does not matter whether someone is in fact asleep or merely has their eyes closed; it is important whether they are asleep or not in the perception of other passengers. Thus, it is not surprising that numerous people I asked said that they did not really sleep; they simply closed their eyes in order to relax mentally and physically.

There is a special term in Japanese denoting feigning sleep: tanuki neiri, literally, ‘raccoon-dog sleep.’ In Japanese folklore, the tanuki is reputed to be a mischievous creature and a master of disguise and shape-shifting. By feigning sleep, the inemuri practitioner becomes invisible as a social actor. In other words, inemuri becomes a “social camouflage cloak.”7 It is obvious that those who are sleeping perceive their environment only in a limited way. In doing so, they avoid both gazing at others and observing others gazing at them. Provided that inemuri is socially acceptable, sleepers are not held fully responsible for their behaviour.

As a ‘social camouflage cloak,’ inemuri works in a similar way as the state of drunkenness: a few glasses of beer or sake ease attempts at erotic overtures (see Allison 1994:122–123). Moreover, it is known that salarymen are able to criticise their supervisors without having to fear the consequences when they get together for drinks after work. The “alcohol, and not the drunkard [is seen as] the cause of the behavior” (Smith 1992:147). The social act of drinking alcohol places one in a special social position, rather than the toxic effect of the alcohol itself. Alcohol consumption, however, is a complicated matter. It would be naïve to believe that the day following an outburst at a drinking party everything is really forgiven and forgotten. Young employees have learned that those who take literally the call for bureikō (drunkenness, in which all social hierarchies and politeness are cast aside) and indeed criticise their boss freely when they go out drinking in the evening are not among those quickly promoted. As a result, they only act as if they have let themselves go, while in fact remaining very much in control of themselves (Sumihara Noriya, 30 August 2003). Nevertheless, drunkenness is an important opportunity to discuss conflicts that may not be addressed during the working day. Finding the right balance between frankness and social constraint requires a great deal of cultural competence.

Inemuri works, of course, in a different way and in different situations. Sleepers are usually not aggressive; yet one can often observe—to return to the example of erotic advances—that train sleepers sometimes lean their heads against the shoulder of their neighbour. I have seen many sleepers and have observed that most of them are mindful not to do this. Most people try to occupy the seat at the end of the bench or lean their head to the front. I would even go so far as to say that those who place their head on the shoulder (or occasionally the lap) of their neighbour have thrown off conventional restraints and have simply let themselves go.

On 9 August 2006, in the Internet discussion forum Yomiuri online,8 a person with the user name ‘Hachi’ initiated a discussion by asking the community how they react when a sleeping neighbour on the train leans against them. ‘Hachi’ elicited 63 wide-ranging answers and reactions. Some said that they themselves often slept and were therefore quite happy to allow others to use their shoulder to relax. Others clearly considered this a nuisance and said that they stood up abruptly, so that the sleeper would topple over, or they gave up their seat to avoid the person. Interestingly, as opposed to other media, hair is not mentioned in these comments. One woman related that she had no trouble letting a woman five years her elder sleep on her shoulder, but later realised that the woman had dirtied her favourite coat with the make-up she was wearing. Regardless of such incidents, quite a number of people agreed that they did not mind a neighbour leaning against them. However, most people’s answer depended on their neighbour. A person who calls herself ‘an aunt with bad taste’ (13 August 2006) found it sweet when a young woman leaned towards her, whereas she did not allow this from middle-aged and elderly men. One woman in her thirties, ‘Nono’ (12 August 2006) writes bluntly: “If it is a woman or a student, or even a male who gives a clean impression, I don’t mind if they lean on me a little bit. But if it’s a filthy guy, I stand up.”

These opinions confirm my earlier findings that attractive women and men are acceptable or even welcome as both headrests and sleepers. It is the middle-aged and older men, the so-called oyaji or ojisan, who are unpopular, especially when they seem drunk. I suggest that one reason for this is that oyaji appear to like to put their head on the shoulder of a young woman as a form of sexual harassment that can hardly be sanctioned. As in the early twentieth century, some men seem to see it as a sport to put women in a state of discomfort. Moreover, in a society in which physical contact in daily social communication is largely avoided, train passengers can to some degree ‘steal’ the warmth and comfort of human body contact. In doing so, a lasting relationship is not envisioned. They do not have to assume any responsibility for such a relationship nor fear the consequences. The worst that can happen is that the shoulder is pulled away. Because everyone knows that one loses control during sleep, it is possible to use this opportunity to do things which are socially unacceptable. By using inemuri as a camouflage cloak, it is possible to engage in this ‘game’. Just as it is not the fault of the drunkard but the alcohol when they behave out of the ordinary, it is also not the sleeper but sleep that is viewed as responsible for inappropriate behaviour. Similar to the way in which one needs only a few sips of alcohol in order to be considered drunk, for this camouflage effect it does not matter whether the person is actually sleeping or merely has their eyes closed.

This conclusion was confirmed to me many times. For example, at the end of a public lecture about sleep and inemuri during travel that I gave at a symposium organised by the Institute for the Culture of Travel (Tabi bunka kenkyū fōramu) on 4 April 1996, a man in his early sixties asked me what I had to say about propriety (reigi). Without waiting for my answer, he told me that he often pretended to be asleep in order to lay his head on the shoulder of a female neighbour. He found my comparison with that of a drunken person, which I gave him only at that point, very appropriate. In his book Asobi to Nihonjin published in 1974, Tada Michitarō describes the disregard of social rules (fureigi) as a traditional type of amusement for Japanese men (quoted in Allison 1994:122–123). To a certain extent, there is a social awareness of people pretending to sleep, and some manner posters request that men should be considerate and take care not to lean their head on their neighbour’s shoulder.

When I Googled the words ‘densha’ (train), ‘chikan’ (groping, sexual harassment) and ‘inemuri’, the first sites that popped up were advertisements for pornographic videos, most of which showed middle-aged men sexually attacking middle-school girls in uniform; there are several thousand such videos on offer (see also Horii 2009:36). Such tastes are fed by tabloid magazines which are mostly read by salarymen with relatively low levels of income and education. Shūkan Shinchō, for instance, featured a photo essay under the title‘Musumetachi no shanai inemuri-byō’ (Narcolepsy [the colloquial term for narcolepsy is inemuri-disease] of our daughters on the trains; 14 December 1995:11–15), categorising their bodily postures. Even though the aim was to show young women sleeping in the early morning hours, many of the men pictured next to them are also clearly sleeping. While the women have their legs crossed or closed, it is often the men who sit with their legs spread open hip-width or more.

In the last twenty-five years, the topic of chikan or sekuhara (groping, sexual harassment) at the workplace, in collegial groups, and in the public transportation system, has been discussed widely in the media, resulting in radically changed awareness and attitudes. It is especially the oyaji, middle-aged men, who are depicted in anti-chikan posters, although by all accounts younger men (aged between fifteen and twenty-five) seem to be the ones who grope most frequently (Burgess and Horii 2012:49, 51). Likewise, the introduction of women-only train carriages since late 2000 on several routes is closely linked to the image of the lecherous, if rather pathetic, middle-aged office worker. Middle-age, of course, is a relative term. To a teenage girl even a twenty-five-year-old may appear middle-aged (Horii 2009:50–56). Groping on trains was also targeted by the Gender Equality Bureau in the Cabinet Office in 2006.9 The introduction of women-only carriages has to be seen in connection with this. Whereas there is much public support for the existence of women-only train carriages, in interview surveys conducted by sociologist Horii Mitsutoshi, most women say that they generally use them only if the carriage happens to be conveniently placed near their platform entrance or if it is less crowded during rush hours. A number of women say that they feel safe in these carriages and a few commented that they feel more comfortable away from the male gaze, suggesting that the “male presence demands behavioural regulation and control, and its absence is experienced as liberating.” Noteworthy also, however, is that the respondents’ most common complaint was about the physical presence of men, especially their smell—the so-called “oyaji smell” (Horii 2009:157–161). ‘Aging odour’ in men over forty was ‘discovered’ by scientists of the Shiseido cosmetics company in 1999. In spring 2011, I saw an advertisement on one of the Tokyo subway lines, suggesting that even men in their thirties were prone to smelling badly. ‘Kusai,’ or smelly, however, is not necessarily to be understood literally, but rather as referring to the ‘aura’ of a middle-aged man. It is this particular cultural image associated with oyaji that makes people, especially younger women, dislike them.

This discussion about oyaji and the strategy of avoidance through inemuri is reflected in popular culture. In the opening episode of the TV drama series Densha otoko (Train Man; Fuji TV 2005),10 passengers feign sleep when a drunken working-class oyaji stumbles through the train annoying everyone. Inemuri is clearly presented as the obvious strategy to avoid getting involved, in the hope that the oyaji would not take notice of them. When a shy young man, later dubbed ‘densha otoko’ by an online community of bachelors, overcomes his fear and tells the man to stop molesting the young woman sitting opposite him, this is seen as an exceptional act of courage by everyone who has witnessed the scene (despite them officially being asleep). The episode shows clearly both the social appreciation for helping people who are being threatened (reinforcing the oyaji as the prototypical molester), and the strategy of inemuri, or more precisely tanuki neiri, as a camouflage cloak.

Power, gender and public space

I suggest that recent changes in the rules of behaviour on trains reflect a renegotiation of gendered and age-related power relations. ‘Trainology’ and pornographic depictions of sleeping women, who are thus unprotected and innocent, suggest that modern male identities have been created around gender relationships that relegate men to active social (and economic) roles, whereas women are considered dependent, reactive, innocent and pure. In the postwar period, it was the white-collar worker (salaryman) who assumed the role of the backbone of economic growth and stability, and became the hegemonic model of masculinity (Dasgupta 2003). Demands on men in the workplace have always been high; they have to show that they fulfill all the responsibilities both of a company employee and a breadwinner for their family. If we think of Michel Foucault’s findings that “the constraining, almost compulsive gaze men cast at female bodies is always bound up in a complex of power and knowledge” and the fact that the “sexualisation [of the male gaze] is an expression not merely of men’s desire but also of their position of power” (quoted in Löw 2006:127), then we may conclude that pornography that uses schoolgirls and sleeping women clearly reflects issues of unequal gender relations and of salaryman masculinity.

However, since the economic recession began in the early 1990s, many men have been finding it increasingly difficult to fulfill this role, especially when they are made redundant by their companies or when they are not able to secure themselves a good job after completing their education (Obinger 2009; Hidaka 2010). Suicide rates have risen considerably since around 2000, particularly among middle-aged men,11 often because of job loss, financial problems, and the consequent threat to their identity as responsible members of society. These developments have begun to undermine the desirability of the ‘corporate warrior’ identity, sparking the development of a ‘men’s liberation movement’ in Japan and making space for alternative negotiations of masculinity (Taga 2005), although hegemonic notions still remain strong (Dasgupta 2005).

At the same time, women have also begun to question the postwar common sense of the gendered division of social roles, in what Karen Kelsky has called women’s   “‘defection’ from expected life courses” (Kelsky 2001:2). They have been looking for more active social and economical positions, due to the feeling that marriage—although desirable—may not be compatible with their preferred life styles. Since this has resulted in a decreasing birth rate, the Japanese government has been keen to introduce family reforms, such as encouraging fathers to participate in childcare. Based on the assumption that women might be more willing to engage in child-bearing and child-rearing when supported by their male partners, the government launched various campaigns in the late 1990s and 2000s positing the “nurturing father” as an ideal to supersede the stereotypical, hard-working “absent father” (Roberts 2002). Nevertheless, whilst statistics suggest that an overwhelming majority of Japanese women, as well as men, now acknowledge that participation by the father in childcare is desirable, realities are slow to change (Nakatani 2006), although some inroads have been made (Ishii-Kuntz 2003). Moreover, it can also be argued that such campaigns are aimed at preserving and ‘saving’ the traditional postwar concept of gender roles, rather than radically altering them (cf. Takeda 2011). As well as many women defecting from expected life courses, many young men are also increasingly subverting traditional gender roles. Known as ‘grass-eaters’ (sōshoku danshi), they supposedly place little importance on relationships with women, and therefore by implication also marriage, and they do not aspire to careers in the corporate world, instead preferring to work on a temporary and casual basis as so-called ‘freeters’ (cf. Deacon 2013). Thus, while traditional ideals of the roles of men and women continue to exist, they are also rejected and subverted, especially by younger people, leading to changing power relations, a change that is also reflected in how the space in commuter trains is used.

It goes without saying that not every uncomfortable touch on the train is intentional, and not everyone who falls asleep, leaning their head on their neighbour’s shoulder, is a molester. Due to recent debates and socio-economic changes, many middle-aged men feel very insecure and are concerned about not intruding on their fellow passengers’ space. Today, some go out of their way to keep both their hands above their head by holding a strap throughout the whole commute, even when they are exhausted, in order to make sure not to unwittingly touch a woman and cause offence. More generally, the vast majority of train passengers try to avoid physical contact as much as possible. On the commuter trains of the Hankyū line between Osaka and Kyoto the seats are known as romanchiku shiito (romantic seats) because they are so narrow.Most men on these trains lean toward the passageway and avoid physical contact.

A woman from Kyoto in her early thirties offered her own story of the romanchiku shiito. When she was travelling home, a young, very good-looking man got on the train and sat down in the empty seat next to her. Since she was tired, she fell asleep. When she awoke, she noticed that she had unintentionally leaned her head on the young man’s shoulder and, moved by embarrassment, thought: “Now he will think I’m some kind of flirt!” (Kinoshita Yūko, 2 April 1996) She was therefore very aware of the fact that the young man could have interpreted her behaviour as an attempted advance.

“Please offer your seat …”

There is a more common reason for feigning sleep in public transport than that of sexual advancement—namely, making sure that one can keep one’s seat. Starting in 1973, ‘silver seats’ (priority seats for the elderly) were gradually introduced (Horii 2009:8), and on local public transport passengers are generally requested to give up their seats to pregnant women and the elderly. But many people are tired and do not want to stand up. Moreover, judging a person at first sight is not always easy. An overweight woman might be upset for being thought to be pregnant, and a grey-haired person might feel too proud to be given a seat (Ōkubo 2008:57–63). In anonymous tertiary space, it is possible to be impolite, but with eyes closed, a person is socially invisible and thereby socially quasi-nonexistent; thus, any potential for conflict is removed from the outset. There is no doubt that the Japanese see through this mechanism in their everyday interpretation. Yet since it is impolite to wake sleeping persons, and one can never be quite sure whether they are really asleep or not, sleepers are generally not disturbed. In their annual public manner postercompetition in spring of 1996, the Eidan Tokyo Subway awardedthe first prize to a poster depicting sleeping tanuki sitting on a bench while an elderly woman stands in front of them. Next to her it reads: “Metropolitan tanuki who live underground.” Below the drawing it says in unambiguous Japanese and English: “Please offer your seat to an elderly or physically handicapped person.”

In commuter trains, it is often the same people who take the same train together every day. Many take the same seats, observe each other, know their looks, habits, and the station where they disembark. Behaviour is closely monitored. However, usually nobody talks, unless they are travelling with friends. A young woman, Bancha (11 August 2006), in the Yomiuri online blog mentioned above, relates her story:

In my earlier job, I used to get on the train at the first station, sit down always in the same seat and immediately fall asleep for about thirty minutes, after which I had to get off the train. Until a colleague who had observed the situation mentioned it to me, I hadn’t noticed that the person who sat next to me was always the same young man. Obviously, I had always leaned my head on to his shoulder, so my colleague even thought that he was my boyfriend. Once, when I overslept, the young man woke me up: “We have arrived at your station. You’d better get off.” Shortly after this, I changed my job and now no longer take the same train. I don’t even know what the man looked like. I could not even thank him or excuse my behaviour.

Although she had never spoken to this young man or consciously noticed him, their unconscious (at least on her side) but regular physical touch had created a caring, if limited, relationship.


Urban transport, especially commuter trains, creates spaces in which strangers are in close physical proximity with each other. It is a public space in which social relations, including public gender relations, might become problematic and need to be managed. One way in which this is achieved is through gaze. Gaze can invade the personal space of other people, but can also be used as a means of protecting oneself against the gaze of others. When people come in close proximity with strangers for prolonged periods of time, the gaze can become problematic and techniques of ‘managing gaze’ need to be employed.

Closing one’s eyes (whether in fact asleep or not) means that the sleeper is obviously not in control of what is going on in the environment. Apart from compensating for a lack of nocturnal sleep, inemuri (napping) is therefore an important way to relax socially. As inemuri functions as a ‘side involvement’ or an ‘away’ in the social situation of the train, rules of behaviour are not those of sleep but of commuting. The main concern is the body posture, which must be kept under control in order not to physically invade other people’s space or to signal disorderliness and indecency. This is particularly true for women who are the object of gaze, rather than the one gazing at others; the onlooker has the power to interpret what he sees.

Seen from a different perspective, inemuri puts the commuter into a socially different state, comparable to drunkenness, as it allows people to misbehave and to lose control over their environment to a certain degree, functioning as a ‘social camouflage cloak’. This degree is negotiated and depends on the social power of the people involved. An analysis of the gaze, as well as inemuri, therefore provides not only an insight into the nature of the space of a train, but also points to gender-specific power relations in Japanese society. Recent socio-economic changes have led to a questioning of men’s roles as breadwinners and pillars of society. There is also a physical reaction against their very presence, and the urban commuter train is one space in which these changes are negotiated through the body. Seen as pathetic and smelly, oyaji have become the symbol of an increasingly unstable economy and society. By paying attention to changes in the behaviour of men and women in commuter trains, it is evident that while gender-specific and age-related power relations in Japan favour the salaryman, young women are increasingly demanding public space for themselves by deciding how they can occupy this space and behave within it.


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[2] Note that the modern ‘mountain witch’ (yamanba), a fashion and lifestyle icon for girls, which was at its peak in the early 2000s, is often associated with this symbolism. Nevertheless, such girls are certainly not careless about their hair, as can be learned from many websites (e.g. Accessed 13 December 2010). Nevertheless, in public discourse, yamanba have been characterised not only as ugly, but also as sexually deviant and even as a sign that civilisation is coming to an end (cf. Kinsella 2005). 

[3] Following Albert Hunter, in American urban sociology, the term ‘parochial space’ is perhaps more common. It refers to a space that is neither entirely private nor entirely public. Such parochial space is “characterised by a sense of commonality among acquaintances and neighbors who are involved in interpersonal networks that are located within ‘communities’” (Lofland 1989:10). Thus, the application of this term has only limited usefulness. 

[4] On the male gaze on the female body and gender relations in boys’ manga (shōnen manga) see Jones 2013:31–34.

[5] There is some concern that the radiofrequency energy of mobile phones may interfere with cardiac pacemakers; however, according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), current research suggests that mobile phones do not cause significant health problems for pacemaker wearers.

[6] See Accessed 17 September 2009.

[7] I have taken the term ‘camouflage cloak’ or ‘Tarnkappe’ from The Song of the Nibelungs, an epic poem in Middle High German, in which the hero Siegfried owns a camouflage cloak that makes him invisible; English readers might be more familiar with Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.

[10] The story is based on a real event and has also appeared as a novel, manga and film.

About the Author

Brigitte Steger is a lecturer in Modern Japanese Studies at the University of Cambridge with a research interest in everyday life. She has published widely on the social and cultural aspects of sleep. More recently she has studied shelter-life in the aftermath of the tsunami in the town of Yamada (Iwate prefecture). Author homepage.

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