The Empty Seat Thing

If you read online accounts of foreigners’ experiences in Japan, you are likely to come across the “Empty Seat Thing”. This happens on crowded trains or buses. The foreigner is sitting down, crowded in by all the people standing around him or her, but there, right next to the foreigner, is an empty seat. No-one wants to sit next to the foreigner. These reports are often accompanied by comments reporting similar experiences.

Now, my reaction to reading that was always “I don’t think that happens to me”, so I decided to gather some evidence. Human beings are very bad at noticing patterns over time; remarkable things tend to stick in the mind, and be granted much more prominence than they deserve. Your expectations, and what you want to believe, also strongly colour your impressions of what happens to you. Keeping notes is one way to reduce this tendency.

I started gathering the evidence at the end of April, so it’s been about three months. I have arranged my life so that I don’t have to commute into Tokyo that often (the rumours about crowded rush hour trains are all true), so I have ended up with information covering twelve days, which comes to around 24 occasions. There were three occasions on which there was an empty seat next to me, and people were standing. In all cases, this lasted for one stop. There were at least two occasions on which there were people standing and there was an empty seat, but it was not next to me (that’s a bit harder to keep track of, because there are people standing up and blocking your view). There were eight occasions in which the seat next to me was taken before empty seats elsewhere in the carriage. There were two occasions in which there were two empty seats on one side of me, and the seat next to me was taken before the one beyond; in other words, the majority Japanese appearance (MJA) person had the choice of two adjacent empty seats, one next to a foreigner and one not, and chose the one next to the foreigner. (Why “MJA” and not “Japanese”? Well, I’m Japanese, and I can’t tell the difference between MKA Koreans and MJA Japanese.)

My conclusion is that the Empty Seat Thing does not happen to me. I don’t think that I can conclude that MJA people prefer sitting next to me to sitting next to other MJA people, but there is certainly no sign of any general tendency to avoid doing so.

This is clearly different from the internet consensus. This could be explained in two main ways. The first is that I actually have different experiences from most foreigners in Japan. This is certainly possible. It is not because I look typically Japanese, because I certainly don’t. (Although I suppose that, by definition, I look Japanese.) I’m normally reading an English academic journal on the train as well, so I’m not signalling that I speak Japanese, and people don’t speak to me in any case. It’s not because I’m white, because white foreigners report this just as often as non-white. It may be because I’m normally wearing a suit and tie, because I’m typically on my way to teach, or to a committee meeting. It may also be because I make a conscious effort to minimise the space I occupy, leaving enough space for people to sit on either side. The seats on Japanese commuter trains are not exactly generous. However, without knowing more about the behaviour of the foreigners, I can’t say anything definite about those hypotheses.

Another possibility is that I don’t have significantly different experiences, but that foreigners have been primed by the stories of “the Empty Seat Thing” to notice, and remember, when people are standing and ignoring an empty seat next to them. I would be interested in the results of other foreign-appearing people taking notes every time they sit down on a train, for about the same number of trips. If there are actually different experiences, then that suggests that there are things you can do to encourage MJA people to sit next to you.

At this point, however, all that I can say is that the Empty Seat Thing does not happen to everyone. It doesn’t happen to me.

Posted in Japan.


  1. I’m glad to see someone trying to be more objective about this type of thing rather than the offhand complaints by foreigners in Japan. Or “foreign-born citizens” in your case. Not many in that category, I think.

    However, I wonder if some of the motivation for why Japanese will avoid sitting next to a foreigner may sometimes actually out of consideration for the person. They aren’t familiar with foreign customs and might not want to be rude. At least, that’s one optimistic way to look at it. I won’t pretend to know why, but at the same time I can’t say I’ve ever felt *discriminated against* because of the casual avoidance.

    Another thought, though. When I find people avoiding to sit next to me, there have always been a couple of other empty seats on the train car. So the question of discrimination is actually a statistical one: how much more likely is someone to avoid sitting next to me than to avoid sitting next to a Japanese person when either option is presented to them?

  2. Thanks for the comment. The question as to whether Japanese people are more likely to avoid sitting next to an obvious foreigner occurred to me, as well. I then started working out what data you would need to collect to answer it, and basically I think you need a graduate student doing it as a research project. Gathering the data is not trivial, because you have to keep a count of empty seats, and the statistics would also be quite complex. I think I’d want to see the sort of simple results that I got for people other than me and places other than Tokyo before deciding on whether it was worth the trouble.

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