When Baye McNeil writes about the empty seat phenomenon in Japan, the aversion that Japanese people have to sitting next to him on public transport, or, indeed, anywhere, he gets a lot of responses. Many of those responses are from people — white, black, male, female — who have the same experience. Many others, however, are from people — white, black, male, female — who do not have that experience. These people often speculate about why he might experience it, or think he does. In turn, he speculates about why the people who claim not to have that experience say that — maybe they are Fake Newsers, or just determined not to see anything that interferes with their image of Japan.
One possibility is, indeed, that people are seeing what they expect to see, or want to see, rather than what is really there. Human beings are very good at that. My impression was that it didn’t happen to me, but the number of people who had experienced it made me think that I might be filtering reality, so a couple of years ago I kept systematic notes every time I rode the train, for about three months. It really doesn’t happen to me.
That raises the question of how I should think about people like Baye who claim that they do experience it.
The first option is to assume that all foreign-looking people in Japan have the same experiences. Since I do not get the Empty Seat, they do not either, and so they must be deluding themselves into thinking that it happens to them. Maybe they are desperate to preserve their status as victims of racism here.
Or I could avoid speculating about their psychology, and instead assume that, just as a systematic investigation confirmed my impression, similar investigations would confirm theirs. I strongly believe that this is the way to go. In short, I think it is better to assume that people who look foreign really do have different experiences in Japan. This is not, really, surprising; foreign-looking people in Japan are even less homogeneous than the Japanese. (I’ve written about the differences between my experiences and Baye’s before, as well.)
I think that the best thing to do is to assume that everyone’s descriptions of their experiences are basically accurate, in which case we know that lots of foreign-looking people in Japan do experience the empty seat, and lots do not. That means that we also know that it does not happen just because you look foreign. If it did, then it would happen to everyone who looks foreign — and it doesn’t. We also know that it doesn’t depend on your sex, or the colour of your skin, because there are men and women, black and white who experience it, and who do not.
This is important. When it happens to you, it is easy to assume that it is simply because you look foreign. However, we know that that is not the case. It is not just about appearance.
Does this mean that it has nothing to do with looking foreign?
We also know that it happens to people who look foreign much more often than it happens to people who look Japanese. If it happened to people who looked Japanese at the same rate, the trains would be full of empty seats. And, trust me, that doesn’t happen around Tokyo.
That brings us to the question of what is going on.
The first thing to note here is that some Japanese-looking people get the empty seat treatment. I’ve seen it happen to people talking loudly to themselves, or who appear very drunk, or who sit spread out, taking up 1.2 seats. It is clear that behaviour can cause people to avoid the seat, even if you look completely Japanese. However, if it is behaviour, there must still be something that links it to foreigners, because it happens to them more often.
One possibility, then, is that there is some behaviour that gets most Japanese to avoid sitting next to you if you look foreign, but not if you look Japanese. This would, obviously, be just a slightly more subtle form of racism, but foreign-looking people who don’t do whatever it is will not get the empty seat. To make things even more complicated, there could be many behaviours that produce this effect, so you cannot even guarantee that it is something that all the people who are avoided have in common. It must, however, be something that the people who do not experience the empty seat do not do.
Another possibility is that there is some behaviour that would get most Japanese to avoid you no matter how you looked, but that foreign-looking people are much more likely to do than Japanese-looking people. (Again, there could be many different behaviours with this effect.)
This might sound implausible, but it really isn’t. Japanese culture and foreign cultures are different, and it is entirely possible that there is something that people from country A do not think of as “doing” anything — it’s just sitting on the train — that Japanese people see as a signal to avoid them.
How could we find out? Suppose that there is a behaviour that is entirely normal to people in the USA, but that drives most Japanese to avoid sitting next to them. (That’s not an arbitrary choice; Baye is from the USA and the empty seat happens to him, while I’m not and it doesn’t happen to me. Further, US culture is very different from Japanese culture. Baye has previously expressed incredulity that I have conversations with Japanese people about what we have in common, but it occurred to me afterwards that more than half of those conversations are about things that we share — and that distinguish us from Americans. Obviously, Baye doesn’t get to have those.)
In that case, Americans should experience the empty seat thing more often than people from some other countries, because the problematic behaviour is part of their culture, not, say, British culture. If that proved to be the case, then it would even be possible to determine whether appearance plays a role: how often do Asian Americans get the empty seat thing?
However, as complex as that would be with all the countries involved, it might be even more complicated than that. The additional factor that creates the empty seat could be lots of different factors for different people, and whether it depends on appearance could depend on both the behaviour and the appearance. (There might be behaviours that only get you an empty seat if you are black, for example, while others require you to look foreign, and still others work even if you look like a stereotypical Japanese businessman.) I don’t think we have anything like enough information yet to say why some foreign-looking people in Japan find themselves with an empty seat.
We can say, however, that it is not simply because they look foreign.