Publishing time

October 17, 2017

DOI: 73.4/38/33PH008

Julian Hollstegge



Department of East Asian Studies,Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies,University of Cambridge


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. 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

Keywords: train, gaze, napping (inemuri), gender relations.

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, inMarie 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’sinemuri, 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 magazinean anpublished 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-calledganimataleg 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 theirfuton, 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forki(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 theobi(belt) of their kimono, so that if they were killed by the enemy (the American soldiers), their dead bodies would not suggest anything inappropriate.1Teaching 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 withinemuriby 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 beingdarashi ga nai.

Darashi ga naimeans that this person is believed not to lead a proper life. […] Especially for working people, it is a matter of shame to be calleddarashi ga nai, isn’t it? […] It depends on each individual case whether one gets promoted or not. But adarashi ga naiperson 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).2This 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:

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 asromanchiku 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 theromanchiku 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 sleepingtanukisitting on a bench while an elderly woman stands in front of them. Next to her it reads: "Metropolitantanukiwho 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. Asinemurifunctions 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,inemuriputs 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 asinemuri, 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,oyajihave 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. 13 December 2010). Nevertheless, in public discourse,yamanbahave 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 2016:31–34.

[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’ fromTheSong 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.

[8] Last accessed 18 December 2010.

[9]See:, page 69.

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


About the Author

Brigitte Stegeris 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.