Monday, October 29, 2012

There's a baby in my give me a seat!

Japanese trains are notoriously crowded. Yes, there really are gloved station attendants at the most crowded stations to help push people onto the trains. I gather the gloves make it all seem a little more civilized.

So what's a pregnant woman commuting to work to do? The "maternity mark" program was launched a few years ago to make it easier for pregnant women to find a seat.

The maternity mark says "There's a baby in my belly."

With this little tag, people will hopefully recognize that you need their seat more than they do and kindly offer it to you. No guessing "is she pregnant or not," no putting pregnant women on the spot to ask for a seat. Between this and the special section of about 6 seats per car labelled priority for the elderly, the disabled, those with small children, and the pregnant, this shouldn't be a problem, right?

Sign indicating the priority seats on the train.

The sad truth is that it is still hard to get a priority seat even with the bag tag and a growing belly. Don't even get me started on the number of elderly people I see patiently standing while the young and self-absorbed text their friends. While Japanese people are famously polite, I'm often amazed by the lengths some people will go to avoid seeing me.

I get the surreptitious glances, never quite meeting my eyes, before returning to their smart phones. I get the "Oh, I just fell into a deep sleep when I saw a pregnant woman board the train." I even get the "I assume you don't speak Japanese, so I'm going to tell my wife to stop pestering me about giving you the priority seat." The last example is particularly amusing to me. Why would any man ever offer me his seat, when I've seen many boyfriends/husbands comfortably plop down while their significant other stands? In one case, the comfortably-seated husband kindly took his wife's heavy package so that she could better hold on while standing. Who says chivalry is dead?

On the other hand, older women are very quick to offer me their priority seats. I've turned down the gracious offers of several 70-something women, while 30 year old men sit alongside, pretending not to notice.

However, I've started going "gaijin"on the situation now that I find it more uncomfortable to excessively stand. I pointedly show my tag and say in Japanese, "Excuse me, is this the priority seating area?" This may seem quite innocuous, even polite, to most Americans, but I'm sure it seems too direct and nearly barbaric to those who have been pointedly ignoring me. Frankly, I'm starting to enjoy these small moments of victory.

To be sure, I make adjustments like going to work just after the peak time, going to the far end of the platform where the cars are less crowded, and always boarding near the priority seats. I never ask for a non-priority seat and I usually wait through at least one stop, tag clearly displayed, allowing my fellow passengers the opportunity to offer their seat in the priority section. Unfortunately, it never ceases to amaze me how often I have to speak up and say, "Hey, there's a baby in my belly, so give me that priority seat!"

PS: One of my favorite Tokyo baby blogs recently posted an amusing video with 10 tips for getting a seat.

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