The same anomaly that makes foreigners feel icky is harnessed by Japanese people to get breathing room on public transport.

With its intricate network of public transportation, Japan can be an easy place to get around in. But these means of travel are not without the same problems found anywhere else in the world, be it sleepy passengers slouching on your shoulder or guys spontaneously rubbing their nipples.

However, a recent tweet posted by cosplayer Satomi Ishihara (@kardr_maru) claims to have found a method which is highly effective at repelling these unwanted seatmates.

▲ “On a flight the young guy in the seat next to me was invading my space way too much and making me uncomfortable. But I remembered a tweet I had read that said, ‘There was a guy next to me on the train spreading his legs, but when I opened an English newspaper he closed them right up.’ So I opened an English thesis PDF on my computer and little by little his behavior improved. This is the real deal!”

Like Ishihara said, this is actually a theory that has been floating around the Internet for a while in which reading, or even just appearing to read, English will create an invisible barrier between them and other Japanese people on planes and trains.

Many others came out in response to this with their own testimonies.

“I do this a lot. It’s especially effective if you make handwritten notes and a highlighter.”
“I keep an English paper on my cloud drive for this very reason.”
“I did this once, but it backfired when some tourists asked me for directions… I can’t really speak English well.”
“The Bible would probably work best for this.”
“I found myself getting extra space when I dyed my hair brown.”
“I wonder if I could achieve this by eating alphabet-shaped chocolates…”

This reaction to English text might seem novel to some Japanese people online, but to foreigners living in Japan it is an all too common occurrence. Known as the “gaijin seat” phenomenon, it is such that any time a visibly foreign person sits down on any type of public seat, the seats next to them will likely remain vacant.

Columnist and author Baye McNeil has perhaps written the most extensively on this topic, which he refers to more diplomatically as the “empty seat phenomenon.” Here he is discussing it with YouTuber Sharla.

The reason for the empty seats isn’t entirely clear and probably also isn’t singular. From talking to people, the best reason I could find is that many Japanese people have a view of foreigners as being very gregarious people who will naturally strike up a conversation with anyone nearby.

Therefore, out of fear of getting trapped in a conversation in a language other than their own, they simply sit elsewhere or not at all. It’s not an entirely unreasonable anxiety when you think about it, but even despite the luxury of space it affords, this can’t help but sting at least a little to the foreigner who’s sitting all by their lonesome as if they stank of root beer and grape skins.

My most memorable instance was when one woman boarded a train and was faced with the dilemma of sitting next to either myself or a Japanese man who was staring off into space and repeatedly punching the air. She made the only choice she could and sat next to the man battling imaginary fairies.

▼ Budget-conscious CG reenactment

A less shocking but more common occurrence is the person who – on a completely packed train – will sit one seat down from me and then put their bag on the seat next to mine. It’s as if they are saying “Look, we all know no one’s going to sit next to your root-beer smelling ass, so why keep this heavy thing on my lap for nothing?”

▼ Budget-conscious CG reenactment

In addition to his coverage of empty seat phenomenon, McNeil also talks a lot about how people have to develop a self-awareness of their own ingrained perspectives when living in another country. And therein lies the key to overcoming knee-jerk offenses to that empty seat that haunts many on the train.

I need to realize that the woman who didn’t sit beside me probably wasn’t making a statement on my race or soda orientation. Rather those are my own assumptions based on my own background that I’m projecting onto her.

Also, realizing that the man punching the air was probably really saving the entire world by telepathically fighting in an interstellar war, goes a long way at taking the bite out of not being sat beside.

And since Japanese people themselves are now quickly learning how to weaponize the empty seat phenomenon against each other, we may see it come to an end in our lifetime anyway.

Source: Twitter/@kardr_maru, Hachima Kiko
Top image: Pakutaso
Insert Images: SoraNews24
● Want to hear about SoraNews24’s latest articles as soon as they’re published? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter!