Georgian ambassador’s brief subway ride clip has people disagreeing over how to properly prioritize those who need the seats.

For foreign-government politicians and officials living in Japan, one of the most reliable ways to earn popularity points with the Japanese public is to post a picture or video of yourself using public transportation. Not only does it paint you as someone who’s in touch with the lifestyles of the common folk, Japan’s reliable, convenient rail network is a point of national pride, so a displayed appreciation for it is taken as a sign of respect towards Japanese society.

So when Georgian ambassador to Japan Teimuraz Lezhava tweeted a short video of himself on the subway, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and captioned in Japanese with “Heading into downtown Tokyo with the gentle swaying [of the subway car],” it probably seemed like a pretty surefire way to get a few easy social media likes, but it also set off a manners debate about how to behave on public transportation.

As designated by the sign on the window behind his head, Lezhava was sitting in a yuusenseki (優先席), which translates to “priority seat.” Priority for who? Elderly and pregnant passengers, as well as those traveling with small children or who are dealing with injuries or other mobility issues or physical impairments.

It’s a broad-reaching designation, but with Lezhava not apparently falling into any of those demographics, some Japanese Twitter commenters have taken issue with him sitting in the priority seat. On the other side of the debate are those stressing that though these are priority/yuusen seats, which passengers outside the prioritized demographics are asked to give up for those who are if necessary, they’re not exclusive-use seats (senyouseki), and so Lezhava should be free to sit in one if he wants to as long as someone else who needs it more isn’t asking for it.

Reactions to the video have included:

“I never sit in a priority seat if there are other places to sit.”
“When I saw this, I knew uptight people were gonna make a fuss about it, and sure enough, here they are. If there are still empty seats, he’s not causing any problems at all.”
“If there are other empty seats on the train, I’d be embarrassed to sit in a priority seat.”
“Do the people criticizing him not understand the meaning of the word ‘priority?’ If the seat is vacant, it’s OK to sit in!”
“As long as he gives them his seat if someone who’s injured or elderly gets on the train, what’s the problem?”
“That’s fine, but there are people who need the priority seat because of issues that aren’t so readily visible as being elderly or pregnant.”

Weighing these opinions, it’s true that anyone and everyone is allowed to use the priority seats, with no official rules by the rail operator prohibiting those from outside the prioritized groups from plopping down in one. However, more than a few Japanese people will argue that it’s still not cool to do so, especially considering certain aspects of Japanese social norms for interacting with strangers in public.

In theory, there’s no problem sitting in a priority seat if you give it up for someone who needs it when they ask. In practice, though, the problem is that not everyone who’s within the prioritized groups feels comfortable asking, especially since, as pointed out by one of the commenters, someone’s reason for needing the seat might not be visibly apparent to others. For example, a woman who’s pregnant may not want to ask a man who’s sitting in a priority seat to give her his seat if she thinks he’s sitting there because of a foot or knee injury that would make it painful for him to stand. An elderly man may feel uncomfortable asking a young woman for her seat, as it’s possible she’s pregnant but without an especially pronounced baby bump.

In other words, “There’s no problem if you give up your seat if someone asks for it” still makes people ask for it, which could make the person asked feel pressured to disclose their health issues to a stranger to justify staying in the seat. With “Don’t cause discomfort for others” being a major tenet in Japanese social interactions, that’s a situation many people would want to avoid, even at the price of staying standing when they’d really like to sit in the seat they’re supposed to have priority for.

A possible middle-ground would be for those outside the prioritized groups to proactively offer the priority seat they’re sitting in to those nearby who appear to need it. Once again, though, this doesn’t help those whose issues aren’t easily visible. It also doesn’t do much for people who do need a priority seat but see someone is already sitting in it, and so don’t make their way to that part of the train in the first place.

In terms of sheer numbers, there appear to have been more Twitter users coming to Lezhava’s defense than taking him to task, but those who’ve voiced their criticisms do make some valid points. In all fairness, there is still an empty priority seat next to him, but by crossing his legs and stretching them out halfway across the car he’s making it harder to access, something several commenters also weren’t happy about.

It’s worth keeping in mind that this is all just a two-second, between-stations video clip, and assuming Lezhava adopted a more compact sitting style once they reached the next station and other passengers got on, it’s essentially a no-harm, no-foul situation. Still, if the goal was to help build an image as a conscientious subway rider, the ambassador and his PR team could have done a better job with a few adjustments.

Source: Twitter/@TeimurazLezhava via Jin
Top image: Pakutaso
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