What is this?
I’ll tell you what this is.
This is a picture of an empty seat next to me on the train in peak hour.
This is a picture of rejection, ostracization, segregation and isolation.
I don’t want to make it seem overly dramatic, though.
Speak to any number of foreigners in Japan. They’ll tell you about the time they were on a packed train, and a seat next to them became inexcusably vacant while hordes of commuters stood around, pretending the seat did not exist. “Nobody would sit next to me!” they say. “My very aura of my foreignness scared them off, I’m sure of it”.
I refused to believe them.
Until it happened to me tonight.
The scene: a peak hour Tokyo subway. Me, commuting home with my Japanese study materials laid out on my lap, two people sitting either side of me.
The person to my left gets off the train.
Now, let me be clear. Seats are a sacred thing on the cattle-have-it-better Tozai line. A novice subway rider sees a newly empty seat near them and thinks, “I wonder if I should take that seat? After all, I am slightly closer to…”. BOOM. Seat’s gone. Of all the people to lose to, you just lost your seat to a frail elderly person who could barely stand upright. Way to lose, loser.
Competition is fierce. Jungle law. Black-suited, salaryman jungle law.
So when the hot-ticket seat beside me goes begging like that for three whole stations, questions must be asked. An empty seat in peak hour is no less than the faux-velour scarlet letter of the outcast, the foreign.
I didn’t want to jump to conclusions. I firstly assessed whether there was some kind of invisible goo on the seat, remembering my historical weakness at seeing invisible things. I didn’t think it was that. And if I might quote Sherlock Holmes: once you’ve eliminated the possible, jump to the most sinister, conspiratorial answer you can think of.
The Great Empty Seat Next To A Foreigner In Peak Hour Conspiracy: more to come.
I’ll work on the name.