Raising Cane on the Train


This post is about my experiences using a walking stick, public reactions to it, and who offers me their seat on trains.

My back and leg pain has improved a lot over the last few months. I’m far from 100%, but at least I’m not immobilized with pain. I can even put on my socks with minimal fuss, although still too slowly for my taste. And even though I don’t need it most of the time, I still take my ever so stylish cane when I’m out and about.


The Primal Stick
A cane is really just a stick with an ergonomic handle. Mine can fold like a camping tent pole. It’s pretty cool actually. I’ve always liked sticks since I was a kid. When I went hiking I’d be on the lookout for a nice walking stick. And then I’d bring it back home.

I usually had a small collection. My bedroom always had at least some sort of staff by the door. I figured if Gandalf had one around at all times, it must be a good idea. Perhaps it’s a primal urge from thousands of years of humans using a stick or projectile for hunting, protection, or war.

I don’t have any staves around now, but I do have a bokken, or a wooden sword, by my bedside, just in case an intruder comes in to my apartment. I feel more secure with that there.


A stick carried in public is an unusual sight. And it elicits all kinds of reactions. Usually, the reaction is wariness because of its long association as a weapon. However, young people in Japan can often be seen with wooden swords, staves, and bow and arrows, for their club activities. And no one raises an eyebrow. The elderly, with their walking sticks, never attract attention.  But a cane carried by a youngish person is something else entirely.

The Gawkers
The main reaction I get in public is staring. The Japanese are normally a very polite subtle people. Even when I first got to Japan with my mohawk, earrings, sunglasses and tank top, people did their best to not stare. But with a cane, people just look me up and down. And even after I stare back, they keep looking.

T theorizes that it’s because I’m a relatively young, healthy looking guy, and that the cane seems incongruous. But that doesn’t explain why they continue staring even after my own stare turns into a glare.


Priority Seating
The second kind of reaction I get is people offering their seat to me on trains and subways. Surprisingly, it doesn’t happen that often. Even when the priority seats are occupied by people who don’t seem like they need them, they rarely get up and offer their seat. It doesn’t bother me because it actually hurts more when I sit too long. And I’m all about the chivalry. But I have observed some curious patterns in who offers and who doesn’t.

So who has offered their seats to me?

• Women in their 50’s and 60’s.
• Businessmen in their 40’s.

And that’s it. It’s weird how no other group gets up. Mind you, it doesn’t happen that often. But when it does, it’s always someone in one of those groups.

I’m always surprised when a woman in her 50’s or 60’s offers her seat. First of all, she’s of the age where she has a right to that seat. And second of all, all around her are college kids, office workers and young housewives who ought to be getting up instead of her. I never accept a seat from that lady.

On several occasions, while the woman is politely offering her seat to me and I’m politely refusing but thanking her, a young person sits down on her spot, so neither of us can sit down. On these occasions, I tap my cane on the usurper’s lap and say, “hey buddy, get up!” in English, because I don’t know how to say “hey buddy” in Japanese.  And because any sort of reproach comes out too polite in Japanese, when my intention is to be ornery.

I can surmise that the middle-aged woman offered her seat because she had been raised to be selfless. But I have no explanation for the guy in his 40’s. T thinks it may be that they may have had back problems themselves and feel some sympathy.

Stand Up!
Now let me list who I think should offer up seats to the elderly, pregnant, injured and infirm, but never do. In almost 4 years in Tokyo I have never seen these people offer their seats. Not once.

College students. You’re at the most energetic, healthy age of your life. And you barely attend class because college in Japan is considered a four-year vacation. So stop acting like you’re asleep and stand up.

Young housewives. And there are many in Tokyo, because most women quit their jobs when they get married in Japan. Believe me, I understand being a mother and wife can be thankless. But most of the ones in affluent Tokyo are very pampered. Once the kids are in school and your husband is off to work for the next 13 hours, your life consists of hours on the sofa watching TV, shopping, or chatting with friends at cafes. So please, won’t you please let the old lady sit?

Businessmen in their 20’s and 30’s. I know you work 13 hours a day, but you’re still a young man, and it’s the gentlemanly thing to do. So buck up and get up!

Businesswomen in their 20’s and 30’s. I really don’t mind you putting on make-up on the train, but that eyelash pulling thingy looks kind of dangerous on a moving train. Anyway, if anyone gets the brunt of Japanese society it’s the young working woman, but if I’m making the guys get up, you should too.

High school kids. It’s a tough age. You’ve got high school, then cram school, and club activities on weekends. There’s extreme pressure to pass college entrance exams. You get jilted with only a month and a half of summer vacation that’s not really a vacation because you have a stack of assigned homework. (Homework on summer vacation!?) Then there’s the bullying and the hellish experience of having hormones wreak havoc on you. But this is when you really need to learn good manners and so be a good kid and get up off your ass.

So it’s amazing, isn’t it? I have never observed the youngest and strongest of society give up their seats on a train. I want to give a pass to the office workers and the high school kids, because in Japan, their lives are grueling. But the leisure class of college kids and young housewives have no excuse.

I’m dumbfounded as to why these people don’t give up seats. But I do know that the years I’ve lived in Tokyo have eroded my sense of civility and chivalry. There are just so many people all jostling for space that it’s difficult to give up your space even if it is the right thing to do.  Still, it’s no excuse.  We’ve got to make space for those who need it more and can’t jostle a bit of space for themselves.

6 thoughts on “Raising Cane on the Train”

  1. I agree with all of the above. And you know what? I’ve seen young mothers ask old women to let their 3 year old sit down so they can stare out the window.
    They even have their kid take off the shoes! It’s all about education. Courtesy in Japan (especially Tokyo) is overated. Pregnant women have to wear a badge saying they are pregnant. And when I offer the seat they look at me surprised like a miracle just happened. It’s actually very sad.

  2. You know what’s funny, when I would get on a train I got the sense that practically EVERYONE was purposely avoiding making eye contact with me out of respect for my “situation”. Only school kids (middle and elementary) looked and if their parents caught them they were summarily scolded. Also, most folks were too busy staring at their Ipods, Iphones and the like.

  3. I had heard that Japanese people rarely give up the priority seats even to people who are clearly elderly or handicapped.

    I take the Los Angeles subway and it happens maybe about 50 or 60% of the time.

  4. hildric, i’ve also noticed young kids taking over priority seats. i understand parents holding babies needing to sit down. but a hyperactive 5 year old looking out the window seems oddly tolerated, when there are more needy people without seats.

    jerry, that’s why it’s all the more strange that it seems okay to stare at a non-elderly person with a cane. but you’re right. the people who stare are a small minority.

    tornadoes, from my own observations, it really is rare. it’s funny to see all the young seated people suddenly pretend to fall asleep when an elderly person steps into the train.

  5. good morning,

    I was reading your blog about teaching your first english lesson in japan and lost connection. How was it titled and how can I find it again?



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