For decades Japanese trains, subways, and stations have sported public ethics posters petitioning for harmonious manners on the crowded trains. They are called “Manners Posters.” For many years reading manners posters has been one of my commuting pastimes. Others include reading books, sleeping, people watching and, when possible, scenery watching. Sometimes I even try to hold my breath from one station to the next as a kind of fitness check. (I fail.) I’ve seen the manners posters change over the years and wondered who designs them? Who makes the decision to change the designs? Who writes the messages? The recent posters in my local subway call for a lot of “consideration”. The messages are to consider others while eating, listening to loud music, putting on make up or stretching out one’s legs, or sleeping on the benches, etc. The meaning is to consider others before we do these things. But it strikes me as a leap of logic to think that mere consideration will suffice to bar the targeted behavior. I often think, okay, I’ll think about others first, and then go ahead with my snack, my music and my make up anyway. Knowledge of transgression is not an antidote by itself. It would be better if train companies just laid down the law and put up signs saying “don’t” do this or that and then enforce the rules. Offenders could be physically removed from trains by staff, turned over to police and charged with public nuisance. I understand that might be too confrontational and extreme for Japanese sensibilities - not to mention too difficult and time-consuming - but it gets the message across better.
It’s a lesson in Japanese thinking. What the posters are doing is trying to use public shame to retard deviant behavior. And it works! In twenty-first century Japanshame still works better than punishment or the threat of punishment to regulate behavior. Shame is a contributing factor to the phenomenon of wealthy corporate executives or politicians who are caught and convicted of corruption and other grievous crime who get off with an apology and a weak sentence while common every day people are handed down much heavier sentences for lesser crimes. The opinion is that the shame suffered by the wealthy after being caught and prosecuted is punishment enough, whereas lesser people need more shame applied to them.
The most amusing sign I ever saw was of a young couple cuddling. Clearly visible behind them was a sign of a pregnant woman indicating that they were in a reserved seat. The message was, “Do it at home.” I thought,“What are they being told to do at home?! Is the train company advocating premarital, juvenile sex?” I guessed so.