Train Shame

Train Shame

A headphone incident brings unexpected revelations


Originally published on on March 2010

The other day, I was riding the train home, happily listening to the Dixie Chicks on my iPod, floating blissfully in my own world (even though the Saikyo line is known for its high rate of chikan incidents). You’re thinking that somebody groped me, right?


The guy standing to my right, swinging in tandem from the little rings, politely tapped me on the shoulder.

“Excuse me,” he said. I pulled out my earphones obligingly, hoping I wasn’t going to have to have the conversation about where we’re from and what our hobbies are.

“Could you turn down your volume please?” he asked.

“Oh! Of course.” I whirled my thumb around the little circle, taking the Chicks down to inaudible. But I was flabbergasted. “You could hear that? I’m terribly sorry.”

He made a pained expression, like I had just stomped on his toe. I put my earphones back in, embarrassed; it is, in fact, incredibly annoying when the whole train car has to listen to someone else’s music blaring through tinny headphones. I reassured myself that I really hadn’t had the volume up very loud, and it was amazing he could hear it at all. I certainly couldn’t hear anything now that the earphones were back in—I’d turned it down too low in my flustered state—but I was too chastened to turn it back up. I stared out the window, while my fellow passengers also stared straight ahead in glorious indifference to the interaction they’d just witnessed.

Then the man tapped my shoulder again.


“Excuse me,” he said again in his courteous, painful English. “A little bit more, please, down?” He motioned with his hand, like he was petting a shaggy dog, then put both hands over his ears and winced. I was obviously assaulting his tender sensibilities well beyond what he could bear.

I pulled the earphones out of my ears again, more slowly this time. There was no sound coming from them; not even a low buzz. “You can still hear it?”

“Please, turn down more a little. So many people on train. Bad manners.”

I turned the iPod completely off, wrapped the earphone cord around it, and stowed it in my pocket. I double-checked that I was nowhere near the “silver seats,” where all electronic devices are to be turned off in deference to anyone who might have a pacemaker.

As clear as a bell, some internal voice said, “It wasn’t that loud. He’s just messing with you.” I knew that was the truth of it. There was no way my iPod had been loud enough to bother anyone, certainly not after I’d turned it almost all the way down after his first request.

It didn’t matter. Suddenly, the others on the train car weren’t just staring blankly, but were actually glaring at me. I imagined that I could feel their disgust. I was flooded with shame: my body registered the old hopelessness I’d always felt as a blond foreigner on a Japanese train. No matter how quietly I stood, I would still stand out. No matter how carefully I obeyed the rules and attempted to be courteous, I was a walking symbol for doing things wrong.

Later I asked my mother, who has lived here for more than 25 years, if she could help me figure out why the iPod incident bothered me so much. What she said was so right on the money that my vision actually cleared.

“You were shamed, in public, for doing something wrong. It didn’t matter that you weren’t even actually doing anything wrong—you broke the foreigner taboo, which is ‘Don’t cause trouble, don’t get anyone else in trouble, be the guest beyond reproach.’”

I got it. I had bought into his accusation that I’d done something wrong, because I had my own unspoken rule that as a foreign woman I wasn’t supposed to cause a scene.

It was so liberating! He was a jerk, sure, but I had only felt so awful because I believed I had done something shameful by attracting his ire in the first place. I was the one who let his simple act of jackassedness do a whole number on me.

The kernel of possibility in my mini-epiphany was this: next time, without the internal monologue about the “rules for foreigners,” I could handle the situation completely differently. The truth is, I’m always going to attract attention. I’m pale, blue-eyed, and speak fluent Japanese. It’s time I accept that I will always stick out here—and think about what exactly I’d like to be noticed for.

I’m thinking so hard about this because I am keenly aware that I want to give my own blue-eyed daughter a different story: about what it means to be female, to be a guest in a foreign country, to be a victim or a hero.

Here’s one: So this jackass says to this woman on the train, “Excuse me, but could you turn your music down…”

And this one has a much, much better ending.