Etiquette and Escalators in Japan

On my first trip to Japan, I found myself in a large Tokyo subway station at the bottom of a nose-bleedingly high escalator. I was already running late for a meeting, and missing my connecting train would mean an awkward, if not deserved, explanation on time management (or the lack thereof).

Pedestrians filled the escalator, though they were neatly separated into two groups: the majority, who were standing to the left, and the minority, who were valiantly slogged up the moving steps at slow walk. I checked my watch. I’d have to sprint up the escalator if I wanted to catch my connecting train.

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As much as I hated being “that American tourist,” I clearly and politely called out, “sumimasen (すみません)!”

If I had done the same thing in the U.S., I think most people would have moved to the side and let me pass, but probably not all of them.

That day in Tokyo, EVERY SINGLE PERSON on the right side immediately snapped to the let without comment, question, or protest. Moses would have been hard pressed for a more effective parting.

Needless to say, I caught my connecting train and made my meeting on time, but only because of the instinctual courtesy and pervasive politeness of my fellow escalatorarians that day.

I thought about that experience when I read an article discussing the differences between escalator customs in Japan (those in Osaka tend to stand on the right, while those in Tokyo stand to the left).

The article goes on to say attempts have been made over the years to encourage everyone to fill up escalators and stand there, leaving no extra room (apparently you get a 30% throughput increase with this method v. leaving room for people to walk or run). The efforts have met with varying results.

Some airports in Japan have even banned the practice of standing to one side of an escalator, though I wonder how in the world that gets enforced.

Regardless, change takes time, habits are hard to break, and a lot of Japanese still stand to one side or other.

Progress, it seems, sometimes waits…at least for escalators.