TOKYO - Ask a global audience to name the character traits they associate with Japan, and politeness is likely to rank near the top. It comes as a surprise to many outsiders, then, that there is still so much messaging designed to promote considerate behaviour in public places.
Common reminders in train stations range from removing backpacks in crowded carriages to not stumbling drunkenly onto the tracks or fighting. These messages tend to be delivered in a literal way, either through pictorial signs or patronising videos featuring supposedly model citizens.
A Tokyu Corp video that debuted last week—and created something of a stir—is somewhat different. In an effort to encourage women to do their makeup at home rather than in a busy train carriage, it features the actress Sawa Nimura, who dances in front of one such commuter and makes fun of her gradual transformation. Wouldn’t it be better to do this at home rather than in front of an audience, Nimura asks. She denounces the habit as the “ugly”, even “shameful”, side of Tokyo’s usually “beautiful” women.
The ad has opened up a bigger discussion around train etiquette, giving way to a stream of latent resentment towards badly behaved commuters. It has eclipsed other spots Tokyu has released as part of this series, which deal with issues around luggage, queueing and mobile phone zombies. Although witty, the other videos are rather less confrontational and have not sparked as strong a reaction.
While Tokyu said feedback on its makeup video has generally been positive, a number of social-media users have reacted angrily to the message, saying a train company has no right to pass judgment on its passengers. Others called the ad sexist for singling out female passengers and suggesting that they are all otherwise “beautiful”. Tokyu should also call out the male passengers who openly read pornorgraphy, stink of alcohol or vomit, or constantly wipe away their sweat, pundits suggested.
Abi Sekimitsu, content director at Ogilvy Japan, called the ad “unintentionally sexist” in a similar way to a recent ad that sparked outrage with a high-school girl who turns into an eel (see "'Unagi girl' video pulled after kidnapping controversy"). “The main issue here is that the ad says putting on makeup on a train is ‘unbecoming’,” she said. “Is [that] really something you need a railway company to point out?”
But she agreed that there is a need for ads to draw attention to bad habits. “If someone was rude in a New York subway, they would be told," she said. "In Japan, commuters suffer in silence and many welcome such ads as being cathartic.”
Mona Nomura, who works in marketing for a large multinational brand in Tokyo, sees the approach as entertaining rather than offensive. She described it as “the quintessential display of Japanese passive aggressiveness”.
In the end, sharp-ended tactics might upset some people, but it’s an effective way of getting people to take notice. “These PSAs are not-so-gentle reminders of public etiquette that many can relate to, as this is what they are thinking in their heads but would never express out loud,” Nomura said. “With the buzz surrounding them—negative and positive—they get the job done of making Japanese people think twice before breaking unspoken rules.”