You are the elevator captain: a guide to Japan's unspoken elevator etiquette

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What part of “unspoken” do you not understand?

You just broke the first two rules of Japanese Elevator Club, bro.


…also, if you think Japanese elevator etiquette is complicated you should see Korean elevator etiquette.



I’ve lived in both countries and can verify.


oh captain, my captain


I love social conventions like this, that recognize and make the most of situations in which everybody is better off when everybody follows the protocol. Here in the U.S. we don’t do this as much as we could (though the computer-geek subculture, in which I work, does better). But I have spent some time in Germany, and was pleased to see that they do better, and so, apparently, do the Japanese.

(Make all the “Berlin-Tokyo Axis” jokes you want, losers and haters!)


Surprisingly apt.

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There is a general way of thinking in Japan that is far less “me” and more “us” oriented. People voluntarily went to great lengths to conserve power after Fukushima. If a similar disaster happened in the US, I expect more people would have just figure that someone else should deal with it and left their air conditioners full on in meat locker mode. The lasting aftermath is that every day now seems to be casual Friday.


What are the etiquette rules about passing gas in the elevator?

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Thus the subtle differences from American elevator etiquette.



Wait, so the “close” button in Japanese elevators isn’t a placebo? I don’t believe it.

Also, what is this nonsense about holding the door open? The door is going to stay open as long as someone is passing through it, with a generous margin for error. This is old and thoroughly refined technology. The way some people cling to the door, you’d think they’d personally witnessed a decapitation or something.


If a similar disaster happened in the US…

A lot of brown people would die somewhere else on the planet.


American elevator etiquette is unspoken, but noticeable, at least in corporate settings. What I’ve noticed is that men generally let women board and exit first, and then the men do so in reverse order of status, with the highest status entering or exiting last.

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In the US I have also experienced the EDS (Embarkment / Debarkment Stalemate):

  • After you.
  • No, after you.
  • Really, I insist.
  • By all means no.

To me, the only truly major breach of entry and exit etiquette is the purposeful attempted embarkment before debarking passengers have debarked. Debarkers always outrank embarkers.


Half of us would reduce use of air conditioning, a quarter would do nothing, and the remaining quarter would dial up the AC to the point where they were in constant danger of hypothermia and had to wear anoraks to dinner.

'Tis true!

Apparently, the buttons can be programmed into any configuration or locked out, based upon client need.

I have personally used elevators in Asia where the close door button will immediately trigger closed. If a person runs for the elevator, you can “bounce” the doors open.

Korean elevator etiquette is almost identical to Japan, but somewhat more impromptu. I remember a commercial (maybe PSA) where a woman ran to an elevator at the last minute and stuck their foot into the door to trigger it open, inadvertently kicking a man in the crotch.

But this experience was inconsistent, and depended upon the building. Due to urban density, you spend a lot of time going up and down elevators there.

Elevator etiquette could be amusing, … “hurry up and wait,” … particularly if the elevator (or subway train door) was slower to respond than everyone on it expected.

This. And, if you’re waiting to embark, don’t stand right in front of the door. You never know when someone will be on the other side.

This is also correct public transport etiquette as well.


I’ve known several non-quite-placebo close buttons in Europe, so I wouldn’t put it past the Japanese, either.

Not sure. In Austrian elevator etiquette, if I had already pressed the close button, it would be my responsibility to mash the open button again if I notice someone hurrying towards the elevator.

American elevator etiquette: turn to face the door.
Before my first visit to New York, I had thought that “turning to face the door” is only done in movies and TV shows, because that’s where the camera is.
Here in Austria the universal rule used to be to keep facing as many of the other people as possible - turning your back to them at such a short distance would be impolite. The same used to be true when passing people seated in a theater row: shoving my ass into people’s faces would be unacceptable. Both rules have become less pronounced with modern-day globalization of culture, but they’re still there.