There are seemingly endless things one is not allowed to do on Japanese trains: eat or drink, put on makeup, talk on the phone, take up too much room. Most of these are sensible if strict, making life more pleasant for everybody in a jam-packed carriage. There’s one rule that’s a bit more unusual, though, and that’s the requirement that you switch your phone off near the priority seats.
Mobile phones can interfere with pacemakers, ran the conventional wisdom. So to give passengers with medical equipment a safe haven from electronic interference, most train companies asked passengers to switch phones off completely in certain areas. This summer, rail companies in Kansai more or less ditched that policy, saying it’s no longer necessary. Tokyo, meanwhile, shows no signs of changing the rules.
▼ Phone-free carriages: also great for people who hate technology.
The ‘power off ‘ rule stems from a 2005 recommendation from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. Rail companies’ implementation of it varies, however: some ask that passengers turn phones off near priority seating; other companies have separate carriages; on some lines, all carriages are designated ‘power off’.
When 2G mobile phones were phased out, though, the danger posed to people with pacemakers all but vanished. Until 2012, the ministry recommended that phones be kept 22cm from a pacemaker – in a crowded train, there was a reasonable possibility of that being breached. Now, the recommendation is 3cm. So in the Kansai area, rail companies dropped the ‘power off’ rule this July, except for at busy times.
▼ Busy times are busy.
In Kantō, however, the area further east including Tokyo that shares a centuries-old rivalry with Kansai, rail companies say they have no intention of relaxing the rules. Kantō’s urban trains are famously crowded, so perhaps that’s part of the thinking, although JR East and Tokyo Metro both cited customer unease as the reason:
“Passengers with pacemakers are [still] uneasy about the use of mobile phones.”
The government, however, has been clear that the old ‘power off’ recommendations were for 2G service, and are not necessary now that it’s no longer used. It seems like there’s a case for educating people that the risks have changed, rather than keeping the rules the same because of passengers’ misconceptions.
▼ Spotted: a phone with an actual antenna.