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In and Out of Elevators in Japan

Abstract: Elevator space in Japan is considered both as an example of transit space generally and as an example of the practice of a particular national identity. The paper argues that there is an intimate relationship between the social script outside the elevator and variations possible on this script inside the elevator. In Japan, these variations serve to express the improvisational, private character of personal interaction possible inside elevators, over against the fixed, public character of behavior outside them.

Every morning in the apartment building where I live I take the elevator six floors down. One morning a woman appeared with her bicycle as I was waiting for the elevator. Though we live along the same corridor, I had scarcely seen her before, and we had never spoken. Japanese public behavior in residential space is customarily limited to either reserved nods of recognition or restrained “good mornings” and “good afternoons.” Everything changes at the elevator, as I was especially surprised to see this particular morning.

Suppressing my annoyance (a bicycle takes half the space in the small elevator), I gestured for the woman to enter when the elevator arrived and the door opened. She acknowledged my courtesy, and positioned herself inside. There was just room enough to accommodate me in front of her. As the elevator descended, suddenly I felt a hand touch my collar, and smooth it down over my tie! “Arigato gosaimas” (thank you very much), I managed, when we reached the bottom floor and I could turn to face the woman. She smiled faintly and bowed in turn.

I was stunned for hours afterwards. Japanese never touch. It’s not even customary among themselves when they meet to shake hands. So how to explain why this woman would so casually reach over and adjust my collar? In public! And yet, not exactly. The space of an elevator is small enough, and, perhaps more important, brief and ephemeral enough, to admit a private character. Therefore, an individual can relax, and accord another a degree of warmth inadmissible once the elevator doors open once more. My moment of contact, I concluded, could have only happened in an elevator, and then perhaps only in Japan. Suddenly the mundane seemed luminous with an entirely different meaning to transit space.


Japanese courtesy is a staple of every handbook on the country designed for foreign consumption. In a typical recent one, The Inscrutable Japanese, organized around a chapter-by-chapter series of pointed questions, the following explanation is given in response to the question, “Why do Japanese yield to each other?”: “Behind this custom lies the desire to be part of a group. Japanese value group harmony, and they don,t like to stand out” (Hiroshi, 91). That is, Japanese are so courteous because their feeling for each other is already constituted–by their culture, by their very language–as collective in nature and consequence. What foreigners see as “courtesy” is in this sense merely an expression of the felt implication of their lives, each in one another. No wonder that they like to describe themselves, according to Ian Buruma, as “’wet and yasashii.’ They stick together in mutual dependency like ‘wet’, glutinous rice, so dear to the Japanese palate. … They express themselves by ‘warm, human emotions’, instead of ‘dry, hard rational thought’” (Buruma , 219).

But this stereotype (as Buruma terms it) only operates according to very strict rules for public behavior. The Inscrutable Japanese strives to explain, for example, the cultural imperative against direct confrontation that results (to the consternation of foreigners) in Japanese saying “maybe” so often, or the ethical significance of learning kata [proper form] that comprehends (to the misunderstanding of foreigners) why Japanese appear so rigid in exchanging business cards. Nonetheless, the presumption of such a handbook is that unless you are Japanese it is finally very difficult not to see Japanese public behavior as severely “marked” in virtually every manifestation, and therefore as finally too ceremonial and cold — or, ironically, rather the opposite of the stereotype that the Japanese have of themselves.

Behavior at or near elevators would at first seem to follow from this presumption. Upon entrance, there is always some hesitation about who goes first among a group of people. Everyone is usually so pleased to yield to everyone else that there is often a real danger that no one will actually get into the elevator before it leaves. Once inside, the person nearest the floor buttons is quick either to press a button for everyone else’s floor, or at least to demonstrate willingness to do so. Consideration of others is often so extreme that a person exiting will not only excuse himself or herself – sumimasen (“excuse me”) being once more the most operative word in Japanese public life — but press the “close” button so that less time will be lost to those remaining in the elevator.

Yet if life outside the elevator dictates the social script by which people conduct themselves at entrance and exit points, behavior inside the elevator is another matter. Transit space is of course fluid by its very nature — too short in duration to fit very securely into the continuum between public and private behavior. In Japan, people are prepared to speak to each other more freely in elevators, rather in the manner of Westerners, and much in contrast to their behavior in the halls or on the street. In these more open, commodious public realms, quick nods of mutual recognition — visual or verbal — suffice. In the more restricted space of the elevator, however, questions are often ventured, opinions expressed, or even greetings exchanged that have a more expansive character.

Even a foreigner should not expect to be surprised to be spoken to in an elevator by someone who would normally refrain from speaking to him outside it. I do not think the mere fact of physical proximity explains this. Of course it does to a degree; people who find themselves close to each other are inclined to speak to each other, or at least find it less comfortable to avoid doing so. However, in any particular country they are neither inclined to speak to each other in the same way, nor for the same reasons, Transit space reveals cultural specificity like few other kinds, because such space consists in peculiar negotiations among the resources of both public and private social interaction.

Japanese behavior inside elevators is so distinctive because it is determined by the opportunity momentarily afforded for its felt relaxation from the burdens of role-governed behavior outside. The relaxation is culturally weighted by two specific factors. Although the second is more decisive than the first, as I will argue, granting each of these factors is crucial to understanding why such a mundane occasion as behavior in elevators becomes so fascinating and elusive, as well as instructive and important for the study of transit space generally.


It is impossible to talk to another person very long on an elevator, which functions exclusively to get its occupants to a fixed destination, because the floors of a building occur in such quick succession. Hence, elevator time lacks duration. This does not mean, however, that it lacks opportunity; indeed, one of the things that the study of transit space in general demonstrates is that the its temporal coordinates, no matter how ephemeral, will be made nonetheless to perform social work. Depending upon the society, as well as the person, the limitations on conversation in an elevator can be either a great pity or a great relief.

To Japanese, they are both. The very brevity of the conversational horizon can yield an intensity that one can see invested in a wide range of other cultural phenomena, ranging from haiku to sumo or fireworks. The Japanese word for the latter, hanabi, or literally “flower fire,” suggests a link between their fleeting beauty and its most celebrated cultural manifestation: the cherry blossom. We should not be surprised that the occasion of an elevator enables the operation of a venerable cultural code, in which precisely because something does not last long is the reason to invest it with significance and value.

For Peter Singer, this special feeling for brevity can be erected into a metaphysical principle: “[a Japanese] is satisfied with short moments of fulfillment rapidly shattered as cherry blossoms are, and even his fighting spirit was often said not to be well sustained. Able to show great bravery, bordering sometimes on madness, he does not like to endure long hardship and adversity. Unlike the Russian, he prefers suicide to silent despair” (Singer, 30). Such discourse is of course rather wildly unfashionable in sociology today. It posits a national essence, rather than proposing to examines a cultural construction. Furthermore, Singer assumes a condition of changelessness, and disdains the modifications of social development, much less the claims of history.

Behavior in elevators constitutes, I would only argue, one means to try to articulate something about national identity, as well as an especially distinctive way of studying how national identity, in turn, illustrates behavior in elevators. Japanese are attracted to attenuated temporal coordinates–in this case once established inside the elevator–for precisely the reasons others might despair of them. Suddenly, smiles can be ventured. Courtesy can allow or even risk disclosures of additional emotion. Suddenly, there need not be so much fear of being self-conscious. Talk will not last very long. Indeed, it may barely be possible to get started. Behavior inside an elevator therefore assumes the character of something exquisitely ephemeral, poignantly revealing, even surprisingly candid.

In effect, the space inside the elevator is so circumscribed by the public realm in Japan that it becomes private. Just so, it seems to me that we cannot ask in abstract terms whether this space is public or private, even if the most obvious initial factor remains the nature of the building in which the elevator operates. (Hence, the larger or more commercial the building, the more open its elevators to being governed strictly by public codes.) The distinction between public and private space is often difficult to stabilize in actual social practice because transit space is transit space precisely because it is unstable; roles are not clearly delineated, and so the easiest available role is often the suspension of any particular one — until the elevator door opens (or the train door), and social life can resume, scripted as before.

In Japan, nonetheless, I would maintain that elevator space is subject to much less individual negotiation or even suspension The space is private, if not entirely unproblematically. The primary reason is simple: virtually all other space is far less unproblematically public, including all other forms of transportation, ranging from trains and buses even to private automobiles, which must be open to more public monitoring — speed limits, toll fees, parking restrictions, maintenance checks — than vehicles in any nation on earth. (Foreigners new to Japan are surprised to see so many people relaxing or sleeping in cars, as if to reclaim their lost private dimension.) The easiest way to understand the common behavior whereby the person leaving the elevator first presses the “close” button is as a concession to the privacy of the remaining occupant or occupants. Just so, this same privacy is what prompts the person entering the elevator to apologize for doing so.

Once inside, what Erving Goffman venerably terms a “participation unit” is immediately formed (Goffman, 21). Of course the same unit is incipiently constituted everywhere in the world, any time an elevator door closes. But it does not always function — when it does — according to rules at variance with those outside the elevator door. Not only is the brief duration of the circumstance inescapably manifest as an opportunity for social interaction rather than as an inconsequence. In addition, the peculiar kind of participation possible inside an elevator in Japan is purchased against a formidable array of prohibitions, inhibitions, and sanctions concerning human relationships outside it. Each of these has a highly public character, which, in effect, robs the slightest contact between individuals of its potentially casual, accidental, or, in a word, mundane quality.

The inside of the elevator restores this quality, if only for a few instants. Speaking of the fact that relationships must both begin and end, Goffman writes elsewhere concerning a peculiar kind of farewell in which (because of death or geography) participants are about to be inaccessible to each other: “In these latter cases, a farewell can occur that marks the simultaneous termination of a moment or two of being in touch and the relationship that made being in touch in that way possible” (Goffman, 90). Precisely. The nature of human participation inside an elevator in Japan is that the contact is so fraught with farewell from the very moment of initiation that it terminates without having become a relationship at all. Such relationships are very rare in Japan. Or rather, the space for them is. Therefore this space exists to be cherished, even if it begs to persist almost beneath notice.


It is undoubtedly the case that every society on earth has a considerable political investment in its transit spaces. Some monitor them more than others. However, the space of an elevator — now that the attendant who operates it (and by extension enforces orderly behavior) has fast become almost everywhere in the world an extremely rare figure — is not easily subject to surveillance. In Japan, at least, this particular space tends merely to be left to itself. It may be because people are taught to respect others, and, on the whole, they do. (For a recent popular explanation of the historical background, see Reid.) Even so, no less than any other people, Japanese are not without principles contrary to the society in which they find themselves.

How to make these principles manifest? For men, after-work bars – the world of the infamous “water trade” — can be seen as too prolonged, too systematic occasions. (For an incisive portrait of such establishments, see Morley.) People need mundane moments as well as significant ones in order to act out their own purely subjective or occasionally individual needs. Indeed, for these purposes mundane occasions are arguably the more precious, because they can be entirely free or careless of any sort of rationalization.

How to find such occasions? Perhaps they are best understood as given rather than found. Transit space generally exemplifies them, and moments inside elevators in particular, at least in Japan. Of course this particular space abides as endangered, just as it does anywhere else in the world, and for the same reason: video cameras. These cameras are ubiquitous in modern society: in department stores, fast-food restaurants, offices, and of course elevators. They attest, if not to the relentless public definition of space, at least to the public claim that everywhere exists to be made (for whatever purpose) on space of any kind. One thing the study of elevator space in Japan reveals is that this claim is never made without resistance, even in a society whose formidable traditions of law, precept, cultural memory, and ethical wisdom would seem to rule out individual dissonance.

Instead, in a sense, the dissonance is made possible through one of these traditions: an exquisite sensitivity to the inside. Patrick Smith is the latest of a number of commentators on Japan who have called attention to the duality of outside and inside, the enclosed and the exposed, which, he states, is “the first thing to confront the arriving visitor. The standard term for oneself is gaijin, outside person. It is one’s first notice that life in Japan will consist in a series of acceptances and rejections. Nothing is excepted” (Smith, 40). So, he continues, Japanese life can be comprehended as a series of variations on this duality, including everything from families, sports clubs, and companies to walls and paper screens. The reason elevator space in Japan is private is because it is seized by Japanese as a chance to create yet another inside.

Insides are not exclusively private; there would be little urgency to create them if they were not exposed to outsides. But insides always have a private coloration — won as it were over against the greater force of outsides, which are always public. (Compare in this respect the present furor over the existence of the ubiquitous “handy phones,” so beloved of teenagers; these phones represent to Japanese a scandalous eruption of personal opportunity or whim into public life, and so the public service campaign against the use of these phones on trains or at meetings emphasizes their rudeness.) The nice thing about the emotional coloration of the inside of elevators is that we can see how private behavior can suddenly and momentarily reveal itself without shedding its public guise.

Private energies, in other words, need not be wholly effaced, for they need not be disruptive if expressed. Of course, once more, it helps immensely if the occasion is staged on a very small scale and is very brief. A final example: The other night I worked late in my office, and then took an elevator down, as usual, when I left. A woman got on at the third floor with a small cart. She inclined her head, upon entrance, and excused herself, faintly. Nothing surprising here. But her smile was, along with the fact that she stood to one side, facing me, rather than in front, with her back to me. One of those intricate little dances of civility ensued when the elevator stopped on the first floor. The woman gestured for me to precede her out. I, in turn, gestured for her. She was pleased to accept, and each of us was delighted to act out our respective acceptance with a degree of fervor unlikely to transpire away from the elevator.

Did we have to act this way? No. The social participation made possible by the inside of an elevator can remain inert, or wholly governed by the rules outside it. As it was, what further chances exist for extending the ephemeral moment of sociality that obtained between the woman and me? None. Or, to put it another way, further chances that could exist would cease to be charged with the peculiar intimacy that the most mundane occasions suddenly possess in Japan. They possess this intimacy because the social disposition of public space normally forbids it. But then the study of the mundane, I think, reveals that public space is never limited to what it forbids. Otherwise, none of us would have anything to bring to our relationships there, and social life may as well consist of empty action, going up and down like an elevator, with no inside and nobody to occupy it.

Works Cited

Buruma, Jan. Behind the Mask: On Sexual Demons, Sacred Mothers, Gangsters, and Other Japanese Cultural Heroes. New York: Meridian, 1984. back

Goffman, Erving. Relations in Public. Microstudies of the Public Order. New York: Harper Books, 1971. back

Hiroshi, Kagawa. The Inscrutable Japanese. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1997. back

Morley, John. Pictures from the Water Trade. Adventures of a Westerner in Japan. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1985. back

Reid, T. R. Confucius Lives Next Door. New York: Random House, 1999. back

Singer, Peter. Mirror, Sword and Jewel. The Geometry of Japanese Life. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1971. back

Smith, Patrick. Japan: A Reinterpretation. New York: Vintage, 1998. back

Author: When not taking elevators, Terry Caesar teaches American literature in the graduate program at Mukogawa Women’s University in Japan. He has either authored or edited six books, most recently Traveling through the Boondocks, his third collection of essays on what might be termed (to use an elevator trope) the “ups and downs of academic life,” has been just published by SUNY-Albany Press.

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