Nikkei offers some very specific tips from the pros on how to find a seat on Japan’s crowded commuter trains:
Before you get on the train:
Line up at worst 4th from the front (in cars with seven-person benches and 3 doors): The 5th in line may not be able to sit. In that case, wait for the next train!
Line up near the smoking area of the station: There are many who get on late because they are distracted by smoking. Few people will put out their cigarettes just to line up.
Line up behind the door second closest to the stairs: There are usually a lot of people getting off at the door nearest the stairs, so you may be held up getting on the train.
Line up near areas where stairs or offices make the waiting area smaller: It’s hard to line up there so there will be fewer people lined up.
Line up at the very end of the platform: There are simply fewer people there.
Do not line up behind couples: They move together, so if a couple is in front of you you can’t move quickly to grab a seat.
Once you are on the train:
Stand in front of the person who moves to sit on the end seat: The end seat on a bench is the most popular since you don’t have to deal with people sitting next to you on both sides. Once that seat opens, people who were sitting in other seats will often move to the end. You should stand in front of them because it is likely they’ve been riding for a while, increasing the likelihood that they’ll get off soon (leaving the seat for you!)
Look for indicative signs that people are about to get off: Looking out the window, putting away books or headphones, glancing at the tsurikawa (straps to hold on to to keep you from falling over), any signs that they might get off soon.
Judge from clothing or items in riders’ hands where they will get off: Check for school uniforms or company seals or envelopes to predict where they’ll get off. You can also tell from regular clothes, such as a housewife working part time or a student at a preparatory study school.
Remember the faces of people who always get off at the same station: Salarymen are the easiest to remember. It is also effective to write your own list of people’s features.
You can guess where someone will get off by what they’re reading: Hardcover readers are long commuters, while people reading paperbacks often have short commutes. You can also tell where someone will get off by labels indicating the libraries where the books came from. There are also theories that people who read sports newspapers tend to have long commutes.
The bulk of the story comes from interview with self-described experts on finding seats in crowded trains Hajime Yorozu, a worker at a publishing company who is such an expert he has his own mail magazine and book on the topic.
The list in Japanese can be found at this blog in case you don’t believe me. The above image was ripped off from this blog that also covered the Nikkei story. Thanks again, Technorati!