Tokyo Metro Subway Commuters
Credit: Getty Images

More than 40 years ago, social psychologist Dr. Stanley Milgram gave his students an assignment: Go on the New York City subway and ask fellow passengers to give up their seats.

The majority of students reported high anxiety and even trauma upon asking fellow passengers to give up their seats, even though the majority of those asked complied.

Confronting a stranger — even nicely — is still a nerve-racking experience for many people today, which is why New York City, among others, have tried to educate riders about polite behavior. Tokyo, meanwhile, is turning to technology to make interactions on the subway easier.

Using the popular messaging app Line, pregnant riders on the Tokyo subway now request fellow passengers to give up their seats. Once a pregnant rider presses “I wish to sit” on their phone, nearby riders who have previously registered as willing to give up their seats for a pregnant passenger will receive a notification, alerting them that it’s their opportunity to stand up.

If and when there’s a match, the pregnant passenger will receive a notification on their phone, alongside a seat map guiding them to the passenger who’s willing to give up their spot.

“This may be particular to Japan but some people hesitate to speak to a person who may need a seat,” a spokesperson at Dai Nippon Printing, the company testing the service on the subway, told AFP. “Many people are also looking at smartphone screens and do not always realise quickly that someone in need is standing nearby.”

The seat-request feature will also be available for elderly or disabled passengers.

The service began testing in Tokyo last week but it’s unclear if and when it will become a permanent feature on the subway. But if the app fails, there’s still always the the old-fashioned idea of noticing a fellow passenger in need and offering a seat before being asked. But first, passengers will need to look up from their phones.