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Understanding East Asia using the ‘Subway Theory’

Date:20 October 2014
Author:Jeremy Raymond
Jeremy Raymond
Jeremy Raymond

The subway theory is something that I have used many times to help begin to explain the differences and similarities between the countries within East Asia. It normally starts off with somebody asking me “How was your trip in …. (insert East Asian countries name here)? Is it similar to … (insert another East Asian countries name here)?” I would reply, “yeah it was great, the food was awesome, but the cultures were quite different.” They would then ask me to explain to them exactly what I meant.

This is where subway theory comes in. The theory could actually be called many things, such as the ‘McDonalds theory’, or the ‘Starbucks Theory’ or the ‘anywhere you need to wait and line up theory’.

It is based on situations in which there is a large group of people who have a need to line up and wait, in order to reach an objective. It is my observation on how this objective is achieved.

It is on a spectrum with China being on the left (naturally) and Japan the far right.

I will start with the left, China.

To begin with everything seems fine, we are all waiting in the allocated spots that the powers above have painted by the entry and exits to maintain order. Then the train is coming and there seems to be some shuffling but still order looks to prevail, then the train stops, everyone pushes a little closer, but there is still space left for the current passengers to exit the train.

Then the doors open.

What follows is a mass of people pushing to disembark the train, and an equal mass pushing against them trying to fill in the gap where the others are leaving. Somehow, someway, we all manage to reach our objective of getting on and off the train. As we board, the others get squeezed out. This is the left side of the spectrum.

On the right we have Japan.

Here it is a lot more pleasant and ordered. It begins the same, with us all waiting in the designated areas, which look very similar to the Chinese situation.

The difference is, the train gets closer, no one moves.

The train stops, no one moves.

The doors open, no one waiting to get on the train moves, until every single person who is getting off the train, is off. Then everyone moves in an orderly fashion to quietly find a spot to stand or sit.

In the middle of this spectrum is South Korea.

The beginning is the same as in the two previous scenarios mentioned, but once approximately half of the people who are getting off the train are off, they decide they have waited long enough and everyone who is boarding moves to find their spot on the train. It is much less chaotic than China, but much less orderly than the Japan scenario.

How does this help us understand the countries of East Asia though? Well this scenario, as mentioned earlier, happens everywhere.


It comes down to the history and experiences of the people in the countries in question.

China is a country that has faced large urbanization over recent years. The people from the rural areas have faced hardship of which we would struggle to imagine, from foreign occupancy to massive famines caused by its own government. It is no wonder that they want to put themselves first before the others wanting to embark and disembark the train, as throughout history they have had to look after themselves.

Japan after World War II they experienced large amounts of foreign aid in both monetary terms and technological terms. They have been the most developed country in this region for decades, with a democratic political system. It’s not a surprise they are willing to wait to get on the train, as they have experienced a relatively peaceful existence of recent times.

Korea again, fits in the middle of this. It had times of hardship, hunger and large foreign influence and, up until the early 90s, was still developing as a country and a nation dealing with the loss of family and friends to the north. They have now developed into a democratic system, with some of the worlds most advanced technologies at their disposal. This explains why they are willing to wait, but only for a little while, as they have yet to experience a long sustained period of peace.

These experiences can be seen in many aspects of life, and although it does not explain deep-rooted social issues in their societies, it does give you a peak into beginning to understand them. Understanding that what they do isn’t ‘rude’, or ‘uncouth’, but it is just the people living the way they know how.