Train stations are super smart
Illustration: Kento Iida

Five things you didn't know about Tokyo's train stations

Tokyo's public transport system is top class – and these innovations help make its train stations super smart and efficient

Written by
Taryn Siegel
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With about 10 percent of Japan’s population residing in Tokyo – and with most Tokyoites using the city’s trains every day – a slick public transport system is crucial to keep the city on the move. The capital’s train stations have thus evolved into one-stop destinations for not just commuting but also for eating and shopping. More importantly, they have become world-famous for their to-the-second efficiency, so much so that train companies are known to issue public apology for departing mere seconds earlier than scheduled. But there’s a lot more than just on-time departures that makes Tokyo’s train stations some of the smartest around...

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Pointing and calling

You may notice that train conductors and platform attendants seem to use an excessive amount of gestures and verbal calls every time a train is approaching or leaving. No, these aren’t aspiring performance artists dressed up as train personnel; they’re actually employing a mandatory practice called ‘point and call’.

Studies have shown an 85 percent reduction in human error can be achieved by pointing to an object and then verbalising your actions, since more of the brain is being employed, thereby increasing your situational awareness. Due to this increased accuracy and decreased likelihood of human error, this method for issuing instructions is mandatory throughout the rail industry in Japan. 

Door-closing chimes

To cut down on commuting stress as much as possible, in 1989 JR East commissioned Yamaha and composer Hiroaki Ide to create pleasing seven-second-long chimes known as hassha melodies to warn passengers when the train doors are closing.

Nearly every station and line has its own unique jingle – some are upbeat, some are soothing, and some are oddly familiar, like the Disney tunes you can hear on the Toyoko line down to Yokohama or the ‘Star Wars’ theme at Jiyugaoka Station.

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Crowded yet on time

Japan has 45 of the world’s 50 busiest stations, and yet trains here are incredibly on-time, with the average delay about 36 seconds. You might remember when a train between Tokyo and Tsukuba made headlines after the operator issued a sincere apology after a 20-second accidental early departure (though to be fair, even Japanese people found the apology hilarious and ridiculous). But even a few minutes delay is exceedingly rare here and will definitely come with a mea culpa issued several times via loudspeaker throughout the ride.

Marking the queues

Even during the craziest of rush hours, train platforms always maintain a sense of orderliness, with markings on every platform indicating where waiting passengers should stand to embark. Some train lines take this a step further, with two queues marked out – one for the ‘first train’ and one for the ‘second train’.

After queuing up in Tokyo train stations for a couple of weeks, you’ll almost certainly find yourself wandering the train platforms in your home city wondering where to stand before you remember that it’s just a lawless free-for-all outside of Tokyo.

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LED lights for suicide prevention

A tragic but well-known fact about Japan is its high suicide rate. Hundreds of these deaths each year happen when people jump in front of trains – an event broadcast to commuters as a jinshin jiko or ‘human accident’. A lot of stations have installed chest- high barriers that make it impossible for commuters to jump. But not all stations can afford this costly improvement.

Studies have shown that a calming blue light can help mitigate stress, so many train stations have installed LED blue lights at the ends of their platforms (where most suicide victims jump from). It may sound like a long shot, but it’s actually been amazingly effective. A 10-year study showed an 84 percent decline in the number of suicide attempts at stations where these lights were installed.

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