According to Digg, 
Tokyo Subway Just About Does Everything Right". 
If you think installing sound deterrence machines 
that only younger people can hear and whose 
sounds agitate teenagers to keep from 
congregating is a "good thing", then you'd 
applaud Tokyo's attempts at behavior 
modification. The CityLab article (below) says 
that New York is hoping to do the same. Very 
interesting article. Go to website to see photos 
and video, which I've removed here. (Interesting 
comments on NY's Joseph Lhota, too!)
- Mitchel Cohen

The New York City Subway system is quickly 
devolving into 
of mismanagement and delays, which as the days 
tick by will only cost more money and take more 
$19 billion, 50 years) to ultimately fix. And of 
course the man tasked with running all of this, 
Joseph Lhota, happens to be 
his time between various lucrative side jobs. He 
is a public servant who makes millions 
doesn't believe he should be taxed to provide the 
necessary revenue to fix the thing he is responsible for fixing.

If all of that fills with you with anger and 
disgust, well, do I have the palate cleanser for 
you. This week, Tokyo native Allan Richarz wrote 
just the nicest article about all of the subtle 
things the Tokyo Subway does to make it 
of the best public transportation systems in the world.

Reading about how they use subtle design to 
encourage people to queue properly around trains, 
lights to calm folks who are thinking about 
jumping off the platform or relaxing jingles to 
ease the stress of the inevitable rush-hour jams 
just makes you realize that government can 
actually be good! Like, it is possible for a 
group of people to recognize the societal 
importance of the thing they are running, and 
then instead of using that as a political 
bargaining chip, actually make decisions that 
improve the thing in real ways. It's clear that 
from all the ways the Tokyo Metro attempts to 
work with it's massive ridership there is a deep 
respect and care for its users that you just don't see here in New York.

Which isn't to say that there aren't people at 
the MTA who are trying to do the same! Nor that 
the Tokyo Metro is perfect and without fault. I 
think the level of outrage about the MTA isn't 
just that things are bad, but rather things could 
be so much better. Public transportation is vital 
to the health of the city, and to see those in 
power demonstrate such a lack of respect for the 
responsibility they signed up for is just so very, very disappointing.


The Amazing Psychology of Japanese Train Stations

Allan Richarz
May 22, 2018

The nation’s famed mastery of rail travel has 
been aided by some subtle behavioral tricks.

It is a scene that plays out each weekday morning 
across Tokyo. Suit-clad office workers, gaggles 
of schoolchildren, and other travelers gamely 
wend their way through the city’s sprawling rail stations.

To the casual observer, it is chaos; commuters 
packed shoulder-to-shoulder amid the constant 
clatter of arriving and departing trains. But a 
closer look reveals something more beneath the 
surface: A station may be packed, yet commuters 
move smoothly along concourses and platforms. 
Platforms are a whirl of noisy activity, yet 
trains maintain remarkable on-time performance. 
Indeed, the staggering punctuality of the 
Japanese rail system occasionally becomes the 
focus of international headlines­as on May 11, 
when West Japan Railways issued a florid apology 
after one of its commuter trains 
the station 25 seconds early.

Tokyo is 
to the world’s busiest train stations, with the 
capital’s rail operators handling a 
13 billion passenger trips annually. Ridership of 
that volume requires a deft blend of engineering, 
planning, and psychology. Beneath the bustle, 
unobtrusive features are designed to 
unconsciously manipulate passenger behavior, via 
light, sound, and other means. Japan’s boundless 
creativity in this realm reflects the deep 
consideration given to public transportation in the country.

Rail stations, whether in Japan or elsewhere, are 
also great places to see “nudge theory” at work. 
Pioneered by behavioral economist Richard Thaler, 
who was awarded the 
Nobel Memorial Prize for his work, and Harvard 
Law School professor Cass Sunstein, the theory 
posits that gentle nudges can subtly influence 
people towards decisions in their own (or 
society’s) best interests, such as signing up for 
private pension 
or organ donation. In the U.K., there’s a 
government office devoted to the idea, the 
Insights Team (or 
unit”), and their work often shows up in the transit realm.

In 2016, for instance, London Underground 
operator Transport for London partnered with the 
behavioral science department at the London 
School of Economics to develop ways of 
riders to queue on both sides of station 
escalators as a means of increasing their 
capacity in the capital’s Holborn Station. Among 
other measures, simple hand and footprints were 
also painted on each side of the “up” escalators. 
In Australia, researchers 
an experiment with lighted directional arrows on 
signposts to improve flows of departing 
passengers. Using a camera system designed to 
recognize and distinguish brisk-walking 
businesspeople from dawdling tourists, for 
example­green arrows would flash to direct 
commuters in an efficient route towards the exit.

When it come to passenger manipulation, what sets 
the stations of Japan apart from their 
counterparts is both the ingenuity behind their 
nudges and the imperceptible manner in which they 
are implemented. Japan’s nudges reflect a higher 
order of thinking. The orderliness of society is 
taken as a given -­ Japanese commuters know how 
to queue on an escalator and can easily navigate 
the confusing, but wide-open, spaces of Tokyo’s 
rail stations without assistance. This allows 
rail operators to instead focus on deeper psychological manipulation.

The ultimate in mood lighting

Japan has one of the highest suicide rates among 
OECD nations, and often, those taking their own 
lives do so by leaping from station platforms 
into the path of oncoming trains, with Japan 
such instance each day. It is a brutal, 
disruptive end that can also wreak havoc across the transit system.

To address the issue, stations across Tokyo and 
the rest of Japan installed chest-high barriers 
as a means of preventing suicide attempts. But 
platform barriers are expensive, and about 
percent of Japan's largest and most-travelled 
stations do not have the platform space or 
structural strength to accommodate them. While 
there are hopes to have platform barriers 
installed in all 243 of Tokyo’s train stations by 
2032 (at a cost of $4.7 billion), rail operators 
in the interim have come up alternative approaches.

Standing at either end of a platform in Tokyo’s 
labyrinthine Shinjuku Station, one might detect a 
small square LED panel emitting a pleasant, 
deep-blue glow. Nestled among vending machines 
and safety posters, the panel might be dismissed 
as a bug zapper. But these simple blue panels are designed to save lives.

Operating on the theory that exposure to blue 
light has a 
effect on one’s mood, rail stations in Japan 
began installing these LED panels as a 
suicide-prevention measure in 2009. They are 
strategically located at the ends of each 
platform­typically the most-isolated and 
least-trafficked area, and accordingly, the point 
from which most platform jumps occur. Some 
stations, such as 
Station in Tokyo, bolster their LED regime with 
colored roof panels, allowing blue-tinted 
sunlight to filter down on to platforms.

It is an approach that has proven to be 
surprisingly effective. According to a study by 
researchers at the University of Tokyo published 
in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2013, 
data analyzed over a 10-year period shows an 
percent decline in the number of suicide attempts 
at stations where blue lights are installed. A 
subsequent study revealed 
corresponding increase in suicide attempts at 
neighboring stations lacking such lights.

The idea has been picked up in the U.K.: Several 
stations in 
now emulate the Japanese approach, with blue LED 
light panels on station platforms.

A song for a more peaceful departure

Commuting during rush hour in Japan is not for 
the faint of heart. The trains are jam-packed at 
as much as 
percent capacity during the height of rush hour, 
and razor-thin connection times to transfer from 
one train to another leave little margin for 
error. Compounding the stressful nature of the 
commute in years past was the nerve-grating tone 
-­ a harsh buzzer used to signal a train’s 
imminent departure. The departing train buzzer 
was punctuated by sharp blasts of station 
attendants’ whistles, as harried salarymen raced 
down stairs and across platforms to beat the train’s closing doors.

To calm this stressful audio environment, in 1989 
the major rail operator JR East commissioned 
Yamaha and 
Hiroaki Ide to 
melodies -­ short, ear-pleasing jingles to 
replace the traditional departure buzzer.

Also known as departure or train melodies, hassha 
tunes are brief, calming and distinct; their aim 
is to notify commuters of a train’s imminent 
departure without inducing anxiety. To that end, 
most melodies are composed to an optimal length 
of 7 seconds, owing to 
showing that shorter-duration melodies work best 
at reducing passenger stress and rushing 
incidents, as well as taking into account the 
time needed for a train to arrive and depart.

The tunes feature whimsical titles like “Seaside 
Boulevard” and range from the wistful to the 
jaunty. Most stations have their own melodies, 
forming de facto theme songs that become part of 
a station’s identity. Tokyo’s Ebisu Station, for 
example, is known for its departure melody­a 
short, stylized version of the theme from The Third Man.

As more stations have added melodies over the 
years, the original thesis has proven correct. A 
study conducted in October 2008 at Tokyo Station, 
for instance, found a 
percent reduction in the number of passenger 
injuries attributable to rushing after the 
introduction of hassha melodies on certain platforms.

The use of these jingles is not without 
controversy, however. Shortly after their 
introduction, residents living near open-air rail 
stations, weary of hearing endless repetitions of 
the same jingles all day, complained of noise pollution.


Despite, or perhaps because of, its reputation 
a remarkably safe country, Japan is nonetheless 
vigilant in combatting youth delinquency. Train 
stations are particularly sensitive in that 
regard, since large congregations of young people 
pass through stations at all hours of the day.

To address the Japanese fear of loitering and 
vandalism by young riders, some train stations 
deploy ultrasonic deterrents -­ small, 
unobtrusive devices that emit a high-frequency 
tone. The particular frequency used -- 17 
kilohertz* -- can generally only be heard by 
those under the age of 25. (Older people can’t 
detect such frequencies, thanks to the 
age-related hearing loss known as presbycusis.) 
These devices -- the 
of a Welsh inventor and also used to fend off 
loitering teens in the U.S. and Europe -­ have 
been enthusiastically adopted in Japan.

Standing outside one of Tokyo Station’s numerous 
exits on a recent summer day, it was easy to see 
the effectiveness of this deterrent in action. 
Weary salarymen and aged obaachan passed under 
the sonic deterrent without changing pace. Among 
uniform -- clad students, however, the reactions 
were evident -- a suddenly quickened pace, a look 
of confusion or discomfort, and often a cry of 
urusai! (Loud!) None appeared to connect the 
noise to the deterrents placed almost flush in the ceiling panels above.

Pointing the best way forward

Rail employees are not exempt from the behavioral 
hacks of their employers. Perhaps most famously, 
Japanese train conductors, drivers, and platform 
attendants are mandated to use the 
and call” method­called shisa kanko­in executing 
tasks. By physically pointing at an object, and 
then verbalizing one’s intended action, a greater 
portion of the brain is engaged, providing 
improved situational awareness and accuracy. 
Studies have repeatedly shown that this technique 
reduces human error by as much as 85 percent. 
Pointing-and-calling is now a major workplace 
safety feature in industries throughout Japan.

So, why don’t train workers everywhere do this? 
Like so many aspects of Japanese transit culture, 
shisa kanko has proved resistant to export 
(though pointing-and-calling 
been adopted in modified form by New York City’s 
transit authority). In this, as in so many 
things, Japan’s rail system stands largely alone.


About the Author

Richarz is a privacy lawyer and writer based in Tokyo, Japan.