The surprisingly interesting psychology behind Japan’s train system
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The surprisingly interesting psychology behind Japan’s train system

THE subtle working of Japan’s rail system may not be a topic that immediately whips you up into a flurry of excitement.

But consider the billions of people packed shoulder to shoulder making their way through Tokyo’s metro system each year, the trains running to a split-second timetable, and immaculate stations, you might start to appreciate the planning that goes into making sure this all goes off without a hitch.

Despite being home to world’s busiest train stations, Tokyo has managed to retain its reputation for reliability and staggering punctuality. In May this year, the system won global fame when it made a heartfelt apology for one of its trains leaving the station 25 seconds early. You could almost hear the collective groan of London commuters from here.

The system handles 13 billion combined passenger trips annually. While peering into a Tokyo station at rush may look like chaos, the fact that commuters manage to glide alongside each other without incident is not by coincidence or pure luck.

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While most stations around the world use subtle cues to “nudge” passengers into the more efficient behaviour – think painted footprints on the ground or chevrons are the doors to encourage queueing – Japan uses deeper psychological manipulation.

Allan Richarz lays out some of their most ingenious tactics for CityLab.

The calming effect of music

That commuting is stressful will not be news to anyone. But Japan brings an extra level with the trains often reaching 200 percent capacity during peak hours. The shrill whistle of a station attendant as the train leaves, coupled with nerve-rattling buzzers to announce train arrivals added the assault on the senses.

It also prompted commuters to rush down the stairs and through the crowds in the hope of beating the trains closing doors.

Recognising the heightened alarm the ear-piercing sounds were creating, rail operator commissioned Yamaha to produce soothing, happy jingles to accompany train movements instead.


Hwang Song-Wi, a Tokyo Korean high school student walks at a subway station to take a train to go home after the school in Tokyo. Source: Behrouz Mehri/AFP

Introduced in 1989, the melodies spread until almost every station had its own signature theme tune. A 2008 study found they had proven convincingly successful, with a 25 percent drop in passenger injuries attributed to rushing on certain platforms where the melodies were used.

They are designed to minimise anxiety and composed of the ideal seven seconds, proven to reduce stress.

The youth of today

Sticking with aural influences, this one is less tranquil and more deterrent.

While Japan is a remarkably safe country with little reason to fear their young people, loitering and potential vandalism is still at the forefront of their minds. Stations have put in place ultrasonic deterrents that emit a high-frequency tone, only audible to people under 25.

When set at 17 kilohertz, older people are unable to detect the sound due to age related hearing loss. Young people, however, find the sound uncomfortable and hurry to get away from it.

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This may sound harsh but the devices are widely used across Europe and the United States to prevent youth delinquency.

Richarz gives a first-hand account of seeing Japanese youth exclaiming urusai! (loud) near some exits and quickly scurrying away, while elderly business men didn’t miss a step.

The power of mood lighting

With one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world, Japan is always vigilant of the risks in their stations. Leaping in front of a train is one of the most common methods chosen in Japan, averaging one a day, making it a brutal way to go as well as highly disruptive to its meticulously scheduled timetable.

While platform barriers are the eventual end goal to fix the problem, they are expensive and difficult to install in some of the older stations.

While they wait, rail authorities have found a cheap and surprisingly effective alternative.


Commuters are packed inside a car in the Tokyo metro subway. Source: EQRoy/Shutterstock

At the end of most platforms – the quiet area most likely to be used for a suicide attempt – you can find small square panels of blue LED lighting. They don’t look like much, and you probably wouldn’t notice them if you weren’t looking out for them, but the deep blue glow they emit can be a lifesaver.

Blue light has been found to have a calming effect on a person’s mood. And they appear to work.

A 2013 study by the University of Tokyo shows an 84 percent drop in the number of suicide attempts at the stations where blue lights were installed. Reassuringly, there was no increase recorded at those stations that didn’t have them.

The measure was so effective it’s been introduced in the UK.

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