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 headlines—as on May 11, when West Japan Railways issued a florid apology after one of its commuter trains —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 research 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 melody—a 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 25 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 as 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 brainchild 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 “point and call” method—called shisa kanko—in 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 has 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.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified this frequency in hertz, not kilohertz.
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