Tokyo is one of the world’s busiest cities. Every year commuters there take a combined 13 billion journeys by rail.
To handle such a huge flow of people a number of ingenious ideas have been implemented to keep the system running smoothly – and to nudge passengers towards desired outcomes.
And it works – of the 50 busiest train stations in the world, almost all of them are in Japan.
Clear graphical signage and voice announcements obviously play an important role – but it is the more subtle touches that I think are fascinating.
Until a few years ago passengers were alerted to forthcoming departures with a jarring buzzer. While effective at drawing attention, this did little to calm nerves in an already stressful and crowded environment.
But then, one by one, the different rail operators across the city started to commission what are known as ‘hassha merodi’ – train departure melodies that convey both information and a sense of identity to each station.
One composer, Minoru Mukaiya, has written more than 170 of these ear-pleasingly catchy jingles for over 100 stations.
Each lasts for no more than seven seconds – the brief period during which the train doors are open and anyone intending to travel must board.
As passengers grow familiar with each melody they come to intuitively understand whether they have enough time, or not.
Mukaiya has a cult following, with over 34,000 followers on Twitter and numerous examples of his work on YouTube.
And because his pieces are played multiple times a day to millions of people it means he is one of the most played musicians in the world.
“There is a huge number of people who take the train in the metropolitan areas such as Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya and it’s necessary to get people on and off in a short time,” Mukaiya has explained.
“So this helps make organised queues as trains come one after another in a short time. I think trains in other countries are not as crowded as trains in Japan.”
Interestingly Mukaiya’s music is played by hand on a keyboard, rather than created on a keyboard, because he believes this achieves a “human groove” with its natural imperfections.