Once upon a time, pretty much every Japanese train station had a public chalkboard. People in Japanese cities have always used train stations as meeting points when waiting for friends and relatives, and in an era before cell phones these chalkboards were a place to write a message if one person couldn’t stick around any longer and had to leave before the other arrives.
Once mobile phones and messaging apps became ubiquitous, though, the chalkboards quickly became unused relics. Stations gradually started removing theirs rather than maintain them, and they’ve now become a rare sight, so it was very unusual last week when Higashi Kanagawa Station actually installed not one, but four brand-new chalkboards.
What makes this especially surprising is that Higashi Kanagawa Station isn’t some provincial stop on a rural line. It’s in Yokohama, the second-largest city in Japan, and less than 30 minutes away from the heart of downtown Tokyo. So why is a train station in a modern, developed part of Japan going retro like this?
The answer is found on the whiteboards above the chalkboards, where a written message from the station staff reads:
“Everyone, thank you for doing what you can to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. These days, we’re all having to put off doing a lot of things we want to do. There are places we want to go, and people we want to see. So why not put those feelings into words?
Sharing our thoughts and hopes can help ease feelings of isolation, so we’ve installed these memo chalkboards.
We believe that happy times will eventually return, so don’t give up, and let’s all keep doing our best.”
Among the messages that have been posted so far are:
“I hope I can go visit my parents soon.”
“I wanna go to a hot spring.”
“I want to eat some good ramen.”
“Really want to eat some good donuts.”
“Making gratin for dinner tonight.”
“Hoping the spread of infections stops soon. Everybody, stay safe!”
“I want to go back to school.”
“XYZ. Eliminate the coronavirus.”
“Looking forward to the day when we can all hang out and smile together again.”
“Don’t forget the good times. I believe they’ll come back.”
“To everyone working hard in the station, thank you.”
“Hang in there! We can do this!”
Technically, these are all messages people could be posting on Twitter, Facebook or any other digital platform, but there’s a special quality to having them written on the station boards. The knowledge that someone else who lives or works in the neighborhood was standing right there makes their thoughts really feel like part of the community, and can provide a sense of interpersonal connection that’s hard to come by in a time when most of us are spending as much time as possible indoors alone.
The day’s messages are erased every evening at 6, to make room for new ones the next day. The station management hasn’t said how long the boards will remain in place, likely because no one knows how long the coronavirus situation will continue, but maybe the feeling of connection they provide will prove strong enough that the boards will remain in place even after life gets back to normal.
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