They say the infant Mozart had such a delicate ear that any discordant sound would make him physically sick. If true, I imagine Shinjuku station would probably have killed him. There can be few noisier places on the planet than Japan’s largest station, which is, to a degree, unavoidable given the volume of traffic that thunders through it.
But what’s less excusable is why rail companies choose to add to this cacophony by bombarding passengers with yet more noise in the form of maddeningly repetitive announcements and infantile jingles. Railway officials in Japan seem to believe that their trains and platforms are full of bewildered, vulnerable children, possibly using a train for the first time, and in urgent need of endlessly repeated “guidance” delivered to them by the tyrants of the tannoy at an eardrum-perforating fortissimo.
Let’s start with the safety announcements: endless pleas to “Take care,” “Watch your step,” and “Be careful.” Not only are these annoying and largely unnecessary, they may actually be dangerous. Tom Vanderbilt, in his book "Traffic," points to research showing that, at best, safety announcements make no difference whatsoever, and, at worst, they can actually lead to an increase in accident rates because people may modify their natural behavior as a result of listening to them (“risk homeostasis,” if you’re interested). That is, if you consciously attempt to “Watch your step,” you’re more likely to stumble than if you had trusted your inbuilt hazard detector to do the job for you. And how many times do we need to be warned that “The doors are closing”? I’d argue the answer is once, or even not at all, given that a buzzer alerts us to the fact. But for the zealots manning the speakers on the Keio line, five or six times per departure seems to be the going rate.
Rather than endlessly repeating the same stale old advice, would JR, for one, not be better employed doing something practical to improve safety, such as narrowing the treacherous chasms between train and platform at many of their stations (Yotsuya, Ichigaya, Iidabashi)? I once saw a toddler almost disappear into such a gap until snatched in midair by his horrified mother.
Then there are the jingles. Now, I know I am bringing a Western sensibility to bear here, and the Japanese seem to have a much higher tolerance for repetition, but surely the phrase “familiarity breeds contempt” has some resonance in any culture? What purpose do jingles serve? Some claim these cheerful little melodies discourage suicide attempts, which strikes me as ironic, as I have never felt more like topping myself than when I’m standing on the platform on a cold Saturday morning with a full day’s teaching ahead of me and those infuriatingly over-familiar chimes are struck up for the zillionth time. Others have told me the jingles are intended to hurry people up, though this seems sinisterly Pavlovian and, once again, an insult to our intelligence.
Now, all of this may sound a little petty, and I am aware that there are more important things in life. Furthermore, as a former long-term resident of London, I readily acknowledge that in every other respect, the transport network in Japan is just about peerless. And I realize, too, that the visually impaired should be given due consideration. But if you think this really is a trivial issue, it might be worth reminding yourself how much of your life you actually spend on trains and in stations. I realized with a gulp that I clock up about 14 hours a week, or around 25 full days a year, which works out at… well, I’ll stop there before I feel like throwing myself in front of an express. Let’s just say I spend an unavoidably substantial, but by no means exceptional, amount of my waking hours in trains and stations.
In an effort to discover whether I was alone in my feelings, I canvassed a number of Japanese on how they felt about the number and volume of announcements on trains and in stations. The results were interesting, if inconclusive. The young people I spoke to were, on the whole, unmoved, shrugging their shoulders and giving me that glazed “whatever” look I’ve come to know so well. But the oldies were another story, often and enthusiastically agreeing with me. In fact, one man—a professor at Tokyo University, no less—practically foamed at the mouth as he ranted, “I don’t need to be told how to use a train!” Obviously, my complaints can’t be ascribed solely to cultural differences.
So if this plea reaches the ear of any station officer above the hellish din, I would urge you to think again (or even just think): how about at least reducing the volume and frequency of your announcements to the level that most other transit systems around the world find sufficient? True service, at least if I understand the term correctly, has at its heart a consideration of the feelings of the customer, which in this case means considering the possibility that on a cold, joyless morning we might, just possibly, be grateful for a little peace and quiet. In short, it’s surely time for the train companies to change their tune, or preferably silence it altogether. Less sound, less fury—now that would be service. And that would signify something.
The author works for the British Council in Tokyo.
This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp)© Japan Today