What three weeks in Japan taught me about public transit signage

Shinkansen (“bullet”) trains at Odawara station

Large signs in multiple languages

Shinkansen sign at Odawara station


A platform sign in Ueno-hirokoji station in Tokyo showing the name of the station in five writing systems.
Tokyo subway in-car above-door digital display alternating between Japanese and English/romanization

The door closing jingle

Walking and queuing signs

Queuing for trains and buses

Stay on the left… or right

Station numbers and platform guides

Sign for Tokyo’s Yurikamome line’s Daiba station
A platform sign on Tokyo’s Yurikamome line
Sign on the wall at Jimbocho station in Tokyo. Jimbocho is a bookstore district.

Time to arrival

In-car digital display showing time to arrival for the next two stops

Exit numbers

Exit sign at Odawara station
An overhead sign in the Osaka subway system indicating that Exit 5 is to the left and Exits 6 through 9 are to the right.
Two subway station maps showing exit numbers.

Train car numbers and boarding/exiting hints

Reserved/unreserved cars

Wayfinding inside of the train

Which way to go when you step off a train

Display above the door inside a train car on the Tokyo Metro Ginza Line when train is pulling into Tawaramachi station.
Above-door display in the Osaka subway system
  • Which car you are in (“You Are Here”) highlighted in red.
  • The locations of the stations exits with their numbers relative to your location.
  • The locations of escalators and elevators relative to your location.
  • The locations of connections to other subway lines relative to your location.

Planning which car to get on ahead of time

Final thoughts

  • If Japan can fit five writing systems onto their signage, U.S. transit agencies should be able to muster the dollars to create far more language accessibility on our generally English-only signs here.
  • Japan’s convention for using a bright color to show the way to exits is a good example of something we do (or should do) in web design: give the highest visual prominence to the most important information. The two most important things in a train station is finding your train when you get there and then getting out of the station when you leave. Those two goals should have clear, consistent, and prominent signage.
  • Numbering everything, sequentially where possible, creates opportunities for more efficient travel and an often easier option for indicating which way a train is going than listing destination station names.
  • In the United States, people would never be polite enough to respect queuing floor decals.
  • Digital signs have a lot of untapped potential.




Civic hacker/entrepreneur. Changing democracy. Changing myself. f/stop. https://razor.occams.info

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Joshua Tauberer

Joshua Tauberer

Civic hacker/entrepreneur. Changing democracy. Changing myself. f/stop. https://razor.occams.info

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