What three weeks in Japan taught me about public transit signage

Shinkansen (“bullet”) trains at Odawara station

Large signs in multiple languages

As a foreigner with less-than-20/20 vision, the first two things that I immediately appreciated about the signage were 1) that the signs were generally quite large with large text and 2) often in English as well as Japanese. For example, the signs over the entry & exit gates for the Shinkansen high speed rail lines were enormous:

Shinkansen sign at Odawara station

Languages

Signs often have multiple languages. I found two languages but four writing systems in common use in the rail systems. Two are Japanese. That’s because Japanese has basically two writing systems: (1) its standard logographic writing system kanji and (2) its more accessible phonetic scripts called kana. Signs also display (3) station names and numbers using the roman alphabet and the Arabic numerals, which creates accessibility for anyone who can read any language that uses those letters and numbers (not just English). Lastly, (4) English phrases like “Arriving at” were also common.

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

While I’m on the subject of accessibility, I also wanted to mention another accessibility feature — door closing jingles. In the United States, before train car doors close, there’s usually a beep of some sort or an announcement alerting passengers getting on or off to stand clear of the closing doors, and then the door shuts very abruptly. Trains in Japan play a long musical jingle, and once you know the tune, you can start to gauge how much time is left until the doors actually close. (Daniel Schuman tells me each train has a different distinctive jingle so you can tell if it’s your train whose doors are closing. At the JR station next to Tokyo Disney, my wife noted the jingle was It’s a Small World.)

Walking and queuing signs

Queuing for trains and buses

The most important thing to know about riding public transit in Japan is that everybody queues up politely in single file or, when floor decals indicate, in two rows. The respect for queue order is very real.

Stay on the left… or right

In Japan cars drive on the left, and in most places you’re also supposed to walk on the left and on escalators stand on the left (as fellow DC residents will know, you stand on one side to let people who want to walk down the escalator pass you on the other side).

Station numbers and platform guides

Easily the most helpful signage we encountered was the numbering of stations. Stations on most train lines were numbered with an abbreviation of the line using the roman alphabet (often a single letter like “Z”) and a sequential number. In the Tokyo rail systems, stations are also represented as icons on signs with the letter and number inside a colored circle. Here’s a sign for Tokyo’s Yurikamome line’s Daiba station U07:

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

Onboard some trains, the time to arrival at upcoming stations is shown on digital displays.

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

Exit numbers

In Japan’s major cities, subway stations are often massive underground shopping areas connecting numerous rail platforms operated by different entities. Stations can have dozens of exits making it hard to know which way to proceed when you get off a train. Taking the wrong exit can put you on the wrong side of above-ground train tracks that are very hard to cross, as we found at Shin-Osaka station!

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

Besides stations and exits, train cars are also conspicuously numbered. Train car numbering is used for a wide variety of purposes:

Reserved/unreserved cars

On inter-city rail lines, some cars are for reserved seats (you buy a ticket in advance for a particular seat, like on an airplane) and some cars are for unreserved seats (you buy a ticket to board and hope you get a seat).

Wayfinding inside of the train

On the Shinkansen trains, car numbers are a part of locating train facilities (bathrooms, smoking rooms, the train conductor, etc.). Each seat-back tray table has a decal showing the facilities in the car you’re in, the neighboring cars, and the car number for other key facilities.

Which way to go when you step off a train

One of the coolest signage features we found was the animated signs that show what to expect when you leave the train. On the Tokyo subway, above the car doors, when the train is about to pull into a station, the digital sign shows an animated diagram of the train pulling into the station. Take a look:

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

This next sign blew my mind. Here in D.C., I take pride in remembering the layouts of Metro stations so that I know where to board the train to be closest to where I need to go when I get off. For instance, I know that if I board the Green Line at Gallery Place near the north elevator, I’ll get off right next to the escalator at Columbia Heights.

Final thoughts

I have a few 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.

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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