What three weeks in Japan taught me about public transit signage
My wife and I spent our honeymoon in Japan — the first trip there for both of us. Over three weeks and in five cities, we were awed by the country’s rich history, its transformations following United States aggressions, and how its incredible population density has led to unique designs for its public space.
I was also really digging its trains. Like most everywhere else, its public transit is made up of many interconnected systems, each system with its own complex history of private and public ownership, such as the JR Shinkansen bullet trains, the JR local rail lines, and the metro subway systems. Although the systems are operated by separate entities, tap-to-pay rechargeable “IC” (RFID) cards like Pasmo work across all of the systems. Most or all of the stations also had clean bathrooms.
Another thing that the systems have in common are signage conventions for very detailed and helpful information that American transit systems don’t even attempt to convey. Here are some examples.
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:
Other wayfinding signs like this sign in Namba station in Osaka used large enough text and symbols to be clearly legible from afar (more about those yellow circles later):
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.
On one sign in Tokyo subway station Ueno-hirokoji, I also spotted Korean and Chinese:
Digital signs typically alternate between Japanese and English+romanized station names, like in the digital sign shown next, found above the door inside some train cars in the Tokyo subway system:
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.
When boarding trains, floor decals indicate where to stand based on where the doors will be when the train stops at the station. The decals are positioned left and/or right of where the door will be so that people waiting to board know where to stand so that they won’t be in the way of people getting off. Sometimes a separate decal marks the space where not to stand too:
In tight spaces, these decals make turns rather than simply being cut short, so there’s always an orderly way to line up. On busy days, when long lines of people extend beyond floor decals, there will sometimes be attendants with “End of Line Here”-type signs so everyone knows where to queue. We saw this on the Shinkansen platform in Tokyo when we traveled on one of the busiest travel days of the year, in Haneda airport, as well as in food courts!
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).
But it’s not the same side everywhere in Japan (and it may vary even within a train station), and so as a reminder many staircases and escalators tell you which side to be on. Here are four examples of that from various places in Japan’s rail systems:
These signs keep people moving smoothly without creating human traffic jams, which is particularly important given the enormous number of people packed into and moving through the trains and stations during busy times.
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:
A platform sign on this line lists the stations on the line using their sequential numbers. The upward arrow shows the direction trains go on this track (track 2).
On the Tokyo Hanzomon subway line, the stations are numbered in order Z01 through Z14, and the line’s color is purple. In the photo on the left, you can see the circle station icons for two Hanzomon stations: Z07 (the station where the photo was taken) and Z08 (the next stop on this train). An arrow helpfully indicates which way the train is going both physically on the track and metaphorically in the sign: in the direction from the Z07 icon toward the Z08 icon and beyond.
The sequential numbering of stations makes it easy to know which direction to take a train line if you know the number of your destination. Going from Z07 (Jimbocho) to Z13 (Kinshicho)? The train whose next stop is Z08 is going in the right direction. If this train were going from Z07 to Z06, you would know that Z08 would not be a stop.
Some platforms indicate which stops are ahead by listing the starting station number and the ending station number of its future stops, separated by a tilde, ellipsis, or arrow.
The Hanzomon platform sign on the left indicates that this station is Z13 (Kinshicho) and trains on platform 2 are going in the direction of Z14 (Oshiage), one of the ends of this line.
On the Tokyo Ginza subway line platform pillar signage, it is indicated that platform 1 is for trains that stop at stations G01 through G11. G12 through to the end of the line would be on the other platform.
Of course there are other ways to navigate the system if you know that, in this example, Ginza and Shibuya are in the direction you’re going, since they’re listed on the pillar too. But everyone in DC can relate to forgetting whether Glenmont and Grosvenor are the East and West ends of the Red Line, or are they the West and East ends? Numbers are often easier.
We didn’t encounter any express trains in the subway systems we used, so I think whenever a range of station numbers is given, the trains always stop at all of the intermediate stations, but I’m not 100% sure about that.
Time to arrival
Onboard some trains, the time to arrival at upcoming stations is shown on digital displays.
Knowing that amount of time helped me determine if I had time for a quick game on my phone. Because this digital sign appeared inside a train above a side door, and when looking at this sign the front of the train would be to your left, the order of the stops are listed from right to left with a chevron arrow indicating the train direction. The digital display above the door on the opposite side of the car showed the same information but with the stops listed from right to left — smart!
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!
There are three conventions used consistently for exits everywhere we went: the use of yellow, exit names, and yellow circles with exit numbers.
Typically the only thing you want to do when you arrive at a station is to leave (although in Japan one might also add getting lunch), and the consistent yellow signs for exits made it easy to spot this crucial information among all of the other signs present in stations:
Numbering (“1”, “A1”) and labeling (“East”) exits helps when giving directions (e.g. “Meet me outside exit 1.”), and once you’ve identified an exit that works for you the fact that the exit has a name and signs leading you to it helps to find it again when you’re making the same trip later. Google Maps directions even tells you which exit to look for because it knows which is closest to your destination.
Here’s an overhead sign that uses the yellow circle convention of indicating where the exits are by their number. When a consecutive set of exits is in a direction, an ellipsis is used:
Some stations are so sprawling that the exit signs are competing for the most complex signage in the station. In the Otemachi subway station in Tokyo there are 42 exits labeled A1-A5, B1-B10, C1-C14, D3-D6, and E1–E2. At one corridor intersection, most of the signage — all of the yellow below — is just about which way to go to get out.
Other than using Google Maps, figuring out which exit you need can be tricky. There are maps. Here are two examples, the one on the left in a much simpler station than the one on the right.
In stations in busy areas of the city, there are also tables showing which exit to take for different points of interest around the station.
We made use of all of these tools to find our way in these stations. Different tools were most helpful at different times, and we were glad to see so many options available for finding our way.
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:
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).
Car numbers are posted on platform signage so you know where to stand so you can quickly board the right car once the train arrives. (On all of the trains we saw it was possible to move from car to car after boarding too, if it wasn’t too crowded.)
Sometimes the place to stand depends on the train that you plan to board. In the photo on the left from a Shinkansen platform, the sign says that at this location you will be at car 6 for some lines (the yellow part) but car 2 for other lines (the green part).
There’s a second style of this sign shown in the next photo. In red it shows the car number you are in position to board — car 6 if you are about to board a 16-car train (the yellow part) and car 2 if you are about to board an 8-car train (the green part). It lists which car numbers are for non-reserved seats (cars 1–3 or 1–5 depending on the line). And the diagram of the train shows you that, for a 16- car train, you better keep walking to the right to find an unreserved car.
In this overhead sign at Shin-Osaka station listing the next four departing trains, it says to use cars “1~7” or “2~9” depending on the train. These two types of trains line up at different locations on the platform. The circle and triangle icon to the left of the car numbers match circle and triangle symbols on floor decals that mark car positions. So if you’re boarding a circle train and want to board car 1, you look for a floor decal with a circle and a 1. The same decal might also have a triangle and a 2, for the other train.
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:
Here’s another example:
These signs typically show:
- 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.
This information helps alleviate the problem that people step off the train and then immediately stop in bewilderment about whether to go left or right, blocking other people from getting off the train. If you study the diagram in the few seconds before getting off, you can walk off the train confidently in the direction you want to go.
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.
In the Tokyo subway system, they have signs for that.
This sign, on the Tozai subway line, shows how the car numbers line up with station facilities — escalators, elevators, bathrooms, transfers to other subway lines, and numbered exits.
The rows in this table are the stations on this subway line. In each numbered car, the facilities that are lined up with that car are listed.
If you’re headed to, say, Nihombashi station and will be transferring to the Ginza line, you can look for the Nihombashi station row, scan across for the Ginza line symbol, and see that it is in cars 2, 3, 6, and 8. Any of those cars will place you next to escalators or stairs that will take you to the transfer.
Google Maps directions will also tell you what car to board! It seems to use the same sort of information found on this sign.
Taken together, these car boarding hints, the floor queuing decals, and the animated exit diagrams allow for an impressive amount of efficiency for being in the right place at the right time. That efficiency could shave off not only perhaps a minute of travel time for you, but also minutes for all of the other people you aren’t bumping into and slowing down by getting in their way.
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.
For more thoughts, see this post from friend Daniel Schuman: