Japan Railways

Tokyo, Japan | C.1987

Photo Credit: Accidentally Wes Anderson


Japan has the world’s busiest rail network, with a daily ridership of 18.5 million. Forty percent of passenger travel in the country is on its railways (compared to the United States, where 90 percent of travel is on roadways). It’s no wonder: Japan’s rail is reliable to a degree that other nations find unfathomable. It is neither unreasonable nor unheard-of for people to set their watches based on the practically guaranteed precision of their train’s arrival. In fact, the system is so confident of its service that passengers have been given refunds if trains are even a minute or two late.

This punctuality is a well-known feature of Japanese travel, however, a lesser-known aspect is the trainspotters—and their corresponding titles. Journalist Anna Fifield described in the Washington Post a few varieties of these experts and their obsessions: she discovered nori-tetsu, people who enjoy riding on trains; yomi-tetsu, who pore over schedules; and oto-tetsu, who make recordings of the sounds of the trains as they go by (for recreation). Some are less intrigued by the trains and more focused on their surroundings and perks of riding, such as eki-tetsu, students of the stations themselves, and ekiben-tetsu, fanatics of the bento lunchboxes sold at said stations.

None of these curious hobbies or obsessions would be possible without those who actually make the trains run: conductors, drivers, and station staff.

These white-gloved specialists have unique habits of their own—most notably the physical gestures and vocal calls they perform, which are a crucial aspect of the trains’ efficient operation. The theatrical signals and seemingly random yelps are a Japanese industrial safety method known as pointing-and-calling, which greatly reduces workplace error (and has been adopted by New York’s subway system…to notably lesser success).

Should one be interested in taking in this efficient show, keep an eye out for the station staff in Japan whose job it is to make sure that the platform is free of debris or fallen passengers. Employing both physical and audible communication, they animatedly point down the track, appearing to give emphatic acknowledgment to an apparition, before theatrically sweep- ing their arm along the length of the platform—eyes following the hand—before shouting what amounts to “All Clear!” The process is repeated as the train departs, and acknowledged by the staff aboard, such as these gentlemen (who may also be among the ekiben-tetsu, in solemn search of the ideal stand from which to purchase his preferred bento box).

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One thought on “Japan Railways

  1. sea-grape says:
    November 20, 2022

    I'd absolutely love to take a ride on this train!

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