Design in Japan: Transportation

If you’ve gone through rush hour in Tokyo, you understand the pain.

This past year, I had the most amazing experience studying abroad in Tokyo, Japan. Aside from the culture and delicious food, one of the things I miss the most about the country is their transportation system. I mainly rode the trains to navigate my way around the different districts of Tokyo because of how fast and efficient they are. For this article, I’d like to discuss examples of good design I noticed while riding the trains and walking the streets of Japan.

A little background on myself: I’ve lived in Los Angeles for most of my life and spent four years in San Diego for college, so most of my observations will be a comparison to what I’ve experienced in those two cities.

Trains — Card System

Japan has cute mascots for everything, even for their smart cards!

The train system in Tokyo relies heavily on smart cards called Suica and Pasmo. You can use one or the other, and they can be used as a method of payment instead of cash or credit cards at convenience stores. I noticed this was a common system among other Eastern Asian countries as well, such as Taiwan and South Korea.

Trains — Signage

The trains provide all sorts of information about upcoming stops on the train line. First off, they have digital displays that show what stop is coming up next in Japanese as well as in English. There’s also usually a map on top of this display that reveals all the stations the train will go through.

Some trains also provide a layout of the upcoming train station. Since the trains are divided up into different cars, some people like to plan ahead and move to the car that will be closest to the exit they need to go to.

I think one thing I’ve taken away from riding the trains in Tokyo is the importance of making information accessible. If you tend to get lost like me, any bit of information can go a long way. It helps reduce anxiety in passengers and makes their transition from the train to their destination safer and easier.

Trains — Station Jingles

A friend once pointed out to me that every train station has a distinct jingle that plays on the platform upon departure. I thought this was a neat way of allowing riders to know where they are without having to continually look at the map.

But upon further research, I found that there was also a psychology behind the design of these jingles. Their main purpose is to prevent passengers from rushing onto trains. To do so, they are composed to last seven seconds. Research suggests this to be the ideal length as shorter melodies are better for reducing anxiety in passengers while still creating a sense of urgency for them to board. These jingles have gotten passengers to board and get off trains in a shorter period of time, and has improved overall efficiency in train stations.

Fun fact: Minoru Mukaiya is a musician who has composed over 100 jingles for the different train stations in Japan. He makes the jingles unique to each station by incorporating its history in the tune. I thought this was a good example of delightful design because an effort was made to create a pleasant experience out of something that could easily become mundane and stressful.

Street Lights

When walking down the streets of Tokyo, I noticed that the crosswalk signals are designed slightly different than the ones back at home. They have bars that indicate how much time you have until you’re allowed to cross as well as how much time you have to cross the street. I found this design convenient because in the States, I would often find myself waiting at an unchanging crosswalk, wonder if it’s broken, and contemplate whether or not to jaywalk.


My appreciation for Japan grew when I discovered how they go about incorporating accessibility in public spaces.

On most sidewalks, there are yellow ridges in the middle that I originally thought were meant to separate people walking in different directions. But they’re actually meant to help guide and navigate those who are visually impaired, and are called “Tactile Ground Surface Indicators” or TGSI.

Bar Surface Indicator
Dot Surface Indicator

There are two different types of surface indicators: bars and dots. The bars are meant to indicate a safe path that people can follow while the dots are meant to indicate caution, such as the end of the sidewalk and incoming staircases or crosswalks.

The dots are especially important in the context of train platforms, where there have been incidents of blind persons accidentally falling over the platform edge. Incidents like these show why it’s so important to design for accessibility!

All in all, if you’ve ever thought about traveling to Japan, I highly recommend you do so! It’s a beautiful country that values its traditions and is full of innovative technology and designs. Since coming back, I’ve been more mindful about practicing a minimalistic and healthy lifestyle.


All illustrations done by yours truly :•)

Thanks for reading! I hope my article has inspired you to think about design in different cultures, and how we can look to improve design in our everyday lives.

I also wanted to take this time to thank the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program for helping me fund my time abroad. If you’re a student with a tight budget looking to study abroad, you should definitely look into applying for this scholarship!