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Hassha Merodii: Japan’s Train Departure Music

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On any given day, who is the most heard composer in the world?

Lennon/McCartney?

John Williams?

Whoever wrote “Happy Birthday?”

Or could it be Minoru Mukaiya?

His compositions are heard by millions of people a day, on a regular schedule, all over Japan.

And each piece is only seven seconds long.

Even if you’ve never taken a passenger train, you know the conductor’s “All aboard” call.

It means you only have a moment before the doors close and the train pulls away, with or without you.

These days, in the United States, the “All aboard” call is only used on some Amtrak routes and old-timey tourist attractions.

In countries with better and more frequent train service, an automated jingle signals that you better get on board. Commercial train companies often have their own melody.

Before the jingles, a buzzer was used.

In Japan, it sounded like a 1990s cordless telephone ringing.

Japan’s train stations are tremendously busy. Particularly, in large cities like Tokyo and Osaka. With the chaos of the people and the trains and announcements, rushing to get to the right train on time was stressful enough without that annoying sound.

Someone recognized that the buzzer made every commuter’s day worse. In 1971, the Keihan Electric Railway decided to do something about it.

The company replaced the buzzer with short, pre-recorded music.

It made getting to your train a little less irritating. It still wasn’t a serene experience exactly, what with all the people rushing around, but the melodies weren’t aggravating like the buzzer.

Passengers liked it. And the idea spread gradually to other train lines.

In 1989, the JR East rail company hired Yamaha’s musical instrument division and composer Hiroaki Ide to create short music pieces to signal their train’s departures. The idea was adopted more rapidly after that.

These ditties are called “hassha merodii.”

Which I’ve read: translates to “train departure melodies.”

Though… Google Translate says it means “fire alley doctor.” Maybe Google’s wrong about that, or something’s lost in translation. But it prompts me to wonder if there’s such a thing as a “fire alley doctor,” and what, exactly, their specialty is.

We don’t know. But we sure as hell want to see the movie.

Japanese trains are famous for running on time.

The entire culture values punctuality, and train services are known for adhering to their precise schedules. There’s also a cultural emphasis on accountability and customer service.

That’s why West Japan Railways issued a formal apology in May 2018 for the “severe inconvenience” of a train that left the station 25 seconds early.

Now, to those of us who don’t take the train every day, 25 seconds may not seem like a big deal. But let’s say you’re a commuter on your way to work and you have to change trains in Okayama. One day, you get off your first train, rush three platforms over because you know you only have a minute to catch the second one, and get there to see it leaving without you. You’re going to be late for work.

People who need you will be disappointed. Your boss, coworkers, and clients may be angry. It might make your department or entire company look bad. You’ll have to apologize.

A lot depends on the precise timing of the trains, so it turns out that leaving passengers behind was, in fact, a severe inconvenience.

With that sort of strict scheduling, it was determined that the perfect length for the train departure melodies would be:

Seven seconds.

That gives the passengers enough warning to run, if necessary, to get on board before the doors close.

It’s not just one melody per station. It would be confusing if they all used the same melody, so each track has its own tune. If you’re in Nagoya, the train to Osaka has one melody, the train to Kanazawa has another, and so on.

The different songs help blind people know where they are.

Hiroaki Ide composed a lot of these.

The tunes not only provide the functional announcement but also try to create a pleasant and memorable experience for the passengers. The melodies are written to suggest a sense of place, cultural significance, or local pride in the city in question.

The most obvious one is for the Takadanobaba Station in Tokyo.

Takadanobaba was the home of Astro Boy, a fictional robot first seen in a manga in 1952. There was also a black and white cartoon series in the 1960s. The show’s theme song was converted to a seven second melody for Takadanobaba Station.

Here’s a video with several such melodies, though they were recorded live so you’ll hear the other sounds of the station, too.

There’s an idea in psychology called “nudge theory.”

It suggests that you can get people to do things with very subtle cues. It can be as blatant as painting footprints where you want people to walk.

In Europe, painted footprints were used to suggest people stand on the right side of the escalator so others who wanted to walk up could use the left.

It’s like the passing lane on a highway. It’s now a habit, a courtesy, even in places where the footprints weren’t used.

Recognizing that Japanese train stations are stressful, nudge theory was used to calm people down by playing bird songs over the sound systems. Audio psychologists have found that birdsongs not only rescue stress, they actually make people happier and more productive.

Pa pa pa pa pa pa pa pa pa pa pa pa pa pa pa pa pa pa pa pa pa pa pa pa
Oom m-mow mow, Pa pa oom mow m-mow
…”

A more subtle solution was used to help stop people killing themselves by jumping in front of trains. The suicide rate is very high in Japan, which isn’t surprising given the cultural pressure to earn a living and raise a family with honesty and integrity. People often feel like they don’t meet society’s expectations and choose to end their lives.

People were jumping in front of trains at the rate of one a day. Officials noticed that these people tended to jump off the platform at the far ends, where there were fewer people around to stop them.

The nudge theory solution was to install softly glowing blue lights at the ends of the platforms.

Blue light helps induce a sense of calm and peace. That little change reduced the suicide rate on train platforms by 85%.

With nudge theory in mind, the train departure melodies are written to have a calming effect.

This reassures the passengers that they’ve made it on time, and can now relax as the train moves on.

The recordings tend to use bell sounds.

That’s so they can pierce through whatever other noise is happening but aren’t so shrill as to hurt the ears.

Likewise, the melodies played inside the trains as they are nearing the next station are more upbeat.

They’re designed to wake up sleepy passengers and get people ready to get off the train quickly.

That’s a lot to think about when composing a train departure melody. They have to be unique to the station and train, reassure people that they’re on time, and inspire calm. And they have to do it in seven seconds.

What kind of composer can do all that?

Minoru Mukaiya played keyboards in the 1980s Jazz Fusion band Casiopea.

Here’s a live performance of their song “Galactic Funk” from 1985. If you’d like to skip to his keyboard solo, it starts around the 3:00 mark.

Not only is Mukaiya an excellent musician, he’s also a train enthusiast and software developer.

His company Ongakukan released its first version of the Train Simulator video game in 1995. The game’s music, not surprisingly, was based on Casiopea songs.

The Train Simulator games were so well done that railways asked Ongakukan to create training simulators, no pun intended, for new train engineers. So when Hiroaki Ide retired from composing, Mukaiya was the perfect replacement.

He’s a constantly smiling man who loves trains and music, but he takes his work very seriously.

When it’s time to write a new melody, he travels to the station to see where the trains come in, learn something about the city, and to get an idea of what the passengers will be feeling as they wait for or run towards their train.

Mukaiya has written over 200 melodies for 110 stations, and he’s still writing.

Given that there are roughly 35 million passenger trips every single day in Japan, Mukaiya could well be the most heard composer today. Who knew?

He’s only 67 years old. and at some point he’ll come to the end of the line, pun intended.

But he seems vivacious enough to keep composing train melodies for another ten, twenty, or thirty years.

He certainly shows no interest in stopping. As he says:

“Being on these trains that I love so much, and hearing the music I’ve made:

“There’s no greater happiness.”

Minoru Mukaiya

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Bill Bois

Bill Bois - bassist, pie fan, aging gentleman punk, keeper of the TNOCS spreadsheet:
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cstolliver
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January 10, 2024 4:14 am

This was a great eye-opener to lots I haven’t thought much about, including nudge theory. Thanks so much, Bill, for starting the day on track.

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 10, 2024 7:08 am

Wow, this topic is..超懐かしい. I never paid careful attention to the melodies at the train station, but when I hear one I know, my brain just lights up.

That last one you included I’ve heard a million times, but I can’t say with confidence which train it is. Is it the Tokyū Toyoko line melody for Shibuya station (or maybe the end of the line)?

The birds are such a weird, charming presence in every station. They’re obviously recordings, so it’s more a slice of surrealism rather than anything calming.

I never once saw those blue lights in any station, but I saw many stations that implemented gates that block the tracks to prevent suicides. That’s an approach called means safety, and it works nearly perfectly, at least for preventing that particular mode of death.

When I was a study abroad student, my friends and I walked by a station near us and saw a man in business attire sitting on the track, obviously waiting for the train to kill him. And no one was doing anything about it!

We looked around for a police officer, and then tried as best as we could to explain the situation given our low proficiency at the time. He eventually got what we were saying, and followed us to the track, where he sent the man away.

But the man could have easily chosen another station or another day, if he was really determined. And the fact that train suicides are fairly common is part of why the other people didn’t intervene (it’s also because Japanese are expected to be non-confrontational and highly conformist). Anyway, hopefully that one moment was enough for him. They’ve since closed off those tracks, as I mentioned above.

As for “hassha,” the kanji has to be “発車” for departure. There are a ton of homophones in Japanese, so it’s easy to get confused!

Great piece!

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 10, 2024 7:22 am

Ah, I see what Google Translate was trying to do:

Hassha: a different kanji, meaning fire in the sense of “launch”
Roji: Alley
ii: Doctor

But the “me” part is just hanging there as hiragana, doing nothing. Gotta do better, HAL-9600000!

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 10, 2024 8:47 am
Reply to  Virgindog

No, in that comment I was explaining the “fire” part of the “fire alley doctor” translation. The “fire/launch” part comes from the kanji 発射。

Both words share the same starter kanji: 発, which means departure.

発射 means “departure shot”, or firing/launching

発車 means “departure vehicle” or a train or bus departing, and that’s the correct one.

cappiethedog
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January 10, 2024 6:42 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

It was such a bad look. Studying for a kanji test at my grandmother’s funeral. Not during the service. My father would have glared at me like Clint Eastwood in Gran Turino. (What’s more socially acceptable: Kanji workbook or cell-phone?) The luncheon, your standard Buddhist post-funeral fare that the temple provides: noodles, sushi, soyu chicken, and ondagi(Okinawan donut), is where I crammed.

To graduate, you need to fulfill the foreign language requirement, or you don’t graduate. I started first-year Japanese at a community college. When I transferred, I made the mistake of skipping the second-year because it wasn’t as sexy as the history and film electives. Actually, I forgot. While taking a graduation preparation class, the instructor looked over my transcripts, puzzled. Um, hey, you only have one year of Japanese. I replied:

“Oh, does it matter?”

Set to graduate in the spring, I took Japanese 201 and 202 over the course of the summer. There was a lot of crying. The amount of kanji characters nearly broke me. The gap between the satellite schools and Manoa(it’s the regional version of Yale grads saying they attended New Haven to remain humble) was quite the chasm: 3-1 sounds about right, the ratio of kanji characters taught at the 100 level.

I don’t understand how little kids so readily grasp three systems of writing.

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 10, 2024 6:51 pm
Reply to  cappiethedog

If written Japanese was just hiragana and katakana, I would have read all of Mishima’s novels by now.

Alas, the best I can do is ダーリンは外国人。

cappiethedog
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January 10, 2024 8:40 pm

To this day, I have reoccurring dreams about not graduating.

Crap. I’m not supposed to relate with the Bill Murray character in Lost in Translation. I can relate to his I’m on another planet look as he looks out the taxi window. Billy Bob Thornton had an antique furniture phobia. Long exposure to kanji dredges up all kinds of emotion.

If by some miracle of pharmaceuticals I could get through the MA program, to qualify for my PhD, I’d have to demonstrate the ability to read a novel in a second language. I definitely would choose a Haruki Murakami title. I’ve mentioned this to you before. My curiosity as to how much credit the translator should get. Is the translator a creative partner? And if so, what is the proportion? Yeah, I guess I’m asking you: For any given book, what is the proportion of credit for the writer and the translator?

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 11, 2024 6:41 am
Reply to  cappiethedog

Great question. I have no idea of what it means in terms of royalties. But conceptually, the translator should get as much or more credit/blame as a screen writer adapting a novel for cinema or TV. Lots of crucial decisions have to be made, and the end result can be “faithful in spirit,” or not at all related.

Remember that scene in Tampopo, when Gun has to leave Goro behind at the bar so he can fight Pisuken? He says “gochisousama deshita” before he heads out, and then the fight begins.

The original release that I saw translated that line as “Good luck!” Which completely robs the line of its comedic silliness, and diminishes the film’s overall seriousness about food.

The most recent version I’ve seen translates it as “Thank you for the meal,” which is far more appropriate for the scene, and for the movie.

thegue
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January 10, 2024 7:22 am

Informative, AND a great read? NOM NOM NOM.

When I lived in London on summer break, my friends and I thought about creating a dance/rave track with only station announcements for lyrics.

“Mind the gap”

Definitely a different feel in those stations than in Japan!

thegue
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January 10, 2024 7:25 am
Reply to  thegue

… and it looks like someone did it!

https://youtu.be/1pYZrtSzXu4?si=Vhy6tOLPE_PMyEKE

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 10, 2024 7:55 am

Got it! It’s the Kehin-Tōhōku line!

I’ve been riding that a lot in my recent visits.

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 10, 2024 8:49 am
Reply to  Virgindog

We were last there Christmas 2022. And we will be there again this coming April. 🇯🇵

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 10, 2024 8:53 am
Reply to  Virgindog

Yeah, this from the JR Yamanote line. I only recognize two of the melodies, the one that sounds kind of like Pachelbel’s Canon, and the one that’s similar but a little brighter.

I wonder what the rationale for mapping a station to a certain melody is. Like, why does Komagome Station get the traditional “Sakura Sakura” melody?

Edit: Three melodies. Gotta love the melody for Meguro Station.

Last edited 3 months ago by Phylum of Alexandria
LinkCrawford
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January 10, 2024 1:50 pm

I noticed that the Ebisu station jingle was actually The Third Man Theme, which was a #1 hit in 1949.

Meguro reminded me of the jingle that Maxwell House used for decades:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWEYjEQ75ZM

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 10, 2024 3:22 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Ah, you’re right. I looked it up, and it’s because that theme was used in Ebisu Beer commercials. The Ebisu brewery is right by the station.

Low4
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January 10, 2024 10:07 am

Huh. Who knew.

That’s some Boisian knowledge for the TNOCS community.

rollerboogie
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January 10, 2024 10:39 am

Just want to say that Fire Alley Doctor needs to be added to the list of band names, though actually it makes an even better album title imho.

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 10, 2024 10:45 am
Reply to  rollerboogie

Agreed, I thought it would make a great album title.

Or a song by The Prodigy.

mjevon6296
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January 10, 2024 3:12 pm
Reply to  rollerboogie

Coming this fall to Netflix starring Chris Pratt, its “Fire Alley Doctor!”

“When things get hot, this MD comes out of the hospital and into the alley to perform his own special brand of surgery on the bad guys!”

Aaron3000
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January 15, 2024 11:07 am
Reply to  rollerboogie

It could definitely be an album title for that great prog-rock group The Keihan Electric Railway.

DJ Professor Dan
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January 10, 2024 11:37 am

And the opening guitar riff of Shonen Knife’s version of The Carpenters’ “Top Of The World” – as found on the ironic 90s tribute album “If I Were A Carpenter” – was taken from a “hassha merodii” in Osaka!

As I found when I was waiting for a train in Osaka.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKAQPvFG23s

LinkCrawford
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January 10, 2024 1:58 pm

Bill, I cannot imagine how you could come up with a random article that I would enjoy more than this. It feeds my ongoing love for jingles. And trains are pretty cool, too. I am going to download that Yamanote Line set of jingles, parse them into individual tracks and upload them into my Apple Music via iTunes. That way, when I’m playing my 5-star playlist on random, these jingles will occasionally play. (Hopefully I don’t have an uncontrollable urge to run to the door when they play).

Also, just a note…I worked with a gifted computer programmer who also was the biggest train fanatic that I’ve ever heard of. (In retirement, he has built a kiddie-sized railroad in his 1 acre backyard, complete with bridges, flashing signals, etc. For himself.) Anyways, he was very experienced with the train simulators. One day stopping for lunch at a Subway along a track where a train crew was also stopped and eating lunch, he kicked up a conversation with them. He had a thorough knowledge of the engine they were running from having run it on the simulator. He convinced the crew to let him on the train, and he got to operate it for a few minutes!

LinkCrawford
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January 10, 2024 2:37 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

Supporting the idea that if you have ever imagined it, someone online fanaticizes about it.

In the same vein, the train jingles are now in my music library. 🙂

JJ Live At Leeds
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January 10, 2024 2:46 pm

Loving the detour from your usually scheduled programming into this look at what makes train departure music train departure music.

Truly fascinating stuff. I love music and I love train journeys so I’m totally on board.

One thought on playing bird song, courtesy of an Eddie Izzard stand up routine. While we hear birdsong and think what a lovely calming noise, to the birds it’s often territorial so what they’re really vocalising is ‘piss off out of it you sparrows’ – and much worse. Probably not as calming for other birds then.

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 10, 2024 3:24 pm

Crow caws are more up front about their territorial nature. You won’t find recordings of them at any stations.

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 10, 2024 5:40 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

Next up: “Murder by Numbers”

mjevon6296
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January 10, 2024 3:09 pm

Reminds me a little of the 3-second musical interludes at the Denver Airport when taking the train/tram to the different terminals. The music there sounds like short Sun Records guitar riffs and then a voice says “The train is arriving.”

lovethisconcept
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January 10, 2024 5:48 pm

James May interviewed Minoru Mukaiya on his “Our Man in Japan” series. Interview at about 2:30.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qR0BsUN8PLs

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