Eki-melo: how Tokyo made his Metro stations more fun

Written by Enrico Grigoletti

Week 42

If you have ever hopped on a train on the Tokyo Metro you might have noticed – or you might have not – that the jingles to announce the arrival and departure of trains are often different. But if you think that those jingles are played at random, you haven’t learned an important lesson from Japan: nothing is done randomly.
On the Yamanote line – the most famous and well travelled train line in Tokyo – each station plays a different song (eki-melo, 発車メロディ) to announce when trains are departing. Each melody differs depending on the platform number, line direction and of course, the station. This protocol may seem like something normal for a forward thinking city such as Tokyo, yet from another point of view, it clashes with the notion of cultural conformity that permeates every single aspect of Japanese life.
The first line to have a jingle to announce train departure was the Nanboku line. Then, in 2012, diverse jingles that had a relation to the station district, or melodies created to transmit a sentiment that reflected the surrounding area were introduced. The Asakusa station, the Ueno station, the Ginza station and Tameikesanno station of the Ginza line were all recipients of the jingle roll-out. Most of the jingles are original melodies but some of them are based on pre-existing songs that relate to the specific station.

Tetsuwan Atom theme at the Takanobaba Station

The Third Man Theme theme at the Ebisu Station

For example at the Takadanobaba station – home of manga maestro Tezuka Osamu – you can hear the theme song of Osamu’s most famous manga, Astro Boy. Or the melody known as The Third Man Theme, the jingle used in Ebisu beer TV commercials, is used to announce the arrival of trains at Ebisu station platforms.

Different companies have been involved in the jingle creation process, but the most important one is SWITCH, which has developed the melodies for all the stations, including Marunouchi, Yurakucho, Namboku and Fukutoshin, as well as for the Asakusa, Ueno and Ginza station. The other Ginza line station melodies have been developed by STOMACH Inc. while the Tameikesanno station tunes were created by SE ALLIANCE.
A special mention goes to the Tozai line, of which jingles have been composed by ONGAKUKAN, the company owned and run by Minoru Mukaiya. Musician and former keyboardist of the jazz-fusion band Casiopea, Mukaiya-san is also well known for his work in the gaming realm, specifically for the video games Sega Rally 2 and the whole Train Simulator series. The Mukaiya-san and ONGAKUKAN bond with Japanese Railways is strong, and the Tozai line jingles are their latest milestone, having previously produced music for Kyushu Shinkansen, and the major stations operated by Keihan Electric Railway and Hanshin Electric Railway in Kansai.

According to Tokyo Metro, the reason why jingles were introduced was to provide passengers with an elevated sense of emotional attachment to the train line or station that they regularly use. Even though there is no official record that measures the differences in public transportation usage, the overall reaction of passengers has been positive, and it seems that Tokyo Metro users are responding optimistically to the jingles.
Today, 6 metro lines among 9 existing lines are provided with metro jingles, while stations without jingles are using a standard buzzer sound to announce the arrival and departure of trains. In the future it is predicated that stations without jingles will soon receive a dose of emotional musicality. Another lesson in social empathy from the Land of the Rising Sun.

Tokyo is the busiest metro system with 3.1 billion annual passengers.
All but six of the world’s 51 busiest train stations are located in Japan.
The term for riding the subway in Tokyo — tsukin jigoku — translates literally as commuter hell.