Shisa Kanko May Look Odd To Outsiders, But It Keeps Train Passengers Safe

If you've ever ridden the train in Tokyo, you've definitely noticed it: railway workers wearing sharp uniforms and crisp white gloves barking announcements and performing a sort of choreographed pointing routine. That pointing-and-calling system is known as shisa kanko, and while you may find it strange, you were probably safer because of it.

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An Old Tradition That Kept Up With The Times

Performing repetitive tasks can be mind numbing, as anyone who's ever had "highway hypnosis" on the way home from work can attest. To keep railway workers alert and aware, shisa kanko adds extra reinforcement to each task. Instead of glancing at a display to check the speed, reports Atlas Obscura, "the speedometer will be physically pointed at, with a call of 'speed check, 80'—confirming the action taking place, and audibly confirming the correct speed. For station staff who ensure the platform-side tracks are free of debris or fallen passengers, a visual scan alone is not sufficient. Instead, the attendant will point down the track and sweep their arm along the length of the platform—eyes following the hand—before declaring all clear."

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The exact origins of shisa kanko are murky, but it's generally believed to have popped up around 1900 with steam train engineers. According to Japan Times, an early form known as kanko oto—"call and response," where one worker calls their actions out to another, who calls back—was published in a railway manual in 1913. The pointing wasn't added until sometime around 1925. Despite its age, the tradition has stayed exclusive to Japan—with one exception. In 1996, New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority began requiring train conductors to point to the "zebra boards" that confirm the train is stopped at the right place (otherwise some unlucky passengers in the rear car might step out into the tunnel). Ride the MTA today, and you'll notice it.

Why It Works

Though the research paper is all but lost to time, a study performed by the Railway Technical Research Institute in the mid-1990s is said to have shown that shisa kanko reduces workplace errors by almost 85 percent. That's no small feat, especially when you realize that Japan's rail system moves more than 7 billion passengers a year.

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What is it about this funny performance that keeps people on their toes? According to a 2013 study in the International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, it may come down to your supervisory attentional system—the collection of brain processes responsible for planning and carrying out your next move. The study found that when people had to keep different sets of rules straight for different tasks, pointing-and-calling boosted their reaction time without making their brains work any harder on concentrating. The researchers concluded that pointing-and-calling may be doing something to help the supervisory attentional system maintain control. That means fewer errors and—when it comes to train systems—safer commutes for everyone.

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Written by Ashley Hamer April 20, 2017

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