Trains in Israel and Trains in Japan

Triangle Technologies, an Israeli company that helps Israeli companies do business in Japan, publishes a monthly newsletter. It opens with a column from their CEO, Dan Isenberg, who usually ruminates about different aspects of doing business in Japan.

In this month’s newsletter, Isenberg writes about the very different “experiences” of taking the train in Israel and in Japan. True, comparing these two transportation systems is bit like comparing Micronesia’s stock exchange to Wall Street, but Isenberg uses this comparison to put the finger on the two countries’ radically different approaches to design. And he has a point.

It is rather long, but definitely worth the read.

Trainspotting – November, 2004

Okay, I confess!! I am a social psychologist. More than an entrepreneur, more than a businessman, more than a (former) venture capitalist. A Social Psychologist. Not a closet social psychologist, but a real, bona fide, true believing, card carrying, social psychologist. Now that it is out, I feel much better. In fact, I have 2 graduate degrees in social psychology. Social psychology is not just an academic discipline or a profession; it is a way of life and a way of thinking. A weltanschauung (hah! Impressive, huh? Look it up. http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=weltanschauung .)

At the very core of social psychology is the belief that human behavior can only be understood, predicted, and changed by understanding and intervening in how individuals are shaped by and interact with situations, the most pervasive of which are composed of other people. For example, you are more likely to be friendly if you are sitting next to a person at a 90 degree angle, than if you are sitting across the table from the person. Or if someone jumps up and yells at you, all else being equal, you are more likely to be/become an unfriendly person, and by the way, your assailant will view you as unfriendly as well, if not before, then certainly after the attack. You deserved it. From 1976-1981 at Harvard I studied these interactions at the feet of one of the world’s great social psychologists, the late Robert Freed Bales http://www.symlog.com/internet/what_is_symlog/what_is_symlog-01a.htm who sadly died this year.

In Japan, people are orderly, considerate, and in general what we (that is, we “social psychologists”, you know, the guys with the weltanshauung) call “other-directed”, to an extreme. A lovely little manifestation – when people leave an elevator in Japan, it is common for them to press the “close door” button as they get off at their floor. People (sometimes beautiful people) wear ugly white surgical masks in order not to infect other people with their cold germs. Trains are also great places to see this. In all the 1000’s of kilometers I have ridden on Japanese trains, only once did I encounter a long haired, ear-ringed, red-sneakered, baggy-pantsed teenager playing obnoxious loud music that you could hear through his earphones, and even in this case, someone got up and asked him to cool it, and instead of whipping out his knife, he apologized and turned down the music. Only twice I have seen people eating on trains (once it was a foreigner). People move to the inner part of the train to allow others to board. I have often thought that the other-directedness of Japanese society drives HMI (human machine interface) design, it is so incredibly user friendly. The semiotics (there I go again – semiotics is a philosophy of signs) is fabulous. You just can’t get lost in a subway in Tokyo, these guys really know what makes it easy for millions of people to get around. And the trains have great displays, clear descriptions of where you are, they are designed to hold lots of people yet still optimize the numbers of people who can sit down.

I took a train in Israel 2 days ago, it had been a long time. With the Japan train experience so ingrained in my mind, I was immediately struck by how user-hostile the Israel train experience was, even though we are talking about a modern, double-decked, clean and colorful, carpeted and upholstered train that required a huge investment and a source of pride to the train authority. The user unfriendliness started at the entrance to the train station where there were only two machines for buying tickets. Of course, there was a long line of impatient people afraid of missing their train. The machines themselves are huge, about 3 times the size of similar more effective machines in Japan. At the turnstile, the tickets could only be inserted in one direction, again causing delays. And they were processed slowly, causing the passenger to stop and wait. In Japan, the ticket goes in one side of the turnstile and comes out the other side at a speed that allows a person to keep walking at a fast pace. Once inside, I looked for a sign informing me which of the trains stopped at the platform was travelling north, and which was going south. There was no sign (the display monitors were all facing in the opposite direction so I had to move around to see). Again, I had to stop, look around, and figure things out.

In Japan, there are floor markings where the door of the train will open, and where to stand to let disembarking passengers get out. In Israel, there is a free-for-all, and the faces of the disembarking passengers reflecting a mix of anger and panic at the stampeded of embarking passengers. Inside the train, the two-facing-two seating is designed for long intercity trips with limited numbers of passengers, not short, commuter runs for the masses travelling a few stops. The passengers frequently put their bags on the empty seat next to them, making it uncomfortable for alighting passengers to sit down (there is almost no space in the baggage racks to put a bag or a briefcase – the roof of the train is curved). And the 2×2 seating encourages people to put their feet up when the opposite seat is empty, or to keep it empty – why not?

In Japan, there is a “manner” button on mobile phones, so when passengers see the signs on trains not to use their mobile phones, they press the “manner” button which turns off the ringer and turns on the message storage. On Israeli trains, everyone is talking on their mobile, although this is getting better.

So, are Israelis aggressive, inconsiderate, noisy, and individualistic, whereas Japanese are quiet, polite, thoughtful, and cooperative? Or are Japanese trains (and other institutions) conducive to such behaviors? Or, are the designers of Japanese trains (institutions) unconsciously promulgating a view of society in which people should be cooperative, quiet, and considerate? And the Israeli “designers”, the opposite?

Anyway, thanks for your patience in this long Dan’s Desk, and good luck.

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