Every now and then an innovative idea comes along, and should be applauded. This one, for those who worry about suicide rates, might merit a standing ovation — if it works. Time and Japanese commuters will tell.
As of November, East Japan Railway Co. has put blue light-emitting diode, or LED, lights in all 29 stations on Tokyo’s central train loop, the Yamanote Line, used by 8 million passengers each day.There’s no scientific proof that the lights actually reduce suicides, and some experts are skeptical they will have any effect. But others say blue does have a calming effect on people.
“We associate the color with the sky and the sea,” Mizuki Takahashi, a therapist at the Japan Institute of Color Psychology, a private research center. “It has a calming effect on agitated people, or people obsessed with one particular thing, which in this case is committing suicide.”
What a lovely thought: a moment of calm could save a life. Since long before Anna Karenina flung her life away in Tolstoy’s memorable tale, trains have served as lethal weapons for the desperate and the depressed. Obviously, the blue-light theory wouldn’t work where tracks are in the open — as with a recent spate of young people in Northern California who tragically ended their lives this way. But passengers on the New York Metro and other subway systems could surely use a moment of calm, whether feeling suicidal or not. In Japan, economic woes added to the usual stress factors have brought rising suicide rates, and the need for response has taken on a special urgency. Nearly 2,000 Japanese committed suicide by jumping in front of trains last year alone. Conductors, reports Shino Yuasa of the Associated Press, “describe them over the public address system as ‘human accidents’.”
East Japan Railway has spent about $165,000 for the special lights at all the Yamanote stations. The lights, which are brighter than standard fluorescent bulbs, bathe the platform below in an eerie blue light. They hang at the end of each platform, a spot where people are most likely to throw themselves in front of a speeding train. Shinji Hira, a psychology professor specializing in criminal psychology at Fukuyama University in Hiroshima, speculated that blue lights could make people pause and reflect.But he said that if railways want to go further to ensure safety, they should set up fences on platforms, as several Tokyo subway stations have. The barriers have sliding doors that allow passengers access to the trains.
For those of us who grew up in American small towns with Railroad Avenue as the traditional main street, trains hold a special place in the heart. May the blue light plan help get them out of the lethal weapon category soon.