This is the "Trains" page of the "Cultural Snapshots of Daily Life in Japan for Elementary Students" guide.
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Cultural Snapshots of Daily Life in Japan for Elementary Students   Tags: primary source world  

Last Updated: Jun 19, 2015 URL: Print Guide RSS UpdatesEmail Alerts

Trains Print Page

Primary Source

Train departure melodies for the JREAST Yamanote Line


About this activity

Suggested for grades K-5


Key Questions

1. Why are trains so important in Japan?

2. What can trains in Japan tell us about Japanese culture and values?


Curriculum Connections

Try using this activity when teaching about...

  • Japanese culture
  • Public transportation
  • Sounds
  • Urban Centers

Common Core Connections

Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.



Millions of Japanese take the train every day to school or work and trains are a fundamental part of daily life. Networks of high-speed, railway, and subway trains connect cities and towns throughout all of Japan, making it possible to travel across the country on public transportation. Major urban centers, such as Tokyo, serve as hubs for many different trains with different destinations and subway maps often resemble a complicated web.

Since so many people rely on trains, careful attention is paid to punctuality and efficiency on Japanese railways, traits for which this system is world renowned. Stationmasters announce information about train arrivals, departures, and destinations in a timely manner, and that information is also conveyed on electronic panels above the platforms so that it is accessible to everyone. Similarly, on the train, conductors announce information about the next stop, connecting lines, and which side of the train passengers should stand on when the doors open at a station.

Furthermore, to let passengers know that the train is about to depart, conductors play departure melodies moments before doors close. Until the 1970s, regular bells were used to let passengers know about the impending departure. However, due to complaints from passengers about how sharp and threatening the bells sounded, many train stations now use cheerful, soothing departure melodies of the sort that you would hear if you were at Disneyland, for example, or any other amusement park.

For instance, Takadanobaba station uses the theme from Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy), as its creator's company was located in Takadanobaba. Another famous animation theme song – the theme from Ginga Tetsudo 999 (Galaxy Express 999) – is used at Ueno Station and other stations. Other famous tunes include "Take the 'A' Train" at JR Kyushu stations and Vivaldi's "Spring" from Four Seasons at Oimachi station.

Typically lasting between 15-20 seconds, these departure melodies serve as a gentle and efficient means of communicating to people that the trains are about to leave without causing anxiety. The melodies therefore demonstrate how train companies in Japan pay close attention to providing a pleasant experience for all passengers to minimize the stress that can often accompany commutes and travel, and to making sure that trains depart the station on time and keep to the schedule.



Departure Melody Hassha melody (発車メロディー)
A tune that is used to indicate a train is about to leave or depart soon.
Values Beliefs and ideas that are important to a particular community, region or nation and shape their behaviors.
Track Rails that a train runs on.
Platform Where passengers board and disembark trains.
Train Station A building or stop where trains pick up and drop off passengers.
Ueno Station Ueno Eki (上野駅 )
Major train station in Tokyo.
Shinkansen (新幹線 )
High-speed railway, also known as the bullet train.

Pre-learning Activity



1. Without telling students what they are going to listen to, play the audio of the train departure melodies found at (from beginning to ~1:30).

2. After they have listened to the sounds, ask students the following questions:

  • Do the melodies remind you of anything?
  • What do these melodies sound like?
  • Where do you think you might hear these melodies?

3. Reveal to students that these melodies are played at train stations in Japan when trains enter and leave a station so that passengers know which station the train is at. Explain that each station has its own melody.


Primary Source Activity



1. Ask students

  • What type of transportation do you use to get to school?
  • How do you get to a store?
  • How do you visit relatives?

2. Tell students that in Japan, many people use trains to get to school, work, shop, and to visit friends and family. To illustrate how widely used trains are in Japan, show students the Japan Railways Map of Japan, the Tokyo Subway Map, and the video of people at a Japan train station (see materials).

3. Share with students the following figures and use Handout #1: Graph of Public Transportation Use in Japan and the United States to illustrate this point: If both Japan and the US were made up of 100 people each:

  • Only 6 of the 100 Japanese have NEVER taken public transportation while 52 Americans have NEVER taken public transportation.
  • 41 Japanese take public transportation every day or at least once a week while only 15 Americans do so.

Source: National Geographic and Globescan. (2010). Greendex 2010: Consumer Choice and the Environment – A Worldwide Tracking Survey. (PDF download)

4. Then ask students: Why do you think trains are so important in Japan based on the materials that you have just looked at? (Students should understand that many people rely on trains every day to get to work/school. Since Japan is relatively small and has many different geographic features, trains make it easier to travel throughout Japan. Japan also has a high population density, which means that the train system is efficient.)

5. Show students the video of the arriving and departing train without any explanation: (from beginning until 1:30). Ask students

  • What do you see?
  • What do you hear?

6. Show the video again. This time, point out the different physical characteristics of the train station and let them know what is happening using the transcript below. You may need to pause the video.

  • 0:01 – 0:12: Point out: yellow line; clock; electronic board with flashing announcement. Recorded announcement comes on: "Train is arriving at track 15. Please stand behind the yellow line for your safety."
  •  0:12 – 0:18: Live announcement of the same information above.
  • 0:40 – 0:42: Recorded announcement: "Thank you for riding." Train conductor steps out of the train to push a button that plays the departure melody.
  • 0:43 – 0:59: Departure melody plays. (Other background noise: announcements for another train arriving at another platform.) Point out how people are waiting in line and let the passengers off the train first before boarding the train.
  • 1:01 – 1:09: Recorded announcement: "The door will close at track 15. Please be careful." Train conductor returns to the train and makes sure all passengers are inside.
  • 1:09 – 1:11: Live Announcement: "Doors will close. Please be careful!"

7. (Optional): Show another video that focuses a little more on the train conductors. The sound quality of the departure melodies is better:

8. Have a discussion that draws on what students have learned about trains and train stations in Japan in order to deepen their learning.

  • Why are trains important in Japan?
  • What can trains in Japan tell us about Japanese culture and values?
  • You might want to emphasize the following
    • The departure melodies are meant to be beautiful, cheerful, and stress-relieving. They signal to people that the train is about to leave in a timely yet non-threatening way and suggest the train managers' care and concern for passengers.
    • The whole train system demonstrates order, precision, efficiency, and punctuality, despite the chaos in terms of crowds and the number of trains going in and out at any given moment.
    • The people who work for the train system – e.g., train conductors – are all very professionally dressed and pay close attention to time and safety.
    • We can learn about culture or values by looking at everyday events, not just special events like holidays.

9. Now that students have a better sense of what a train station is like, have them pretend that they are about to ride a train at Tokyo station, one of the busiest train stations in Japan. Divide students into groups and print out a copy of Handout #2: Train Station Picture Puzzle for each group. This handout includes images from Tokyo's Ueno Station that document the process of taking a train in Japan. Pass out copies of the images to each group; since the images are in order in the file, mix-up the images before passing out the packet to each group. Ask students to arrange the train station pictures in order by thinking about what they would see, hear, and need to do once they arrive at the train station. (Lower elementary teachers may prefer to do this activity as a whole class guided activity to familiarize young students with the process of using public transportation.)


Extension Activity

1. Explore ekiben, boxed meals (bento) that can be bought at train stations or on the train. (This is a good way to connect this lesson activity with the activity on bento.) Show students the following pictures of ekiben.


2. Engage students in a discussion of public transportation in their towns and neighborhoods

  • What forms of public transportation, if any, do you have in your town? Buses? Trains? Subway? Trolleys? Shuttles? Taxis/cabs?
  • If you do live in an area where there is public transportation, have you taken it before? How often do people take it?
  • If you don't live in an area where there is public transportation, why might that be? (not enough people; everyone has cars)

About the Authors

Lina Yamashita is a Program Coordinator at Primary Source. She has 15 years of life experience living in Singapore, Manila, and Tokyo, and has traveled extensively within East and Southeast Asia. She earned a masters degree in learning and teaching from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Ann Marie Gleeson is a Program Director at Primary Source. She holds a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from Boston College, specializing in social studies and museum education. Ann Marie has taught pre-service elementary social studies methods for four years.


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