unliked – the UNLIKE DESIGN CO. blog

the silly brilliance of shisa kanko

Posted in 1, Watched by unliked on October 21, 2013



By chance or deliberation, its kind of exciting to be either at the front or the very end of a Japanese train. Most have large windows allowing luxurious views of the approaching or receding railway landscape. Finding ourselves at the absolute front of the Hida Wide View express from Nagoya to Takayama one afternoon, we had an interesting view of the train drivers and the scenery passing by. But immaculate perfectionists as they usually are, it was quite intriguing to see them perform strange pointing gestures accompanied with loud recitations.



Throughout our extensive train travel from Hokkaido in the North to Okinawa’s monorail far down south, they all seemed to be doing the same thing – pointing to and speaking out something, drivers and conductors alike. Even when operating the train alone, the singular train driver would point to something on the train dashboard or the track and speak out aloud to herself.

It was only when I found the time back in India did I get down to figuring out what this was. Its called Shisa Kanko – an occupational safety and error prevention method followed by Japanese industry, and of course most visibly by the Japan Rail system.

An article by Alice Gordenker in The Japan Times explains it sufficiently. Here’s an excerpt:

“Japanese railway employees have been using this technique for more than 100 years, but the exact origin is a little unclear. One story traces it to the early 1900s and a steam-train engineer named Yasoichi Hori, who was supposedly starting to lose his sight. Worried that he’d go through a signal by mistake, Hori began to call out the signal status to the fireman riding with him. The fireman would confirm it by calling back. An observer decided this was an excellent way of reducing error, and by 1913 it was encoded in a railway manual as kanko oto (“call and response”). The pointing came later, probably after 1925.

To give an example with English calls, let’s say your task is to make sure a valve is open. You look directly at the valve and confirm it’s open. You call out in a clear voice, “Valve open!” Then, still looking at the valve, you draw your right hand back, point to the valve in an exaggerated way and call out, “OK!” The theory is that hearing your own voice, and engaging the muscles of the mouth and arm, stimulates your brain so you’re more alert.”

Here is a video of the two drivers of the Hida Wide View express practicing the method on the Nagoya-Takayama route.

So the next time you admire the squeaky clean uniforms and brief-cases of the JR drivers, look out for the seemingly silly gestures as well. You’ll know its Shisa Kanko and you’ll know its yet another bit of Japanese brilliance.

All Photographs © Unlike Design Co.

(Alice Gordenker’s blog makes for some very interesting reading, especially if you seek answers to the countless oddities, occurrences and cultural phenomena in and around Japan)


One Response

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  1. Cicada Summer – General Aesthetic said, on December 8, 2013 at 5:18 pm

    […] to Takayama, the train ride leads to the interesting discovery of Shisa Kanko, the marvelous error prevention method of the Japanese railway system. Hida-Takayama is in the […]

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