I’ve been riding the trains a lot in Tokyo, but as I rode in the forward car of a train today, I noticed the train driver kept pointing at things. At first I just assumed she was gesturing to someone on the platform, but as the train moved away from the station she continued to make exaggerated pointing gestures. I watched her as she pointed ahead several times, then occasionally swept her pointing finger across the controls in front of her in a careful and deliberate fashion. (You can see a video of her doing this here.)
I thought perhaps the driver was new to the job, or maybe just a little excentric, especially when I noticed that she also appeared to be talking to herself as she pointed at the train tracks ahead. However, after I little research I’ve learned that in Japan this is actually a common workplace practice called shisa kanko, a error-prevention discipline that’s said to heighten workers’ mental focus and increase safety.
While its origin is unclear, it would seem that shisa kanko has been officially practiced by Japanese railway employees for nearly 100 years. In 1913 kanko oto (“call and response”) was written into the railway manual, with the pointing being added a few years later. The effectiveness of the practice was researched in 1994 by the Railway Technical Research Institute. They found that the pointing and calling technique reduced mistakes by almost 85 percent. Despite these findings shisa kanko has not been widely adopted anywhere else in the world and remains very much ‘a Japanese thing.’