Often in modern society, “smart” technology is defined as technology that has access to the internet. However, “smart” technology can have many different definitions. One such definition is the ability for a technology to self-monitor and respond to certain stimuli. Another, which I choose to adopt for this discussion, is any technology that is more beneficial, economical, or convenient than the technology it replaces.
Japan is well known for their transportation network; their train systems are fast, reliable, and convenient. It is no surprise that they are constantly improving their technologies. Japan has prepaid cards can be used almost universally in the transportation realm and even in some non-transit applications. The cards are applicable all around Japan, making transit easy and accessible. The more convenient public transit is, the more people will use it, and the more sustainable the system is. The cards are also becoming compatible with newer smart phones, allowing the phone to replace the card. The amount of information available at the train stations also makes the stations more convenient and user friendly. In larger train stations, there are interactive screens that will display destinations inside the station and directions on how to get there. The information screens are extremely helpful to non-locals and keep the stations running efficiently.
During my stay in Japan, I’ve also noticed automatic fixtures are very common. Automated air conditioning, lights, sinks, and toilets are conventional in America, but in Japan they are almost universal. These devices are energy saving by nature. However, Japan has automatic doors that don’t have a sensor. Instead the doors have a button that you can push, and they automatically open. This is better than the standard automatic doors since they are much less likely to be triggered accidentally. Another notable aspect of Japan is the universal free Wi-Fi. The widespread Wi-Fi makes it easy to get around the city, talk to locals, and find information. The most unfamiliar characteristic of Japanese smart technology is the sinks resting atop the toilets. Once the toilet is flushed, the sink tap turns on, allowing the user to wash their hands while the runoff water fills the toilet tank. This significantly reduces water usage.
Even with all of these smart technologies, Japan could benefit from smart technologies that currently exist in America. Japan has a large issue surrounding plastic consumption; everything is wrapped in plastic, sometimes in two or three different wrappers. Smart garbage technology could make this trash more manageable or even reduce the amount of trash altogether. In the Atlanta airports, trashcans are self-compacting. Such garbage bins could automatically crush cans and bottles, reducing the space they require. An alternative to compacting garbage cans is “Pay as You Throw” garbage system. With these trash cans, a fee is required to deposit trash. These disposal bins would not be effective in many countries because people would litter instead of paying a small fee. However, in Japan, littering is nonexistent. Having to pay to throw garbage away may reduce the amount of disposables consumed. Another smart technology growing in the U.S.A. are water fountains with reusable bottle refilling capabilities. Japan has very few water fountains, and none I have encountered have the tap for water bottles. These fountains could promote reusable water bottles reduce the amount of plastic water bottles purchased. A final smart technology that Japan could benefit from is found on Georgia Tech’s own campus. On west campus, just outside the Love Building, is a picnic bench shaded by two solar panels situated above the table. The picnic table is also equipped with four outlets. Japan has many parks and outdoor areas where such tables could be placed, generating clean energy and using that energy to charge peoples devices.
People all around the world value convenience. Smart technology consistently makes life more convenient and is constantly evolving. Japan has many desirable smart technologies that also make the country more sustainable, but they could also benefit from observing and implementing smart technologies from other countries.
Robots, gadgets, high-speed trains . . . Whenever I think of Japan, its advanced technology immediately comes to mind. Japan is known around the world for its technological development. Having now been in Japan for three weeks, I can attest that Japan’s incorporation smart technology has transformed and continues to transform the living experience within their cities.
In Japan, smart technologies are particularly seen through the development of ECO cycles and ECO parks. With these technologies, a simple scan of a card provides access to a compact entrance that transports vehicles to an underground parking lot. These parking lots can store hundreds of bicycles and cars, so high parking capacity is achieved in a small space. Rather than creating clutter, the entrance is designed to suit the surrounding environment, harmonizing with the landscape rather than clashing with it. Utilizing this technology also creates more comfortable walking spaces and increases the convenience of city parking.
The entrance of the ECO Cycle.
Japan’s transit system is another prime area where smart technology is incorporated. During my first week in Japan, I rode a monorail, where the front of the train was completely empty as it was entirely operated by an AI system. Technology is now shifting towards automated rather than manual control, which provides greater precision and reduces problems that can emerge from human error. Within the transit sector, smart technology is also seen in advancements made with the Suica card, a card typically used to pay transit fees. This card can now be added as a digital card on Apple Wallet, allowing users to simply place their phone on the card reader to enter or exit a station. Around a week ago, I paired my Suica card to my own phone, and I have been able to add money to my account and keep track of expenses with a couple of taps. This has created an even more seamless traveling experience.
Screenshot from my Apple Wallet.
Smart technology is also incorporated within the train stations themselves. In the underground mall at Tokyo Station, there was a robot that was able to respond to questions asked in English. Particularly when we asked where a ramen restaurant was located, it quickly provided a map with directions. Service robots are now able to communicate with users over multiple languages, which provides easy-to-access information. Especially in a place such as Tokyo, which hosts a large number of tourists, having technology that readily provides important information is vital.
A service robot at Tokyo Station.
While Japan is most definitely at the forefront of technological developments, there do exist areas where the inclusion of additional technology could be used to create an even smarter city. When I first arrived at the Kobe University dormitory, I was shown the trash disposal area. Our guide emphasized how important it was to separate our recyclable material into the appropriate categories because there was a worker who was tasked with ensuring the trash was sorted correctly. This is an extremely tedious process; thus, technology could be further developed to introduce robots that are able to sort the material to improve efficiency. Additionally, while there are some service robots already implemented in various stations, service robots can also be placed in other touristy areas such as by gardens or castles. Often times, these areas are inundated with visitors and accessing information can be difficult; therefore, having service robots that would be able to communicate and provide answers in various languages would beneficial.
Over these past few weeks, I have been making a multitude of observations of Japanese lifestyle, accumulating countless examples of both smart and sustainable development. While like with all countries, there are areas where improvements can be made, there still is much to be learned from how Japan plans its cities. Japan is a key player in the production and incorporation of smart technology, and it continuously makes advancements to improve society.
While traveling across Japan during the past 3 weeks, I noticed a lot of different technology that is implemented here that increases livability for citizens in Japan. There were innovations in construction, transportation, business, and parking. The first thing that stood out to me, aside from how efficient the transit systems in Japan already are, were the automated robots that train stations are starting to incorporate as a method to help travelers find information. While in Tokyo station, I had the chance to observe a member of our group test out one of the robots. We were looking for Ramen street, a popular place to eat Ramen that is located somewhere underneath Tokyo station. My friend spoke clearly, in English, to the Robot, saying, “Where is Ramen street?” The robot replied in English verbally as well as displayed a map of the station and the route we needed to take to get there. It was extremely helpful and quick.
Another smart innovation that I’ve observed across Japan is the earthquake-proofing that is being done to many buildings. Japan is a nation that frequently experiences earthquakes, and it is both safer for the people and financially beneficial for Japan to be taking these steps to make their structures stronger.
Another technology I found innovating was in businesses. When I went into a makeup store with my friend, I noticed that the way a customer would purchase a product there is to go to one of many machines along the wall, select what you want, pay there, and it will dispense the product. This seemed like a very efficient way to conduct business, especially in the heart of Tokyo where there is a high concentration of people and shoppers. This technology eliminated the inconvenience of waiting in line to purchase products.
Finally, one technology that struck me as especially smart and sustainable was Giken’s underground bike and car parking. This company designed a type of parking lot where you could drive your car or bike into an enclosed area, and once you were out of the way, it lowered your vehicle into the ground and parked it above or below another vehicle. There are spots in car parking that accommodate larger cars like vans, or spots in bike parking that accommodate bikes with child seats attached. This was a very innovative design and made a lot of sense considering the high density of population in urban areas in Japan.
Japan is very technologically advanced in many ways, as exemplified by the innovations I witnessed during my time here thus far. However, they could use their technology to improve lives for their citizens in many other ways. For example, they could investment more research and technology toward green energy. There is much room for growth in Japan regarding harvesting solar, wind, and wave power that is being underutilized because of government preference for nuclear energy.
Also, with so much innovation, Japan could invest in creating eco-friendly alternatives to plastic wrapping. They could design compostable plastic bags or containers and find new ways to use less single-use plastic wrapping and bottles. They have the financial capability to invest in creating alternative materials to plastic, they just need to be willing to do it. Overall, it seems Japan could invest more of their innovative technology into environmental causes, which will in turn benefit the health of the environment and the sustainability of their society.
Tokyo’s transit system reminds me of the European railway system. The Shinkansen’s features and operations specifically reminds me of Germany’s ICE and France’s TGV. Japan Rail (JR), a Japanese company, has a high-speed long distance rail system named the Shinkansen and reaches speeds up to 240 km/hr. Germany’s DB (Deutsche Bahn), a German company, has a high-speed long distance rail system as well called ICE (Intercity-Express) reaching up to 300 km/hr. The SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français, “French National Railway Company”), a French company, also has a high-speed long-distance rail system called the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, "high-speed train") and operates on average at about 320 km/hr. The train systems have relatively similar features such as the seat reservation seats, reliability, security and patrons.
Image 1: French TGV and Displayed Current Speed
For seat reservations, all three companies encourage the passenger to reserve a seat. For the TGV, you must ride with a reservation. For ICE, all of the cars have reservable seats; however, passengers may board the train without having a seat and may just have to stand up on the train. For the Shinkansen, there are cars that are for reserved and non-reserved. The TGV, ICE, and the Shinkansen all have a system to alert others above the seats whether the seats are reserved or not reserved. The ICE trains will notify you at what station the passenger is boarding. The Shinkansen notifies you with a green, yellow, and red light if the seat is not reserved, will soon to be reserved, and currently reserved respectfully.
The Shinkansen, ICE, and TGV are similar and different in their reliability. The Shinkansen is notorious for not being late. Deutsche Bahn is also known for being reliable and efficient; however, I have also experienced delays ranging from a few minutes to the occasional couple of hours due to track malfunctions such as protests and fires. The TGV is also known for being reliable; however, I have experienced many delays on the TGV by up to 20 minutes. Since the Deutsche Bahn trains frequent many bustling stations, it is easy to be able to go to another city with another route. They frequently travel around from station to station all over the middle of Europe. With the TGV, the TGV is direct with minimal stops to your destination. With popular routes, there is a TGV running every hour from 6 am to 8 pm. Although the TGV only travels to larger stations and has a limited window, passengers can still travel to their destination because the SNCF has many routes to take the passenger from any city to another city in France or Europe even if its not high speed. There really is only an issue for ICE and the TGV if you plan on riding an overnight train because once you miss that train, you must wait until 6 in the morning. The Shinkansen similarly also seems to have frequent timing, however, there are only so many other routes you can take to travel to other regions of the country.
In regards to on-board security and other patrons, all three train systems are similar. On ICE trains, staff regularly patrols the cars. A couple of times over the course of a few hours, a person comes down the aisle checking for tickets and for Eurails if you have one; however, they were normally very lax about whether or not you were in the correct seat or not. The other patrons on board desired silence, but it was not a nuisance if people were talking or laughing as long as they were not obnoxious. Every now and then, a group of adults were clearly a little intoxicated and enjoying themselves, and people didn’t seem to mind too much. However, if it was teenagers or young adults are being obnoxious, other passengers seem to mind. Whereas shortly after departing on the TGV, an officer comes by and checks your reserved ticket and your Eurail. They are stricter on checking whether you are in the right seat or not because normally most TGV’s are full. Almost every ride on the TGV is for the most part silent. Most people do not talk to each other. If there is a family that is sitting together, they are a little louder; but it is obvious that other passengers do mind the noise level. On the Shinkansen, I noticed the security walks down the aisle a lot more frequently than any other train I have been on and not making sure if people are in their correct seat or not. The passengers are either talking to themselves quietly, if at all. It only seems to be the foreigners (Americans) that seem to talk a lot louder than whispering. It seems that from a relaxed environment to a stricter environment it is the ICE, Shinkansen, and then TGV. Despite some slight differences in noise level, Japan’s Shinkansen, Germany’s ICE, and France’s TGV are high-speed rail systems that have evolved similarly despite the differences in their cultures. May these three continue to be an example for the rest of the world in long-distance travel.
Two weeks in Japan has exposed me to more public transportation than I have ever used in my twenty years on the planet. This is not, however, due to any particular feelings against public transport as a whole. Rather, it is just that much easier to learn and execute in Japan than anywhere else I have been, especially Atlanta. Though I have not experienced public transportation in many places, especially not outside the states, I can honestly say that my own hometown Atlanta has the least convenient system out of the ones I have used (including systems all over Japan and in places like New York and Boston). Even the regular trains and buses we have taken in Japan have been incredibly timely and convenient, but we were also lucky enough to ride the Shinkansen, or bullet train, which added a whole new dimension to the transportation experience. Even though we were left on our own at the station each time we rode the bullet train, not once did any of us get lost nor need assistance finding the correct platform. Keeping in mind that there are typically dozens of these platforms per station and few of us know any of the native tongue here, the credit for this lack of chaos must be given to the stations’ efficiency and easiness to use. Times for the Shinkansen were even more on the dot than the normal trains if that was at all possible, and even when we had to make last minute changes, the stations were very accommodating and made things more convenient than I thought humanly possible.
(picture via JR East 2012)
It goes without saying that it is now very clear to me just how much more the Shinkansen is than a Mount Fuji photo op- one of the things it is best known for. Its timely operations complete with amenities including wifi, resrooms, and food trolleys make for an all-around pleasant public transportation experience, and while having a pleasant train ride doesn't seem like a daring feat, it is important to note that MARTA's reputation revolves around untimely, unsafe spaces, so it seemed beyond me to have an experience that was even beyond tolerable.
Much of the convenience of the system also has to do with the people using it. We experienced this on every form of transportation we used; the motion of people getting to one car was like that of a wave, no interruptions or people moving the wrong way. The Shinkansen, however, is mostly reserved seating and free of the crowds that take over most of the other trains we used. As opposed to masses getting on and off rail cars, the Shinkansen boarding process was very tame, and we experienced no complications whatsoever while using it. This contrasts greatly with the transit that we are used to in America (although I will only be discussing Atlanta as I have little experience with others). MARTA is the epicenter of our public transportation, and it is known for being late, dirty, unsafe, and inefficient. Compared to the timely, spotless, cautious, and uncannily efficient Shinkansen, it is clear that we have a lot to learn and a lot of room to grow in our transportation system.
Japan is known as one of the most homogenous nations in the modern world, but that is not to say that they have complete equality nor homogeneity across prefect boundaries. With each unique prefecture culture comes a unique perspective on sustainability, and going from the middle of the world’s largest mega region to a town beginning to rebuild itself after a world-shattering disaster proves this more than anything. Environmentally speaking, of course, Fukushima, a city which experienced a nuclear disaster in 2011, faces an uphill battle- rebuilding a whole region after eight years of evacuation- but it is facing the challenge with resilience and incredible new ideas that the whole country could learn from. Despite being plagued by physical radiation alongside emotional devastation, the people are trying to be a model for renewable energy with a solar focus. Tokyo also has a unique take on environmentalism, though they do unsurprisingly have an upper hand in sustainability overall as the world’s largest megaregion and a long-standing technological hub. One thing that I found very impressive was Tokyo’s ability to be as populated and large as it is and yet still manage to incorporate nature in their urban lifestyle. It was not uncommon to see rooftop gardens or architecture which involved some green element; even some of the trains and public boards had the UN Sustainable Development Goals posted.
While this concrete/nature combination was relatively exclusive to Tokyo, however, general respect for nature was not, as everywhere we visit is filled with parks and natural landscape at every turn.
Economically speaking, too, Fukushima is currently in a serious rut, as most of the people who have moved back thus far are above the age of sixty. Tokyo is privileged to be the capital and have the most draw for foreign investors and workers, a huge advantage as the Japanese workforce diminishes. Though the population as a whole is older in Japan, their megaregion is the most likely to draw in young workers from other regions in Japan and around the world, so it is more fiscally sustainable as a general rule. That said, however, it is worth noting that Tokyo's privilege has not been without damage to others. In fact, the nuclear plants which exploded in Fukushima actually created energy for Tokyo, keeping little of the benefit for itself and experiencing near obliteration to keep the megaregion running.
Having said this regarding Fukushima, the extent to which they have already rebuilt their town a short eight years post nuclear breakdown is beyond admirable, and their resilience should stand as a model for the whole world to follow. Though eight years is not long in the grand scheme of life, it felt like a lifetime for residents forced to uproot their lives after a disaster which should not have involved them in the first place. However, rather than giving up on their home and moving on or accepting the injustices they faced, the people immediately began rebuilding their town to a point where a new government building has already been established and residents, though few, are already moving back. Former residents have rejected all statements that Fukushima will never be as good as it once was and have bounced back to make it better and more environmentally sustainable than ever; even our own tour guide designed solar panels which now supply a large portion of the city’s power.
Even beyond the physical rebuilding of the region, there is an impressive movement to rebuild the social environment. We visited a high school in the surrounding area and heard about projects that students there had been working on, one of which was a café designed to be an open area for people to come exchange ideas with dishes inspired by Fukushima’s best-known foods.
The people of Fukushima are incredibly welcoming to outsiders: the mayor himself thanked us for visiting, and our tour guide’s father, one of the residents already back in Fukushima, allowed us to come talk to him about the disaster. Their desire to share their story with anyone who will listen will likely prove as a great strength in the future, as Fukushima tries to break tensions between regions and encourage all people to visit their rapidly developing area.
After being in Japan for two weeks, I have become familiar with many types of transit such as Shinkansen, subways, and buses. The main one we have been using more recently is the Shinkansen. These are the faster trains that take you from city to city.
Compared to the other transit systems I am familiar with, which is basically just MARTA, the Shinkansen is far better in many ways. First off, it is just as punctual as the other trains in Japan even though it travels much farther. Secondly, it also feels as safe and clear as other forms of transit, especially when compared to something like MARTA. The other people on the Shinkansen tend to be even quitter than on something like the Subway. The main thing, however, that stands out to me about the Shinkansen is how comfortable it is. The first thing I noticed is how much leg and seat room I had, which is something that has always been a problem for me as a tall person. The ride itself is always smooth and calm and there is plenty of space to sleep, eat, or do work. Overall, I feel like the Shinkansen is an incredible way to travel long distance in Japan.
When it comes to navigability, the Shinkansen doesn’t lack there either. It is very easy to gather information and find your way around, especially for someone who doesn’t know Japanese. The tickets, seats, and cars are numbered clearly, and the announcements get repeated in English. Despite how different it is, the Shinkansen is definitely the best form of intercity travel.
Having been in Japan for two weeks and traveling for a week, I have spent my time on various transportation systems. The various methods of transportation I have used are the train, Shinkansen, bus, ferry, cable car, and streetcar.
We used the Shinkansen a lot this past week to travel between cities. The Shinkansen are bullet trains that reach upwards of 200 mph which makes them a quick and cost-efficient method of intercity transportation. As someone who has spent a lot of my life in India and traveled using their train system, I can say that the Shinkansen system is the ideal system for intercity travel. The Shinkansen is just as timely as the rest of the Japanese transit system, something that Indian trains are not. The Shinkansen also offers a level of comfort that makes you feel almost as if you are flying, which is something I appreciate since Indian trains are nowhere as comfy. The people using the Shinkansen are also less aggressive than the people I have seen that use Indian trains, especially when it comes to getting onto the train, and the patrons on the Shinkansen are also a lot more reserved and tend to be on the quieter side.
As we left the Tokyo area, the amount of English signs in the trains are the stations still stayed the same, making navigation from place to place easy for English speakers. Even the signs and announcements on the streetcar and ferry came in English. One thing that I found interesting was that the JR west company had designed departure times for their ferries to Miyajima in such a way that people from trains that arrived had enough time to walk over to the dock. I think this method of maximizing the ease of use for passengers is what makes the Japanese transit system so spectacular.
The streetcar and bus rides that I used were not as precise in time as the train system but that is because they do not use transitways that are dedicated entirely to them. Overall, all the methods of transport that I have used in Japan have been unique in their own way, but I liked the railway system the best as it is the most developed and is an almost perfect right-of-way type A transit mode.
Walking into the JR West Miyajima Ferry. Owned and operated by the same company that operates a majority of trains of the region.
Two different types of bullet trains developed by JR Rails. These were on display at the railway museum.
During the travel leg of our trip, I was able to notice some big differences in sustainability between the interior and exterior of a megaregion. Even though there were differences, I wouldn’t say that one area was more sustainable than the other. However, I would say that sustainable development practices were easier to notice in the exterior of the Keihanshin megaregion.
The main difference in sustainability that I noticed was transportation. On the outside of a megaregion more people own and drive cars than in a place like central Tokyo. There is less of a reliance on public transportation, so there aren’t as many trains, stations, and rail lines that run in the outside of a megaregion. Although quite small, another difference I noticed was a lot of domestic greenhouses in the outside of the megaregion. Smaller greenhouses like these have multiple sustainability advantages as opposed to a large commercial greenhouse. They often aren’t constantly being supplied with heat, so they use little to no energy to run. Also, the plants produced in these aren’t usually treated with large amounts of damaging chemicals. The last main difference in sustainability between the parts of the megaregion I noticed was the abundance of solar farms as well as homes that were powered by solar panels on the roof. Obviously, this reduces the use of nonrenewable energy as well as reliance on imported energy.
While in Fukushima, I also learned about resilience and how the March 11th disaster affected and still affects that area. Before I got to Fukushima, I was expecting to see nothing but a ghost town as all I heard going into the visit was about how the place was abandoned. However, now I can say that is not the case at all. There were areas that were definitely still abandoned, but for the most part, Fukushima was surprisingly resilient compared to what I was expecting. The area was being cleaned up by over 400 workers and many structures such as houses and roads have been rebuilt and reopened. One thing I really enjoyed learning while there was how the people of the area are using the disaster to learn and help prevent future disasters. Their goal is to never forget what happened but also never stop working to recover.
After leaving Tokyo, we saw several different forms of transit that were not used as widely in the megaregion. One of these transit forms was the Shinkansen. While similar to the Tokyo rail lines, the Shinkansen mainly differs in that its stations are farther apart, meaning that the train can move faster, and the wait times between stations are increased. As a result, the ride has designated seats and is overall more comfortable, like a plane ride. When compared to other intercity transit that I have taken, such as the Amtrak, the Shinkansen is cleaner and more comfortable to ride. Other passengers all move to their assigned seats and either sleep or work quietly throughout the ride. The Shinkansen also has a loud but calming jingle that plays whenever approaching a station to awaken passengers who might otherwise oversleep past their station. Finally, there is information available at the front and rear of each of the cars about the next stop, and there are frequent announcements on which cities and areas the Shinkansen is planned to stop.
A Shinkansen station. The Shinkansen doors, as with other forms of rail systems in Japan, always line up with the gates on the platform.
One of the modes of transit we used frequently in Kyoto was local bus lines. This form of transit was slower than the rail lines that we had used in Tokyo due to being in traffic with other vehicles and pedestrians. However, the bus system had the upside of being able to stop at more locations, often almost directly adjacent to the location of interest. While being relatively easy to get to stations, it was more difficult to find information on navigating between bus and subway routes. The bus system is still generally timely, much more so than the systems found in Atlanta and Georgia Tech, and the passengers are accommodating, particularly when the bus becomes crowded.
More personal vehicles are used in places such as Kyoto, often competing with bus systems on the streets.
Another mode of transit used in Kyoto was the local subway system. The subway system in Kyoto was generally not as well-developed as the one in Tokyo, as it was less comfortable and visually appealing, but it was still timely and present where it needed to be. The headway (time between arriving trains) was longer than the rail system in Tokyo, but it was sufficient considering there were generally fewer passengers at any time of the day. The subway system was much timelier than the MARTA system found in the Atlanta region, but did not have quite as many amenities and comforts as the Tokyo megaregion railways.
While Kyoto is an old city that was designed far before modern transit systems were developed, the transit systems are still developed to optimally accommodate the city's attractions. Walking is also always an option to get between nearby locations.
The Japanese transportation systems between cities and outside of the Tokyo megaregion are still much more advanced than those of the United States. While the city of Kyoto is ancient and therefore not as convenient to plan around for transportation purposes, its bus and subway system was still timely and easy to use, even for foreigners who are new to the area. This is in direct contrast to many US regions, where even locals may have difficulty finding bus or train stops, and there is no guarantee those transit systems will arrive within even 5 minutes of their expected arrival time. The United States and other countries can particularly learn from Japan’s intercity transportation system, the Shinkansen, which is both high-speed and easy to access; it has all the upsides of plane transportation without dealing with long wait times for departure and disembarking.