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.
These past three weeks, I have taken numerous modes of transportation from Kyoto's city bus and Tokyo's trains to Hiroshima's ferry and the Shinkansen and learned about various aspects of Japan's culture and practices. Little did I know that all around me were installations of smart technologies that all work towards creating more sustainable cities.
During the first week in Tokyo, we visited Giken to learn more about the company's efforts towards parking facilities by taking advantage of underground spaces. Company representatives demonstrated for us both their bicycle and automobile parking systems, in which both the former and latter contain hundreds of units to prevent cluttering of public areas and to also conserve space from up above (which is especially needed for Japan's high population density). Giken has also developed a soundproof technology called the press-in method, which uses static loading with zero noise and vibration at construction sites. This smart technology, therefore, allows for any important construction to occur right beside people's homes without disturbing them with the usual noise that is commonly heard right on Georgia Tech's campus.
Additionally, Google Maps has advanced its technology by coordinating with the public transit system in Japan. To get to your destination, the application will list when the train will arrive as well as the optimal car to board; this way, you will be closest to the exit and get out the fastest when you arrive at your designated stop. In most trains, but more so in Tokyo, there are overhead displays that, for each of the next few stops, show the time remaining until the train will arrive at those particular stops.
I also learned about the innovations that JR East is currently working on during our visit to their Research and Development Facility in Tokyo several weeks ago. One development is a new ticket gate in which the top surface will slant inwards so that wheel-chair bound individuals can easily tap their ticket onto the scanner without any difficulties. The company is also working with laser technology, so that a sensor hanging from the ceiling can detect all commuters carrying a card or ticket without them having to scan it at the machine. This would increase time efficiency and reduce congestion at the ticket gates, especially during rush hour.
It has only been a short three weeks, but I have already learned a lot about sustainable development with respect to Japan's infrastructure, transportation systems, public spaces, and more. I hope that for the next two months, I will come to recognize more smart technologies that Japan has implemented and how these systems will help the country's approach towards sustainable development.
Whenever Tokyo appears in movies, it is usually depicted as a glitzy, technological city of the future; after spending some time in this city, I can confirm that there is indeed fact within the Hollywood fantasies. Tokyo, as well as other Japanese cities, have incorporated a variety of “smart” technologies into their societal frameworks that aid citizens in navigating the demands of everyday life. Because of Japan’s emphasis on the utilization of sustainable transportation such as mass transit and biking, many of these smart technologies are connected to this realm of society.
The smart technology that I have become most acquainted with during my time in Japan is the IC card, which is a prepaid train system card that allows users to simply tap their cards on a turnstile before and after they embark on the train to pay for their rides. Numerous cards exist under the umbrella of the Japan Rail system including Pasmo, Icoca, and Pitapa, but our students have been making use of the Suica card. The IC card is incredibly convenient because it allows users to load a desired amount of money onto their cards, with kiosks for adding more money onto cards located at every train station, thereby reducing the need for paper tickets. The MARTA system in Atlanta, Georgia has a similar feature known as the Breeze Card, but the Japanese IC cards prove to be more valuable due to the fact that they can be used to make small purchases at convenience stores as well as their ability to be made available on smartphones.
Another smart technology that has been implemented in Japan’s transit system is the presence of small digital screens within Tokyo’s train cars that display information including station names, stop times, and car numbers in addition to the weather and advertisements. These screens are helpful because they allow passengers to divulge important information without having to focus on the train conductor’s announcements or having to decipher a complicated map of the train system. Although these screens are present in the local train cars of Tokyo, they are absent from the local train cars of Kobe, which has caused me to have to pay more attention during my train rides in this new city. While the lack of digital screens in the Kobe train cars won’t inhibit me from utilizing the train system, the addition of this smart technology would definitely make riding the train a more convenient experience.
Aside from the train system, smart technology in Tokyo also comes in the form of car and bike storage. During our second day in Tokyo, our group had the pleasure of visiting Giken, a company renowned for automated parking facilities. We were brought to an ECO Cycle, which is an automated underground bicycle parking facility, and an ECO Park, which is an automated underground car parking facility, and we were able to view demonstrations of how both services work. Giken’s automated parking facilities contribute to sustainable development because they decrease the need for large parking lots and instead replace them with compact areas that can house not only cars but bikes as well. Although Giken has already established its parking facilities in countries such as Japan, the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom, it has only begun to penetrate these countries, so its impact on sustainable development will not be visible until the company further diffuses itself around the world.
As shown by the example of Japan, the implementation of smart technologies in a society can be an agent in stimulating sustainable development. Because smart technologies can help enhance the experiences of taking the train or riding a bike, they encourage individuals to utilize these more-sustainable forms of transportation. Despite the fact that progress can still be made even in Tokyo in the realm of smart technologies, the efforts to ensure a future that is both sustainable and convenient are promising.
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.
The last three weeks of this trip have been very informative and enlightening on the advancement in “smart technologies” in Japanese society. From innovations in transit services with the JR, to improved, sustainable parking methods from the Giken company and their eco-parking systems, Japan is continuously showing why it is leading in the race of creating smarter cities.
In the beginning of our trip, we toured the Giken company observing and learning about their eco cycle and car parking systems. They can park over 200 bikes and 50 cars in their underground parking units, which are a cylinder shape. The system works in where you park your car, receive a ticket of its storage spot, and then when you come back, you insert your ticket and the computer retrieves your car for you. This parking system is “smart” indeed by saving space in the city with smaller parking space which always for more space to build other beneficial “smart” and green systems instead of having clunky, cement parking lots taking up an unnecessary number of square miles.
On another tour, we observed some of the newest initiatives in improving JR East transit systems. One project was relating to the boarding and departing the trains, where instead of a simple waist level barrier separating the customer form the tracks, it is whole fence-like barrier that rises and lowers upon arrival and departure of the train. This will increase customer safety and further decrease the chances of people committing suicides on the railways. The JR East employees also showed our group an improved version of the Suica card scanner. This scanner, differing from the present box gate look, has the scanning part at an angle and also above the customer suspended from the ceiling, providing more convenient access to customers, specifically to handicapped passengers in wheelchairs and shorter customers to scan their card with less strain. These are just two examples from the JR company to make more sustainable transit systems, working with “smarter” technology.
With these and the countless other examples in the making, Japan is displaying very “smart” and sustainable technological advances to make their environment healthier and people having easier access and convenience in their everyday lives.
Over the past three weeks, I have been observing many different examples of smart technologies in Japan. A smart technology is anything that improves the everyday lives of all citizens of an area. The technologies have emerged out of Japans megaregions because megaregions are usually the sources of technological innovation. Cities that implement these technologies are referred to as “smart cities” are usually leading cities in sustainability.
The first smart technologies I witnessed in Japan were the underground parking garages for cars and bikes. These were essentially parking hubs that robotically stored one’s car or bike and then returned it when needed. These improve people’s lives and preserve the beauty of the city by eliminating massive above ground parking structures or cluttered parking lots. The automated parking systems have been implemented in certain areas of Tokyo, but I have yet to see them in other cities in Japan. I also feel that the United States could benefit from implementing a technology like this because a lot more people own and drive personal vehicles. The underground parking garage technology could also be used for Bird and Lime scooters, which would help clean the streets of scooters laying around everywhere.
I also witnessed a variety of smart technologies while touring the JR East Research and Development facility. The people over at JR East were working on multiple innovations that will improve the lives of every utilizing their transit systems. The most impressive technology I observed there was the adjustable train station ceiling. If implemented, this ceiling would adjust in height to correct airflow depending on how many people were walking through the station. Another innovation that JR East was working on was their new prepaid card scanner. This is almost the same thing that is currently being used, however, its aim is to make scanning in or out of train stations easier for wheelchair users by placing the scanner at an angle to the gate.
These are just a few examples of smart technologies that have been developed and implemented in Japan, however, there are still many ideas that can be produced to improve our lives.
One of the key factors in pushing for a place to become sustainable is to ensure you have technology that will allow you to keep doing so. Japan is a place that has done a great job in implementing such technologies. I will write about some of these "smart" technologies that I have observed in my past three weeks here.
The Suica card is similar to a Marta breeze card, it enables passengers to be able to pay for their train rides with it. One thing that sets it apart from any other metro/train card is that it can be used to pay for various forms of travels, ranging from the Shinkansen to a city's street car service (it is accepted at most vending machines too) regardless of which company operates the service. This cooperation between companies to allow for users to have the most convenient journey by allowing them to reduce the number of payment methods they have to carry to only one card is the perfect implementation of a smart technology.
A passenger putting their Suica card at a gate of a train station. Image from gogonihon.com.
The next smart technology that I saw was something that has not been implemented yet. I saw it at the JR East Research Facility. It was a ceiling whose height could be adjusted. They used this to imitate the heights of different stations but it could also be used to adjust the temperature of stations in a more efficient way. I can see this method having the potential of saving a lot of money in heating/cooling expenditure and adjust how air conditioners are used in a way that is better for the environment.
Another smart technology I learned about was also at the JR East Research Facility. They are developing translucent solar panels that can be placed on windows of trains and train stations. I found this very impressive as if this is successfully implemented it will increase the amount of renewable energy used while also saving money for the companies running train stations and trains (which are usually the same).
Overall, there have been a lot of smart technologies that I have seen in Japan and I could talk about them all day. I am impressed by how technology development is approached by taking sustainability into mind and also how companies are willing to work with each other here.
Giken, a company making underground parking for cycles and cars. This is another example of a "smart" technology. Image taken from Giken.com.
We praised Tokyo’s sustainable development surrounding their transit system; however, in towns outside of this megaregion, they do not have these capabilities. The towns within the prefecture of Fukushima, the preferred mode of transportation was cars. In front of every retail center, there was parking spots and parking lots, indicating people needed to travel by car in order to reach these destinations. In Kyoto, a much older city, the roads are much smaller. It seems that within these condensed patches of infrastructure, bikes and walking are the preferred mode of transportation. With towns within Fukushima, power plants have taken advantage of the hardly dense population for the rest of the country. Prior to the nuclear reaction, the plant in Fukushima powered most of Tokyo. Unfortunately, these are the areas that are susceptible to a nuclear reaction or other hazardous materials such as hydrogen because of this reason.
Resilient is not an adjective I thought could describe a city or a community beforehand. The towns of Fukushima show true resilience. The people did not abandon the city even when there was nothing left to return to for some. There were no more jobs and for some, no more homes. Towns that had been there the last 1200 years were wiped. All the town’s history, important monuments, and people’s homes were all gone in a matter of a few hours. In place of these towns, the have built a seawall all alongside in order to mitigate further damage in the future. They have also built new homes for those who were forced to evacuate. They are slowly one by one tearing down homes that were affected by the earthquake and tsunami. The amount of current movement that bustles in and out carrying soil bags was impactful. They did not leave the city to let nature took over. The amount of work that goes into removing the entire surface of multiple towns sounds like a development nightmare. There is a lot of current movement, even eight year later, in these towns that are building infrastructure in place in order to mitigate and rebuild livable conditions.
Image 1: The seawall supplies next to the last standing school.
Image 2: New homes rebuilt for the evacuees.
Not only are they keen on physically rebuilding, they want to rebuild their community. The sheer determination from Mayor Toshitsuna Watanabe of Okuma really left an impact on me. Even after 8 years, he still considered himself the mayor of the town and never stopped working on his duties ever since the day of the evacuation. He still felt ownership and responsibility over his town. He is aware that the elderly in the community are the ones who want to come back and he is recreating a home for them because they do not have the economic stability to work in another place and restart their lives. They just want to retire and finish their lives in their beloved home. I am touched that so many resources and money are going to the reconstruction of this town primarily for its elderly inhabitants.
Image 3: Georgia Tech students and Mayor Toshitsuna Watanabe of Okuma.
I am touched by our tour guides who are still tirelessly trying to make the city a home for themselves and for their loved ones. This is their home and their history, and they will continue to rebuild. I also believe it says a lot of the Japanese culture and their beliefs. They value tradition and innovation. They are rebuilding their communities that have significant history and taking the opportunity to do things better. They took the opportunity to convert to 100% renewable energy and have flooded their fields with solar panels and a hydrogen plant. I am very impressed with the determination of the government, the people, the businesses, and the overall community. I do believe the towns once affected by a triple disaster will be the epitome of a resilient community for others in the world to emulate.
Image 4: Georgia Tech students with our tour guides.
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.