This article originally featured in the April 2020 issue of Connect.
Mukaiya Minoru is a name you’ve probably never heard, but you’ve absolutely listened to his works. Multiple times. Possibly even every day. Maybe you even know some of his tunes so well, you can hum along with them. Millions of people listen to his music every day, and he is one of the most played musicians in the world. Yet, each of his hit songs is only seven seconds long. Mukaiya is the composer of around 170 (he lost count along the way) hassha merodii. Hassha merodii (発車メロディー) is translated as “train departure melody,” and is the little jingle that plays in train stations to signal when the train is about to leave. The jingles are unique to each station, with almost every train station in Japan having one. Some specific lines even have their own hassha merodii, such as the famous Yamanote Line jingle. So, how does someone become the (almost) exclusive composer of Japan’s distinctive train station jingles?
Who is Mukaiya Minoru?
Mukaiya spent most of his music career playing keyboard for a band called Casiopea, where he was introduced to using synthesizers. In 1985, he founded Ongakukan, a company that began with music lessons and leasing recording equipment, then moved to develop computer games—including a renowned train simulator game creatively named Train Simulator. The train simulator grew into more games, games so realistic that they caught the attention of JR (Japan Railways Group). Now, Ongakukan makes advanced simulators for training JR train and shinkansen operators. The company also branched out into some other things along the way, including artist management to manage Mukaiya’s jingle compositions (1). At heart though, Mukaiya was a tetsudou otaku, colloquially known as “a big ol’ nerd for trains” (2) You’re probably familiar, at least somewhat, with the culture of train fanatics—I know I have regularly been treated to excited chatter about favorite trains from my elementary schoolers. Hassha merodii made their entrance to train stations in 1989, and Mukaiya recognized a way to combine his passions for music and trains. He said that “As a musician and train enthusiast, it’s an honour to make train departure melody—I feel joy making it and it’s also made by a train fan” (6). He took over the role of the primary composer after the original sound engineer, Ide Hiroaki, retired in the early 2000s (3).
Composing a Hassha Merodii
Each melody is exactly seven seconds long—the exact amount of “dwell time” a train has in a station to remain perfectly on time. Each is composed very carefully. The noise of the jingle can’t be irritating to the passengers, and it can’t be too disruptive. The sound has to integrate smoothly into the atmosphere of the train station and for Mukaiya, the jingle has to fit the train station or line. When composing a melody for a station, Mukaiya will visit that station and observe it. How does the train come in? Around a curve, or through a tunnel? What’s the geography around that station like? What’s the area around the station like? Is it historical, or more hip and modern? All these factors are taken into account to make the perfect melody. The jingles in Kyoto, or other areas with historical significance, are composed using traditional instruments such as koto or shamisen. Stations in areas around universities are created to have a more modern sound to appeal to the younger crowd. Shibuya Station’s melody is a bright crescendo because the train has to climb a steep hill to get to the next station. Other stations’ melodies are references to local culture, like the birthplace of “Astro Boy”, Takadanobaba, has a jingle version of the main opening theme for the show (4). Some lines, like the Tozai Metro line, even form a complete song when all the station jingles are put together (2).
The Purpose of Hassha Merodii
At the end of the day, hassha merodii weren’t introduced to Japanese train stations simply because the train companies thought having distinctive jingles would be really cool. The jingles are actually a tool for using “nudge theory” on passengers. Nudge theory is a psychological theory that states that small “nudges” can be used to influence someone to behave in the best interest of themselves or others. In this case, the sound of hassha merodii nudges people to either hustle up and get on the train, or stop and wait for the next one (5). Commuting on Japanese trains can be crazy. There’s a ton of people, there are so many different platforms and lines to sort out, and you have to run up and down five different staircases to make it to your transfer in time. Now imagine if the departure of a train was signaled by a buzzer or alarm. That would make being in a frantic train station so much worse. Comparatively, a seven-second gentle melody to tell you that your train is leaving vastly reduces anxiety. The tune is a calm notifier to judge whether or not you can make that train. A study conducted at Tokyo Station in 2008 showed that the number of injuries related to passengers rushing to a train dropped by 25% after hassha merodiis were introduced (5). Mukaiya himself believes that the jingles are “good for their [passengers] health, for their work, for walking.” He composes the jingles with the passengers in mind, wanting them to be calm and happy in the midst of their hectic days (4).
Jingle All the Way
I had never heard of Mukaiya Minoru, nor seriously thought about the omnipresent train jingles, until watching an episode of “James May: Our Man in Japan” (available on Amazon Prime!) and seeing a section with Mukaiya. I highly recommend this clip, and the show in general for entertainment purposes. Anyway, the next time you’re sitting in a train station, I challenge you to listen to the jingles around you and think about what it would be like if they weren’t there. Perhaps you’d like having one more source of noise out of the way, but perhaps you’d miss the calming or cheery sounds in the midst of all the hustle and bustle. Personally, I have always enjoyed the upbeat little tunes filling the air in the stations and since learning about Mukaiya, I’ve found them all the more interesting. I often find myself wondering what the particular inspiration or theme for the jingle was, or trying to relate the jingle to what I see at the station.
Linka is a second-year ALT in Gunma. She lives with her husband and two guinea pigs in the deep inaka. She enjoys being the Events section editor for CONNECT, traveling, touring onsen, and photography. She is spending her time in desk warming purgatory trying to absorb her JLPT study materials via osmosis instead of study, and looking at memes. You can find her on Instagram as @linkaslens or on her blog, Linka Learns Things.