On subway kiosks and Japanese futurism in decay

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Train stations are an exemplary site for cultural knowledge.

They’re massive and costly to build, and thus serve as a ‘high water mark’ for societies. The ‘high water mark’ can signify many things.

In Shanghai, the subway system is achingly futuristic. Touch-screen interfaces, suicide-prevention-plexiglass-gates, and most awesome, holding a map of the 2008 subway system side-by-side with the 2014 (or projected 2020) system.

In Buenos Aires, the most notable piece of the subway system is a line of antique subway cars with wooden bannisters, sliding glass windows, and incandescent lighting.

Revisiting Japan, I’m confronted again by the interfaces of their subway systems. In contrast to the fully digital Shanghai ticketing system, Japanese systems combine the analog and the digital. To the left of the screen, an array of physical buttons allow users to select their travel group size.

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Why do these ticketing interfaces provide a significant perspective onto Japanese society?

These analog / digital kiosks appear as mid-1980s inventions from the height of the Japanese miracle. Even today, they are marvels of engineering. With intuitive interfaces, economically-small-tickets-that-fit-perfectly-into-their-turnstiles, specific cash-acceptance-and-return-systems that accept 10,000 yen bills and return 9,000 yen in bills and whatever-coins in change, they’re perfected machines.

And yet…

They’re slightly grimy. They’re weathered machines. Their future-aesthetic borrows more from how the future was imagined to be, rather than how it has turned out.

Because Japan was so miraculous, so futuristic, so meticulous in the unprecedented 1980s, its transportation designers could, and did, create a system that has proven robust and future proof.

Where this insight begins to become telling: the 90s and 00s begin the period of economic cooling still underway today. Because the system has yet to be overhauled, because the cost of overhauling a subway system as massive as Tokyo’s is dizzying, these kiosks give a glimpse of the Japan of another era.

Where this insight begins to become haunting: with a shrinking population, and the massive capital expenditure required to overhaul a subway system, one can easily imagine the same kiosks persisting, in ten, or twenty, or thirty years. Through each imagined-but-likely-subsequent decade, they provide the same window back on Japan’s lagging futurism, as it phases out of sync with the beat of time.

In a sense, massive civic infrastructure projects = the Egyptian pyramids. They leave a great monument for the future, an opportunity to revisit past splendour. In decline, some artefacts endure, producing a futurism in decay.

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