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High-Tech Talking Machines

By Asian American in Tokyo | February 19, 2007

Of course I’ve been trying to learn Japanese while living in Japan. One thing that has helped me is that Tokyo is full of machines, and for some reason, all of them seem to talk! This is very different from what I’m used to in America, where machines generally just beep, ring or produce prompting tones. For example, all elevators (without exception) that I’ve encountered here announce if they are going up or down, when the door is opening or closing, and arrival on each floor. Talk about any easy way to learn numbers. Let’s take a tour of machines in Tokyo and wallow in their coolness.

First, the subway. Let’s use the famous JR Yamanote line as an example. See that display above the doors?

The display cycles between useful screens of information that are updated in real-time. In the photo below, you can tell the train is located between “Ebisu” and “Meguro” and that the next stop (“Meguro”) will be reached in 3 minutes. It also shows the time estimates for arrival at other stations up to Ueno. Isn’t that great? You may think this is not all that accurate, but any one who knows Japanese train systems will tell you that they run absolutely on-the-dot-to-the-second.

Next, we have a screen with a zoomed-in view of the next station. It indicates that the next station is “Harajuku” and that you can transfer to the Chiyoda Line if you get off here. Also, you can see the projected arrival times for the next 3 stations.

Here’s what the screen shows upon arrival at Shibuya station. An overhead map of the train with numbered cars is shown, with icons indicating where the stairs, escalators and elevators are in the station. Plus, you can see which exits they lead to, indicated by the text above the icons. Information about connections to other lines are also shown. If you’ve forgotten which car you’re in, simply look at the upper right side of the screen.

Going back to the title of this post, it’s also worth pointing out that a female voice announces the key information as it happens in conjunction with the screen displays.

I’m sure sharp-eyed readers noticed the second display monitor on the left. What’s that for? Mostly notices, warnings, and English classes for the commuters – so the Japanese population can learn useful phrases like “a riot of flowers” as taught by a cartoony dog.

It’s not only the trains that talk. Even the ticket machines speak – and, they are bilingual! Despite their native-sounding English pronounciation, they are definitely Japanese as evidenced by an on-screen animated bowing character and the accompanying “arigatou gozaimasu” to express thanks after you have purchased a ticket.

Switching to home electronics, my massage chair, fax machine and bathtub (“ofuro”) all chirp out high-pitched female-voiced Japanese indicating their intentions and status.

Even delivery trucks chirp happily in Japanese, saying “please be careful, I’m making a right-turn”.

The great thing about talking machines is that they always say the same set of phrases, the same way, repeatedly – makes it really easy to learn! The voices are all similar too. Do you think there’s some rich voice actress out there?

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