Blue Light in Japan
Blue light is part of the visible light spectrum (wavelength 400-500 nanometres), or in other words it can be seen by the human eye. Adjacent to blue light in the electromagnetic spectrum is ultra-violet light (UV light), which is invisible to us (wavelength 10-400 nm). Like UV light, blue light can be very hazardous for our health and wellbeing. Interestingly, while generally people are well aware of the dangers of UV light, such as sunburn and skin cancer, the general knowledge and awareness of blue light is very small. The exception to this seems to be Japan, where the blue light awareness appears to be quite high. A few days ago, while doing some research, I came across some interesting facts related to blue light in Japan.
Blue Traffic Lights
In Japan a green traffic light might be more like a blue light. The reason for this confusion is a linguistic quirk in the Japanese language. As a result some of the country’s traffic lights feature “go” signals that look more blue than green, which makes Japan an outlier in international road design. Colours are referred to very differently across many languages. While some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, and treat them as two distinct colours, other languages lump colours others see as distinct together under one term, such as using the same word for green and blue. Japanese is again one of these languages. While today there are now separate terms for green and blue, the Old Japanese language used the word “ao” for both colours. In modern Japanese “ao” means blue and the word “midori” means green. One can see the cultural overlap between the modern and old language, which leaves its mark at some traffic intersections.
Officially the “go” colour in traffic lights is called “ao”, despite the fact that traffic lights used to be green. This presented a linguistic conundrum: how can the lights be called “ao” in official documents if they are in reality “midori”? And how was this dilemma solved? Since 1973 the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green, but the bluest possible shade of green. With that twist the lights still qualify as “ao”, but they are also green enough to mean “go” to foreigners. But interestingly, it appears when drivers take their licensing exam, they have to do a vision test that includes to differentiate the colours red, yellow and blue (not green). In 1968 the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty attempting to standardize traffic signals, was written and signed by dozens of countries around the world. Japan wasn’t among them.
Blue Lights on Train Platforms
The platform at a train station in Tokyo is lit up in blue. The only purpose of that blue light is to stop people from jumping in front of an oncoming train to kill themselves. These blue lights are the most visible of anti-suicide efforts of the government. The blue LED lights were first installed on Tokyo’s Yamanote train line in 2009 and are one idiosyncratic response to the city’s high suicide rate. While that rate in Japan is declining, it’s still one of the highest in the world. In 2016 it had reached a 22-year low of 21,764 suicides. In 2014 on average 70 Japanese people committed suicide every single day. The reasons for suicide include unemployment, economic stagnation or recession, and social pressures. However, data of the NPA (National Police Agency) suggest that over half of Japan’s suicides can be linked to health issues, that includes both physical and mental illnesses.
Tokyo is a model of stressful urban living. Every day workers in Greater Tokyo spend an average of 102 minutes commuting from and to work on trains. During rush hour the trains may be crowded up to three times the amount of passengers they’re designed to carry. This leaves people sandwiched and pressed to each other like sardines with no space to move, let alone reading a paper. Here are some staggering numbers about the commute on trains: the daily number of train passengers in the Greater Tokyo Area is approximately 20 million. This is more than the individual populations of 181 countries (of 233 countries) in the world (number source: United Nations). 20 million passengers per day equals about 7.3 billion passengers a year, which is almost the population of the entire world. In comparison, trains in Germany carry roughly 120 million passengers per year (60 times less than the trains in Greater Tokyo), while Germany has roughly double the population of Greater Tokyo.
Isolation, financial pressure and even historical practices are key reasons for depression and suicide in Japan. People often cite Japan’s long tradition of “honourable suicide” as a reason for the high suicide rate. They refer to the Samurai practice of committing “seppuku” or to the “kamikaze” pilots of 1945 as distinct cultural reasons to be more likely to take their own life. It’s also more common to hear about old neglected people dying alone in their apartments. There sometimes even seems to be an intolerable pressure on the elderly that the most loving thing to do is to take their own lives and thereby provide to their family through an insurance pay-out. Stressful living, financial anxiety, work related pressures, and insecurity are compounded by Japan’s culture of not complaining. There are not many ways to express frustration or even anger in Japan, which is a rule-based society where young people are moulded to fit into a small box with no way to express their true feelings. Some people who are pressurised and get depressed feel the only way out is to die. Technology and social media may make things even worse by increasing young people’s isolation. Mental illness still seems to be a taboo in Japan and there’s little general understanding of depression. Many who are suffering depression symptoms are often too scared to talk about it.
The blue lights on train platforms, the barriers and the automatic gates are the most visible signs of suicide prevention in Tokyo. Part of the reasoning of the city’s efforts is because such “human accidents” are costly and can disrupt tens of thousands of passengers for up to an hour, on a weekly or even daily basis. Certainly barriers are not a solution, but a deterrent, as really suicide motivated people could simply climb over them. The blue LED lights at train stations are a much less expensive way to counteract suicide. The Journal of Affective Disorder published a research study in 2013 (four years after the first blue lights at stations were installed), which found that there was an 84% decrease in suicides at stations where the blue lights were installed. The exact reason why the blue lights are so effective isn’t known, but some research theories suggest that it’s related to the apparent positive effect of light on the mood.
Blue Light Blocking Glasses
The regular readers of my blog know that a strong focus point I write about is blue light, how it impacts us, and how we can protect ourselves from the hazardous artificial blue light rays. While the most convenient and most effective protection is wearing good quality blue light blocking glasses (see Sublime Blue Blockers), the reasoning behind this blog is much more than just selling a product. It is meant to help increasing the general awareness of blue light and its dangers and benefits. Also in this context, there are some interesting facts about Japan.
As mentioned at the beginning of this post, there is a pretty high general blue light awareness in Japan, relative to the rest of the world. One often referred to anchor research study in the area of blue light is “Blue light has a dark side”, published by Harvard Medical School in May 2012. Around the end of 2013 and in 2014 the Western media selectively started to write about blue light and its impact. Companies marketing blue light blocking glasses, mainly in the U.S., started to emerge around 2015. A few years in until today, blue light and its dangers isn’t yet a mainstream topic in the Western world.
With this timeline in mind, let’s now have a look at developments in the same area in Japan. In August 2012 the Japan Times published an the article “Specs fight eye damage from gadget screens”, which referred to studies suggesting that blue light emitting from electronic devices with screens (incl. computers, TVs and smart phones) poses health risks, including eye fatigue and insomnia. It also mentioned that blue light had the strongest energy of any light in the visible spectrum. The paper further reported that so called computer glasses (blue light blocking glasses), which cut the amount of blue light reaching our eyes, had recently grown in popularity. A public relations officer of Jin Co, which runs the Jins eyewear chain, was quoted saying that it took the company four to give years to produce computer glasses with the help of eye doctors. While the blue light blocking glasses of several companies in Japan started to sell at around autumn of 2012, the earlier mentioned product development time of four to five years suggests that Japanese eyewear companies were already well aware of the topic around 2007. The launch of blue light blocking glasses in Japan was a success, as the online portal The Bridge wrote in June 2013: “Japanese company has a big hit product with blue light filtering glasses”. In this article is an interesting mentioning of the strategy at the time of launch of Jins glasses. Probably due to lack of media coverage and little public knowledge, the company leveraged the power of bloggers to create some online buzz. This launch strategy worked very well and produced larger than expected sales numbers.
I think the just discussed timeline advantage is a major reason why the awareness of blue light in Japan is much higher today than in the Western world, where the general knowledge and awareness is shockingly low. As evident in the above chart, 9.3% of people wearing eyeglasses in Japan in 2017 named blue light protection as the reasoning, ahead of farsightedness (hyperopia) and UV protection. These are quite astonishing numbers, which might be a good leading indicator for things to come in the market of blue light protecting eyewear globally.