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Tokyo train stations use lights to stem suicides

/ Source: The Associated Press

Alarmed by a rise in people jumping to their deaths in front of trains, some Japanese railway operators are installing special blue lights above station platforms they hope will have a soothing effect and reduce suicides.

As of November, East Japan Railway Co. has put blue light-emitting diode, or LED, lights in all 29 stations on Tokyo's central train loop, the Yamanote Line, used by 8 million passengers each day.

There's no scientific proof that the lights actually reduce suicides, and some experts are skeptical it will have any effect. But others say blue does have a calming effect on people.

"We associate the color with the sky and the sea," Mizuki Takahashi, a therapist at the Japan Institute of Color Psychology, a private research center that was not involved in the lighting project. "It has a calming effect on agitated people, or people obsessed with one particular thing, which in this case is committing suicide."

Suicide rates in Japan have risen this year amid economic woes, and could surpass the record 34,427 deaths in 2003.

Last year, nearly 2,000 people committed suicide in Japan by jumping in front of a train, about 6 percent of such deaths nationwide.

In Tokyo, the number of suicides at stations run by East Japan Railways rose to 68 for the year through March from 42 two years earlier.

That's causing more train delays, with conductors describing them over public address systems as "human accidents."

East Japan Railway has spent about 15 million yen, or $165,000, for the special lights at all the Yamanote stations.

The lights, which are brighter than standard fluorescent bulbs, bathe the platform below in an eerie blue light. They hang at the end of each platform, a spot where people are most likely to throw themselves in front of a speeding train, said Norimitsu Suzuki, a company spokesman.

Another company, Keihin Electric Express Railway Co., which operates in Tokyo and nearby Yokohama, also installed the blue lights at two stations last year after there were two suicides within a month at one of the two stations.

"We thought we had to do something to save lives," Keihin Railway spokesman Osamu Okawa said.

"We know there is no scientific proof that blue lights will help deter suicides. But if blue has a soothing effect on the mind, we want to try it to save lives," Okawa said. But he declined to say whether the number of suicides at the two stations has decreased since the lights were set up.

Shinji Hira, a psychology professor specializing in criminal psychology at Fukuyama University in Hiroshima, speculated that blue lights could make people pause and reflect.

But he said that if railways want to go further to ensure safety, they should set up fences on platforms, as several Tokyo subway stations have. The barriers have sliding doors that allow passengers access to the trains.

East Japan Railway, one of numerous private train operators in Tokyo, said it may construct similar platform fences on all Yamanote line stations by 2017 — but that's a far bigger project than installing the blue lights.