Too high to sit on, too small to do anything else with, so why are they there?

Tokyo’s transportation system is pretty amazing, moving a staggering number of people around the city quickly and conveniently. But with a network that’s far too massive to know everything about, you can also be sure of encountering a few mysteries while taking trains and subways in Japan’s capital.

For example, Japanese Twitter user @ii_tawake recently posted a photo of some odd-looking fixtures in a Tokyo subway station.

At first glance, you might think they’re some kind of multi-section bench, but they’re too high to comfortably sit on, especially the one on the left. Sure enough, the sign on the wall behind them sternly reminds travelers “These are not chairs. Please do not lean on them or place heavy objects on them.”

@ii_tawake paired the photo tweet with some cryptic text, which partially reads:

“Whether they’re old men or young women, no one in Tokyo sits on these, and nobody puts their bags down on them. They stand there like silent shadows as people walk past. But hundreds of years in the future, when Tokyo has fallen into ruins, archaeologists will see these and still come to the conclusion that there were chairs.”

What’s especially weird is that even though these objects are serving no purpose, it feels like they’re multiplying, since you’re more likely to spot these empty ledges in Tokyo stations now than in the past. So what are they? Answering that question could be a test of your design savvy and infrastructure knowledge, or it could be just a test of your age, since, as this handy Photoshop reply to @ii_tawake’s tweet shows…

…they’re payphone stands, just without the payphones (the lower one on the right is for users who are in wheelchairs, while the bottom shelf for the one on the left is where the phone book would have been placed).

With pretty much every man, woman, and child in Japan now carrying a smartphone, the public’s need for public phones is about as low as it’s ever been. But once upon a time, banks of payphones were an absolute necessity in downtown Tokyo rail stations, helping businesspeople and students who commuted into the city get in touch with colleagues and family members already at the office or back home in the suburbs.

But payphones become dirty, dilapidated and outdated if they’re not regularly maintained and periodically updated, so rather than go to that trouble and expense for all-but-obsolete communications tech, many stations are simply opting to remove their payphones altogether. Getting rid of the stands, though, is a more time/cost-intensive project, since it would involve patching holes in the walls and/or retiling holes in the floor, so instead some stations, like Hongo-sanchome Station, where @ii_tawake took the picture, are leaving the empty stands in place, ostensibly planning to remove them the next time the station itself undergoes wider-scale renovations.

So for the meantime, the stands sit there without a purpose. A number of commenters suggested at least putting some flowers on them to fill up the empty space, but if nothing else, they serve as a reminder of how quickly the recent past can start to feel like ancient history.

Source: Twitter/@ii_tawake via Jin
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