What We Can Learn About Japan From This Train Apology
Mention Japan and trains to anyone, and it is more than likely that their thoughts will turn to the iconic bullet train that whizzes from city to countryside at operating speeds of 320 km/h (200 mph) and has been known to hit 603 km/h (375 mph).
They may ALSO recount a story or two they have heard about how overcrowded the Tokyo metro can become with guards on platforms physically having to push people onboard so the doors can close for departures or they may even mention its famed efficiency.
Recently though, an incident occurred that spoke volumes about not only the nation's trains but also its culture when a train on the Tokyo-area Metropolitan Intercity Railway Company’s Tsukuba Express line failed to stick to its timetable. Far from being late though, it was almost too eager to meet its timetable and departed twenty seconds early from the platform which prompted the Tsukuba Express management to issue an official apology. It read:
"On November 14, at approximately 9:44 a.m., a northbound Metropolitan Intercity Railway Company (main office in Tokyo, Chiyoda Ward, President & CEO Koichi Yugi) train left Minami Nagareyama Station roughly 20 seconds earlier than the time indicated on the timetable. We deeply apologize for the severe inconvenience imposed upon our customers."
Whilst most from other countries and cultures would likely be unfazed by a minor delay (or in this case, a minor hastening in departure) and would not expect a company to say sorry let alone one that is "deeply" apologetic, in Japan you have to understand the culture of both efficiency and public contrition.
Just to be clear here, many Japanese people thought this apology excessive for the sake of 20 seconds, but it does speak to a wider expectation of the country as a whole. In a nation where working hours are ridiculously long, and many optionally chose to work overtime without being paid in order to prove their worth to their employer, free-time is highly valued as much as getting to work or school late is a dreaded source of shame and so, whilst 20 seconds may not seem like so much, many are so used to the awe-inspiring efficiency of the nation's public transport that they often time it so their cars or cabs pull up to the station mere seconds before the train leaves.
As such, should a train leave 20 seconds early, it can lead to them standing on the platform for a further four minutes waiting for the next one. To be clear, this is a country where the trains run so perfectly on time that many synchronize their watches to the clocks at the stations and should your train be a minute or more late you are likely to receive a full refund for the cost of your ticket.
This four-minute delay, whilst waiting for the next train, may also seem inconsequential but this can lead to missing connections at another stop by another four minutes or so and can have a snowball effect, add this all up over a regular commute or journey and it can result in being 15/20 minutes late for work, school or other engagements which can be a great source of embarrassment for a culture that prides itself on its sense of politeness and punctuality. This also feeds into a notion of public contrition that is often exhibited in Japan by company executives and high up officials.
In 2014, the world was captivated by Ryutaro Nonomura, a 47-year-old member of the Hyogo Prefectural Assembly, who was accused (and later found guilty) of fraud as he cried and wailed his way through a press conference where he apologized for his poor record keeping. The scene was absurd, a grown man bawling like a toddler in a plea for forgiveness and footage and images of the incident quickly went viral across the globe.
Like the rest of the world, most of Japan saw the manner in which he asked for a pardon from the public and the people he represented as absolutely ludicrous, but the fact that he had done it in the first place was not even questioned.
The world is plagued by insincere politicians and CEOs of major corporations, it doesn't matter where you are, however, there is such a demand from the people in high places in Japan that it is expected to see contrition and the most profound of apologies when something goes wrong and in the most public of forums to boot. Mr. Nonomura was trying to get this point across but perhaps went a little overboard and lost public sympathy by doing so when they perhaps suspected he was being less than truthful about how he felt.
So, returning to the train debacle, it is should be no surprise that a train company would offer an emphatic apology over such a minor infraction but with this comes the flipside that some poor employee probably also got absolutely chewed out by their bosses and, whilst we must stress this is pure speculation on our part, it is the dark side of a culture that has such high expectations.
Supplant such a reaction into any other country, and you may be wondering why such a strong response would be warranted. In Britain the trains are a cause of national concern and debate, so much so that it has become the crux of political debates and nationalization of them may end up being one of the more prominent policies of one of their leading parties (who are quite likely to win the next election).
Seriously, do not bring the trains up with a Brit unless you want a half an hour ranting monologue! In New Zealand, efficiency is less a problem, but the proliferation of public services remains so while in the USA, the variation from state to state in operating services can be quite stark.
However, no one would expect an apology in these countries for a departure of 20 seconds difference. Although it may sound silly to consider a country's approach to timetables when it comes to cultural considerations, there are perhaps many more things we can learn about a nation by their view on public transport than one might think.