P is for Punctuality

Time is money, as the old saying goes.  You waste someone’s time, you waste their money.  Which begs the question: does that make an ATM a TARDIS?

And nowhere is this more true than Japan.  Trains are a perfect example of this.  Trains run by the minute, and you can set your watch to a train that is running on time.  Are trains late in Japan?  Yes, of course: accidents and signal failures occur.  But here’s the thing: the train staff will announce their apology if they are so much as a minute late.  No kidding, I am on a train that is one minute late as I write this, and the conductor has already given at least two utterances of “申し訳ございません” (“Moushi-wake gozaimsen”, the uber-polite way to apologize in Japanese).  And so he should – the train is late, why would you not apologize?  Oh, because it’s not his fault that it’s late?  True, but that’s not how it works.  In a group-oriented society like Japan, if one element of the otherwise well-oiled machine falters, all the cogs accept responsibility.

Contrast this to my native UK, where a couple of Christmases ago I took two round trips to London.  Collectively it should have been about 8 hours of journey time without delays.  And yet in those 4 trains I boarded, I clocked up about 3 hours of tardiness.  That’s nearly an extra hour added to each journey.  And not once did I hear an apology.  Maybe an explanation passed by the lips of the announcer once, but I don’t recall it and there’s a good chance that a) he or she sounded utterly uncaring and unapologetic, and b) I wouldn’t have even got that much if it had been any less than 20 minutes late.  It’s almost expected of UK trains to be late these days.

(Old man rant incoming) Indeed, there’s almost no culture of punctuality with the event of portable contact and texting.  Prior to this, if you were late, you had no recourse.  No way to inform who was waiting for you that you’d be late.  You were massively inconveniencing the other party who had no idea when you would arrive or if you’d turn up at all.  Now, however, because it’s so easy to make excuses and pass them onto the waiting party, there’s almost an expectation of lateness.  And with it a complete disregard for the fact that just because you’ve let the person waiting know what you’re late and why doesn’t mean that they’re not inconvenienced anymore.

Now, does Japan have that same kind of interconnectivity?  Ha, you bet!  Let’s see…on the row of 8 seated people in front of me on this train, 5 are looking at their smartphones now and 1 more is listening to music through it.  That’s the norm (in fact I’m surprised it’s not everyone).  But that culture of slack timing has not come to pass here.  In a country where trains, meetings and TV shows start by the minute (seriously: look up a Japanese TV guide and you’ll see shows starting at 9:53 and 18:28), being late is not acceptable.  Oh, you might have a very good reason for being late.  The people who waited for you may not explicitly show their displeasure.  But watch and listen carefully.  ‘Kuuki wo yomu’ (read the air).  They will subtly make their annoyance known to you, especially if you do it frequently.  And just like the boiling frog syndrome, you won’t recognize it until it is too late and you are chastised from the group entirely.

Because it’s the rules.  And unlike our home countries where it’s perhaps seen as acceptable or even encouraged to lean on the rules lest you look like an uptight square, in Japan that’s not so.  There’s no such thing as being fashionably late.  Instead you are untrustworthy, a slacker.

Ah, my train has arrived.  One minute late, with another apology.  Good thing I left early so I won’t be late myself.


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