Rail transport in Japan is a major means of passenger transport, especially for mass and high-speed travel between major cities and for commuter transport in metropolitan areas. Japan’s rail network transports the equivalent of the world’s population every year. Clean, efficient, and extremely reliable, it is the envy of the world. But what makes the Japanese model so efficient? What is the secret behind Japan’s success?
According to JR Central, a Japanese railway company, the mean annual delay per operational train is 0.9 minutes, which includes uncontrollable delays caused by natural disasters. For a country prone to natural disasters like earthquakes and typhoons, this is an incredible feat.
Beyond the operating protocols and technical procedures, there lies a cultural explanation. The concept of omotenashi, which is often translated as “Japanese hospitality”, is the cornerstone of Japanese culture. In practice, it emphasises politeness and the need to maintain harmony and avoid conflict.
Omotenashi permeates every aspect of life in Japan. People who are sick wear surgical masks to prevent the spread of diseases. Service staff greet customers with a bow and a hearty “irasshaimase” (welcome). They put one hand under yours when giving you your change, to avoid dropping any coins. Similarly, politeness and compassion were core values of Bushido, the ethical code of the samurai which became the code of conduct for Medieval Japanese society.
Unsurprisingly, this societal emphasis on politeness and respect for others is at the heart of Japanese obsession with punctuality. It’s no secret that Japanese are extremely particular about keeping to time. In Japan, arriving on time for work is considered “being late”. It is common for people to arrive 10 minutes before the time they are told to come. When you are told to come at 10:00 a.m. for instance, it means that your boss is expecting you to be able to start working from 10:00 am and not from 10:15.
Japanese society is also highly collectivist – prioritising the public good over individual need. Combined with an ethical code of conduct emphasising politeness and punctuality, this translates to the need for maximum reliability on the transport network. If being late for a personal appointment is considered a social taboo in Japan, how much more for a train delay which inconveniences thousands of commuters. Train delays mean that people can’t get to work on time, it leads to lost hours of productivity which adversely affects society. Therefore, keeping the trains running and on time is not only a practical goal for train companies, but also a moral obligation.
Japanese trains run with precision clockwork, arriving at their destinations down to the centisecond. Intensive training of drivers is done by all companies focusing on this aspect. Painstaking maintenance of the trains and rails, self-controlled queuing on the platforms also help increasing punctuality.
But when delays do occur – even as little as a minute – they are repeatedly announced to passengers along with humble apologies until normal service resumes. Prolonged delays are fodder for local, if not national, news programmes, and see the train companies handing out cards to passengers that they can submit to their bosses as a reason they were late for work.