Japan is recognized for many things around the world, and one of these things is trains running on time. In a world where many countries struggle with aging transport systems and consistent delays and complaints, Japan is famed for having high-quality trains and punctual services.
The latest news, then, of a train company in Japan issuing a public apology for one of its trains leaving a busy train station in Tokyo just 20 seconds earlier than scheduled, has attracted attention both here in Japan and around the world.
With the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games just a few years away, international eyes are soon to be firmly fixed on the country and its culture. But despite this profuse apology from the company and the huge social media frenzy over what is essentially a small mistake, does anyone in Japan really care about it? This article will look at what happened, the different reactions both in Japan and abroad, and the importance of punctuality in Japan.
On Tuesday, November 14th, 2017, the No. 5255 Tsukuba Express train left Minami-Nagareyama Station at 9.44.20 am, 20 seconds earlier than it was due to depart. This station is in a busy suburb of Tokyo, and many people would have been due to catch it.
Later that evening, the train company issued an apology on its website. They said they were deeply sorry for the mistake, and understood it could have severely affected commuters that day who might have missed the train and subsequently missed connecting trains or been late for work.
The train company also stated that despite the mistake, it had not received any complaints from passengers reporting being affected by the issue, and said it had talked with its train workers about ensuring this problem is not repeated.
Shortly after the public apology was posted and translated, it quickly drew attention from social media sites and was mentioned in international media outlets around the world.
US airlines – please take note.
"A train company in Tokyo delivered a formal apology on Tuesday because one of its trains left a station just 20 seconds early…"https://t.co/weMfssXrJ0
— Jay Raman (@ramanjr) November 19, 2017
The reaction to the news around the world has been very mixed, but one thing definitely seems clear. This apology is not something that would likely happen in any other nation in the world. Indeed, many countries have struggling public transport systems and train delays and issues are simply a frustrating but normal part of daily life.
Social media saw an influx of praise for the Japanese way of life. Particularly among commuters in other countries, jokes were made comparing Japanese efficiency with appalling services in their countries. Some commented that their train companies would never apologize for this sort of mistake.
However, others had opposing views on this. Some pointed out that the apology was just plain unnecessary, and that if commuters had missed their train because it left 20 seconds early, it was largely their fault for not allowing a good amount of time to arrive before the train departed.
Other also pointed out that trains in Japan are expensive and that services are generally run very well. People do expect a near perfect service in Japan, and the apology was quite normal and necessary in this context. Many praised the Japanese train company for caring about its passengers and said the train companies in their home countries could learn lessons from them.
The reaction within Japan has been equally mixed. Some social media commentators in Japan have said the apology was not necessary, and that even though train punctuality is important in Japan, personal punctuality is also important. Therefore, if a person misses a train for leaving 20 seconds early, it is the passenger’s fault just as much as the trains fault. Equally, some have suggested that this apology is a reflection of Japanese culture being both too obsessed with punctuality and too quick to apologize for things.
However, other people have pointed out that some commuters actually time their arrival at a train platform very precisely in order to catch the train without having to wait at the platform for long. Indeed, some commuters may time their watches in accordance with the train station clocks to ensure they arrive just in time. For these commuters who probably have very busy lives which do rely on punctual train services, this kind of mishap may well delay a meeting or cause them to be late for work.
Other commentators in Japan hold the opinion that although this mistake probably didn’t affect anyone and the apology may seem a bit unnecessary, it should be a positive thing that the company takes the satisfaction of its passengers so seriously.
To answer the question of whether anyone in Japan actually cares about this apology, it is important to consider the significance of punctuality in Japan. Being punctual is a trait seen as hugely essential in Japanese life and in many different ways.
If you arrange to meet with a Japanese person for any reason, you can be assured that they will arrive on time and usually earlier than the scheduled time. If they will be late, they will let you know that. This is true both for casual occasions and formal work meetings. In Japan, people grow up with the habit of being on time and expecting others to be on time. It is a long-held custom which encompasses individual behavior as well as the behavior of companies and organizations.
In this context, perhaps it is unsurprising that the Tsukuba Express saw fit to apologize for (potentially) causing passengers to be even just a few minutes late to get to work. However, the mixed reaction within Japan does indicate that not all Japanese people feel this way and that the need for perfect timing is not as significant for some as it is for others.
This news piece has quickly gone viral around the world and has attracted a very mixed reaction both in Japan and overseas. It seems fair to conclude that despite the international buzz about this apology and the positive and negative reactions, in Japan people didn’t seem to be quite as concerned about the mistake and not too surprised about the apology either.
Perhaps the fact that Japanese people seemed less surprised by the whole situation than the rest of the world reflects changing attitudes in Japan and a more relaxed approach to perfect punctuality. What do you think?