Let’s say you are traveling to Japan for about ten days. You should have a chance to see a train conductor apologizing to you for the inconvenience when you encounter a train running only one or two minutes late. If it were the case in the metropolitan area with 10 to 15 minutes’ delay, you will find a news story telling the story with the same magnitude as a fire in a shopping mall or an armed robbery. Millions of viewers are glued to the news flashes to tell the current disruption to railway services. What happens if trains were delayed by more than an hour? TV channel rush reporters to the main railway terminals and suspend normal programming to provide a live commentary until things return to normal. Your tomorrow’s newspaper will have a headline something like “Massive disruption to train services.” --- No exaggeration. These are all what happens if you are in Japan. Whatever the reason, the simple fact that a train has been delayed is big news , since Japanese trains always do arrive just in time as scheduled.
Well, you might think that the countries in Europe also have railway services that boast of punctuality. However, a closer look at the figures shows that the definition of “delay” is very different. In most European railway systems, a “delay” is defined as “10-15 minutes behind schedule.” In other words, for example, “14 minutes behind schedule” is still counted as “on time.” This is how European railway companies are able to obtain high punctuality. On the other hand, the definition of “delay” in Japan is more severe; only trains with less than a minute’s delay is defined as “on time.” Therefore the sense of punctuality is fairly different. Overlooking the globe, delays of one or two hours in train services are of everyday occurrence. Japanese railway system can be referred to as very rare species. This sort of topic is always mentioned in international railway conferences with Japanese delegates participating. In many countries, Japanese railway technicians are greeted with words like, “Japan must be a strange place to run the trains almost always on time …”
At any rate, why are Japanese railway services so punctual? When I was looking to compile a book on this topic , I kept asking this question to people in the Japanese railway sector. I expected them to proudly expound on the system they had for ensuring services, but surprisingly, to a man they were stumped for an answer. For people in the railway sector, achieving on-time service is merely a part of their job and they had never questioned themselves in all of their careers. Even when they did finally answer, I found that no two answers were the same. From the answers I got, one response from a manager uttered after long contemplation was striking to me: “I think the reason derives from the fact that all the member of the Japanese society take it for granted that the trains run on time.”
The railway system is sustained not only by the rolling stock and railroad tracks, but also by specialists in various fields such as electricity, communications, station management, train service planning, etc. If even one of these elements is missing, the trains will not operate. For smooth railway service, the people in charge of each part of the system must perform their work to the same high standard. If even one individual in any one section of the system tolerated slight delays occasionally, there is no way the railway system can achieve an average delay of less than one minute. As is often noted in the field of business studies, the “excellent companies” that enjoy consistently outstanding levels of performance and success are never only 10% or 15% superior to the rest. In most cases, they are several hundred percent better. Furthermore, such companies always have a corporate culture dominant enough to guide employees toward these outstanding achievements. The same applies to Japanese railways as well.
After I have started to gather materials for my book, it was very easy to find that Japanese railway companies has devoted so much money, time, labor, and passion to ensure on-time service. And the sheer level of patience with which they approached everything so carefully, is so amazing that any other railway service are really quite unbelievable. Moreover, I doubt there is another railway system in the world where on-time service is such an integral part of the corporate culture, infiltrating every corner of the organization. Senior management at Japanese railway companies state unequivocally “punctuality is, along with safety, the core competence of the railway business,” while every person involved in railway sector act on, assuming on-time service.
The on-time service is assumed on the passengers’ side as well. Japanese travelers plan their holidays as if train schedules act as the pivots of the entire itinerary. That is why passengers in Japan are often incensed by a rare delay of merely five minutes. But on the other hand, Japanese passengers are unbelievably cooperative when it comes to ensuring on-time service. Even in Japan, you will be hard-pressed to think of an industry in which the users, i.e., the “valued customers,” cooperate so well with the service provider. Passengers just intuitively know they have to play a part in ensuring on-time service.
For decades, Japanese railway system has been running like clockwork. This constant rhythm continues day in, day out, through wind and rain. Is it because a railroad worker in Japan who tolerated the late arrival has to compensate with death penalty as some have occasionally joked? Or is it because Japanese rail operators have some "magic formula" for making the trains run on time? The fact is that all the member of Japanese society, from railroad workers to passengers, from the media to public administrators take it for granted that the trains should run on time, punctual to a minute. On-time service happens quite simply because the society has it imprinted in its mind.
Then, how did the Japanese society come to assume on-time service? I think this unrivaled punctuality can be viewed as an artificial life derived from various factors such as topography, climate, social customs, and historical circumstances of Japan. If we unravel over a century of Japanese history, you will realize that the social environment clearly left people with no other option. And by observing this railway system closely in the present day, you will understand that the Japanese railway sector had to coexist with passengers in order to complement the unique skills that allow consistent punctuality. As with all living things, there are also stages of evolution and mechanisms unique to this very life. At times, it certainly seems to have a dynamism and life of its own.
(To be continued)
Ms. Yuko Mito is a Tokyo-based economics writer, currently focusing on the relationships between various social systems and people. She started to write about railway since 1994, which was driven by her interest in finding analogies between economic and railway systems.
Her book, "Teikoku Hassha" (Arriving On Time) has been enjoying high reputation for its innovative perspective on the Japanese culture through an analysis of Japanese on-time arrival culture, as well as attracting readers from railway industry.
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