Japan Express and Meitei-pung
- Part 1 -

Erendro Leichombam & Anand Laishram *

Glimpses of Japan :: November 2010
Glimpses of Japan in November 2010 :: Pix - Rajkumari Sunita

In the summer of 2010, I (first author) had to catch a flight from Tokyo to New Delhi. I took a local metro train from Hachioji, a Tokyo suburb and had to catch the Airport Express at Shinjuku in downtown Tokyo to reach the Narita Airport. It would have been a fairly routine commute in the uber-punctual Japan. But fate had planned a final goodbye experience for me. The local train to Shinjuku was delayed by more than an hour. I knew I was missing this flight. This was totally unanticipated.

Punctuality is paramount in Japan. The Japanese are among the most punctual and time-disciplined people in the world. Everything runs on time in Japan. The famous Shinkansen bullet trains have been in operation for over 50 years, covering thousands of kilometers in a mountainous and earthquake prone country. Over 1,20,000 such trains run on the line each year.

But the average delay is a mere 36 seconds. The bullet trains run so accurately that their arrival and departure timings are timed within 15 second intervals. Even the local trains are famous for their clockwork like punctuality. If a train is scheduled for a 9AM arrival, it will arrive at the platform at 9AM, on the dot. Even a minute of delay is considered abnormal. On the rare occasions when trains fall behind schedule, the railway companies announce their apologies over the PA system and issue "Chien Shoumei" to each passenger ("delay certificates," which are to be shown to employers). So when my train got delayed by an hour that day, I was dismayed.

After I reached Shinjuku, I approached the station master out of sheer desperation. When I narrated my circumstances, he apologized profusely. Then, he immediately made a call to Narita Airport. He again apologized to the airline on my behalf and requested them to somehow accommodate me. To my utter surprise, they agreed to delay the plane for my sake. With hopes rekindled, rushed to catch the Airport Express bound for Narita.

When I reached the airport, two Japanese staff accosted me immediately. Every procedure (security checks, baggage transfer, issuance of boarding pass) was executed expeditiously. I finally boarded the plane. No sooner had I fastened my seatbelts than the plane took off.

The Japanese not only value their own time but that of others' as well. The station master went out of his way to make sure I didn't miss my flight even though it was not his personal fault that the train got delayed. Such behavior can be seen only in a society which puts a premium on punctuality. And it is not just that the trains arrive or depart on time; even the train Cleaning crews are punctual, so punctual that top universities around the world study their service efficiency.

The TESSEI "hospitality groups", responsible for cleaning the Shinkansen bullet trains upon arrival at the Tokyo station, are famous examples. Each "hospitality" group of 22 members gets only 7 minutes to clean an entire train (6 minutes to clean plus one minute for inspection) before the next batch of passengers boards the train. Each member has to clean one whole bogey or car, each car having around 100 seats. And they clean the entire train spotlessly to boot, as the Japanese are very sensitive about cleanliness.

This superhuman task is executed perfectly. Apart from the trains, Japan Airlines was ranked the most punctual major international airline, for the fifth time, in 2016. The All Nippon Airways, also of Japan was the third on the list. The Tokyo Haneda Airport was named the most punctual major international airport in 2016 by travel analysts.

Punctuality pervades every aspect of Japanese life. Pedestrians walk fast, business transactions take place quickly and mails and parcels arrive on time. It is common at restaurants to hear waiters and waitresses say "Omatase shimashita" ("I've kept you waiting") when they bring your order, even if they haven't taken any more time than necessary. Even during informal occasions such as dinners or get-togethers, Japanese guests arrive right on time. They also become easily irritated if their guests don't follow the schedule as agreed upon.

Deadlines are taken very seriously. The Japanese seriousness regarding punctuality can also be seen in the way they manage business. They innovated the "Just in time" manufacturing strategy, which has been used successfully by companies such as Toyota. The objective of this strategy is to increase efficiency, reduce wastage and save on costs.

Under this, the parts and the materials needed for production arrive only when they are needed and in as much quantity as they are needed. For example, a Toyota factory may require a certain number of tyres within a specific period of time. The exact number of tyres will be delivered in that exact time period. This calls for punctuality and coordination all around. A delay anywhere along the supply chain will disrupt the entire production process. The Just-In-Time technique leads to a much more efficient and economical production.

What is it that makes people punctual? Renowned social psychologist Robert Levine classified cultures as either following "clock time" or "event time." Cultures that follow "clock time" schedule events according to time. An event will have a specified starting time, duration and end time. The event will be held on time no matter what.

Japan, obviously, follows "clock time." On the other hand, those cultures that follow "event time" allow people's schedules to dictate the events. An event will start,say, when an important guest or "VIP" arrives. We can say that Manipur follows "event time." Unsurprisingly, those cultures which follow "clock time" are more productive and economically successful.

Punctuality leads to reliability and predictability, a feature quite important for rapid, unobstructed economic efficiency and optimality. Alternatively, societies can be classified as either "monochronic" or "polychronic". People in monochronic societies are time-conscious. Time is viewed as a tangible and valuable commodity, like money.

People think of time as something that passes by once and never comes back again. Schedules and deadlines are treated with importance and people rush to get things done on time. Such societies are usually more advanced and productive. Japan is a shining example. On the other hand, polychronic societies view time as something that repeats endlessly. An hour gone is not considered as an hour lost, as that hour is thought to come back again the next day and so on. The concept of "time is money" is alien to such societies. People are more laid back and don't value time as much. People are usually late.

Bandhs and strikes that brake economic progress are features of such societies. Countries which are polychronic are less economically developed as compared to monochronic countries.

How did Japan build a culture of punctuality? The Japanese weren't always like this. They had to learn to become punctual at some point in their history. Even though ancient sources indicate that the Japanese had a certain consciousness of time, their culture of punctuality began, to a large extent, after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The need to industrialise the country in order to catch up with the advanced Western nations was strongly felt. Industrial growth led to the perfection of a culture of punctuality.

Punctuality leads to reliability and productivity. More things get done in the same amount of time if everyone is punctual. Mechanical watches and clocks were brought into Japan and the public began using such devices in order to keep track of time, which led to increased time sensitivity. Their desire to build their nation as a strong industrial and military power led the Japanese to strive to complete all their work on time. Efficient task management became an important pursuit. During the Showa era, Scientific Management System was introduced, an important element of which is time keeping, in order to boost factory productivity.

(To be contd)

*** The article is an excerpt from PRJA's weekly discussion meetings - Wakhaloi Meepham

* Erendro Leichombam & Anand Laishram wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on May 30, 2017.

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