There was an “incident” this week on a Japanese train. It was described by a rail company spokesperson as “truly inexcusable”, prompted a flurry of high-level apologies and staff are now being trained to prevent it from happening again.

The misdemeanor in question? The train departed from a station 25 seconds ahead of schedule.

The very notion of an “early” train – as opposed to an eternally delayed one (never mind the fact it is worthy of an apology) – is no doubt an alien concept for UK’s long-suffering National Rail season ticket holders.

Yet the incident casts a sharp light on one of the most famed preoccupations of Japanese society – its longstanding obsession with punctuality, right down to the second.

Japan is renowned as a nation steeped in its own unique rituals, quirks and customs – from the two-handed-bowing-head manouevre while exchanging business cards and the strict rules that govern where you can wear shoes or how to have a bath, to passengers not being allowed to open or close taxi doors (because that’s the driver’s job).

But one particularly baffling element of Japanese life is society’s meticulous and painstaking attention to punctuality – as embodied by the nation’s entire transport system, which is so punctual you can normally tell the time by its arrivals and departures.

Crowded, yes, but rarely late

Credit:
GETTY

Late trains are so unusual in Japan that when schedules are on rare occasions delayed, there is normally an immediate assumption that there has either been an earthquake or a suicide on the tracks.

Not to forget the fact that rail officials then diligently hand out apologetic “late notes” to delayed commuters, so they can give them to their bosses to explain their tardiness.

But it seems that early trains are equally worthy of an apology. The recent “early” train scandal unfolded when a 7.12am train at Notogawa Station in central Japan departed at 7.11am and 35 seconds.

A very serious sounding internal investigation by West Japan Railway Company concluded that the train conductor had misunderstood the departure time and closed the doors prematurely. While the incident had no impact on other travel schedules, one passenger complained after missing the train.

Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that this was not an isolated incident: last autumn, another rail company in Japan publicly apologised after a train left a station 20 seconds early.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of punctuality in Japanese society – a quality that perfectly complements a raft of other national characteristics such as “hard-working”, “disciplined” and “respectfully orderly”.

Japanese children are drilled in the utmost importance of punctuality from a young age at school, while many office workers will arrive at work extra early on a daily basis in order to avoid potential tardiness.

Punctuality is perhaps also one key reason why Tokyo – despite its megalopolis dimensions and status as one of the most densely packed cities on the planet – somehow manages to maintain an impressive sense of order and functions so smoothly.

Punctuality is certainly something that I had hoped would rub off on me when I relocated from London to Tokyo over ten years ago – yet I confess my ability to consistently arrive on time remains a work in progress (although, just like a train, I do now find myself emailing an instant apology if I’m running even seconds behind schedule).

But I do, however, live in hope – as does my patient (and punctual) Japanese husband who not only bought me a watch for my birthday, but set it four minutes fast, in an unsubtle attempt to bring my relaxed Western relationship with time in line with fellow Tokyoites.

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