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This is a past article published in Hiragana Times. Each Japanese paragraph is followed by its English translation or vise versa, and furigana are placed above each kanji to make Japanese study even easier. [Magazine Sample] [Subscription Page]

The Punctual Japanese

[From February Issue 2012]

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It is customary for Japanese to be punctual. As Japanese are especially concerned about not being late, most have naturally acquired this habit. For example, in companies and public institutions, and for meetings with others, it is considered common sense to “be prompt.” Though it’s possible to turn up late for a date with someone close to you, it’s always necessary to text to say you’ll be late.

If a train arrives even one-minute later than scheduled, Japanese railway companies announce their apologies over the PA. Moreover, Shinkansen (bullet train) arrival and departure times are timed within 15 second periods.

For the Japanese who have been raised in such a time conscious society, it is sometimes hard to embrace the more laissez-faire attitude to time that comes with living in other countries. A Japanese living in Canada recalls an incident that occurred while moving house: when he called the electric company to confirm his appointment, he was told that, “someone will come by sometime between Monday and Wednesday, but I cannot guarantee exactly when.” In Japan, such a way of conducting business would be unthinkable.

“It is ordinary for Americans to be late. Some buses and trains do not even have a timetable, and it is common for trains to be a half-hour late,” said a puzzled Japanese resident of the US. However, some Japanese who have lived longer in such an environment have commented: “Once you get used to that sense of time, you become very easy going. Thanks to this, I am more relaxed and not as frustrated as before.”

On the other side of the equation, what do non-Japanese think of this Japanese custom of punctuality? We asked non-Japanese people living in Japan. “Mail and parcels came punctually during the specified hours and that surprised me at first,” said one Canadian man. “Japanese people arrive at least 15 minutes before the agreed time. If you are only a little bit late, they look cross. I can’t understand why they get so upset, just over someone being late,” commented one Korean woman.

“My University scholarship application was rejected just because I mistakenly turned it in during the afternoon, rather than the morning, which was the deadline. I think it lacks flexibility,” added a Chinese man. “I was apologizing every time I was late, so now I have a habit of saying gomennasai,” said a French man. “I was one-minute late for my part-time job, and everyone gave me the cold shoulder throughout the day,” said a Nepalese woman.

As regards to the railways in Japan, a Nepalese man commented: “During rush hours, when the trains are packed with people, there are some passengers who run up to the train and pry open doors that are obviously closing. I can never understand such an attitude. Is time more important than life?” On the other hand, a Korean man said: “I was particularly impressed by the punctuality of the trains, as some stations don’t have train timetables back in my home country.”

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To sum up, many non-Japanese people think that the Japanese can get a little hysterical with their obsession with time keeping. The tension on trains and at train stations that arises from the lack of elbow room makes a particular impression on these people. On the other hand, there were a lot of comments that stated that Japanese people are reliable because they are strict about time and keep their promises.

So when did Japanese people become so time conscious? It seems there are various theories, but none precisely pins down the real reason. According to one theory, traditionally, Japanese people were generous with time. At the start of the Meiji era, a half-hour delay on the trains was very common and many factory workers were often late for their shifts. As a result, at the start of the Showa era, approximately 80 years ago, the Scientific Management System was introduced. First created in the US, this system of managing workers was used to boost productivity in factories by standardizing elements such as time keeping.

This theory states that ever since the Scientific Management System was introduced in the beginning of the Showa era, tardiness and delays in both public institutions and private firms has decreased. Another theory suggests that during the Edo period, the samurai class considered tardiness and absence to be a sign of foolishness and those beliefs have remained strong in the national consciousness. It is also said that this punctuality originates from the astronomical and orientation systems the Japanese traditionally used; marking seasons and time according to the direction and length of the shadow made by the sun, rather than by the moon and the stars.

While many history books from around the world have no record of the date, month, or year they were written, old Japanese literature such as the “Nihon Shoki” (Chronicles of Japan) is marked with the date, month, year, and even the Oriental zodiac. This also proves that the Japanese have long been conscious of the passage of time.

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The fact that there are clocks in every part of Japan, including in parks, stores, and on billboards, may be related to the fact that Japanese are strict about time. Moreover, there are many people who use their cell phone as a watch, an alarm clock, and a stop watch.

LIANG Lin Lin, a Chinese native who has resided in Japan for three years, said, “When I first came to Japan, I was late for school and work almost every day. But recently, I have become more conscious of time, and I am now able to balance my schedule better. Now my friends have more confidence in me.”

These days, there are more Japanese people who have become more relaxed about time, but “keeping time” is still very important for enjoying daily life in Japan. In recent years, there has been an increase in the numbers of punctual American businessmen and the numbers of firms outside of Japan that are strict about time.

Text: NAKAGOMI Kouichi


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