Japanese punctuality culture

This is a very, very incisive report on the deadly train accident down near Takarazuka, Osaka, Japan.
Norimitsu Onishi, who writes for the NY Times, hits the core issue when he focuses on the punctuality culture of Japan. The argument is that the extreme focus on punctuality in Japan caused this accident because the young train conductor was focused on being on time moreso than being safe.

Across the country, the accident has already caused much soul-searching over Japan’s attention – some would say obsession – with punctuality and efficiency. To many, the driver’s single-minded focus on making up the 90 seconds seemed to reveal the weak points of a society where the trains do really run on time, but where people have lost sight of the bigger picture.
“Japanese believe that if they board a train, they’ll arrive on time,” said Yasuyuki Sawada, a 49-year-old railway worker, who had come to look at the crash site. “There is no flexibility in our society; people are not flexible, either.”
Sawada was one of many who came to stand and watch behind the yellow police line here, and who saw hidden in this accident deeper problems.
“If you go abroad, you find that trains don’t necessarily arrive on time,” Sawada said. “This disaster was produced by Japanese civilization and Japanese people.”

In Japan, punctuality proved deadly [iht.com]

11 comments on “Japanese punctuality culture
  1. Ryan Shaw says:

    This reaction seems a little ridiculous. It’s not like trains are jumping the rails every day in Japan. Given the number of trains that run every day, the number of accidents is statistically insignificant. An efficient public transit system that millions of people can actually count on to get to work on time is worth a horrible accident every half-century.

  2. Kurt says:

    I’m with Ryan on this one, though for me I’m less concerned with the stats than what the article says about the West’s need to explain Japan. I’ve put my thoughts in a blog post here:
    http://www.easterwood.org/hmmn/archives/001202.html
    (Gen, I tried to do a trackback but it comes back as “Trackback Denied”)

  3. Christian Gates says:

    Yep. I’m with the prior to posters, more or less. How many rail accidents per year are there in Japan per person-mile? It’s got to be infintessimal. Attempting to describe this in terms of punctuality is absurd. Trains, like everything else mechanical, occasionally break because there are too many variables to completely control.
    The guy shouldn’t have been driving recklessly, if that’s what actually happened – but I always viewed punctual public transit as kind of a necessary condition for public transit to work anyway.
    Plus, Japan has cool Mag-Lev trains in some places, which automatically puts their rail system way ahead of everyone else. Mag-lev puts the TGV to shame.
    Or, put another way, where was Ultra Man?
    cdg

  4. Alan says:

    I understand that its statistically insignificant, but thats 94+ lives gone needlessly. My experience with Japanese rail has always been that safety and punctuality are the top two priorities, perhaps equal. The revelations in the article make me falter a bit, because I have to stop and think about how many other conductors are getting thier reports falsified. 40 meters is a SIGNIFICANT overshoot, especially when consider that people wait at platforms for specific cars so as to make transfering easier at thier destination station.
    I think the posters above misunderstand the significance of this accident. Accidents happen for sure, but they don’t have to kill people. In a recent Amtrak derailing near where I live in southern washington state, only minor injuries were sustained. The circumstances are completely different, and this is the point I’m trying to make. We don’t put a premium on punctuality here, we put a premium on safety. Its a product of the litigiousness of our society. Perhaps if victims families were to sue West Japan Railways, attitudes might change about safety vs punctuality. (More likely however, victims families will be compensated in some way by the JR West.)
    Perhaps not.

  5. James Hart says:

    Nearly 60 million people use the train system in Japan everyday. How safe would it be if those trains were all running late? in my opinion, the fact that the trains are punctual contributes to safety. The trains in the UK for example are never on time, the whole system is inefficient and standards are lower: hence many more serious accidents.
    This accident may have been caused in part by the driver trying to get back on schedule, but I think that’s down to his inexperience and bad training rather than the punctuality culture.
    I’m guessing that the main change after all this will be installation of the automatic braking system on all tracks, which prevents trains going over the speed limit.

  6. Gen says:

    I’m on Alan’s side of the fence.
    I love many aspects of the punctual nature of the Japanese culture and people. That being said, I, personally would ALWAYS put safety over punctuality.
    Hrm. Maybe I need to sell the motorcycle 😛

  7. Kakyou says:

    From the coverage so far I tend to blame three things for this accident. At this point I’d go as far as to say I blame them all equally even.
    1st the driver. Doesn’t matter if he was being beaten with sticks every day he showed up to work 1 second late. In the end if he chose to risk the lives of his passengers to keep a reprimand off his record he’s an idiot.
    2nd the company. Don’t forget while Japan does have a pretty stellar record when it comes to train safety, things are getting noticibly worse. The cause of the decline is pretty obvious. Increased competition in a market where JR used to be able to charge more than any other rail system in the world and still manage to lose money. Reduced training, cutting costs, poor management. All have taken thier toll on JR. Remember the “incident” last year when a maintanence crew was run over by a train because the tracks were not shut down. Yes, Japanese rail companies are still great by world standards, but the chrome is noticibly tarnished.
    3rd. Bad luck. Stuff happens. train speeds, but is technically still safe from derailment goes ahead and derails anyway. Why? maybe the numbers were wrong, maybe an ant was walking across the track at exactly the wrong moment. There is nowhere in the world you are safe from bad luck, no matter how much you plan, no matter what precautions you take.
    I truly feel for the victims and families affected by this tragedy. I take comfort that statistically, Japanese trains are still very safe. I temper this with the thought that any any time a majoy earthquake could swallow my apartment whole, or I could choke on a hard boiled egg.

  8. gman says:

    I truly feel for the victims as well but gees, one big accident in 50 years? This is not a symptom of some problem, it’s an accident. Don’t you think all the other conductors will now be extra careful? Do we really need some kind of special oversite to prevent this? You’ve seen how crowded the stations get. I’ve been in Shinjuku station where it got so crowded they had guards not letting people in. Being on time SAVES LIVES!
    This is not directly related but there was a program on ABC in the states about 4 years ago about safety hosted by Peter Jennings and it talked about how safe airplanes are but how we could make them safer but the question is what is too much. The first gut answer by most people is “as safe as possible”. But, the question is what is our goal. If our goal is to save the most lives then making planes as safe as possible works AGAINST THAT GOAL. The reason is, we could spend tons of money and make the plans 10 times thicker, put a full boat and parachute under every single seat, etc etc. The problem is the cost to do so would raise the price of tickets for plane travel. That would mean many people would decide to drive their car (say S.F. to L.A. or N.Y. to D.C.) instead of take the plane. Cars are extremely unsafe compared to planes so we’d end up killing MORE people by making plans too safe.
    That same logic probably doesn’t apply to trains in Japan but the program pointed out that the supposedly obvious answer is not always the best answer.

  9. dan says:

    Agree that laying blame for this accident on a Japanese obsession with punctuality is silly. Sure, Amtrak’s punctuality is a joke (last time I rode it, they were 30 minutes late on a 3.5 hour journey and didn’t even feel the need to announce this fact to the passengers, let alone apologize). But I’m pretty certain that Amtrak has a worse safety record than the Japanese train system as well; how would these commentators explain that? What American obsession is Amtrak optimizing for while letting safety and punctuality slip?
    This wreck was just an accident, due to one conductor who (apparently) made some bad decisions. If it was a trend, then it would be something to worry about – as it is, I don’t really think that’s necessary.

  10. Christian Gates says:

    Dan: the American obsession you’re referring to that generates both poor service and poor safety is called “pork” – whether corporate, union or jurisdictionally based. Public schooling gets 2/3 so it’s only mostly bad. Amtrack achieves the triple play to ensure that it’s service, as long as it continues, will be terrible.
    Imagine the benefit of voice, video and data in reverse.
    cdg

  11. Christian Gates says:

    edit: “its service”, not “it’s service”.
    I have an itchy trigger finger on the ‘.
    cdg