“What time is it? Four thirty. It’s not late, naw, naw; just early, early, EARLY!” ~What Time is it, the Spin Doctors
We have taken a number of tours during our Far East Fling, some of them with Japanese companies, many American-run ones here on Okinawa, and a few during our trip to Cambodia. And from these experiences I can distill the primary difference between them to just one word: TIME.
“Our tours run on ‘Japan time’. This means that we leave promptly at the published departure time. If you are late, the tour will leave without you and your reservation will be forfeited without refund. Please make your greatest effort to show up on time.” ~From Fuji Mount Guides tour description
Tours around the world usually request that you show up early in an effort to avoid leaving late. The tours here on Okinawa run by the Air Force or Marine Corps recreation teams do just that – “showtime” is 15 minutes prior to the scheduled departure. And yes, Jody and I arrive at the appointed time, but every time I end up asking myself, “Why?!?” Because almost every time someone is late – and I don’t mean like only, say, six minutes early instead of 15. No, they are past the published departure time, yet the American tours wait…. Frustrating.
This doesn’t happen in Japan. We were taking a bus from Hiroshima station to the airport, and of course we arrived a few minutes early. Sitting on the bus I noticed the bus driver closing the exterior luggage doors at about five minutes prior to his scheduled departure time. At one minute prior he released the air brakes and closed the cabin door. As the bus’s clock clicked over, the bus was already moving, leaving the station exactly on time. So, here in Japan, if you are late, you lose. An astounding concept if you ask me. Now, I can just hear all you time-shifting westerners complain that sometimes “shtick happens.” Well, yes it does. And that’s why you are supposed to be early. Really, seriously, and without doubt, there are very few valid reasons for tardiness, particularly when others are relying or depending on your prompt arrival.
In the (American) military there’s an axiom that goes something like, “if you’re on time, you’re late.” Because in the military, some times the essence of life and death itself relies on precise timing. But besides that, I personally hate being tardy. I will almost always choose to be overly early than just a little bit overdue. I, along with a whole slew of others, consider it insulting when someone else doesn’t show due regard and respect for my or a group’s time.
In American, especially given the digitally connected generation(s) that makes plans on the fly, punctuality is not sacrosanct. In America’s defense, however, we as a nation are not nearly as bad as some places in the world, but being 10-15 minutes late is often accepted as par for the course. It seems that even in the capitalistically-driven United States that the age-old adage of “time is money” doesn’t always apply, unless, perhaps, tardiness actually costs money, e.g., you miss a tour, you miss the tour.
Everyone has those friends, and most have had a girlfriend (or perhaps even a boyfriend) who have wantonly taken advantage of this generally accepted lax attitude toward punctuality. Me? I decided long ago to take a stand and not be such a conformist pushover for such sluggishness. There is nothing wrong with expecting others to respect you as you respect them, and there’s nothing neurotic or compulsive with expecting others to have at least a similar sense of timing. There were and are people in my various circles of family and friends that I openly refuse to make plans with, and there were and are times where I literally would leave…but then only after 10-15 minutes have elapsed since the mutually agreed upon time.
But when you come to Japan you realize that it’s not just you or most of your military coworkers that are the only ones who care about being on time. Almost the entire country of Japan (less the foreign tourists) is amazingly punctual; it is claimed that Japan is the most punctual nation in the world! And it really is one of the top ten Things Done Right in Japan.
The trains here are the stuff of legend, so punctual that one can set a watch by their arrival and departure times. They are (almost) never late. But even the very concept of “late” takes a whole different spin in Japan. If a train is running late by as little as two minutes, the staff will make public apologies. Over five minutes and the staff will issue “delay certificates” (遅延証明書) that will offer an excuse for tardiness at school or work. Why do the Japanese go to such great lengths? Because even such minor delays are quite unthinkable and intolerable.
A train may run every nine minutes, but it still will have a precise, published timetable, one that would never claim something as ambiguous as “runs every nine minutes.” One reason why the timing of trains is so crucial is the very tight timelines in switching lines to which a strict timetable is indispensable. Some connections are only two minutes, but when timing is downs to seconds, that’s plenty of time to jump from one track to another. Train conductors here literally use stopwatches, and the famed Japanese bullet trains are timed to arrive and depart within 15 seconds of their published time. Not one or two minutes either side mind you; fifteen seconds. The average delay on these trains during FY2012 was only 0.6 minutes – that’s 36 seconds. Only trains with less than a minute’s delay are considered to be “on time” in Japan.
But it’s just not their mass transit. Make an appointment for your car, or to have something repaired in your home, or for a delivery, and it will, 95% of the time, go down exactly at the appointed time. In the 20+ transactions I’ve had with our building’s handyman, he has only once been late, and that was less than probably 7-8 minutes. I swear that most of the time he arrives early but stays outside the door, only to ring the bell at exactly the appointed time. Really, it’s uncanny.
I’ve watched the Japanese build, outfit, finish, furnish, stock and open stores in as little as eight weeks. We had to have two walls in our bedroom replaced due to water intrusion. Originally the work was slated, not for the 2 weeks which would be quoted back home, but for two days. At the appointed hour, a team of four workers was waiting outside, gear, tools, and materials in hand and ready to go. Starting at 0830, and taking an hour lunch break, they finished before 5 pm. Initially we thought they were done just for the day. But no, they finished. What they did in less than eight hours – remove an air conditioner, tear out old drywall, apply water sealant and thermal insulation to the inside external wall, remount and finish new drywall, move a duplex electrical outlet, move and remount the air conditioner, paste-up new wall paper, replace baseboard and crown molding, put furniture back, and remove all the debris – never would happen in America. We were astounded; we had counted on multiple days camping out in our living room, or possibly even moving our bed, because of our American-skewed sense of time. But here in Japan, we hardly missed an afternoon.
Meeting Japanese friends? They will be early…and expect you to be on time. In the off-chance the Japanese do run late, they will call/text right away and offer their explanations and apologies, and you will often see them running the last few meters to try and make up for lost time. Sure between friends or equals there is some leeway, but here being habitually late is regarded as a serious character flaw. The Japanese consider tardiness as an inconvenience to others. To those of higher rank at work or in social status, being late is unthinkable, and at times, unforgivable. Station and hierarchy is central to individual identity in Japan, and time serves as one way to establish and preserve one’s position.
The Japanese essence of time is much more complex, however, than just strict punctuality. The intent of precision timing here is not expected within a linear, Western approach, where speed and accuracy are treasured and tasks broken done in sequential order. Rather, the Japanese divide time into generalized blocks to sustain and respect courtesy and tradition over say, even efficiency. And having a society which is highly homogenous and carefully regulated, very strong pressures are exerted for one to conform in time.
Whatever you think about time and punctuality, I am in no rush to return back home only to endure house call arrival times being given as 4, 6, or even 8 hour blocks of time. Everyone knows the frustration of waiting an entire morning (“between 0800 and noon”) to get internet or cable TV in America, yet nothing changes because we choose to have no other expectation of timing. Just know that there is a different, better way of honoring time, and it is right here in our Far East Fling.
Read More about the Japanese Sense of Time: