Running like clockwork

David Piling – The Financial Times

Copyright The Financial Times
July 6 2007
I am not a regular on the A-Train, but I suspect Tokyo’s subway system is more ruthlessly punctual. Several years ago, on a business trip to Japan, I made the awful faux pas of clipping the stiletto heel of my rather stern interpreter with my own shoe as we were about to board a train. I watched, in horror, as her patent leather footwear gently spiralled onto the track, leaving her standing on one leg, like a stranded flamingo.
A guard was summoned and, after examining a fabulously intricate timetable, he jumped onto the track to retrieve the lost shoe. Coming from London, I couldn’t see the point of checking a schedule, especially as the trains were arriving every two or three minutes. Where I come from, a timetable would have provided little, if any, clue as to whether the next District line train would arrive in 15 seconds (splat) or 15 minutes.
After living in Tokyo for five years I have learnt that even crowded commuter trains run to the second. I have literally set my watch by a bullet train’s scheduled arrival time.
Japan’s legendary efficiency has little to do with technology – as is sometimes supposed – and much more to do with people’s attitude to work. If you watch Tokyo’s subway guards, you’ll notice that they run everywhere, as if they were on army manoeuvres. So do waiters and waitresses. And post office staff.
Everywhere you look, the Japanese work with a speed and efficiency that cannot fail to produce puzzled (if admiring) head-shaking from outsiders. Construction workers perform callisthenics to recorded music before starting their 6am shift with a company song and a deep bow to their supervisor. Assembly workers practise ways of eliminating unnecessary movements that might cost fractions of a second when they could be building cars or photocopiers. I once visited a Canon assembly plant outside Shanghai fitted with an electronic sensor to ensure that staff entered the factory floor at optimum speed. About a year later, anti- Japanese riots swept across China – though this may have been purely coincidental.
For the foreigner living in Tokyo, all this efficiency is a joy to sit back and behold. But is the Japanese dedication to work entirely healthy?
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