Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

The IHT is running a story on the front page about the Japanese obsession with being on time. The recent train accident in Japan that has caused over 50 deaths was probably caused by the train engineer trying to make up for a 90 second delay. (He had recovered 30 seconds so was actually only 60 seconds behind when the train derailed.) The editors at the meeting I attended at the IHT were talking about running a story on the front page about the Japanese train wreck with the punctuality angle so I was thinking about this on my flight returning to Tokyo. I waited to blog the idea because I didn't want to steal their story. ;-)

I definitely enjoy the punctuality in Japan when I'm doing business, although not necessarily when I'm trying to relax. I think it's a generational thing as well. My sister describes the Japanese mobile culture kids not having as much of an obsession with time tending to self-organizing on the go. It reminds me of our previous discussion about p-time. Organized delineation of time and space helps structure things and make things scale, but are not very good at providing context or flexibility. For instance, in my Silicon Valley meetings people tend to allow important meetings to run overtime and eat into the next meeting whereas in Japan, I will often be ushered from a very important meeting to a completely worthless meeting in order to maintain punctuality.

However, as I get ready for my day at this moment, I am very happy to know that I can leave home at 11:10 to catch the 11:27 train and I will arrive at the train station in Tokyo at 12:28. (In 2004, the 40th anniversary of the bullet train, it was announced that the average delay for the train was only 6 seconds.) My 13:00 appointment at Pia will start on time and that I will be able to leave at 13:45 to get to my 14:00 meeting at Neoteny. In Tokyo I schedule meetings in 15 minute increments, some being scheduled for as little as 15 or 30 minutes. This is anecdotal, but I find myself sitting around in conference rooms a lot in Silicon Valley and can never expect a meeting to start on-time. I usually calculate a 30 minute cushion for meetings in Silicon Valley. In Italy... well, I only schedule a few things per day and everything else is coordinated on the fly. I never expect anything to start on time. I recently spoke at a conference in Italy where everything was 1.5-2.5 hours late. As someone who is generally against cultural stereotypes, punctuality is one thing that I believe can often be generalized because one is forced to adapt to a standard level of punctuality for a particular culture. (I'm sure different people and communities in the different countries have their own level of punctuality and that there is some sort of bell-curve-like distribution of people and groups that are more or less punctual than the norm.) For awhile lack of punctuality stressed me out enormously when I was traveling, but now I've gotten used to it. However, I'm happy to be back where the trains run on time...

I'm in a hurry and can't find the IHT article link. If someone has it, I'd appreciate it if you could post it here. Also, apologies to all of the punctual Italians and Americans that I've just offended.

UPDATE: IHT - An obsession with time


Thanks! Updated entry.

A few years back, a few of us had just made it to the door of the bullet train as it started to close. Me, being used to American insta-open doors, put his arm in the door to jam it open. Nope. The door was pretty damn insistent. The train guys started coming toward us, and since the door was beginning to hurt a bit, I tried to pull it open. Either the door gave in or one of the train guys took pity on me and opened the door so we were able to get on board. After your post, I now realize just how rude that must have seemed to everyone. I am sure I cost the train about two minutes to the departure time. I certainly won't be doing that again...

I have spent some time working on transport operations projects, and you are misreading the situation a little. The issue in this case appeared to be that the driver was in danger of disrupting the schedule for a particular four-way junction up ahead. If he had missed his slot, it could potentially have caused delays on a number of trains as well as his own. This could have resulted in literally thousands of people being late for work, as well as penalties for the train company.

The reason I say this is to point out that it is wrong to leave open the interpretation that the driver was some sort of obsessive, and that that his impulses were the cause of the problem.

In fact the 'problem' is that modern urban railway networks are heavily dependent on tight scheduling and narrow cutoffs to maintain their capacity. If you reduce the pressure to maintain the timetable, it won't just mean that the trains run a few minutes late now and again; it will also mean that the peak capacity on the network is significantly reduced (It is quite possible for a 5 minute increase in round-trip travel time to result in a 20 or 30 percent reduction in peak capacity) . Reducing capacity on the rail network in a Japanese city is just out of the question. So you have to keep the timetable very tight. To Japan's credit it has done this very well.

To avoid this sort of high-pressure sitation while maintaining capacity, you really have to build more lines through the busiest areas. This isn't very practical in a modern city with high property prices.

Of course, there is also a pragmatic solution. There has to be a positive emphasis on safety at all times. In general, the Japanese railway network is very safe. Perhaps in this case, the driver took safety for granted, assuming that the systems on the train would somehow prevent him from going too fast, or that the train line was over-engineered and that the speed limit was only nominal.

There was a much more sinister report about the Japanese train crash in Irish newspapers. It was alleged that suicide among train drivers in Japan was a frequent occurrence. It was alleged that drivers who overshot platforms or didn't meet the schedule were humiliated in front of their co-workers, by measures such as being forbidden to speak to anyone, or to go to the toilet without permission. I don't know if that is true, but it is clearly the wrong way to run a safety-critical operation like a train company.

As somebody to whom punctuality is a near sin, I'd like to point out that my African-American friends introduced me to the concept of "Black People's Time," or BPT. I understand that it was used a slur for all non-Europeans at one point, but marginalized societies have come to embrace it on both a cultural level and an anti-establishment level. The Chinese Emperors didn't send the clock-wielding gwai lo back home for nothing. And Westerners have to deal with the Theory of Relativity. Has anyone read Faulkner?

you should go to Turkey. They have a saying "yavash-yavash", which is like "manana", but slower.

try jamaica "soon come" is the answer to any question concerning a delay for anyone ot anything.

As an American and a New Yorker, nothing gives me more pleasure than to ride the rails in Switzerland or Japan. It's so soothing to watch a platform clock in a Swiss railway station (you gotta love those classic clocks) and notice that when the second hand hits the 12, the train movies. It makes me think that sometimes...just sometimes...we can win little victories against the entropy of the universe.

As was pointed out above, trains have to run on time to be efficient. But in a cultural context, being unpunctual and forcing people to adjust for you is a form of powerplay, and Japanese do this as well. I'll always remember once when I was on a business trip with a former executive of a major Japanese corporation, who was visiting an office where he once wielded power (before retiring). He showed up an hour late and was shocked and hurt (not to mention humiliated) when he was told everyone had other things to do and he'd have to reschedule the meeting.

Your article reminded me of one of the great things about travel- it can be nice to be aware of and experience those cultural differences. I'm over in the Silicon Valley and punctuality isn't the most important thing, but I wouldn't mind punctual trains. Luckily, there's trips to Japan for that sort of thing. Just like there's time to walk to a cafe to get some coffee in Italy. All that when in Rome...

As an Italian now working in Brazil, I've got only one thing to say: puntuality and business are over-rated. Beer and beaches are under-rated.


As an German I can't understand why the German Railways, especialy the Bundesbahn, isn't able to copy the Japanese Rail-Modell. When I lived in Tokyo, I never get late to anything and I loved the discipline of the people how to get into the train without pushing and dissing the others around, too.

When I got back to Germany I was hit by an passengers umbrella within the first 5 min(!)in a public train and was late for an quater hour ...

@Giordano: May Germans have to much beer?

Moving to Tokyo from D.C., I love the punctuality (and reliability) of the trains. Took me a long time to get used to things working so well, but now I'm spoiled.
Now if we can just get them to run a little later ...

I really love travelling on german trains... If they are long distance trains (ICE 2 or 3) they also have a 'bord bistro' - means: you may get a beer there.. ;) then you simply don't mind about 5-15 minutes delay anymore.

The loss of life is horrific and, of course, inexcusable. Many families are devastated by their loss. I am amazed, however, by the number of news stories which have focused on trying to find fault with Japan by finding fault with a train system that in any other light would be judged one of the best in the world.

Tanya Clark

Hi Joi,

actually, here in Italy, all media couldn't help reporting the news in disbelief: no one could actually believe that a train driver could in any way be concerned with 90 seconds of delay. Trains, especially, are known to almost never be on time.

Just to make an example about how it works: yesterday I was getting back home from Rome to Turin, via Milan. Officially, the last evening train fit to the purpose leaves Rome at 18:30, arrives in Milan at 23:25, then you take another train that leaves at 00:18 and arrives in Turin at 2am.

However, I am saying officially, because in practice you could take a later train that leaves Rome at 19:30 and arrives in Milan at 00:05; the train company will refuse to sell you that ticket, because they know that 13 minutes are definitely not enough, and the 19:30 train is almost certain to arrive in Milan not before 00:20. But, as a good Italian, you can always cheat the system by buying the two tickets (Rome-Milan and Milan-Turin) separately.

That's possibly the reason why, after getting to Milan with the earlier train, and catching the other one, I found myself waiting until 0:30 to leave. That's because the 19:30 train was actually late, but the driver of the train to Turin knew that, very likely, someone had not followed official advices and would have been trying to catch the train; so he unilaterally decided to wait until the other train had arrived, to pick up any passenger. Actually, you could see a bunch of train officers on the platform, getting to agreement on how more time to wait.

In the end, even if the line was obviously deserted and we were the only train around, the delay of the train to Turin increased, and so I got down at Turin at 2:40am - 40 minutes late, on a 150 km route. Usually it's just 10-20 minutes, but 40 minutes is not rare anyway.

I'm not saying I like it - but that should explain how we conceive the train system... more like a set of social relationships between passengers and officers, than like a service :-)

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