Japan’s public transportation system has come to symbolize everything right about Japanese society. Almost without exception, the trains arrive exactly on schedule, the stations are air-conditioned or heated depending on the season, and the seats are upholstered. There is little trash or vandalism or crime, and the main problems are those associated with overcrowding — chikan (groping) being the most prominent. I’m not saying I would go so far as to eat an abandoned cupcake found on a Japanese commuter train, but I would be fine with sitting next to it. In New York, it would surely be disgustingly mashed into the plastic seats by a guy with some manner of open wound.
We foreigners tend to give the Japanese a lot of points for the impeccable quality of public transport, but the motivations for excellence do not become clear until one experiences a system failure. Last week, the Den-en Toshi Line stopped running around 10 a.m., and this morning, the widely-used JR Yamanote Line ceased service for almost five hours. The result of these breakdowns is total and utter chaos. The city stops working, and stations are swarmed with masses desperate to receive small pieces of paper from train attendants proving their tardiness was caused by a mechanical problem and not personal transgression.
These events suggest that the precise scheduling is not a consumer-oriented “nicety” or dedication to “proper protocol,” but to a certain extent, an integral part of a mathematical solution to moving large numbers of people around the city in the peak hours of the morning. This morning’s failure of the Yamanote line led to the stoppage of two or three other connecting lines. It’s a very delicate system, and Tokyo’s population increases over the last fifty years due to both industrialization and post-industrialization have only put more and more pressure on its exactness.
In other words, there are too many users on the system, but since the current state of the Japanese economy needs this enormous amount of people coming into Tokyo every day, the only possible option is scientific accuracy in train arrivals.
These functional pressures may lead to a “culture of punctuality,” but no matter how loose and surly train station employees become, the system cannot handle even the smallest deviation. We consumers and train riders appreciate the attendants’ image of order and hard-work, but maybe it’s a bit much to prove a causal link between “culture” and train schedules. The trains in Japan move on time because they have to.