Exploring the human factors that make Japan different from
anywhere else in the world is a journey in self-discovery. We
visited Japan in 2009 and three differences stand out from
the huge number of pleasant memories of that visit.
Japan offers consistent, friendly and profound politeness,
of a kind never before experienced. Japanese people seem
to bring a level of dedication to their work that is not found
elsewhere. The sense of obligation and duty has a strength
to it that is unique in my experience.
Only in Japan is it possible to see the successful
application of myriad, innovative features working in service.
Such a large number of variations would not be allowed in
Britain, and admiration for innovation is not encouraged in the same way.
There are basic differences that make a visit fascinating.
Japan has not had the glaciation that strongly defines the
British landscape. The deep river valleys of Japan, together
with the seismic activity, make locations for settlements
difficult, heightening the importance of the coastal strip,
and demanding massive civil engineering for protection.
Japan looks different, and it takes time to work out why. The
concentration of population is ideal for a land of railways,
but the contrast between the original narrow-gauge lines
and the newer, standard-gauge-shinkansen is great, and a
fascinating experience for the visitor.
The Tokyo Fire Service offered a unique tourist
experience that could be discovered by anyone curious
enough to plug their laptop in to the free, lightning-swift
internet service, available in the hotel. We found that a short earthquake survival course was available to all on
demand. We arrived at the big Fire Service building, and
were immediately offered an English language course, with
some English speaking, Chinese people from Hong Kong.
The video was in Japanese, but the meaning was so clear
that this was no barrier. The brutal experience afterwards, of
the shaking floor with household objects crashing around,
was something never to forget. All in Japan must be ready
to accept such events for real–and this more than anything
else explained much about how people live.
We were told about Japanese politeness before arriving
in Tokyo. This is particularly important to British people.
There is a custom that you treat your neighbour as they treat you. When treated with politeness, older British people react very well to accepting the duty of a correct response. The careful collection of cases loaded on to the coach at the airport, together with the issue of a ticket for each, clearly indicated the obligation of an ordered reclaim of the case at the hotel. No one tried to beat the system by grabbing their case as soon as they saw it placed on the ground. It is most
unlikely that, for example, Italians, or younger British people
would observe such a system properly!
When in the glory of the Green Car (First Class) at speed
on an early morning San’yo Shinkansen, a very polite young
man appeared with the refreshment trolley. Breakfast was
a distant memory and buying from him was a discovery
of what educated politeness should be. Some items had
been chosen from the trolley but, alas, he had no change
for the money he was given, and this made him pink with
embarrassment. Others, taking an interest in the transaction,
immediately searched for change. However, he left the
items selected with us, returned the money with a bow,
apologized as though it was his fault, and came back later
full of sorrow with the correct change. This trivial incident
illustrates attitudes that prevail in Japan. The same might
have happened in Europe, but more likely the assumption
would be that offering correct money is the purchaser’s
responsibility–a less refined concept.
In a large department store in Kumamoto, there was an
immaculately clad and beautiful girl acting as lift attendant.
She pressed the buttons for the automatic lifts, and received
customers, saluting those leaving with greeting, bow, and
smile. Few Japanese acknowledged her politeness. We did,
and when we returned later, she was still offering a lovely
greeting, yet took time to thank us each with a personal bow.
In the West, an employee with such a low status job would
either ignore the customers, or talk over their heads to other
staff. They certainly would not take pride in being the best lift
attendant in the world as she did.
From Kokura we took the Sonic train to Beppu. The
tracks now changed from 1435-mm to 1067-mm gauge.
In the Green Car, we were able to sit behind the driver,
and look forward out of the panoramic window, over his
shoulder. The view was educational. Most conventional track
in Japan is 1067-mm gauge. It is therefore tightly curved,
and steeply graded. From time-to-time, bridges and tunnels
are unavoidable to circumvent the severe geography. The problem was that although electrified, the infrastructure constrains speed at times to 60 km/h. The modern Sonic train has tilt capability, but even so, to maintain reasonable passenger comfort on the snaking curves, only relatively modest increases in speed are possible. And the limits of speed are already restricted by the ratio of height to width of narrow gauge. It is clear why the 1435-mm gauge
shinkansen had to be built, because spending large sums
on re-engineering the narrow-gauge lines is not good value
for money. The Sonic train was fast and comfortable, and
the actions of the driver made the journey worthy of careful
study. Japanese operational rail staff seem to wave their
arms about, in what seems to European eyes an extravagant
manner. However, with consideration, it is obvious that by
pointing to each of the items in turn, the platform inspector
was indicating to the train conductor that the signal was
displaying a proceed aspect, the doors were closed, and
that permission for departure was being given. The end of
the process was emphasised by a blast on the whistle. On a crowded platform at a busy station, such indication was
clear and unmistakable. The arm motions were a reminder
to the inspector as well as an indicator to the train conductor
that these important safety items were correctly checked. In
Britain, such clarity could well avoid the incidents of signals
passed at danger that occur from time to time.
On the Sonic, the driver acknowledged each signal
aspect by pointing to it, and each level crossing white light
indicator, as it was passed. Whilst running through each
station, he checked the timekeeping, by pointing at the stop
list and passing times displayed on the control desk. In front
of him was a traditional pocket watch, which fitted snugly
in a padded cubbyhole. Later examination of the stop list
showed timings to the nearest 20 seconds. We became
really interested (as railwaymen do) and timed the train—it
ran precisely to time. We noticed that all our trains did—with
very few exceptions. Observations of the staff indicated
that all were enthusiasts for exact, on-time running. This
zeal did not extend to harassing the passengers. The game
was planning and preparation. Get the staff in position, the passengers on board, the signal cleared, the doors shut in time, and then the train will leave punctually. Regulate the train to line speed, have the power on promptly after speed restrictions, keep careful watch on intermediate passing times, keep to speed limits, and apply appropriate braking force, and the train will run on time. We asked our senior railway host about how and why this was possible. We saw that the question was not clearly understood.
‘It is our duty to operate our trains to the timetable, if we did not, then people may be inconvenienced.’ was his reply.
Running on time is part of the definition of a railway in Japan.
It is we who did not understand.
The impression we had before our visit was that all in
Japan is new and shiny. This is not so. We found old rolling
stock in service in Southern Kyushu. It should have been
faded and worn, but it was not. The same efficient service
was on offer. The only way that the age was obvious was
from those who knew the types, and had books about
it, and from the interior fit, where the latest materials and electronics were absent. For those who like the truly
ancient electric train, these could be found, if you knew
where to look. In Kumamoto, we discovered the old train
from Kamikumamotoekimae, and rode it to Kitakumamoto
and Miyoshi. This was delightful 50-year-old, second-hand
metro stock and we were enthusiastic to see and ride in
such vehicles on an electric interurban with overhead line on
wooden supports. At Kitakumamoto, several men in uniform
rushed out with concerned faces. We thought they were
security men, come to stop us taking photographs–they
were not. They were concerned tourists might have become lost in such a place!
Traditional Japanese food was available to those who
wanted it. More interesting to us was to discover that the
Japanese have a fondness for European food, but in typical
fashion they have made subtle alterations that take a while
to notice. Ice cream was delicious but different, not in
taste but in texture. There was a surprise flavour, however,
green tea–that needed some getting used to. Fat and sugar
content had been reduced, leaving the more delicate flavour
of a water-ice. Likewise the fatty American doughnut had
been civilized and was much the better for it. Other Western
foods were widely available, but always with reduced fat and
sugar. Beautiful little cakes, terrible for causing waistlines to
grow, were suddenly accessible without conscience! The
Japanese ramen, a kind of noodle in soup, was voted the
most easily obtained and delicious choice. Cheap and easy
to find it was enjoyable from station restaurant to market
café. Tempura, a type of fritter, too was delicious and widely
enjoyed. With raw fish, we had to remind ourselves that this
is exactly what smoked salmon is, and problems departed–it was delicious.
Lastly, in Shinagawa Station, Tokyo, we were trying to link
the network map with the fares, to know what ticket to buy.
We were clear on Mita (三田) and Kanda (神田), recognition was coming slowly but we wanted to go to Asakusabashi
(浅草橋) and that was beyond our powers of recognition.
We were standing looking puzzled, and the most beautiful
girl came up to offer help. Within a short time we were on
our way, but it was clear now how to meet good-looking Japanese girls!