Japan’s infamous dedication to punctuality meant they apologized for a train being 20 seconds early

Punctuality that puts others to shame.
Punctuality that puts others to shame.
Image: Reuters/Thomas White
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In news that sounds like satire to frustrated commuters everywhere, the management of Japan’s Tsukuba Express line between Tokyo and Tsukuba issued an apology this week for a train which departed the station 20 seconds early.

Yes, you read that right. The train wasn’t late, and it deviated from its schedule by a less than half a minute. The fault was caused by crew who “did not sufficiently check the departure time and performed the departure operation.” Though no passengers complained, an apology for the offense was deemed necessary nonetheless.

Why the ostentatious display of remorse? Because Japan. The country famous for its sense of decorum that enters many aspects of daily life—from how you accept your change in a shop to how you hand over a business card—also has a public transportation system with a commitment to punctuality that puts others to shame. According to JR Central, one of central Japan’s main railway companies, the average annual delay per operational train is 0.9 minutes, which includes uncontrollable delays caused by natural disasters, a not-infrequent occurrence in Japan.

A paper written (pdf) on the punctuality of Japan’s high-speed Shinkansen trains (also known as bullet trains) notes that the network’s punctuality is so reliable it actually poses risks:

“Route control is done by computer systems (PRC: Programmed Route Control system) totally automatically. You may think this is advantageous in keeping punctuality. However, should a system-down occur, it might cause a serious problem. Reliability of the PRC is very high but the higher the reliability is, the less skilled dispatchers are in manual operation of signals.”

What a problem to have.

It’s no secret that the quality of public transportation—and not to mention snacks on board, in which Japan also excels—varies widely across the world. Riders of New York City’s diabolical MTA system often find the London Underground thoroughly functional, while Londoners in Tokyo or Taipei lament the spotty service of trains back home by comparison.

It just goes to show that one rider’s 20-second delay is another’s rush-hour nightmare.