The Unspoken Contradictions Behind Japanese Punctuality


Japanese Punctuality Makes the News—Again

The meeting is due to start at 5:10. As usual, people around me are bustling to get to their seats at least five minutes early. I am hurrying along too, until I happen to bump into someone I know on the way and stop for a quick chat. I end up arriving one whole minute late.

Time is a funny thing: infinite and yet often in limited supply. In modern society, we seem to spend our days in a constant battle against time, hurrying from place to place to arrive in time for various appointments: arrangements to meet friends, extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, dates, and so on. In cultures around the world, punctuality and a respect for time is a fundamental condition of modern life, an essential part of what allows people to juggle their busy schedules.

Human beings exist in a strange, inseparable relationship with time. Time is something we can perceive only when things, including ourselves, are moving. Time may not even exist in any real sense outside human perception. In Japanese cities in particularly, people hardly seem to pause for breath, and time seems to rush forward at breakneck speed.

The Japanese are famous—or perhaps notorious—for being strict about time. Recently, several stories highlighting this Japanese obsession with punctuality made the news. One story concerned a civil servant in Kōbe who apparently made it a habit to slip out of the office three minutes before the noon break began to order his bentō lunch. When this scandalous behavior came to light, the employee in question had his pay docked, while his bosses appeared on television to apologize. The story made the news worldwide, following reports in the Guardian and on ABC. If it had happened anywhere else, the story would probably have been dismissed as “fake news.” But in Japan, it was true.

When Even the Japanese Were Laid-Back About Time

Perhaps surprisingly, punctuality has not always been part of the Japanese identity in the way it is today. Not too long ago, in fact, things used to be quite different.

The introduction to a book by Hashimoto Takehiko and Kuriyama Shigehisa called Chikoku no tanjō (The Birth of Lateness) quotes several examples of behavior that would be hard to credit in Japan today. “The timber I ordered for repairs to arrive by the full tide has still not arrived.” “The craftsman showed his face once at the factory and hasn't been seen since.” “The groom has wasted two full days going from house to house performing New Year’s greetings.” “The way things are, I cannot achieve half of what I intended, and may have no choice but to leave.”

“The idleness of the Japanese is quite astonishing.” These words come from a record left by Willem Huyssen van Kattendijke, a Dutch naval officer who came to Japan as an instructor at the Nagasaki Naval Training Center in the 1850s. His diaries record impressions that turn the Japanese reputation as a punctual people dedicated to their work quite upside down. He mentions workmen who take off and never return and materials that fail to arrive by the arranged date. Many of the foreigners who were brought to Japan around the time of the Meiji Restoration seem to have been astonished by how casual Japanese workers were about time—an impression quite different from their reputation today.

Apparently, as late as the mid-nineteenth century, many Japanese people had the same laid-back attitude to time that you might encounter among Arabs or South Americans today. For the foreign experts who came to Japan as teachers and advisors, this laid-back attitude—and workers who continued to casually take their time when the new arrivals expected them to hurry—must have been the source of considerable stress. How did this situation change? And what happened to make the modern Japanese so famously fastidious about being on time?

It is impossible to answer this question for certain, but people often argue that the characteristic punctuality we see in Japan today arose in response to the rapid process of modernization and industrialization that transformed the country from the Meiji era (1868–1912) onward. As a result, buses and trains run on time, and our daily schedules now run like clockwork.

M-types and P-types

Looking around the world, though, it is clear that this respect for punctuality is not universal. Some cultures, like Japan, are very strict about time-keeping, while others seem to take it much less seriously. For example, if you arrange to meet someone from an Arabic-speaking country or South America, there’s a good chance that they will turn up late. Where does this difference come from?

The cultural anthropologist Edward Hall argued that different human societies and cultures have different perspectives on time. He believed that human attitudes to time could be categorized into two basic behavior patterns: M-time (monochromic time) and P-time (polychronic time). M-time cultures tend to be strict about accurate time-keeping and tend to concentrate on doing one thing at a time, whereas P-time cultures are more relaxed about time, try to do multiple things at once, and tend to prioritize human relationships.

People from M-time cultures like Japan, the United States, and North Europe think along a single temporal axis, whereas P-type cultures like the Arabic-speaking countries and Latin America think of time as having several axes. Frictions can often result when M-time cultures and P-type cultures come into contact. And people often tend to leap to simplistic conclusions, believing that the Japanese are strict about time-keeping, for example, while Arabs and South Americans are more relaxed about it.

The Contradiction of Japanese Punctuality

It is certainly true that the Japanese have a reputation for being sticklers for punctuality. But I have lived here for 23 years now, and there is one thing about the Japanese attitude to time that still strikes me as strange, almost contradictory. There seems to be a wide gap between an almost obssessive attitude to starting on time and a very relaxed attitude to when things end.

So if you’re even one minute late for work or school, this counts as being late. This seems reasonable, and no one should act surprised to be rebuked or reprimanded for failing to be on time. This much I can understand.

The thing that puzzles me is the apparent lack of any similar concern about things running over and failing to finish at the scheduled time. Meetings frequently drag on far past their scheduled finish time, and the official end of office hours is so widely ignored that many people barely seem to be aware of it at all. Despite their reputation for being punctual and keeping things running on time, then, it seems fair to say that in this sense many people in Japan have a rather loose attitude about when things end. There seems to be a wide discrepancy in attitudes to time depending on whether we are talking about when things start or when they end. Where does this contradiction come from?

It is a universal characteristic of human societies that people do not generally show their “true” selves to others, but rather behave in such a way as to convey the impression they wish to give and shape how others see them. In social psychology, this is called “self-presentation.” It’s a tendency that is particularly pronounced in Japan.

This “impression management” means that when a meeting is starting, people do everything they can to arrive on time to avoid giving a bad impression or damaging their reputation with the rest of the group; but when it comes to ending the meeting, they tend to prioritize relationships of trust with other members of the group over punctuality.

In other words, people in Japan tend to be prioritize their reputation within the group, with regard to both when events start and when they end. This relationship between the group and the individual, which has deep roots in Japanese society, means that people tend to adopt M-time thinking about when things start, and P-time thinking about when they end. As well as valuing human relationships like Arabs and Europeans, Japanese people also value trust and a reputation for reliability.

Changing Our Perceptions of How We Work

Does time exist independently of human perception, or not? Setting aside theoretical physics for now and looking at the question from the perspective of cultural anthropology, it would be more accurate to say that time, rather than existing apart of human feelings, is inseparably fused and integrated with them. This is why time can seem to pass slowly in some settings and with unbelievable rapidity in others, depending on the environment in which we happen to find ourselves.

And when it comes to the situation like the one I am in now, locked in a meeting that has been going on for three hours already and shows no sign of coming to an end, the hours feel so long that time seems to have slipped free of the laws of physics and come to a complete standstill.

Work-style reforms to change the culture of long hours are one of the big topics in Japan today. I sometimes feel that what we need first is a discussion of how to change perceptions of the way we work. Perhaps this would help to rescue those of us who spend day after day feeling that our time is not our own.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo © Pixta.)

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