Let’s discuss Japan’s railway operations

This week’s featured article


A railway operator has issued a sincere apology for the “tremendous nuisance” caused by a train departing 20 seconds early, surprising even a nation renowned for both punctuality and politeness.

Metropolitan Intercity Railway Co. said the Tsukuba Express train linking Tokyo and its northern suburbs pulled out of Minami-Nagareyama Station at 9:44:20 instead of 9:44:40.

“We deeply apologize for causing a tremendous nuisance to customers,” the company said. “There was no complaint from customers over this incident,” the firm said, adding that no one missed the train due to the premature departure.

Japanese railway services, including bullet trains, are famous for their world-beating punctuality.

Even the slightest delay prompts an effusive apology from train or station personnel, which often lasts longer than the holdup itself.

With trains running the same route every few minutes to cope with huge numbers of passengers, even brief delays can back up the whole network and lead to overcrowding.

Stations in Tokyo employ dozens of staff — with their famous white gloves — to ensure the prompt departure of trains and to manage the crush during rush hour.

Shinkansen are also famed for their customer service, and one train even offers passengers an onboard foot bath to soothe their weary feet.

Metropolitan Intercity Railway said it was “surprised” by the attention the story was getting, saying: “We have issued similar apologies for trains that departed earlier than scheduled before.”

A spokesman said the apology was issued because strict safety procedures were not followed.

“What matters is not the 20 seconds. … The point is that our formal procedure should be this: A sound rings 15 seconds before the departure, followed by an announcement asking for caution due to the closing doors, and then the doors shut,” he said.

Lax management could cause safety problems in the future, the spokesman said. “There are sometimes passengers who try to jump on the train … they could be caught” if the doors shut without warning, he said.

But the apology had several social media users scratching their heads.

“This is surprising even to Japanese,” said one user with the handle @takamin_.

“A weird country in which a 20-second difference prompts a sincere apology while faking quality data on aluminium and steel products or misconduct on car checkups are done just like that,” another tweet read.

This was a reference to the recent string of corporate scandals that has floored the reputation of Japan Inc.

Car giants Nissan Motor Co. and Subaru Corp. have admitted that uncertified staff had inspected vehicles while Kobe Steel Ltd. has been embroiled in a quality data-faking scandal.

First published in The Japan Times on Nov. 17.

Warm up

One-minute chat about apologies.


Collect words related to train, e.g., station, commute, crowded.

New words

1) nuisance: annoying person, e.g., “He is a neighborhood nuisance.”

2) premature: before the expected time, e.g., “She was a premature baby at birth.”

3) holdup: the act of delaying, e.g., “I was caught in a holdup.”

4) lax: loose, e.g., “The school discipline is lax.”

Guess the headline

Tokyo railway ‘deeply s_ _ _ _’ after train leaves 20 seconds early


1) What was the topic that received attention from the world?

2) How did the railway company react?

3) What was the railway company’s concern?

Let’s discuss the article

1) How punctual is the train you take?

2) What do you think about this issue?

3) What do you think Japanese trains need to do?


毎日の移動に電車を使う方が多い中で、 その一分一秒が非常に大事だと思う方もいるでしょう。わずかなずれも起こさず時間通りに物事を進められることは日本の美徳でもありますが、その正確過ぎる運行が世間を騒がせることもあります。

時間に正確であることの他にも大切にする べきこともあるのでしょうか。



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