Omotenashi promo video of quick shinkansen cleanup goes viral


Staff Writer

A short video depicting the cleaning of Japan’s famous bullet trains has become an online hit, garnering more than 2.6 million views on YouTube as of Monday.

As a way to promote Tokyo and omotenashi — Japanese hospitality — to the world ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics, last fall the metropolitan government invited six foreign journalists to join a six-week Dateline Tokyo program.

They were asked to discover unique aspects of the capital that residents may not be aware of.

One of the journalists, New York-based Charli James, produced a video in October titled “7-Minute Miracle,” depicting an entire shinkansen train being cleaned in seven minutes.

“Three hundred and twenty-three shinkansen bullet trains depart Tokyo Station daily, transporting nearly 400,000 passengers every day,” reads an English subtitle in the video.

“Each worker covers one car, about 100 seats,” a subtitle says in another part of the video, which is less than two minutes long.

“I traveled on the shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto before starting the Dateline Tokyo program and was very impressed with the trains,” James told The Japan Times when asked about the reason for shooting the cleaning process for bullet trains.

“In America, our trains aren’t as clean and on time, so I thought Americans would be interested in seeing how this turnaround process works in Japan,” she added.

She also said that what she found unique about Japan’s culture is “that Japanese people take such pride in their work, and strive to make everything best.”

James also wrote several articles to introduce foreign readers to Japanese culture, and on how Tokyo can upgrade foreign tourists’ experiences.

Noriko Naito of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s public relations office said the journalists have helped discover things that for Japanese people are very common but may be unusual in other countries.

“There are many beautiful places (and things) that have not yet been shared outside of Japan,” Naito said.

James’ video shows part of the cleaning process, played at a fast speed. It starts with workers collecting litter that can’t be vacuumed up. Each seat is then turned 180 degrees as the train has reached its final destination and now prepares to change direction. After that, workers open the curtains and thoroughly clean the floor, tables and seats that are later returned to their upright position. Finally, they check whether there are any items left behind on the luggage racks.

The video ends with the phrase: “When finished, workers line up to bow. A demonstration of pride and diligence.” It was uploaded to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s official YouTube channel on Jan. 16.

Initially the video didn’t get much attention. But after it was introduced online by an Indian media outlet in late May, the number of views significantly increased and it was covered in French media, which suggested the service could be used on France’s high-speed trains.

The shinkansen are cleaned by Techno Heart Tessei Co., a subsidiary of JR East.

“For us, it’s a normal procedure. We’re not doing anything special,” the company’s spokesman said.

“The procedure was introduced 10 years ago, but it’s not like we did something special to improve the operations. Maybe it’s because it’s in Japanese nature,” he said. “Employees feel motivated by enjoying their work.”

  • GBR48

    Shinkansen are a joy to behold and to ride in. Trains like space shuttles that you just want to caress. The existence of smoking compartments on some is a concern, but the ticket office staff can ensure you avoid them.

    The general (if not entire) absence of litter in Japan is also a joy. The UK is paved with the stuff-a mixture of laziness, low standards and a lack of self-respect.

    The 180 degree seat swivelling also happens on some limited express services. It’s automated on the one that runs from Kyoto to Kintetsu Nara-you can film it through the window before boarding.

  • Awesome!!

  • J Steel

    Incredible indeed.

    Sigh…back in my hometown the mass transit runs as intended but would be considered filthy compared to Japan’s Shinkansen or metro trains. If I were to raise this to transit authority back home I would be laughed out for advocating money being spent on cleanliness. Really highlights the cultural difference…

    • Jill_the_Pill

      That’s right. Everyone claims to want jobs, jobs, jobs, but we’d never pay this many people to do things like this.

  • wisteria

    What are the other videos?

  • anoninjapan

    “…“The procedure was introduced 10 years ago, but it’s not like we did something special to improve the operations. Maybe it’s because it’s in Japanese nature,” …” it has nothing to do with indoctrination over hundreds of years of obsequious servitude imposed onto the peasants and surfs by their ruling masters out of fear they comply and never complain.

    Wow…my bad then!!

    • J Steel

      I’m perplexed at what you’re trying to say. The quote merely pointed out in a rather humble manner that they were surprised at the publicity, because keeping the trains clean in such an efficient manner was just normal operation to them. And yes, the suggestion that maybe this is “Japanese nature” is spot on, this would never fly for the transit systems in my home city or for many other cities. We would never spend money for this kind of cleanliness and of the little money that we do spend on cleaning, I would bet it’s a lot less productive and effective as well.

      As for your statement on indoctrination, confused how “obsequious servitude” is in any way connected to the efficiency of these cleaners. Taking pride in your work and being a productive employee should be an obvious necessity wherever you work in whatever country.

      • anoninjapan

        Ok…let me put this into very simplistic generalised terms. (Either you don’t live in Japan or are ignorant of how the culture works). And no, this is not a criticism of the culture (before the usual suspect cry foul), each country has its own…it is merely a factual observation of how THIS culture works.

        Your contract of employment is from 8.00am-5.00pm. You are asked to stay behind to finish off some “urgent work”, which could take you until say 10.00pm.

        Do you:-
        1) Go home at 5:00pm
        2) Do what everyone else does, stay and finish the work?

        If you selected #2, you discover no over time pay, just your pleasure in helping is your reward.

        Next day, asked again….and on it goes daily until it becomes the expected norm….yet the “work” you are given can really be finished in just 20mins or even the following day with ease, yet for some reason everyone stays behind trying to look busy until the “all clear” is given to go home. This continues to the point you are expected to stay, regardless.

        One person decides to no longer stay behind and leaves at 5.00pm. Shortly afterwards that person is no longer in your office. No one explains why….just silence.

        Thus, when you are asked again, do you now:-

        1) Go home at 5:00pm
        2) Do what everyone else does?

      • J Steel

        Got it and thanks for your explanation, it’s what I love about discussion channels. I agree with what you said above as I am also familiar with this aspect of their culture.

        Nonetheless it’s not very fair to connect this cultural element with the efficiency of their cleanup. If these workers were absolutely guaranteed just 3 hours of work a day and they were cleaning trains in Paris for example and subject to French working culture, no doubt in my mind they’d still be that effective. You’re right that it’s cultural but it’s not necessarily because of a negative reinforcement that compels them to perform well, it’s just something that’s generally in their psyche, no different than many employees in the West that may not think they’re getting paid enough for the job that they do, but have enough dignity and sense of responsibility to nonetheless perform to their maximum while they’re still at the job.

        And regarding working efficiency, yes the examples you brought up highlight a problematic issue, but that certainly doesn’t seem to be the case with these cleaners. True, maybe they’re also subject to those “overtime” working conditions you mention, but if it’s a question of productivity these cleaners probably accomplish just as much if not far more in an hour of cleaning trains than their counterparts in many other cities.

      • anoninjapan

        “…You’re right that it’s cultural but it’s not necessarily because of a negative reinforcement that compels them to perform well, it’s just something that’s generally in their psyche…”

        Well that’s where we differ.

        Their psyche is totally based upon centuries of fear and paranoia of NOT doing what is expected. Today’s travellers and those ephemeral workers view this as “wow..nice polite clean service”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Peel away the layers the endless layers of Japan s social structure and you’ll see that the reasons for the local peasant (today’s salary man or train cleaner) doing exactly what they are told by the local enforcement samurai of the 16th C (today’s police/govt or company boss) has not changed. Only the titles and uniforms have changed. The elite still run the country with the same iron grip and fear of being a non-conformist leads to being ostracised or worse.

        If there is an activity, ANY activity, that is in plain view of “others” then the Japanese will behave as it the whole of Japan is watching them…i.e. they must conform. But, take away that public scrutiny, and they behave as appalling, if not worse, than everyone else. Social rules trump legal ones period always have and always will. Just ask Michael Woodford ex-Olympus or watch any Japanese tourist outside of Japan not in a typical tour group.

        Only when the eyes of Japan are watching them…they appear so so polite and so so clean and tidy!!

      • J Steel

        Interesting, good points there.

        “Social rules trump legal ones period always have and always will.”

        Agree, in fact this is actually an aspect that has rather fascinated me about Japan in exploring their society and culture, in the sense that it’s clearly different than say American culture.

        For example when we talk about how clean Japan is, indeed this is more a product of their socially expected standards. In most U.S. cities if you litter and get caught you will be fined, so in general people don’t litter (not saying that people aren’t also raised to simply not litter because it’s inconsiderate). Now I am not against this at all, I can’t stand litter bugs, but you get a general majority that behaves appropriately in this aspect because of this rule. If we had no litter laws, I kind of think there would be sizable portions of our society that would have no problem throwing their leftover lunch on the sidewalk now and then (as a driver seeing people just toss garbage out their car windows). We thus make sure they generally “conform” for the greater public by having these laws in place, the Japanese make sure they fall in line through their social rules, so even if they had no law regarding litter I think it would still be that clean because of the social expectation. It’s thus interesting that as a result contracts between U.S. companies can often run like a textbook because we need the legal to keep people from crossing certain lines, whereas Japanese contracts between Japanese companies can be a fraction of that because there is that social expectation that acts as the framework to keep people from crossing those same lines.

      • anoninjapan

        And this is where you start getting into the nuances of social control and thus the culture too. But to compare one with the other also requires the corollary too.

        Since in the US (I am not American btw), if you lie in court, purgery, it is a crime. Not so in Japan. One can lie with impunity.

        If as a defendant in court you wish evidence to be admitted, in the US, it is given to both parties. In Japan, the judge and prosecutor decides if it is admissible….the defendant gets no say in the matter.

        In the US, if you are racially abused, you can take the person to court citing anti-discrimination Laws. Not so in Japan, there is no Law for such.

        As Michael Woodford ex-Olympus CEO found out, if you lie and falsify annual financial reports to provide a “positive” image, that’s fine, it is the accepted way of doing business in Japan. Not so in the US as transparency and accountability is the norm.

        Thus as I noted above, social rules in Japan trump ANY legal ones, always will, period. In the US, for example (picking up your comparison theme again), the rule of Law is based upon freedom for all, no matter colour race or creed or their financial status. In Japan social laws are the norm, which is not based upon any of the above, only duty…thus it is subtle social control.

  • samuelaugustusjennings

    Seats reverse by pushing hidden button while we struggle at Amtrak.