Japan Just different

Japan is different – trains

The Japanese love trains – no matter if it’s a ultra-modern high speed bullet train, or very slow local train – and local trains are very slow. You can see this in many different ways.

Japan rail personel salute the incoming shinkansen, the platform supervisor salutes the leaving train.

Train conductors bow and say hello and goodbye as they enter and leave a carriage. It takes so little time and effort, does it make a difference, perhaps not, but a show of politeness and respect to the people travelling on the tarin and ultimately paying their wages.

The Japanese love to take pictures of their trains. I cannot remember a train pulling into a platform without somebody taking a picture. Many Japanese trains are decorated in different themes – the train below is a local train “dressed up” as a Shinkansen.

Also as rolling adverts.

And not only on the outside, but also on the inside, celebrating the cherry blossom and a train museum within the train.

When you travel in a local train, try and sit as close to the driver as possible. At first sight, you might be worried that a madman has taken control of the  train, talking to him/herself and pointing at various things within and outside the train. The Japanese Times explains.

“There’s method to the madness. Those odd vocalizations and gestures help keep us safe by heightening workers’ mental focus at key points on the job where accidents are likely to occur. This technique for error-prevention is called shisa kanko. It’s hardly known outside of Japan, but those who do talk about it in English use the term “pointing and calling.”

Japanese railway employees have been using this technique for more than 100 years, but the exact origin is a little unclear. One story traces it to the early 1900s and a steam-train engineer named Yasoichi Hori, who was supposedly starting to lose his sight. Worried that he’d go through a signal by mistake, Hori began to call out the signal status to the fireman riding with him. The fireman would confirm it by calling back. An observer decided this was an excellent way of reducing error, and by 1913 it was encoded in a railway manual as kanko oto(“call and response”). The pointing came later, probably after 1925.

To give an example with English calls, let’s say your task is to make sure a valve is open. You look directly at the valve and confirm it’s open. You call out in a clear voice, “Valve open!” Then, still looking at the valve, you draw your right hand back, point to the valve in an exaggerated way and call out, “OK!” The theory is that hearing your own voice, and engaging the muscles of the mouth and arm, stimulates your brain so you’re more alert.

But does it actually work? Kazumi Tabata of the Japan Industrial Safety and Health Association, recites research conducted in 1994 by the Railway Technical Research Institute. Workers asked to complete a simple task made 2.38 errors per 100 actions when no special steps were taken to prevent errors. When told to add just calling or just pointing, their error rate dropped significantly. But the greatest reduction in error — to just 0.38 mistakes per 100 actions — was achieved when workers used both steps together. The combination of pointing and calling reduced mistakes by almost 85 percent.”

In addition JR has a strict rule that employees may not even carry personal cell phones, let alone use them, when working on trains. A driver or conductor found to have used a personal cell phone on the job will be fired.

Many train stretches are single track, and therefore, not least on a local train, one waits at a station for the train to pass in the opposite direction, before moving on. The same applies for slower Shinkansen, that wait at stations for quicker Shinkansen to pass. This means that local trains are very slow. If there are three stations A, B and C, and the distance between A and B is 3 minutes and B and C is 10 minutes, and the train going from A to C and the train from C to A leave at the same time, the train from A to C needs to wait 7 minutes at station B before the train from station C arrives and they can pass each other. The Shinkansen is timed to perfection so that there is no waiting, and why even a delay of a few seconds can have a major impact.

Perhaps most concerning of all, i.e. that there is a need, there are also women only carriages on a number of Japanese trains.

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