Taking the time to sincerely think about the question “Who cares?” after a minor screw-up is part of what makes life in Japan great.

Japanese trains are awesome for a number of reasons, not the least of which is how amazingly punctual they are. But on Tuesday, a train on the Tokyo-area Metropolitan Intercity Railway Company’s Tsukuba Express line failed to stick to its timetable.

The line connects Akihabara in Tokyo with Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture, and on weekday mornings there’s supposed to be a northbound train that leaves Minami Nagareyama Station at 9:44 a.m. However, on November 14, the train instead left at 9:43:40, 20 seconds earlier than it’s supposed to.

Before the day was done, the Tsukuba Express management issued an official apology, posted to the company’s website.

The statement reads:

On November 14, at approximately 9:44 a.m., a northbound Metropolitan Intercity Railway Company (main office in Tokyo, Chiyoda Ward, President & CEO Koichi Yugi) train left Minami Nagareyama Station roughly 20 seconds earlier than the time indicated on the timetable. We deeply apologize for the severe inconvenience imposed upon our customers.

It’s pretty common knowledge among Japanese people that Japan’s trains are far more precise and punctual than their overseas counterparts, so my coworker, SoraNews24 Japanese-language correspondent Mr. Sato, asked me for my take on this. “I’m Japanese, and even I think it’s excessive to make such a big deal out of a 20-second mistake, but as an American, how do you feel about it?”

At first, I sort of agreed with him. I doubt most people would even notice a 20-second difference, and with trains coming every four minutes on the Tsukuba Express line in the morning, does it really make much of a difference?

But then I thought about it a little more, and realized that because Japanese trains are usually so punctual, some people plan their rail commutes so that they arrive at the platform just as the cars are pulling up (plenty of people even synchronize their watches with the clock at their local station). It stands to reason, then, that at least a few people would miss a train if it left 20 seconds earlier than usual, and even if there’s another coming in four minutes, adding four minutes to that leg of their commute might cause them to miss other transfers on the way to their destinations, with the effect snowballing enough that they end up being late for work or school.

Four minutes times a few transfers could cause someone to be 15 minutes or so late, and while that’s not a huge difference, it’s still an inconvenience, and a potential embarrassment, for the people affected, and all because Metropolitan Intercity Railway Company didn’t deliver on its promise that the train would leave at 9:44, not 9:43:40. Even if that’s not the sort of mistake that absolutely demands an apology, there’s nothing wrong, and definitely something admirable, about taking a moment to say sorry for any problems that the early departure may have caused.

So yeah, if someone at Metropolitan Intercity Railway Company got reamed out by his boss for a 20-second screw-up, I feel for him, since I don’t think it’s worth getting that bent out of shape about. But at the same time, the fact that Japanese companies care so much about customer satisfaction, consistently try to look at things from the end-user’s point of view, and are willing to offer a sincere apology even for understandable inconveniences is, really, one of the most beautiful parts of Japanese society, and one of my favorite things about living here.

Source: Tsukuba Express
Top image: Wikipedia/LERK
Insert image: Tsukuba Express
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[ Read in Japanese ]