Last week, while I was stuck in a scrum at Victoria station thanks to yet another inexplicable delay, I came across a news story that raised a wry smile. It concerned a private railway firm in Japan issuing a formal apology to passengers after one of its trains failed to leave on time. Not because it was late, mind, but because it was early – pulling off precisely 20 seconds ahead of schedule.
Having visited the country in 2015, I can tell you first-hand that its transport system puts our pitiful offering to shame. Huddled up and pining for such superior service got me reminiscing about all the other amazing things I’d experienced over there that seem so woefully lacking over here (I’d be ashamed to bring a Japanese person to London. Seriously. They must think we live like savages, although they’d be too polite to say so).
Based on my recollections, here are 5 reasons why the UK could do with being a bit more Japanese – starting with the aforementioned thorn in every commuter’s side.
1) Your train would NEVER be late again
In England, we’re lumbered with a delicate flower of a railway system that seems to be allergic to every single one of the four seasons. Snow (ice), leaves (slippage), showers (flooding), wind (debris) and even sunlight (warping – the tracks, not the drivers) all have the potential to bring the service to a grinding halt – let alone the likes of strike action, suicides or signal failures.
Such stoppages simply do not exist in Japan, which has one of the most efficient and reliable services in the world. Short of the Apocalypse, your train will be on time, every time, and deviations from the departure board are extremely rare.
Last Tuesday’s 9.44.40am Tsukuba Express from Minami Nagareyama station, just north of Tokyo, left the platform at 9.44.20am – an error deemed grave enough to warrant an official statement. “We deeply apologise for the severe inconvenience imposed upon our customers,” said the Metropolitan Intercity Railway Company. “The crew did not sufficiently check the departure time and performed the departure operation.”
Anyone using Britain’s lamentable system knows it will be a cold day in hell before we’re treated to such high regard for punctuality or customer care. And despite a veritable Rolodex of ridiculous reasons for failing to leave on time – from the wrong kind of rain to swans on the line – earliness has never, ever, been one of them.
2) You could eat your dinner off the pavement
Do you realise we actually live like rats compared to the Japanese? There is litter blowing down every street, and it seems we’ve simply become accustomed to living in our own filth. We assume that all big cities look like this – but in two weeks spent traversing Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo, I didn’t even see so much as a stray dog turd (take note, Paris). No wads of gum or phlegm, no newspapers trailing in the wind, no fag butts collecting by the kerb: spotless.
In London, sometimes I’m too scared to even sit down on the Tube (what is up with those fabric seats lately?! They look like they’ve been soiled with every substance known to (come out of) man, and trust me – once you’ve sat in someone’s p***, you’ll be far more vigilant about those dark patches). And I’m frequently joined by a few furry friends en route, scurrying along the platform to squeak me bon voyage.
By contrast, you could probably lick the seats on the Metro system in Japan without fear of instant death. And there are no rats, either, because nobody eats on the platforms or the trains, and everyone takes their litter away with them – the key word being ‘everyone’. Rich or poor, people take care of their surroundings and clean up after themselves (and others) without complaint or prompt. Imagine how beautiful London would look if we bothered to do the same.
3) Impeccable customer service would come as standard
You know that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you go to John Lewis? Where you feel just a tiny bit posh? Where you feel like a valued customer, and the shop assistants are actually happy, willing and able to assist? In Japan, everywhere is like John Lewis – from the crappy corner store to the five-star Mandarin Oriental.
People take pride in their work, regardless of what that work is. And it’s not because they’re hustling for tips, either (that’s not really a thing over there – in fact, tipping in the usual manner could even be construed as an insult). Everyone we encountered in a customer-facing role was polite, attentive and respectful. Nothing was ever too much trouble. They greeted us on arrival, and they thanked us as we left. And it was literally like the aliens had landed.
4) Strangers would go out of their way to be nice to you
A friend of mine was once on a bus that jerked to such a sudden stop, a lady making her way down the stairwell was thrown into the wall and knocked out cold. Instead of rushing to her aid, irritated fellow passengers merely stepped over the unconscious heap, tutting at the inconvenience.
By contrast, one of my travel buddies took a minor tumble in a Tokyo Metro station during morning rush hour. In the blink of an eye, a guy who was clearly on his way to work ran over to see if she was okay. We assured him she was fine and he finally left – only to return moments later with a medic.
On another occasion, while the four of us were stood about looking hopelessly lost as we tried to locate our accommodation, a lady came over and asked us if we needed any help. She painstakingly relayed the directions as best she could in broken English and hand gestures. Once she was finished, she offered to walk us there.
Seeing what happens when society goes the extra mile for others is incredible to behold – it makes you realise that contrary to popular belief, it really is possible. Imagine what life would be like if everyone made a conscious effort to treat each other with such kindness.
5) Drunk and orderly would be the new normal
If you took an aerial view of central London on a Friday night, it would probably resemble a scene from The Walking Dead: blood, guts, zombies staggering about in shredded shirts. That kind of thing. This just doesn’t happen in Japan. And that’s not to say they don’t drink – they do. A lot. The sake houses were heaving, and we saw our fair share of wasted businessmen weaving their way home.
But guess what? There was no brawling, no bellowing, no peeing, no puking – they were the quietest, politest, tidiest drunks you’ve ever seen in your life. Somehow, a night on the lash doesn’t inevitably descend into violence and vomit in Japan (at least not in public, anyway). If only the Brits would take a leaf out of their book.