Cultural gaps on a Shinkansen

Once in a while I experience some smaller scales of a culture shock. After more than nine years I should be used to most aspects of the Japanese culture, but from time to time I really feel like an outsider. On a recent business trip to Osaka on the Shinkansen I had some unusual experiences.
Did you know that criminal juveniles seem to be moved from one location to the next on a Shinkansen? Did you know that special fabric covers are used in Japan to hide the handcuffs while riding on the train? Although I travel quite often by Shinkansen, I was surprised this week how full the train was. First I assumed that the summer vacation season had started, but not so many travelers looked like on vacation. Could there be another high school baseball tournament going on? Hmmm, these guys look too old for high school, but they have all similar 3mm long hair cut. Buddhist monks? No I don’t think so, although they did not move much, some energy could be felt, but a different kind of energy: Some seemed very excited to travel. Then it hit me, there were always 2 young guys with some bands at their hands and one older guy holding some ropes! It seems that I was truly lucky to be surrounded by a bunch of juvenile criminals, who are transported to their new location.
Riding on the Shinkansen is for me the time that allows me to catch up with work, because the “airline” seating allows comfortable use of the PC. Honestly I am jealous of most of the traveling business men I see. How come that they can simply doze off or snore for two to three hours? According to Japanese labor law travel time is still consider working time. Could it be that reading a manga, drinking loads of beer is work related? I don’t think so. I am wondering whether their work load is so different from mine. Personally I have to give my best that I can finish my share of work within 9-10 hours, dozing off would simply extend my working hours for the day. It hurts my heart for the Japanese economy that there is so little sense of urgency, considering the weak status of the economy which got hurt even more after the disaster. Maybe I should adjust by simply thinking “the devil may care”, but it is very unlikely, because I care about the future of Japan.
On the way back to Tokyo, I had a good time, because I could overhear from time to time direct effects of cultural and language barriers. It seems a foreign manufacturer wanted to get ready to expand their local business by increasing their staff now to two people. The new person should be in an engineering position and traveling quite a bit. The issue was on how to decide on a suitable PC. The Japanese side showed his local compact PC, but the foreigner pointed out that this PC is too small: “A good engineers pride is a big PC to work on while traveling, plus good at customer side!” Ooops, another cultural gap. The Japanese side did not respond and try to address a different issue. Considering that Japan has small desks, limited space on trains or airplanes, furthermore meeting tables are only big for employees or end-user contacts on higher manager levels, but not actually on the working floors, I guess the new hire will be sweating and complaining in the future about the heavy, big PC he has to carry around.
I am curious what down the road in five or ten years will still pop up from time to time as being so different in Japan from what I am used to.

Brought to you by Sibylle Ito (シビル伊藤)

2 thoughts on “Cultural gaps on a Shinkansen

  1. Thank you very much for this post. I also ride Shinkansen quite often and also wondered why so few Japanese business men work. I find it a really good place to work and I have 1 or more hours of concentrated work with almost no interruption.

    As for the criminal juveniles, wow – I have never hear of this before. It really must have been an interesting experience.

    Please keep posting.

    • Dear Nicolas,

      thanks a lot for your time to comment.
      Over the years I have learned that there is almost nothing impossible in Japan. It just might not be so obvious on the surface.

      All the best from sunny Tokyo,


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