Japan from the inside out


Posted by ampontan on Saturday, April 7, 2012

A FIRE at the Umeda Station on the Midosuji Line of the Osaka Municipal Subway two months ago burned down a storage shed. The fire department’s investigation revealed that smoking was the likely cause. Any subway fire can have serious consequences, but that’s a busy station in the heart of the metropolis with several connections to other lines. The Osaka Municipal Transport Bureau then banned all smoking on the subway premises for everyone.

Last week, the assistant station manager at the Honmachi Station on the Yotsubashi Line lit up in the station manager’s kitchen/lounge at 7:40 a.m. before he was due to go on duty at 8:30. It set off fire alarms, delaying four trains by a minute each and inconveniencing about 1,000 passengers.

Smoking on the job is prohibited for all Osaka city employees at their workplace, and they’re subject to disciplinary action if caught. But when do unionized public sector employees face serious punishment for anything in any country? In fact, only one Osaka municipal employee had been disciplined for smoking before — a primary school teacher was docked a month’s pay in 2010 when he was caught tubing it on school grounds.

But now Hashimoto Toru is the mayor. On the day of the incident, he said the punishment would be severe. Two days later, he elaborated on what he meant by severe:

“I want him to think that dismissal is the standard.”

When it was pointed out this would be the first time such a harsh punishment would be meted out in Osaka, and the employee might take formal action to recover his job, the mayor replied:

“I don’t care if he takes it to court.”

How about that? A lot of people in the United States, to name just one country, would be thrilled by the approach of holding public sector sponges to private sector standards (not to mention salaries). The usual suspects would be appalled, and there are plenty of those people here too. But I suspect there won’t be much sympathy in general for the assistant station manager.

Those same usual suspects might be expected to amuse themselves with meta-snark about Mussolini making the trains run on time, but since Mr. Hashimoto isn’t a classical fascist/statist of the left, only among the circles of the secular holy ones will there be the pleasing vibrations of indignation.

There’s a desperate need for people in the advanced countries to get back to the basics on every level of their lives, both individually and as members of society. One place to start is an insistence that employees follow reasonable work rules established for public safety.

The trains in Japan really do run on time, as do the buses. That doesn’t mean it’s a regimented society. It’s just a manifestation of the commonly accepted idea that doing your job and doing it well is the A of the ABCs. Some years ago, a group of workers from General Motors visited a Toyota plant here. When asked for their impressions, one of the Americans said, “These people work too hard!” Sure — by GM shop floor standards. From what I’ve seen of the insides of Japanese factories, people work at a normal pace. Is it a surprise then that Toyota is still a going concern while GM would have gone belly up had the government not stepped in?

The Japanese are also serious about teachers setting an example, which was the reason the Osaka primary school teacher found his paycheck lighter after being caught in the act. In my American high school, on the other hand, the physics teacher used to walk around in the halls with a pack of cigarettes (Winstons) in his shirt pocket. He was also an assistant coach on the football team. Meanwhile, a student getting caught smoking in the boy’s room would be subject to a three-day suspension on the second (or perhaps third) offense.

Just before summer vacation last year, I was talking to one of my university students outside of class. She’s from Okinawa, and she was anxious to get home because everything there is more relaxed.

That was a bit unexpected, because Saga is not the picture of urban bustle. There’s even a word in the local dialect for the default, take-it-easy attitude (nonbiraato). I asked her if she thought the pace was all that hectic here.

“Oh yes. In Okinawa, even the buses don’t run on time.”

My wife laughed out loud when I told her.

That assistant stationmaster at Honmachi had to have been a fool for a cigarette.

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