Japanese punctuality, Filipino time
TOKYO — Whenever I’m in Japan, I cannot help but marvel at the people’s punctuality.
A recent experience was illustrative: My friends and I had just left Mount Akagi in Gunma Prefecture and were aboard the bus back to the train station, but just as it was about to depart, a passenger rose, talked to the driver, then faced the other passengers. In between apologetic bows, he asked if it was okay for us to wait for his friend who should be arriving in one or two minutes. He hadn’t even finished talking when his friend arrived, running. The friend was late for just over 30 seconds, but such a delay sufficed for him to make a public apology.
How did the Japanese acquire such an acute sense of time?
For a facile answer, one could cite a highly efficient and reliable transportation system — from extensive subway systems to the famed shinkansen — that makes it very easy for people to fulfill their commitments. Because it takes exactly 33 minutes from Asakusa to Shibuya via the Ginza Line, I know exactly which train to take if I’m meeting someone at Hachiko’s.
But even the Japanese who are in the Philippines are known to be punctual, which tells us that there’s more to their sense of time than the infrastructure that enables it.
Surprisingly, scholars aver that the Japanese sense of punctuality is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. Historian Takehiko Hashimoto notes that Westerners in the mid-19th century actually complained that the Japanese were always late! It was only decades later, as part of the Meiji-era reforms, that punctuality was institutionalized. Children, for instance, were instructed to arrive 10 minutes before the start of class.
A second wave of time consciousness — one that pervaded the people’s everyday lives — came after the war, aided by the proliferation of wristwatches, heavy industrialization, and the inculcation of Western values. Surely, this sense of time, too, fostered the rise of a hyperefficient transport system, making Japanese punctuality a “coproduction” of culture and infrastructure.
As for the Philippines, while it is easy to blame our tardiness on the traffic and the unpredictable weather — or label it as an immutable “mentality” — one way to look at it is to consider how time has always been relative, and not just in Einstein’s sense of the word.
Anthropologists point out that “clock time”—i.e., seconds, minutes, hours — is in itself a modern invention: Until very recently, events dictated the pace of the day in most societies. A colorful example of this “event time” is “alas-puno” — or when the jeepney leaves, not at a certain time, but when it is full. Moreover, temporal categories were broader: umaga, hapon, gabi—allowing for more pakiramdaman (“feeling each other”).
Even in professional contexts in the Philippines today, there is more leeway: Arriving one minute late will likely not merit an apology, but one hour would. Then there’s a “politics of time,” too: Some can arrive “fashionably late” because of—or to assert—their importance. Indeed, people’s conceptions of time are shaped by others’ expectations, even as these expectations also change over time.
Sometimes, I think the Japanese can be punctual to a fault: On a hike up Mount Fuji last year, our guides wanted to schedule everything — including sleeping and waking times — removing the fun in climbing Japan’s highest peak. My Nagoya-based friend Jeion also feels that the overreliance on schedules can lead to a “domino effect” when things go wrong. “Filipino time,” with its flexibility and improvisation, may be suited for situations beyond our control, or when time itself need not be micromanaged — as when one is on vacation.
But the Japanese sense of time remains a valuable trait, not just for self-improvement but also for national growth: It is no coincidence that the 1950s-60s — when the Japanese began to adopt their modern conceptions of time — also marked the beginning of their “economic miracle.”
What we should strive for, then, is neither a full dismissal of Filipino time nor a full embrace of Japanese punctuality, but the ability to make use of both.
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