Deconstructing Time: The Japanese Perception of Punctuality - By Christina Elia
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Deconstructing Time: The Japanese Perception of Punctuality

By Christina Elia for The J-Pop Exchange

In Japan, being exactly on time is almost as unacceptable as running late. This notorious preoccupation with punctuality pervades nearly every aspect of society, from governmental proceedings to interpersonal relationships and nationwide infrastructure. The image of Japanese railway officials bowing to apologize for train delays has become emblematic of the culture’s perception of time as a commodity, only second in recognition to a public apology issued in 2017 after one train left “approximately 25 seconds too early.” But like the concept itself, Japan’s relationship with time has evolved in its complexity.

Every country follows either a monochronic or polychronic structure. Anthropologist Edward Hall introduced the terms in his 1959 book The Silent Language, dividing cultures into two categories: those able to juggle multiple tasks simultaneously, and those that can only handle tasks sequentially. Germany, Switzerland, and the United States are all monochronic, favoring individual efforts and an efficient “time is money” approach. Polychronic cultures like Italy, Spain, and India have a more laid back perception of time passing. Where monochronic societies crave orderliness and precision, polychronic ones prosper amongst the pandemonium.

Japan falls somewhere between the two. Surprisingly, it’s citizens didn’t always have such strict adherence to the present moment. Before the Meiji Period began in the late 19th-century, the empire was predominantly polychronic.“The idleness of the Japanese is quite astonishing,” wrote Dutch explorer Willem Huyssen van Kattendijke when he visited the archipelago in the 1850s. Back then, nothing went according to plan: craftsmen refused to show up to their jobs, merchants made empty promises to deliver materials, but ultimately never did. A book published in 2001, The Birth of Lateness (Chikoku No Tanjō,) outlines a variety of similar examples regarding the Meiji era and challenges the current impression we have of Japanese customs.

As the world became increasingly industrialized, Emperor Mutsuhito made an effort to impose a Western work-ethic on Japanese society. Promptness was the first item on his agenda. Japan also underwent a major political, social, and economic upheaval subsequent Mutsuhito’s ascension to the throne. In addition to abolishing the feudal system, the government enacted a constitution and adopted universal education. Following the country’s newly implemented timetable, a more efficient transportation system was also constructed. The resulting compromise created a culture at once polychronic and monochronic, still riddled with inherent contradictions.

Self-presentation shapes many of these inconsistencies. While the culture is meticulous about starting on schedule, Japan seems to have a completely opposite view of punctual conclusions. Part of a larger set of behaviors called impression management, self-presenting involves acting in a certain way in order to produce a desired effect. It explains why Japanese meetings start immediately, but typically run passed the allotted time slot. Or, why dinners have a specific beginning, but no actual end. When it comes to showing up on time, the Japanese prioritize maintaining a positive reputation. But upon arrival, their polychronic tendency to value human relationships overpowers the inclination to be punctual. This folly cultivates a balance between the group and the individual.

Time is a fickle companion: man-made, yet beyond our control. It’s somehow objective and relative, entirely dependent on our cultural outlook. Japan’s relationship with temporality has matured to encompass its link to modernity, and will likely continue to exist between these two extremes. But understanding how different cultures perceive time allows us to better comprehend our connection to the world around us. Like other societal constructs, it harnesses power through our collective consciousness. We may not share a common language, but we’re nevertheless bonded through mutual confusion. Whether in Japan or the United States, to grapple with time is to forever chase the intangible.

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