Cultural DNA and Trains

Tokyo is a huge metropolis. Many millions of people transit through the city every day, almost all of them using public transportation, mostly trains. I read somewhere that 90% of the busiest 50 train stations in the world are in Japan. Shinjuku station, the busiest of them all, handles on average around 3 million commuters every day.

Visitor to Japan are often baffled by how orderly the public transportation system is, despite the huge numbers. Everything and everyone seem to be working in perfect harmony and coordination, with very little noise and almost no friction. Of course, on the trains themselves people are squeezed up tight against each other during rush hour, but on the platforms, escalators, stairs, etc. everything seems to be working like a well-oiled machine. How is that possible, many ask.

Perhaps the following short video, which I shot this morning in Tokyo, can help explain:

There is no congestion in this simple pedestrian crossing. And yet, waiting patiently for the light to turn green, people are lining up perfectly on one side of the pavement. They do so because lining up is the right thing to do. People were there before you, so you stand behind them, regardless of whether you’re in a hurry or not. Also, the pavement is quite narrow, so lining up in a single file on one side allows people to continue walking freely on the other side. Basic common sense, basic manners, right?

Except this is not the case in most other countries in the world. Without naming names, the experience in other cities – handling far smaller numbers of commuters – is very different: people cutting in line, people not forming lines, people obstructing other people, people pushing their way through, people shouting, etc.

Japan works like this for two basic reasons: rules and respect. First, if everybody follows the rules, the system works. All it takes is a handful of people not following the rules for the system to break down. Why would I stand in line if someone is cutting in? Second, the deep-rooted understanding that my needs do not come before the needs of others. Rather, I will do everything to make sure the other is at ease and comfortable, even if it sometimes puts me in a disadvantage (missing the train, taking the next elevator, etc.).

If everyone follows the rules, and every person puts the other person’s needs before his, everyone benefits. It’s a deeply ingrained cultural DNA, but unfortunately not something that can be easily copied by other cultures.

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