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Blame cultural inertia for Tokyoites letting snow make a mess

15 Comments

Abikyokan is a colorful Japanese term that translates as agonizing cries or pandemonium. It also refers to two Buddhist hells.

Writing in his "Dispatch from Princeton" (Jan 24),  Akihiko Reizen uses abikyokan unsympathetically to describe Tokyoites' reaction to the heavy snow that fell on January 22, and the resulting traffic paralysis that ensued.

But hold on here, says Reizen: Wasn't the weatherman forecasting that big snowfall several days before it actually arrived? You would think that people would have taken more proactive measures.

Events might have even turned out differently, he writes, if office workers had been ordered in, being told "Get here on time, and if you've got any overtime to do, we expect it done." But as far as is known, no companies made such demands on their staff.

In fact, when the heavy snow became inevitable, many workers were urged to leave their offices early. Upon which they became kitaku nanmin (homeward-bound refugees). One would think a hasty departure would have avoided their being stuck, but that was not the case.

At such major rail stations as Shibuya, Shinagawa, Kamata, Musashi Kosugi and others, commuters transferring from one line to another encountered "unthinkably long lines of passengers." It's likely that as the snow came down increasingly more heavily, the times between train runs increased, and in some cases trains were delayed or cancelled.

Because storms of this nature are so few -- occurring on the average of once only several years -- it's simply impractical for the railways to invest in devices to prevent freezing of switches of blocking of the tracks.

Even if a source could be found to fund for the procurement of such devices, the cost burden of maintaining them would be excessive.

For better or worse, the snow played out pretty much as the weather bureau reported it would, with snowfall turning heavier from afternoon. So nobody can blame them.

What or who, then, is responsible for all the problems that occurred?

From one point of view, there was no sense of urgency in terms of crisis management, although the temperature did drop sooner than expected, causing the snow, produced by the presence of a low pressure area on the Pacific coast, to arrive slightly earlier than forecast.

In response, both the Meteorological Agency and the various weather forecasters in the private sector, updated their forecasts. Anyone had access to the information, such as on web portal sites, which made it easy to see that a change in the weather pattern had developed.

So it appears management was unable to minimize the damage through use of the available data, and Reizen sees this as a "big problem." Still, the troubles that ensued can be attributed to an even simpler cause.

The problem, in its essence, can be described as: "From such abstract factors as logic and statistics, the inability to come to a decision that takes risks into account." Or to put it more simply, one could say, "Dissatisfied unless able to observe the situation with one's own eyes"; or even "Inability to move until one directly encounters the actual sensation."

Another stumbling block is the policy of "A decision won't be announced for staff to leave the office until the snow begins to stick on the ground." Reisen was aghast to learn that one railroad that had cancelled its runs told homeward bound passengers they could walk home along the tracks."

The problem then, is that the difference between the speed of obtaining of key information and the speed of acting on it is severe. It can be called a cultural problem if people say they are worried they'll be criticized if they make proactive actions too early and are proved wrong. But even worse than that is the nature of Japanese organization that "no action will be taken until we can see something happening."

This customary insistence on not accepting something unless it can be visibly verified is not limited merely to weather conditions, but can be said to apply to a variety of other cases. For example, if a company takes the opportunity to adopt telework, then when inclement weather such as what recently happened does occur, company staff would not need to come into the city.

What is actually behind the resistance is the judgment that "we can't feel reassured unless people meet and communicate face to face," or "a task isn't complete until the final report is committed to paper."

This roadblock has lead to a major negative impacts on Japanese productivity. If one thinks, for example, "I can't decide until the actual snow begins to fall" -- as well as "there's no sense of trust in telework since people don't see the faces of their counterparts -- it is policies such as these that consume time and waste effort.

So then, concludes Reizen, addressing this cultural problem of "seeing is believing" in terms of the various ways it impacts negatively on productivity may be useful in the debate of how Japan should be reformed.

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

15 Comments
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The easiest thing to do is just to force companies to give people days off when you have unusual snowstorms like last week's. Abe should have gone on TV and declared a national holiday monday and tuesday. Some people would have no doubt still gone to work, but it would have eased the congestion.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Blimey is wasn't that bad! The train journey home for me took 10 minutes longer than usual and that was because of a busy transfer.

1 ( +5 / -4 )

Reminds me of London and how things would grind to halt if there was an inch of snow. Soft southerners!

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Toasted

Do they still use the "Wet leaves on the line" excuse?

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

The easiest thing to do is just to force companies to give people days off when you have unusual snowstorms like last week's. Abe should have gone on TV and declared a national holiday monday and tuesday. Some people would have no doubt still gone to work, but it would have eased the congestion.

Companies would not pay the people that took the days off. Look at when the missiles flew over Hokkaido, companies were telling workers they still must come to work or they will be fired.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Not cultural inertia, just inertia.

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Hate to disagree, @Luddite, but this is certainly cultural. Japanese workers are expected/forced to work long hours and the general mindset of the majority is flock-like. Compare what just happened in Tokyo, and how it was handled, with what happens in any other major city in the world that gets snow on even a regular basis.

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companies were telling workers they still must come to work or they will be fired.

sorry- which companies did that?

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Abikyokan is a colorful Japanese term that translates as agonizing cries or pandemonium. It also refers to two Buddhist hells.

Must be my age. I thought it said, "ABEkyokan."

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Aly Rustom - Abe should have gone on TV and declared a national holiday monday and tuesday.

A national holiday? Sure, it would've been nice to have a national holiday on those cold rainy days in my part of Japan. Remember, not everybody lives in Tokyo and these are local matters not national.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

A national holiday? Sure, it would've been nice to have a national holiday on those cold rainy days in my part of Japan. Remember, not everybody lives in Tokyo and these are local matters not national.

Good point. My bad. He would have had to declare a holiday for Tokyo, Chiba, Saitama, Kanagawa.. Would that have been enough...?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Yeah, a Kanto National Holiday would've sufficed and been much appreciated, I'm sure. But I still would've liked to have had a couple of days off, like you suggested, even though it didn't snow here.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

The headline is unnecessarily provocative because it implies Tokyoites have some control over their lives. They do not. Workers go to work when told to and kids go to school. Unless told otherwise, this is what happens. An "ame ni makezu" culture, which I suspect sends old hikers up mountains where its raining, dangerous, and not remotely enjoyable, does not help either.

Comments from other posters suggest what "Tokyoites" can be blamed for are individual errors. One poster said he cleared his street to put the snow in a sunny spot, only for an ojisan to shovel it repeatedly onto the road. I suspect this would be "well that's what they do in Niigata" logic, except that Niigata has hundreds of snowploughs and some roads that are heated or doused in well water. Tokyo does not. People riding bikes at anything like normal speed on frozen streets just lack common sense.

Giving people a (half) day off or letting them work from home could have avoided the scenes at the big stations, but that requires flexibility at the top. I hope no-one was unnecessarily injured by it.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I think the issue that everyone is getting to is accountability and fear of failure which are factors to why Japans businesses and companies are in such a mess.

No one is held responsible for their actions, and the higher up the chain you go the less responsible people are for their actions and the consequences for stupidity, ignorance or flat out lying seem to be a slap on the wrist.

Recently i saw an article in an Australian paper that said employers caught not paying their employees superannuation (essentially the Australian pension) correctly would face up to one years jail time.

yet in japan we see all sorts of scandals going on from Kobe steel falsifying reports to Densos staff wacking themselves from overwork, and what happens to the people responsible in management? they give a little bow apologies and keep their jobs and ridiculous pay checks.

Until the labor standards board gets some real teeth, actually prosecutes fines and jails people and until actual changed and modernization of the work force are forced through, Japan will remain a completely outdated, inefficient and horrendous place to work.

As for inefficiency and face to face work platforms, its usually a blatant refusal of staff and management to change their behaviors. I used to work for a BOE and the women there would always call me on the phone or request i came and see her in person, when i informed her that it was easier and more convenient to send my an email, Line, or text message which i could then also translate and it would result in less errors, her responses was to completely ignore what i said and return to her previous behavior.

I asked a room full of business English students the other day about their work life balance and communication with other co workers and I got a resounding "there is none" as far as I'm concerned you cant get much more from the horses mouth than that.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

@szero25, i had to login to japantoday (reset my password as hadnt logged in for a long time) just to reply to your comment. You hit the nail absolutely on the mark and i am so much enthralled by your comments and previous posted comment on similar issues (japanese etiquette based culture, false standards and fear of ostracize).

Japan has to absorb more foreign culture (really they need to learn how rich and powerful cultures grow) to make a dynamic and lively society otherwise it risks rottening and become a fraction of its former glory.

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