The Japanese and time
One significant difference between the European and Japanese way of thinking is their attitude towards time. In Europe, when a train is 15 minutes late, we think it’s more or less on time. In Japan, if a train arrives one minute after it is due then it’s late. Taking a look at things at home, people in Hungary don’t typically show up early for a meeting. They are far more likely to be late and not even apologize. Japanese people generally arrive early for a meeting. If they are late they do not go into lengthy explanations but simply apologize – over and over. The Japanese rush to be on time. It’s not merely a superficial impression that the Japanese are always rushing. Concrete measurements have been taken, and they confirm the observation that even the walking tempo of the Japanese is on average faster than that of Europeans.
In Japan over 125 million people live in a space smaller than Hungary. To prevent the crowding from creating chaos, being precise and on time is important, whether managing the rush hour or cutting storage costs. Regarding the latter, the Just-in-Time system of supplying components originated in Japan.
At the same time, if we don’t look at precise timing but at duration (the passage of time), we no longer see people rushing. Just think of a tea ceremony, of the exceedingly slow pace of a traditional No theater performance, or of the nerve-wracking wait before two sumo wrestlers begin the contest following the mandatory introductory ceremony. Are these just ceremonies that are dying out? No way. Adherence to unwritten rules is fundamentally important to the Japanese. These rules are more important than giving a discussion or event the time it deserves. At the start of a meeting the Japanese will always take two minutes to exchange business cards and study one another’s cards. Then, to start off the meeting, they always take a few minutes to discuss topics like, say, the weather. There is a ritual for bringing up various informal events in a relaxed atmosphere at the start of a meeting or even at the start and end of a school class. They never begin something in the middle and never cut it off suddenly. Events have phases that are often formal, which we may find superfluous and a waste of time. In their view, however, they are showing their respect for the other party, since they are “taking the time” to do things properly. And the best way we can reciprocate is by keeping to those rules: to understand that everything must be done in its own time.
One reason why working hours in Japan are longer is because of these formalities and keeping to these rules. No small part of the working day consists of discussions that are not necessarily efficient. Instead, they are aimed at getting staff to accept the given goals they are asked to implement – along the various levels of the hierarchy. This is time-consuming and causes delays. At the same time, the delay is brought in during the implementation phase because everyone is in the same boat and rowing in the same direction.
The Buddhist concept of time is not of a start and end but of a wheel of time that is cyclical. This is one of the meanings of the Buddhist symbol shown here, the infinity knot:
Seasons are also very important to the Japanese, since they are repeated year after year. They are very proud that there are four seasons in Japan and are often surprised that this is true for many other countries, too. The rebirth of nature year after year is important to them, even today. The same is true for the repetition of days. It is interesting that, before the process of modernization began in the latter half of the 19th century, the length of hours was not set, but depended on the hours of daylight. In other words, they were adjusted to nature. The names of the days of the week are also linked to natural concepts (moon, fire, water, tree, metal, earth, sun).