Shinkansen cleanup crews perform '7-minute miracles' 120 times a day

TOKYO —

On a certain December day, on platform 22 in Tokyo Central Station, a work unit clad in the red uniforms of Tessei Co (formerly known as Tetsudo Seibi Co Ltd) line up with military precision. A bullet train on the Tohoku shinkansen pulls in, and the workers, at the given signal, step aboard and hastily go about their work. The time is 16:56, and in just 12 minutes, the same train, designated Yamabiko-Tsubasa No. 147, will depart. Since five minutes of the 12 must be allowed for passengers to disembark and board, the cleanup crew has just seven minutes to perform their tasks.

Normally, notes Shukan Post (Dec 21-28), two to three workers are assigned to a first-class car, as opposed to one to clean up a regular car. In addition to checking for items left behind on the overhead racks and seats, they must flip the 100 seat backs in each car to make them face the front of the train, and while doing this, they scan the aisles and floor for any refuse, a task generally performed in roughly one minute, 30 seconds.

They then proceed to wipe off the table tops in front of each seat and adjust the window blinds. If any of the white covers on seat backs appear begrimed, these are exchanged for clean ones.

At the two-minute warning, they turn their attention to emptying the waste receptacles between cars. They also team up with other staff, whose task is to tend to the lavatories and washrooms. After a final check of all assigned jobs on their list, they assemble outside on the platform and bow in unison toward the passengers awaiting boarding.

“Ideally we get seven minutes, but when the train’s crowded, it takes passengers longer to disembark, and it’s rare for us to be able to get in the entire alloted time,” says Akio Yabe, Tessei’s senior vice president. “So we try to get the job done as quickly as possible.”

On this train, notes Shukan Post’s reporter, the total elapsed time for the cleanup was five minutes, 27 seconds.

Tessei refers to its speedy cleanup operations as the “Shinkansen Theater,” and the performance is every bit as impressive as the name implies. The staff’s chores have been observed by visiting officials from Europe and North America, and was also reported by a CNN crew as the “7-minute miracle.”

Their efforts have even inspired a bestselling book, “Shinkansen osoji no tenshi-tachi” (Shinkansen’s cleanup angels) by Isao Endo (published by Asa Shuppan).

But as Yabe puts it, “There’s more to it than just cleaning the trains. If the cleanup takes too long, the shinkansen trains will be delayed. So part of our job is to keep the trains running on time.”

And a big job it is. Each day from Tokyo station’s four platforms, a total of 210 trains pull in and depart, with average intervals of four minutes. Each team of 22 Tessei workers cleans an average of 120 trains per day, and at times of peak demand, it might handle as many as 168.

Currently, Tessei’s work force numbers about 800, of whom 481 are full-timers. The average age of the work force is 51; about 40% are female.

The system is merit-based, and after one year of employment any part-time worker who so desires is eligible to become a regular employee with full benefits. The company adheres to a policy of promoting competent workers to supervisory positions. It also acknowledges “excellent” workers, rewarding them with one-time bonuses of up to 50,000 yen.

While both management and passengers clearly appreciate the hard work, not everyone who aspires to perform in the “Shinkansen Theater” makes the grade. Indeed, many part timers decide they’ve had enough and beat a hasty retreat at the end of their three-month probationary period.

If Tessei could be said to have accomplished anything, notes author Endo, it would be having transformed the notorious image of “3K” (dirty, difficult and dangerous) work into a job where the 3K stands instead for “kansha,” “kangeki” and “kando” (gratitude, drama and strong impressions).

  • 9

    paulinusa

    They do an amazing job. From what I've seen 40% female sounds too low and most them look on the older side of 51.

  • 7

    Brainiac

    Really interesting story about something I hardly ever noticed. But I will now.

  • 0

    SquidBert

    paulinusa, I have to agree, I think I hardly ever saw any male clean up crew. They probably get the low level 'management' position handing out brooms and buckets and doing and gathering the cleaning crew checklists etc.

    Or perhaps they clean the 1:st class cars which I am usually not standing in front of when I am waiting to board.

  • 14

    lucabrasi

    The system is merit-based, and after one year of employment any part-time worker who so desires is eligible to become a regular employee with full benefits. The company adheres to a policy of promoting competent workers to supervisory positions. It also acknowledges “excellent” workers, rewarding them with one-time bonuses of up to 50,000 yen.

    Now that's how to run a company and get the best from your workforce. Not by coercion and veiled threats. (I'm talking about you, ALT recruiting agency).

  • 8

    ebisen

    Yes, I'm always deeply impressed by their speed and quality of work (and generally by Japan's shinkansen lines)

  • 11

    sasukene

    Actually disembarked off a Yamabiko-Tsubasa shinkansen on Sunday afternoon at Tokyo eki and watched one of the teams go to work as I had a few minutes to kill. This team was mainly younger guys with a couple of 50+ ladies. It was interesting to watch them work with military like precision. They do a great job on a thankless task.

  • 6

    marcelito

    Yes, they are pretty awesome.

  • 4

    In_japan

    Each team of 22 Tessei workers cleans an average of 120 trains per day, and at times of peak demand, it might handle as many as 168.

    7 min X 120 times a day = 840 min; 840 / 60 = 14 hrs / day

  • 3

    In_japan

    it might handle as many as 168

    OMG

  • 0

    Virtuoso

    I think that's got to be a typo, because there are "empty" periods when cleaners are waiting for trains to pull in and that would extend their total working hours even further. Since it said the work force is 800, I figure at any given time there is likely to be two or three teams (44 or 66 workers) on a single shift, with 88 to 110 spread out on any given day.

  • 6

    Thunderbird2

    When I was waiting at Tokyo to go to Nagoya in November I saw this army of ladies waiting at key points along the platform. The Shinkansen 'Nozomi' pulled in, people got off and then I watched as these ladies went to work... amazing. I watched one lady as she cleaned the carriage and I've never seen anyone do anything that quickly before.

  • 12

    sourpuss

    Ever since I took my first shinkansen ride 15 years ago, I've been a huge fan to the detriment of airplane travel. All that leg space, all that comfort, all that convenience...okay, it's not cheap(all those yen). But it's well worth it.

  • -13

    Tessa

    I will never cease to be amazed at the efficiency and the meticulousness of the the train cleaners in Japan. But I've heard even better things about the suicide clean-up crews!

  • -1

    wtfjapan

    @Tessa yeah an average of 83 suicides a day in Japan, theyd need just as good a cleanup crew for that as well.

  • 2

    megosaa

    i would love to be in the team!

  • -2

    TheMysterious Duck

    just dont try giving your used PET bottle to the usual shinkansen staff as you get off as i did, they will get very upset.

  • 0

    Ranger_Miffy2

    Have seen the suicide squads in action. Understated drama and a lot of blue tarps for screening. Anyway, good on noticing the Shinkleaners meritorious symphonic performance.

  • 0

    m6bob

    No other country can do this better than Japan as they do it 'from their heart'.

  • 3

    blanko

    I've always felt bad for the way cleaners are perceived by the public. They do such good work and are always polite, yet most Japanese commuters never smile or even acknowledge their existence.

  • 0

    Kapuna

    Why not a TIP box on the train that greatful passengers could drop 500Y into?

  • 1

    SamuraiBlue

    TheMysterious Duck

    If you are talking about the conductors, try it in any western country and see what will happen.

  • 1

    lucabrasi

    Why not a TIP box on the train that grateful passengers could drop 500¥ into?

    Tips aren't appreciated by most people in Japan. You do your job properly, you get paid properly. No need for any extras from wealthy customers who happen to be feeling generous that day.

  • 0

    Tetsuya458

    I read this news by "Yomiuri-Shinbun DEC.15th 2013". I'm a Japanese, and I was very proud of this quick services with "OMOTENASHI feelings". Always and almost we Japanies people have this welcoming feelings is not special, but I can understand when you foreiginer tell us this quick services. Thank you very much for writing at Japan Today this news about SHINKANSEN THEATER.

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