Why do Japanese cleaning crews bow at trains?

Why do Japanese cleaning crews bow at trains?

TOKYO —

The cleaning crews who maintain Japan’s high-speed bullet trains have a mere seven minutes to make the interior of the train spotlessly clean for its next journey. Those seven minutes are carefully divided into different tasks to make sure everything gets done in the allotted time.

Another curious detail people often notice about these cleaners is the way they bow as trains are entering and exiting the station. While this act is generally thought to be a respectful gesture, the intended recipient of the bowing seems to be a matter of great debate, with plenty of conflicting opinions out there, even among the Japanese.

The video clip below of cleaning staff bowing to an incoming train on the platform prompted a host of reactions from non-Japanese. Some were confused by the meaning behind the bowing, while others praised the act as a sign of respect. One common topic of discussion that emerged, however, was what exactly the staff were bowing to.

Note: The following quotes are based on Japanese translations of the original comments, so they may differ slightly from the originals.

Reactions of foreigners who saw the video clip:

Aruba (Netherlands Antilles)

“It’s great that the Japanese value the importance of paying respect to others. The West has a lot to learn from them.”

Brazil

“Japan is a terrific country! The only problem to speak of is its high suicide rate.” 

Canada

“Nice. In my personal experience, if I wave as the train is arriving at the station, the train driver will usually wave back.”

China

“I’m Chinese, and I honestly don’t feel comfortable with all the bowing in Japan. It’s because in China, people mostly bow to honor those who have passed away.”

Italy

“They are bowing to the passengers, the drivers, and to each other, right?”

Netherlands
“Didn’t anyone else notice that no one was riding in the train?”

United Kingdom

“Japanese traditions are the best in the world! We’ve lost courtesy and grace in the West.”

United States

“It says in the title that they’re bowing for the train, but isn’t it for the passengers riding inside?”

“If people in the West were more respectful to each other, America wouldn’t have become the police state it now is.”

“A strange aspect of Japanese culture…”

“I think they’re going a bit overboard, but it’s good. “

“Lovely stuff!”

“I respect this. We definitely need more of this in the West.”

“What the Japanese are doing is great. Please stay like that!”

“Yup, when I was in Japan, even a car driver would bow if he cut you off.”

“I read this somewhere, but Japan is the only country in the world that has managed to hang onto its culture and traditions while making scientific progress.”

Taking it a step further, here are the reactions of some Japanese people who read the foreigners’ comments and posted their own thoughts on Lakatan:

“The cleaners are only doing it because it’s a rule of the company. They wouldn’t continue doing it if they didn’t have to.”

“It’s refreshing to view Japanese etiquette from the eyes of foreigners. But the ideals of service and ‘business smiles’ originally came from America. That spirit has died out in America, so the Japanese may also lose their sense of courtesy someday.”

“All things begin and end with courtesy.”

“I think that they bow because they take pride in their jobs. The passengers don’t feel like they’re being bowed to. It’s a virtue of the cleaning people.”

“Isn’t it just a regular greeting to the train driver and the train that conveys something like, ‘Work hard today!’ and, ‘We appreciate your efforts!’ And wasn’t the idea that inanimate objects have a spirit (tsukumogami) born out of the custom of showing respect? Or maybe it’s vice versa.”

“Korea’s Confucianist culture also emphasizes respect.”

“There are many schools where the students bow when entering and leaving the gate.”

“It’s the same as Pavlov’s dogs, or the deer in Nara.”

“I’m surprised that there are so many negative comments. Do we really need to find fault with this?”

Whose thoughts do you find most compelling–the foreigners’, or the Japanese? If you’re ever in Japan and waiting on a train platform, maybe you too can see the sight in person and decide for yourself.

Source: Lakatan

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  • 7

    SimondB

    Why do Japanese cleaning crews bow at trains?

    I'd imagine it's because someone higher up the food chain told them they have to and no one has ever thought to ask why do we bow to empty trains.

    Can't say it bothers me in the least and in a similar vein no matter how many times it has happened I still get a buzz from the attendants at the petrol station lining up and bowing to me as I leave after filling up. Just love it.

  • 3

    kwatt

    It seems to be just their longtime habit, nothing else. I don't criticize them.

  • 2

    zteano

    I'm sure the idea is to pay respect to it's work place (as those at the department store bows before entering and exiting the staff area). But it is also done to build up a good image for the customer that the worker have pride (hokori) in their work, which makes them to believe the workers are doing their best.

  • 2

    philly1

    Isn't it part of TESSEI company's branding? Isn't it called 'Shinkansen Theatre' and part of TESSEI's PR?

    Cleaners execute their top-notch service with high drama in order to create a powerful impression for customers, hence the uniforms, the bowing, the impressive speed and thoroughness of the cleaning.

    That way passengers don't mind the 7-minute turn-around time while waiting to board quite as much.

  • -4

    theeastisred

    Perfunctory and virtually meaningless custom. Does no harm, though.

  • 4

    roymksh23

    It is okay to bow since this is their way of greetings with respect

  • 2

    songwillem2011

    I believe they're bowing to the train itself, but probably also to everything else mentioned. Shinto their primary belief system (I wouldn't really call it a religion) holds the belief that everything even objects and places have sentient spirits residing in them or alternatively the object itself is actually sentient and has a soul. You know whenever a Japanese person says 'please excuse me' when entering someone's home or 'I'm in your care' when preparing to work with someone and bows. It's pretty much the same thing only the recipient is now an inanimate object. At sporting events, other vehicles, machine, factories and even the armed forces with their ships and tanks tend to do similar things. Which is why I'm convinced an evil robot uprising will never happen in Japan :p.

  • 2

    gogogo

    It's Japan, you bow to everything :)

  • 8

    Badge213

    It is out of respect. Not are they only bowing to an empty train (there's staff in the train) the train and train staff successfully carried passengers to their destination in safety.

  • 2

    tuknuk

    im japanese but actually im not really sure why they bow to the train

  • -9

    HaraldBloodaxe

    It's an automatic reaction, with no thought behind it. They were told to do it, they do it. Performing no purpose beyond empty, pointless ritual.

  • 1

    Wakarimasen

    I think it is fine. agree, here we bow to everything. even when talking on the phone. I have also ppicked up the bowing habit over time - invites comment when am outside Japan....

  • 7

    CGB Spender

    It pays respect and appreciation to something or somebody. As that, it's a very important, fundamental custom so there is a lot of meaningful purpose to it. It's also anchored in Shintoism in which every being and object has a spirit, even a rock. A person who sees value in even a simple rock is a better person than one who sees no value.

  • 0

    turbotsat

    Apparently same applies to planes, see Item 3 at link below, with photo. Maybe the same for ships?

    http://en.rocketnews24.com/2014/03/18/6-things-japanese-expats-miss-most-about-japan/

    1. .... And many people report that seeing airplane mechanics bowing to each arriving plane as one of the best things about Japan. ...
  • 2

    bogva

    They bow of respect to their clients that use the train no matter nobody is riding it in the moment. Also respect to their own work which exists because of the train company, the machine and the clients. And finally they were trained to bow in same manner in synchrony as that makes good impression !

  • 2

    Tessa

    And many people report that seeing airplane mechanics bowing to each arriving plane as one of the best things about Japan.

    Yes, they do. I fly a lot and I love getting a window seat and waiting for the moment that the ground crew bow in unison as the plane takes off.

    The conductors on the train often turn and bow briefly when leaving or entering each carriage. My overseas friends are utterly enchanted by this custom, as it doesn't seem to exist anywhere else in the world.

    Oh, and in my local supermarket, the staff even bow when leaving for the stockroom! (And I do not live in a fancy neighborhood.)

    Such a simple and respectful gesture, which costs no time or money at all. I hope it never dies out in Japan. On the other hand, I hope it doesn't catch on in other lands. Outside of Japan, it would seem creepy, servile, and robotic. I wouldn't want to raise kids in a land where they were expected to bow deeply to other people as a way of saying thankyou for giving me the pleasure of cleaning out your ashtray.

  • 0

    Kanade

    I think it's just an old habit of theirs, and I doubt they have ever actually questioned whom they're bowing to. Nothing good, nothing bad, just the way it is. I love Japanese courtesy but can't deny that they do go overboard sometimes.

  • 0

    lostrune2

    Ya guys should bow too

  • 1

    ProudJapanese

    We japanese must bow to show respect. But now mostly automatic not with meaning I think

  • 0

    therougou

    Japanese people bow everywhere. Workers bow when they go into their hidden staff rooms even when nobody is looking. How is this news?

  • 0

    Bendrix

    I think another reason they do it is to signal the start and end of their task. In formal situations, I think Japanese like to have clear cut starting and ending points.

  • 0

    danalawton1@yahoo.com

    I heard that bowing by cleaning employees to trains is a tradition that started over a thousand years ago. Back then the train tracks were poorly made and the train would often derail.... the employees would continually bow downward in order to view how well the train was riding on the tracks. This is just ancient history.... I could be wrong.

  • 5

    Rana Sajid

    My kids bow to the ground when beisball practice is over,same to the school gym.

  • 2

    Ex-Expat

    I don't know how it looks in other regions, but the bowing done in my city conveyed to me another possible meaning. I grew up in the aviation world, so maybe my eyes are biased, but I've suspected the bowing is also a signal to the conductor.

    Since the workers are often working on the very edge of the platforms, it seems logical to me that the workers give a visual acknowledgement, an "all clear", as the train approaches and departs. I've also seen them use hand signals while bowing and backing away from the edges.

    Plus, it looks nice to the paying customers. :-P

  • -3

    kwatt

    Japanese bow is everywhere even Jaijins. Mnay gaijins unconciously tilt their head forward a little bit (and shake hands at the same time) when they talk with Japanese. I saw many. That is called "Eshaku" means bow. But they say "I did not bow". If you are living in Japan for a while, you are unconsciously brainwashed to bow everywhere.

  • 3

    kickboard

    It's an automatic reaction, with no thought behind it. They were told to do it, they do it. Performing no purpose beyond empty, pointless ritual.

    Wrong. Try again.

  • 1

    wtfjapan

    Yup, when I was in Japan, even a car driver would bow if he cut you off.” yep stopping with the hazard lights on while talking on the phone holding up the traffic, a bow and hand gesture will fix that. a taxi driver cuts accross you to get a fare waiting on the roadside, a bow and hand gesture will fix that. a shopper races to get a car park that is one space closer the the supermarket, a bow and hand gesture will fix that. a speeding driver on the expressway flashes his lights behind you so he can speed past, a bow and hand gesture will fix that. ive seen them all. bit like saying nicely, GTFO of the way

  • 1

    jinjapan

    i think it might have something to do with shintoism as in shinto everything has a god. you see workers in supermarkets they turn around , face the store & bow b4 entering the back room. in all sports they bow. soccer they bow to the field. baseball . track & field & so on .

  • 2

    Spanki

    I think they do it because they know that trains have feelings too, as anyone who watches Thomas and Friends knows...

  • 0

    1glenn

    1. It is a very interesting custom.

    2. Since no one seems to know why the custodial workers are bowing, not even the Japanese commenters, I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that it might be fruitful to ask the workers themselves why they are bowing.

  • -1

    techall

    Reverse mooning?

  • 1

    pablo944

    I think it is lovely whatever the reason. The Japanese are very polite and there certainly cannot be any harm in that. That is what makes them the most charming race on this planet! Why question it?

  • -2

    sillygirl

    Form over function.

  • 1

    philly1

    If you are living in Japan for a while, you are unconsciously brainwashed to bow everywhere.

    Not quite. Human beings are great mimics and unconscious imitation of the majority or the powerful is a way of fitting in with the group. Most don't even realize they're doing it. Bowing or bobble-heading while talking on the phone is one example. In other countries people do the cheek-to-cheek air-kisses or shake hands or if part of a smaller sub-group they might fist bump. Japan's culture is more formal than many other countries and the bow is a distinctive part of that.

    People may not remember the origins of the customs of their cultures, but they have a history and begin somewhere. Some historian would be able to offer an explanation.

  • -1

    evian1

    Bowing and kneeling are origin from Old feudalistic China centuries ago, but the modern Chinese discard this etiquette and only bow to the deceased showing respect, or showing appreciation to an audience. The Japanese still keeping such tradition which to certain extend feudalistic and irrelevant like in the case of train cleaning crews.

  • 0

    mrmalice

    well it's a cultural thing that might mean different things in different countries, you're not supposed to be comparing that to what it means to you, when in rome, respect the lions

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