Why do Japanese cleaning crews bow at trains?
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.”
“Japan is a terrific country! The only problem to speak of is its high suicide rate.”
“Nice. In my personal experience, if I wave as the train is arriving at the station, the train driver will usually wave back.”
“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.”
“They are bowing to the passengers, the drivers, and to each other, right?”
“Didn’t anyone else notice that no one was riding in the train?”
“Japanese traditions are the best in the world! We’ve lost courtesy and grace in the West.”
“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. “
“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.
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