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).