Reputations are weird things. Japan has a reputation for extreme punctuality, where everything runs like a well-oiled machine and the train companies apologize for being a minute late, and this is generally true. Train delays certainly do happen (quite often in Tokyo, apparently), but not nearly as seriously as, say, Germany-another country with a reputation for strict timeliness. People tend to show up on time to things they’re expected to attend. But at the same time, there are nuances to this that show the need for balance.
So, what does it mean to live in Japan and have to deal with time?
Show Up Early
The basic idea of punctuality in Japan is that you should be ready to go with whatever is planned at the starting time. This means, for example, if your work shift starts at 9:00 you should be in the office, at your desk with your computer on at 9:00. Thus, you should show up early enough to make that possible. Do you need some time to have a coffee, use the restroom, and get yourself energized for the day? Then show up well before 9:00.
If you have a meeting scheduled for 3:30, that means the boss is expecting everyone to be ready to start the discussion at 3:30, so you’d best be in your seat by 3:20 or so. Is your boss coming to an after-work dinner or party? You’d best be there ten minutes early. Starting times are expected to be just that, times to get started, and so in any work-related event showing up then is considered being late. It’s best to remember that.
That being said, though, there is a great balancer to this…
Be Ready to Stay Late
The expectation is that things start on time. The expectation is not, however, that things end on time. Meetings that actually end when they are scheduled to end are a rare thing in Japanese companies, and everyone already knows about the dreaded overtime plague of Japanese work culture.
Part of this comes down to the perceived power of Japanese bosses. The seniority in the room tends to override other concerns, so if the boss doesn’t have anywhere else to be, the meeting ends when he (or she, but in Japan, it’s almost always he) is ready to end.
The question then arises, of course: what about my next meeting/event/plan? Well, this can be tricky. If the person in charge of your first meeting outranks the person in charge of your second meeting, you might have to be late for the second meeting. An explanation of that usually suffices (Sorry, bucho, I was in a meeting with the shacho!). If the opposite is true, you can usually get out of the first meeting the same way (Sorry bucho, I have to go, I have a meeting with the shacho!). If the ranks aren’t so clear, then you’ll have to find another excuse. Which issue is more urgent? Do you have a more important role in one meeting than the other? It can be a tricky thing to navigate, and sometimes you’ll just have to accept that you might have to explain after the fact why you missed something important.
Outside of Work
So, what about in private life?
Strangely, I find that strict punctuality ends at the office. Japanese people in private life follow the same kind of rules that, say, Americans do. People tend usually to be on time but certainly not always, and some people are never there when you expect them to be. In other words, they’re people with their own personalities and traits. When I was an English teacher in Japan, there were students who were chronically late, just like when I was a German teacher in the US.
But at the same time, it’s still considered polite to show up when you say you will. Five minutes, either way, isn’t such a big deal, but anything more than a few minutes late will probably result in some unhappiness in your partner.
The takeaway from all this should be, it’s a good idea to be on time. Your bosses will not like it when you’re not at least a little early, your friends will appreciate predictability, and things will generally go smoothly!