Some time ago, I talked with my colleague Ayano about the different forms Japanese thoughtfulness can take. She then remembered her manager at a previous company, who would do everything to show up precisely on time when having meetings at a client’s place. “If you’re late, it’s rude. If you’re too early, it can be troublesome for the other person. So even if we arrive early, we would spend time at a café or walking around and show up at the door at the exact scheduled time. That’s typical Japanese thoughtfulness for me,” she said.
The Japanese are famous for their sense of punctuality. Facts such as “Japanese rail company apologizes after train departs 20 seconds early “become global news. Foreign readers are amazed both at the apology and the mere concept of a train leaving earlier than expected. (Japanese trains’ punctuality, however, may not be what it seems.). It is true for business meetings. Only exceptional circumstances would allow you to be forgiven if you are late (regardless, do not forget to apologize).
However, in a casual setting, things are different. When I had my first dates with Japanese friends, I was surprised to find that they were often five to 10 minutes late. My naive self expected them to show up with a Shinkansen’s regularity.
I have been working for Japanese companies for about nine years and I have come to realize that Japanese people may not be “punctual” about everything. Let’s take meetings, for example, especially internal ones. They will start on time but will quite often finish way later than scheduled. Japanese culture loves meetings, and consensus is seen as the almost only way of making decisions. In this context, reaching a conclusion can take a very long time, even on secondary matters. This can feel very frustrating for foreigners used to a more frontal approach.
Similarly, do not expect to get things in advance. This applies to asking your Japanese counterparts to answer a critical question or deliver an important document (which will be reviewed by many people before ending in your hands). If you ask for something for, let us say, the 7th of September, do not be surprised to get it on that day… a little before midnight.
Of course, even though it is advertised as a homogeneous country, Japan is made of independent individuals. Your Japanese punctuality experience may be very different from mine, depending on the people and companies you deal with.
I would be very happy if you share your personal experience in the comments below!