There are many differing opinions on the importance of punctuality and what time frame is considered 'on time.' In Japan, this is very important and can be the key to making a good impression, being a good employee, and being respected in the workplace—as well as basic etiquette. Punctuality reflects throughout Japanese society. Many visitors to Japan will note that the trains are rarely late, and in the rare circumstance that they are, an apology is announced through the train. Most people continue to show this in their everyday lives—personally and professionally. Here we will go into more depth regarding the necessity of punctuality in Japan and how it can affect your life.
Punctuality in Japan is about always being on time. Whether you're in a professional or private setting, being on time shows that you respect and value the people you are meeting.
Being late is often disrespectful, as it implies that you don't appreciate the other person's time; or that their time is less important than yours. It can cause people to see you as unreliable or untrustworthy. Whether among friends, in the workplace, or at a first meeting, this impression will not serve you well in continuing the relationship positively.
It is also imperative to address what “on time” means, as it is not an objective term. In some cultures, being up to an hour late is still considered “on time.” In Japanese culture, being “on time” means arriving early. In most cases, around 10 minutes early is sufficient.
In a work setting, this allows for time to set up and get ready to start the work day before the start time. Many appointments in Japan, such as for hairdressers or salons, will require you to arrive 10-15 minutes early. Arriving 10 minutes early also means there is less likelihood of being late if there is a short delay in your commute time.
The Japanese train system is famous for its commitment to punctuality and always getting passengers to their destinations on time. While delays can occur, they are as short as possible—and the train company will apologize to the commuters for the delay. Delays are rare occurrences, and long delays are even more so. When a train delays more than 5 minutes, passengers receive a special certificate to give their employer or school, explaining their lateness as the train's fault.
The bullet train (shinkansen) is often considered more exact than the regular local trains, with the average shinkansen arriving at the final stop just 54 seconds behind schedule. It accounts for all possible delays, even those caused by natural disasters such as earthquakes.
As most of us know, it is nearly impossible to always be on time. Sometimes delays occur for reasons outside of our control. While you should always try to be on time, if you are going to be late, you need to know what to do and how to approach the situation.
The first step is to contact whoever you are meeting as soon as you know that being late is inevitable. In a workplace, this means messaging or calling your boss to tell them you will be late. You should also provide a reason and let them know when you will arrive. Most importantly, you should apologize for your lateness, whether it is your fault or not.
Upon arrival, you should also make an in-person apology. Showing you are sorry for being late reinforces the notion that you mean no disrespect to the other person and care about any inconvenience caused. It can also help to build trust with your co-workers and peers.
It’s important to apologize for being late, but depending on your Japanese level, this can be tricky. It is especially true when you consider the varying levels of politeness called for in different situations. Here we will cover some of the most common ways to apologize for the lateness.
First is the most basic apology:
I’m sorry that I’m late.
This can be used in many situations and is good to remember in case some of the more difficult phrases slip your memory.
Here is an alternative:
Sumimasen, osoku narimashita. (すみません、遅くなりました)
I’m sorry, I’m late.
In a more formal situation, you may say:
Omataseshite moushiwake gozaimasen. (お待たせして申し訳ございません)
I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.
If you know you are going to be late and are apologizing in advance, you can change the tense of the sentence to present/future tense:
Sumimasen, okuremasu. (すみません、遅れます。)
I’m sorry, I’m going to be late.
If you know exactly how late you will be, you can add the time.
Sumimasen juppun okuremasu. (すみません、１０分遅れます。)
I’m sorry, I will be 10 minutes late.
If you think it’s possible you will be late and are contacting your employer or someone you are meeting in advance, you can use the following phrases:
Gofun okureru kamo shiremasen. (５分遅れるかもしれません。)
I might be 5 minutes late.
Sumimasen, okureru kanousei ga arimasu. (すみません。遅れる可能性があります。)
I’m sorry, there’s a possibility I will be late.
In more formal situations you can replace the ‘sumimasen’ in many of these phrases with ‘moushiwake gozaimasen’ to show a deeper level of respect.
As we have discussed, punctuality and being on time are crucial to Japanese society for many reasons. Many people have noted that this commitment to strict time schedules doesn’t apply to the end of the workday. While you should be at least 10 minutes early at the start of the day, working well past the stated finish time isn’t unusual and, in many places, is expected.
The same also rings true for meetings, conferences, and similar engagements; for several reasons. At a business level, it can be because the company considers work getting done more important than employees going home on time.
On a more personal level, many people are concerned with maintaining their reputation in the workplace. Being the first person to leave or leaving “early” can be seen as not being dedicated to your work. Keeping a good relationship with co-workers and reinforcing a good reputation can take priority over watching the clock for the day to end.
Surprisingly, Japanese commitment to punctuality is a relatively recent cultural phenomenon. Accounts from early traders and visitors to Japan regularly note the lack of timeliness and reliability. These accounts date back to the early to mid-1800s or the Edo Period.
At this time, Japan used a different system of time-based on the seasons. For this reason, they often did not meet the punctuality expectations of Western visitors. During the Meiji Period, Japan's rapid period of modernization, many factors came together to standardize the measurement of time.
The introduction of universal education led to students, parents, and teachers needing to be at school simultaneously, day in and day out. The introduction of trains required a schedule that needed keeping. Further cultural changes continued to cement this adherence to schedules and punctuality.
Punctuality is a fundamental aspect of Japanese society. Understanding the etiquette of timeliness will help you maintain a good impression in the workplace and among your friends and peers. Living up to this standard will only help you in the long run. We have covered some of the most important aspects to bring into your everyday life and maintain a positive reputation and effective punctuality.
For more advice and guides on navigating business culture, check out this page to deepen your knowledge of work life in Japan.
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