When living in Japan, you may be surprised to learn that time is perceived a little bit differently.

P34-02Time. Sometimes it passes slowly, sometimes far too quickly. How we perceive it often depends on our mood. Also, the way we perceive time is very much affected by our culture. Just ask people of different cultures their idea of what being “on time” for a party means. While a Canadian might say 30 minutes to one hour late, a Japanese person, to the delight of their host, might show up 20 minutes early.

Japanese parties also feature a set end time, which is a relatively uncommon thing for Canadians. Because the ending time is so clear, there are no uncomfortable hesitations or anxiety about timing your exit. The other lovely thing is that there are often “second” and “third” parties after the fact, which you have the option of joining.

And this level of organization extends to commuting, too. As far as time goes, the Japanese rail system is world-class. Although people from most countries understand that if a train is supposed to arrive at 8:15, it will likely arrive at 8:15, there are times when this isn’t true. If you have ever been to Japan, you will quickly discover that when they say 8:15, they really mean 8:15. So precise are the times that they even have very specific arrival times, such as 3:47. Short of an earthquake, typhoon or some kind of emergency on the tracks, not much else can get in the way of Japanese trains’ punctuality.

Japanese people are also very aware and respectful of other people’s time. This is one reason why their service industry is so finely tuned. In a convenience store or department store, if there are more than two or three customers waiting in line, the staff will open another register or make sure that they work their fastest to cut down waiting time. Any long wait in line will be greeted with a sincere omatase shimashita (“thank you for waiting”).

Japanese people always make the most of their time, especially holiday time, as time off is precious. Vacation time often lasts five to ten days and a trip to Europe, for example, will be perfectly scheduled with as many attractions and tourist spots jam-packed into the itinerary as possible. For this reason, the Japanese love tour packages. It is not uncommon to see a Pied Piper-like tour guide sporting a cute uniform with a matching hat, holding a flag at the front of the group, doing her best to herd everyone to the Louvre or get them to their bus on time.

While Japanese people appreciate efficiency and love to carefully utilize their time, they are very willing to wait patiently for things that they deem worthy. Standing in line to buy the best cake or ramen in the city, to see beautiful red and yellow leaves at a famous temple or to get a glimpse of a Monet painting in the art museum are all acceptable reasons to wait for hours without complaint. In Japan, time is simply something to cherish and use wisely.

SHELLEY SUZUKI is a long-time teacher of English as a Second Language in Canada and Japan. She currently runs an English school via Skype and is pursuing a teaching career, or whatever other interesting opportunities may come her way. She appeared on the Japanese TV show Okusama wa Gaikokujin (My Wife is a Foreigner). She hopes to become a children’s book writer and illustrator when she grows up.

Illustration by Chieko Watanabe