A little bit of Shinkansen magic

all pictures copyright of Charli James (where stated) and Maryam Mokhtar

It is 2.24pm on a weekday afternoon and passengers at Tokyo Station’s train platform are milling about, earphones plugged in, eyes glued to the brightly lit screens of their gadgets, as the iconic Shinkansen bullet train pulls in.

Commuters glance briefly at the incoming vehicle, and then nonchalantly return to their phones and tablets. In the background, seven unassuming women and men in navy pants and pin-striped collared shirts take their places, one at each entrance of each passenger compartment along the train.

Train arriving, Clean crew waiting

A worker preparing for her duties as the bullet-nosed Shinkansen rolls in (photo by Charli James)

They enter the train at precisely 2.27pm.

From then on, it’s a clockwork process of cleaning and sprucing up the train carriage in a span of exactly seven minutes. There is little room for anything less than preciseness; each train that returns to Tokyo Station has a turnaround time of 12 minutes before it sets off again.

It is a renowned routine rehearsed to perfection and executed without hitch every few minutes, when a train departs from one of the several platforms headed to the various cities down south of Tokyo. In this realm, numbers are rounded off to the nearest second, at most, to the nearest minute.

There is no longer much fuss nor fanfare about this remarkable process that has now become very much an ordinary part of the Shinkansen ride. It is the first-timer (this writer) who is left gaping at the sheer perfection of it all.

The meticulous process begins away from these platforms, in the workers’ labyrinth – a network of offices, pantries and lockers located underground.

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The doors to many of these rooms bear a sign that reads Otsukaresama deshita – ‘you must’ve worked hard and are tired, thank you for the effort’.

Three workers enter the main office of the Tokyo Service Centre within the station, get their timesheets stamped and then prepare for work. Every day at the Tessei headquarters, the cleaning company contracted by Japan Railway (JR), some 240 to 280 workers rotate through three cleaning shifts on the JR East trains that depart from the station.

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The three workers spotted earlier pick up a red pouch and a blue or black bag, both filled with cleaning essentials – cloth, trash bags, cleaning sprays, gloves and even a remarkable coagulating powder that solidifies vomit so it can be quickly cleared off the floors or chairs.

Drinking, a strong component of Japanese culture, happens frequently on the evening trains returning to Tokyo from Osaka, when salarymen use the three-hour trip to unwind after a day’s work.

Just before workers head out to begin their shifts, each clips on a flower to the left side of their newsboy caps – today they are wearing cosmos to represent the start of autumn.

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Above and below: The amount of detail extends to even the small accessories adorned by Tessei workers – here two employees wear the cosmos flower on the left side of their caps to symbolise the start of autumn (photos by Charli James)

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In spring, they don a plastic replica of the blooming sakura; summer sees them in straw hats and Hawaiian-esque shirts. In winter, they carry some of the Christmas magic with a tiny snowman tucked behind the ears. Crew leaders put on a friendly Santa hat.

Pouches strapped securely across the waists, bags slung over their shoulders, it is time for work to begin. The stopwatch starts.

It’s almost as if one has entered a time warp and hit the fast-forward button, though all of this is playing out in real time.

Cleaner between seats

Above and below: a worker whizzes in and out of rows of seats, picking litter and wiping tables before mopping the floors – all in the span of seven minutes (photos by Charli James)

Sweeping through door

Trash is picked up, seats wiped down, floors mopped, window screens pulled up and chairs automatically swivelled with such an efficacy of speed that the motions are a blur. The hand gestures and movements of these workers seem methodical, even mechanical, no extra steps wasted, no additional wipes than necessary.

Seat turns, cleaner in back

Chairs are swivelled around with the push of an automatic button, so they face the correct direction when the train sets off from Tokyo. (photo by Charli James)

Supervisor Watariya Takuya explains that a typical row of five chairs in a train car should take an average of 12 seconds to be cleaned, before the whole carriage is complete in the stipulated seven minutes. But he stresses that it’s not all about time, cleanliness is as important a part of the process as speed.

I check my watch: the carriage I’m on is complete with about half a minute to spare – no litter in sight, plastic head covers on the seats perfectly in place, chairs turned around in the right direction.

As if on cue, once the cleaning is over and done with, the workers exit the train compartment. Like performers on a stage, they take a collective bow. Their audience ambles onto their respective compartments, largely unaware, perhaps even unbothered by the magic of the seven minutes that have passed.

They have places to go to, work to be done, just as these workers have more shifts awaiting them, more chairs to be spun. This is not a show, it is a job.

Staff Bows

Workers take a collective bow, their seven-minute cleaning turnaround time successfully complete (photo by Charli James)

Watariya-san plays down any of the hype, often from foreigners, surrounding the cleaning process: “No one sets out to be a cleaner. No one has this as their dream. But these workers find a way to have pride in their jobs, to feel like they have somehow contributed to society.”

That an individual can place such dedication to his job, regardless of rank or recognition, should say something about the environment through which this attitude has been instilled.

Seven minutes should be just about enough time to ponder over this.

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