If, like thousands of others, you took the shinkansen (super express) during the recent New Year’s holiday break, when you arrived at a line terminal you likely saw uniformed cleaning crews waiting at attention for the train to stop. They would have bowed as you left the car and then scurried on board to clean it up before the passengers waiting on the platform were allowed to board. During this time of year, in particular, express trains are packed 24/7, and keeping arrivals and departures on time is the number one priority. These cleaners, on average, have only seven minutes to make the cars spic-and-span, and their methodical efficiency in getting that job done has made them heroes in the media, the newest symbols of Japan’s storied work ethic.
At least one book has been written about these train cleaners, CNN produced a special report on them and dozens of magazine articles have covered them in detail. A recent issue of Shukan Post concentrated on one of the companies, Techno Heart Tessei, which is a subsidiary of JR East. Right at the beginning of the article, the Post offers the opinion that these workers provide a positive example for any business in Japan. It then goes on to describe in detail the “shinkansen gekijo,” (bullet train theater): how the cleaners, both men and women, accomplish their “miraculous” task, which is methodical and reducible to the second. There is one cleaner per non-reserved car, two or three per reserved car.
Overhead racks are checked on the initial round while seats are reset to their original orientation and underfoot trash is quickly swept to the middle aisle. On the return round, window ledges, blinds and panes as well as folding tables are wiped; headrest covers are replaced if dirty. Then someone comes through with a broom to collect the trash. Separate staff handles toilets. All operations are checked by the supervising cleaner and cleared. Usually, these teams complete their jobs with more than a minute to spare. On the average, they clean 20 trains a shift.