Cleaning ‘angels’ reinforce positive image of Japanese workers

January 4th, 2013 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Cleaning crew (in pink) waiting with the hordes at Tokyo Station for the train to arrive (photos: Jason Jenkins)

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.

What makes these cleaners unique is their employment situation. The average age is 51. Many of the women, in fact, are housewives who decided to go back to work after their children were grown. As one of these “angels” (tenshi) told the magazine, she wanted a job to make a little extra money but had no skills “except housework,” and so applied for a position with one of the many subsidiaries that clean the shinkansen train lines. She is now a manager. Tessei has 800 employees, 481 of which are “regular full-time,” meaning they receive benefits and overtime when it applies. All new employees start out as part-timers, and after a year they can take a test to become full-time regular employees. Thanks to the favorable publicity, the company now gets more applications than it has openings.

Heaven-sent

In most countries, including South Korea, whose economic culture is similar to Japan’s, cleaning jobs are normally filled by students or immigrants. It is considered an “entry-level occupation,” basically a euphemism for low-paying, dirty work that no one else wants to do. But Japan has never been as accepting of immigrants as other countries, and students are expected to devote all their time to study, so traditional cleaning jobs, such as hotel housekeeping, have been filled by middle-class housewives and retirees, usually on a part-time basis. Also, many small companies tend to compel their own employees to clean up offices, business premises and work places, thus obviating the need for outside cleaning services. Even regular commuter trains can be cleaned by staff after they are retired for the day in barns or trainyards, but shinkansen are different.

Because passengers pay premium prices to use them and they are in near-constant use throughout the day, they need to be cleaned on a continuing basis and quickly, so each line has made a cleaning subsidiary that requires its own dedicated workforce. A Tessei executive told Post that they have boosted morale by altering the perception of the traditional “3K job” from kiken (dangerous), kitanai (dirty) and kitsui (difficult) to kansha (appreciated), kangeki (impressive) and kando (inspiring).

That these workers are now being boosted as shining examples of selfless dedication to Japanese labor principles can be interpreted several ways. Anyone who has lived in Japan for any length of time will testify that the country’s service workers are second to none, and these cleaners are simply the latest promotional tools to that end.

It points up the important roles that both older people and women will play in the Japanese economy in the future, and in terms of older women it could add to the debate about current tax and pension breaks for homemakers. And it also clarifies what working conditions should be for any sort of labor-intensive jobs. Though none of the articles we’ve read state clearly how much these cleaners earn, from other sources it seems that part-timers start at ¥1,000 and hour and regular employees can make as much as ¥300,000 a month. More signficantly, these companies work on a flex-time system, and employees can choose their work hours with a certain amount of freedom.

From what we understand, even though the work is very hard (the majority of new employees quit within three months), employees take pride in their speed and efficiency. And therein lies the appeal. One even boasted that she lost 5 kg during her first month on the job. And then there’s the uniforms. In Japan, never underestimate the popularity of a job that involves the wearing of a uniform.

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6 Responses

  1. “and students are expected to devote all their time to study,”?
    That would be great if true…

  2. “Anyone who has lived in Japan for any length of time will testify that the country’s service workers are second to none, and these cleaners are simply the latest promotional tools to that end.” – true lines.

  3. One thing never ceases to amaze me in this country….. and now even Brasor, who usually does not write such nonsense.

    If you simply take a look at the top of the SAME PAGE of the Japan Times you will find this:

    http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/nn20130109a1.html

    There is no question, that the people in the shinkansen do a great job, and so do many others. But on the ground level, business in Japan is ALWAYS as described in the article.

    As Japan basically has only one problem: 120.000.000 people living in fantasy land, why don’t you stop producing such childish feel-good articles, describe reality and help waking up the people of Japan a little more?
    Or are you trying to tell us: Sleep on, you sheep, you will never change anyway?

    And even with letters like this one, proceed in the usual Japan-Times way: Censor it away….

  4. Earn 300 thousand per month cleaning trains? 1000 per hour is plausible but that means 75 hours a week. Foxtrottingly obvious the author has never punched a time card in this country; if it says 11:48 through 13:12 you get paid for one hour, nothing more, if you have to stand around with your thumb in a dark place for an hour or two, you DO NOT get paid, even though you are obligated to stay until the necessary 15 or 20 minutes of work can be done. Personally, I would put up with a dirty train for a discount. Because I selfishly need sleep. There are only 168 hours to a week. Do the math.

  5. The people in Japan did a great job!

  6. The older generation in my honest belief tend to show a much more aptitude and willingness to want to do a good professional job. These people take a pride in their work and i for one congratulate them in a service well done.

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