The Wonders of Air Travel

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Shunji Akimoto

    Main guest

    In his travels around the world, aviation journalist Shunji Akimoto has interviewed more than 1,000 people with connections to the airline business. He has contributed reports and articles to newspapers, magazines, and online media. He has also authored many books about passenger planes and airports, and appears on television and radio.

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October 31, 2017

The Wonders of Air Travel

*You will leave the NHK website.

If you've done your fair share of air travel, you've probably experienced a flight delay or two—or three, or four, or five...

Passengers and airlines alike have long accepted delays as an inevitable part of flying, but things are different in Japan. Nearly 90% of flights from Japanese airlines operate on time—that's one of the best records in the world. The methods these airlines use to achieve this wondrous figure, and what those methods reveal about Japanese culture, is the subject of this high-flying edition of Japanology Plus.

As host Peter Barakan learns from expert guest Shunji Akimoto, one reason Japanese flights are so often on time is because punctuality is so important to Japanese culture in general. This tendency can be spotted at every turn: if you happen to board the rare train that's been delayed, for example, you'll be bombarded with explanations and apologies—and when you get off at your stop, you can even pick up a slip of paper that explains your tardiness at work or school.

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Host Peter Barakan and expert guest Shunji Akimoto, a journalist who covers the airline industry.

But why, exactly, is Japan so concerned with being on time? According to one study, Japan's biggest punctuality push came in the 1910s and '20s, when the time management theories of engineer Frederick Taylor were introduced to the country. 1920, for example, saw the establishment of an official Time Day (June 10, the date when Emperor Tenji introduced Japan's first clock in 671).

Time Day saw the distribution of pamphlets that introduced time-saving advice like "be precise about meeting times" and "do not be late for meetings"—concepts that obviously had quite an impact. Taylor's time management principles were even given a Japanese twist: scholar Yoichi Ueno, who helped propagate Taylor's ideas, often wrote on the relationship between efficiency and Zen.

Incidentally, this same time period saw the introduction of the subject of today's edition: the wonders of air travel. The first successful flight of a Japanese airplane occurred in May 1911, when engineer Sanji Narahara's Narahara No. 2, powered by a 50hp engine, flew 60 meters. The first commercial flight came about a decade later, when, in 1922, Japan Air Transport Institute began flights between Sakai in Osaka and Tokushima on the island of Shikoku. 1931 saw the construction of Haneda, also known as Tokyo International Airport, where this edition's thrilling race to achieve an on-time takeoff takes place. The Tokyo region's other international airport, Narita, opened in 1978 to help relieve congestion at Haneda.

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An airline staff member in the control center works to help a plane take off on time.

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In Plus One, Matt Alt visits Narita to get a look at what cleaning an airplane entails.

For a few decades, air travel was the undisputed fastest way to get around Japan, but in 1964, a competitor arrived on the scene and gave airlines another reason to strive hard to offer on-time flights. Yes, it's that symbol of high-tech, high-speed Japanese travel, the bullet train. Known in Japan as the Shinkansen, this train (or network of trains, rather) connects virtually the entire country and offers fast, reliable service. According to Japan Railways, the average annual delay for the Shinkansen is 54 seconds per train—that's right, Shinkansen delays are measured in seconds.

Of course, there are places you can't go on a train—but for domestic travel, at least, it's clear Japanese airlines need to compete not just on timeliness, but on other factors that keep travelers happy as well. The program introduces just some of these features, such as rapid bag checks, sign language interpretation, and other examples of cheerful, ultra-professional customer service that continue to evolve.

Japanese airlines may have wondrous on-time numbers, but the rapid surge of foreign visitors, in tandem with the upcoming Olympics and Paralympics, will offer both new challenges and new opportunities. It may be the Japanese spirit of kaizen, change for the better, or it may be that the Japanese, as guest Akimoto notes, just hate to be late—in any case, these airlines are clearly not content with performance that's anything less than sky high.

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This airline uses the latest technology to provide sign language interpretation.

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Ground staff bid adieu to another on-time departure.

*You will leave the NHK website.