Bulletin

An online magazine of news and opinions from the Asia New Zealand Foundation

Intern discovers railway company about more than trains

Foundation business intern Eva Laurenson discovered Kyushu Railway Company extended well beyond just operating a train network during her six-week internship in Japan. Not only did the experience give her a taste of the many business areas that make up the company, but also gave her valuable insights into Japanese business culture. 

Watch a slideshow of Eva's photos from her time in Japan

Earlier this year, I spent six weeks taking a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to run a railway company during my Asia New Zealand business internship in Kyushu, Japan. 

Apart from riding lots of trains (surprise), I picked tomatoes, visited a high-end aged care facility and sat in the driver’s chair of a bulldozer. What has this got to do with railways, you ask? Well, these are just some of the 38 businesses owned by the Kyushu Railway Company.

The work environment in Kyushu is quite different from what you’d find in New Zealand. There are exercises/morning stretches every morning and there's a big emphasis on aisatsu or greetings. This includes greeting everyone in the morning but also when you're walking around in the corridors.

Kyushu, located in the south of Japan, has a relatively small, rural population. While railways are their core business, the company makes all its profit from the other businesses they own, ranging from real estate to operating hotels, restaurants, a chain of bakeries and farms.

Eva Laurenson looking out of the window of a train

I was fortunate to visit a lot of Kyushu on the rail network during my internship. My colleagues also organised day trips for the weekends and get-togethers. Because I travelled so much during the week, I usually spent the weekends doing very little or training for the Nagoya Women's marathon, which I did straight after my internship ended.

The company describes safety as the foundation of their business. I got to visit the safety training centre where past accidents - not just involving trains - are studied by all members of the company.

I had a go on the train simulator, while getting tips/getting told off by two veteran train drivers; apparently I put on the brake a little heavy and my customers would have been jolted out of their seats. As customer service is the next most important thing after safety, and my clear inability to maintain either, I didn't make the cut to drive the real thing.

While punctuality is a strong part of Japanese culture, it is even more so at a railways company. In fact, while Japan is famous for trains ‘running to the minute’, they actually schedule them at a 15-second level of detail. While talking to one of the station masters, I learned that delays of 1-2 minutes can generally be made up, and any delay over 3 minutes are automatically announced.

Also, whether you work directly on the trains or are in the back office, there is a strong emphasis on being on time. While I’m generally the type of person to send an ‘on my way’ text, even though I’m just leaving the house, I made sure to get to the office way before start time every day.

Eva Laurenson and two colleagues standing beside a road marker with Mount Fuji in the bankground

The company plays an important role in regional development and most people I met at the company are either originally from Kyushu, or have rejected Tokyo in the same way that Wellington people seem to try to convince me that it is better than Auckland. This is the kind of home town pride and connection to the local community that makes you understand why it is not uncommon for locals to wave at the passing trains.

After the Kumamoto earthquake in 2016, getting the shinkansen up and running was a priority. The trains and shinkansen represent much more than a mode of transport, it symbolises connectivity and relevancy in modern Japan. However, for this same reason, it also makes the annual review of train scheduling and sometimes reducing of services on lightly travelled lines, a difficult task with a lot of pushback.

My internship at the Kyushu Railways Company has been an amazing experience where I’ve had the valuable opportunity to spend time with senior members of the company while I quizzed them in my improved, but still semi-impolite, Japanese. I also got to go on personal tours around areas rarely visited by the public and get a bit more understanding of the bits and pieces it takes to keep all those trains moving. Arigatou gozaimasu.

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8 June 2018