The Japanese Skilled Copied by the World

As the sleek shinkansen bullet train glided noiselessly into the station, I watched a strange ritual begin. During the brief stop, the conductor in the last carriage began talking to himself. He proceeded to perform a series of tasks, commenting aloud on each one and vigorously gesticulating at various bits of the train all the while.

Japanese train conductors practice shisa kanko, pointing at what they need to check and then naming it out (Credit: Credit: Trevor Mogg/Alamy)

Japanese train conductors practice shisa kanko, pointing at what they need to check and then naming it out loud (Credit: Trevor Mogg/Alamy)

So what was he up to? You could say he’s practicing mindfulness. The Japanese call it shisa kanko (literally ‘checking and calling’), an error-prevention drill that railway employees here have been using for more than 100 years. Conductors point at the things they need to check and then name them out loud as they do them, a dialogue with themselves to ensure nothing gets overlooked.

And it seems to work. A 1994 study by Japan’s Railway Technical Research Institute, cited in The Japan Times, showed that when asked to perform a simple task workers typically make 2.38 mistakes per 100 actions. When using shisa kanko, this number reduced to just 0.38 – a massive 85% drop.

Mindfulness is moment-to-moment awareness.

This may seem a long way from mindfulness, which in recent years has become synonymous with what the Japanese call zazen – meditating cross-legged on a cushion. But according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where he founded its renowned Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic in 1979, mindfulness is “not really about sitting in the full lotus… pretending you’re a statue in the British Museum. Simply put, mindfulness is moment-to-moment awareness.”

And this present-moment awareness has been deeply ingrained into the Japanese psyche for centuries. You don’t hear people talk about it, but it manifests itself in myriad ways.

In tea ceremony, participants take time to notice the design of the cup (Credit: Credit: Lonely Planet/Getty)

In tea ceremony, participants take time to notice the design of the cup (Credit: Lonely Planet/Getty)

Tea ceremony, haiku and cherry-blossom viewing, for instance, all share a heightened appreciation of the moment. In tea ceremony, participants take time to notice the design of the cup before drinking and appreciate the decoration of the tea room, which reflects the foliage and blooms of the month. But beyond that, the ceremony celebrates the fact that this moment with this person in this place will never happen again.

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