Notebook Lost, Work Ethic Found

Rob Schmitz continues his dispatches from Japan, where he’s reporting on that country’s aggressive approach to energy efficiency–and what lessons we might take from them. Rob returns to KQED’s Los Angeles Bureau in October–with his notebook.

Today I left my notebook on the train to Ota. In it were notes of all the interviews I had conducted since arriving in Japan. Throughout my day of reporting, I repeatedly asked to borrow my interpreter’s notebook, and by the end of the day, I was depressed with the thought of having to listen to hours of tape that I had meticulously transcribed over weeks of interviews. When we returned to the station, my interpreter, Chiaki, took me to the station master’s office. That’s where I met Mr. Aiba.

My Travelling Notebook

My Travelling Notebook

Aiba-san was in his 50s, tall, thin, graying hair, glasses, and, like most Japanese in his position, incredibly polite. He wore a blue uniform and a green band around his arm with ‘security’ written on it in Kanji. Aiba-san listened intently to Chiaki’s every word describing the notebook, where I left it, and how important it was to me. He asked follow-up questions: “What are the approximate dimensions of the notebook? Is your name on the notebook?” and so on. As Chiaki answered, he took notes.

When he was finished, he offered us a seat, briskly walked to his desk, and picked up the phone. He called other stations, he called cleaning companies, and he consulted timetables. In between calls, he updated us: “The train you were on has made three round trips from Tokyo to Akagi today. Cleaning crews in many cities have cleaned the train several times.” Aiba-san briefly left the room while he waited to hear from the cleaning crews. He returned with some tea for us. A minute later, he received a call from the cleaning crew in Akagi, a city in the mountains at the end of the line: they found my notebook. Nobody had claimed it, so it had been tossed into a recycling bin. It was waiting for me on the platform there.

Aiba-san, getting the job done.

Aiba-san, going the extra kilometer.

“But you’ll have to hurry,” said Aiba-san, looking at his watch. “The train to Akagi leaves in less than one minute.” He escorted us, running frantically in the lead, to the platform. We barely made the train. I had a few seconds to reach into my bag to give him a box of See’s chocolates that I had brought as a gift for my interviewees. He sternly declined the gift, but I insisted.

When we arrived to the tiny Akagi station, two elderly custodians with brooms in their hands were waiting for us on the platform. They bowed in unison to me and handed me my notebook. They had neatly wrapped it in a copy of the train’s timetable. This is just one of many examples of the generosity and commitment to service that I’ve experienced in my short time in Japan. Had I lost my notebook on a train or a bus back home, would anyone care? They probably would’ve laughed me out of the station at the thought of tracking it down.

Now, take this behavior to a macro level and you start to see why Japan, an island nation with no fossil fuels and few resources of any kind, has become the second largest economy in the world. When Japan puts its collective mind to something, it not only gets the job done, but it oftentimes excels at it. From my conversations with government officials, business leaders, and those in the non-profit sector here, it’s obvious that Japan is not only committed to reducing greenhouse gases, but perhaps more importantly, it wants to make a lot of money from doing so.

In short, it wants to ensure that its companies own and make as much of the technology that goes towards this global effort as is possible, and it’s got a head start. Japan leads the world by a long shot in registered patents in the green technology sector, according to a report from CERNA, the Centre d’Economie Industrielle. Check out the final pages of that report, which compare countries, and you’ll see Japan leads in every patent category except one. Japan is getting the job done, just like Aiba-san stepped up to do his job when I sought his help. It’s a spirit that’s refreshing to be around. We could use a few more Aiba-sans back home.

  • Scott Shafer

    Rob — great story and wonderful storytelling. Enjoying your reporting, blogging, etc. Terrific job!

  • http://iheartguts.com wendy

    i wish the US was that functional!

  • Greg

    I have enjoyed the entire series and blog. Thank you for the always fine work.

    On a lighter note about Japanese attitudes towards their jobs, I would refer you to “Dave Barry Does Japan” (1992), page 49. I cringed at the title and the cover, anticipating a lot of offended people, but found at least this passage, funny and consistent with what you report from the JR staff.

    There is a limited preview which includes this section on Google Books.

    Kudos again.