2005 photo essays
Week six (May 1, 2005)
· Major blunders in the organization of the Expo
Prepare for a rant this week. I have lived in Japan before and am somewhat used to the overly correct and slow way official affairs are run here. Therefore, I am a little more understanding towards certain procedures that make some of my colleagues reach their boiling point. However, some of the organizational failures drive me up the wall, too.
It can be said that in history, there were long periods were Japan hasn't been especially keen on having foreigners in their country. In part this legacy still appears to live on in a kind of diffuse xenophobia in some people. Its isolated state as an island country and the long history as a country with a remarkably uniform population (with less than one percent of foreign population) contribute to this situation even up to this day. However, when you host an event called the World Exposition and invite people from all over the world, I'd say you need to be prepared for all kinds of strange foreigners coming into your country, and you have to take some steps to facilitate the communication with all these funny people. You can't just steam ahead the Japanese Way, Mister Yamamoto.
I would say that first, in order to mitigate the exchange between host and guest, you would need to put some staff that is accustomated to dealing with foreigners in key positions. It's not like there aren''t heaps of Japanese who have studied abroad and can speak English very well, but hardly any one of them seems to have been to elected to work at the Expo. The Expo headquarters is a prime example of how the Expo is set up as a typical Japanese enterprise. There is no actual staffed reception (don't even think about English-speaking staff), only a telephone and a list in Japanese which asks you to call the respective office section in charge on the internal line.
The entire set-up is almost purely Japanese, so nearly every matter concerning Expo regulations, staff housing or commuting passes, customs, etc. has to be resolved by Japanese or Japanese-speaking staff. Don't mention the phrase "internationally orientated" here. Well there is some staff that can speak English very well, but I'd say they are far and few between. I guess most foreign operations that came to Japan for the Expo expected everyone of the Japanese staff down to the guards or bus drivers to be able to communicate in English, and very quite surprised about the degree of communication problems.
The subway terminal of Fujigaoka is connected to the Expo site by a special train called the Linimo (which, contrary to popular belief, is not a magnetic levitating train. The abbreviation is derived of 'linear motor', which functions differently from a regular motor in that it is generating propulsion not by rotation, but by direct transmission -- sorry, I didn't really have the time to get into the technical details). Due to the magnetic levitating technology without moving mechanical parts, the Linimo also produces less running noise than a regular train. That's about the only advantage I can see compared to a regular train or subway line to the Expo site. Yes, the Linimo is the only mass transit going to the Expo and obviously has been designed as a demonstration in cutting-edge technology and economy-friendliness.
However, it has quickly become clear that the multi-billion Yen project Linimo cannot handle the transport of the huge number of visitors to the Expo. The Linimo stations became a terrible bottleneck with waiting times of over 30 minutes in the morning. Each Linimo train has only three cars (each holding probably around 150 people) and doesn't run more often than every 5 or 6 minutes, which amounts to about 10 trains per hour. You can do the math yourself as to how many people can travel with the train every hour. If somebody would have done their homework beforehand, it should have been evident that the Linimo system is totally insufficient to transport up to a hundred and fifty thousand people to the Expo site every day. And the Expo organizers still stressed the promotion of the mass transit public transportation to reduce pollution by visitor traffic. 'Nature's wisdom' - what a joke.
The terrible conditions at the Linimo were amended somewhat by hurriedly increasing the number of bus shuttles. This helped to reduce the congestion a little, but the waiting times on the weekend still exceed 30 minutes. Also, now you have traffic jams all around the site. Expo staff who has to rely on public transportation to get to the Expo site (read: most people) had to endure this ordeal every morning until after about 2 weeks into the Expo, when the organization committee finally introduced morning bus shuttles from Fujigaoka. It took another two weeks, till the end of April, until it was realized that hey, the Linimo is just as crowded at night with returning visitors, so that evening bus shuttles for the staff where finally set up. I don't know who put enough pressure on the committee to galvanize them into action, but I thank them very much.
Update 2005-05-14: The Linimo situation is not getting any better, on the contrary, on weekends the situation has actually gotten worse. Now we have to line up in the evenings, too. On Saturday, there was a 30 minute queue at the West Gate train station, which is the next station after the North (=Main) Gate train station Banpaku Kaijô. There, the arriving trains are packed already, so only 20 to 30 people can board the train at the second station. When I saw the queue, I turned around and gathered some other people to have a beer at the Australian Bar, where other Linimo users were already gathered. I mean, that's just what you need after a long day's work, queueing for half an hour to get on an overcrowded train? No thank you.
There were some evening bus shuttles for staff during the Golden Week at the beginning of May between 9pm and 11pm, but they were canceled after the end of that week. Hello, do you think there are any less staff going home from the Expo site, now? Anyway, the situation is totally unacceptable.
Update 2005-06-27: Unexpectedly, the Expo association announced the inauguration of evening shuttle buses for Expo staff from 10:30 to 11:30 "due to the heavy traffic congestion" at the Linimo. Very well, a very welcome move, but the joy about this change turns into anger when you learn about the true reason for the decision by the Expo association. They did not set up the bus service in response to the numerous complaints by foreign Expo staff, but in response to complaints by Japanese visitors. At times during the weekend when the West Gate Linimo station has waiting times of more than 30 minutes (see update above), some clever foreigners skipped the regular queue by telling the staff that they are going in the opposite (not crowded) direction to get into the train station, but then took the train into the other direction, towards Nagoya. Complaints by Japanese visitors about this practice were finally taken so serious by the Association as to set up separate staff buses for us foreign staff, not to make life easier for us, but to avoid Japanese visitors being inconvinienced.
The Linimo also doesn't have express trains which go directly to the Expo site without stopping subway-style at every station, thus cutting down travel time. So the Linimo is basically a smaller, slower, much more expensive version of the subway. It doesn't even run smoother than a regular train, the concussions when accelerating or braking are actually worse, or maybe the operater just doesn't know how to properly drive the train. Oh wait, I forgot to mention that the train is running fully automated, another fact the Linimo operating company never fails to mention proudly, which, however, doesn't thrill me out of my pants. There has to be an operator on the train anyway, to look out of window at the station and check whether it is safe to start, or in case the Linimo has a malfunction.
All this considered, it would probably have been much easier and cheaper to just to extend the already existing Higashiyama subway line all the way to the Expo site. That would have provided direct access from Nagoya and saved everyone coming from the city center (including me) the hassle of changing lines at Fujigaoka station. The subway has six trains and runs every two minutes at peak times, so it could, at a rough estimate, transport nearly ten times the number of passengers. Let me see, yeah, that could maybe handle the visitor load of an event as big as a World Exposition.
However, it seems that the money that wasn't spent on larger trains was used for the myriad of Linimo staff at every corner. The Fujigaoka terminal is extreme even by Japanese standards, with huge numbers of staff every two meters, shouting orders in your ear: "These are the stairs, please watch your step.." "Move in three straight lines without running.." etc. This is quite annoying, not only to us foreigners, also our Japanese co-workers have been heard complaining about the over-eager Linimo people.
In addition, the Linimo mangement gives you all kinds of good advice such as the one in the picture below, recommending that we use the Linimo before it gets crowded in the evening when everybody returns home. Oh thanks for the hint mister Linimo operator, I'll just be gone to the boss's office. I guess he'll be really understanding when I tell him, "Sorry, gotta go and catch the train before six, you know how crowded that darn Linimo gets after 6 p.m.?"
There are also some other questionable practices in place here, which I won't go in detail now. One example was the original rule prohibiting visitors to bring food (such as the ever-popular bento boxes) on the Expo site. This rule was abolished by intervention of the Japanese premier minister Koizumi at the last moment because of the outrage it caused in Japan. However, many eateries on the Expo sites (especially those selling bento or other "non-exotic" food) have apparently been hit quite hard by this move since they now sell way below their expectations.
All this is not to say that only the Japanese side produces glorious fuck-ups, though. The foreigners create just as much of a mess, but I guess that is material for another update. Also, it's not like everything is bad, on the contrary, most things at the Expo run quite smoothly and are expertly solved. The above entry collects some critical points that are complained among the staff frequently.
· Next week: The French-German partnership