“O genki desu ka? O hai yo go zai masu.”
This is how architects of India’s first bullet train project are greeting each other these days — in Japanese — to say “how are you?” and “good morning.”
It’s a race to learn Japanese for every employee of the National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited (NHSRCL) as they work towards rolling out the Shinkansen — the high speed rail system — from Japan.
Every alternate day of the week, for an hour, from 5.30 pm to 6.30 pm, all Indian officials involved in the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project sit together with books before a professional language teacher to learn the ninth most-spoken tongue in the world, considered one of the toughest to master.
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The students range from the managing director to office staff in the headquarters. Those working in state offices of the four chief project managers in Ahmedabad, Surat, Vadodara and Mumbai join through video links. No one is allowed to miss a class.
Textbooks include Marugoto, the course on Japanese language and culture, developed by the Japan Foundation and based on the established standard for Japanese-Language Education. The course book is designed with an emphasis on using Japanese to communicate, and on understanding and respecting other cultures.
According to officials, India is not just bringing in the hardware system of a high-speed train from Japan, but also the culture that runs one of the best operated transport systems in the world.
Language is the first part of that quest and failing is not an option.
“Those who cannot master even Level 1 will not be allowed to go to Japan for the on-the-job training required for the project,” Achal Khare, managing director, NHSRCL, told The Indian Express. There are two levels, 1 and 2, which is slightly advanced.
And so, smoking breaks and lunch-time conversations at the canteen are replete with Japanese one-liners these days. Sentences like “Anata wa sakana ga sukidesu ka (Do you want some fish)?”, “Doko ni taizai suru ka (Where do you stay)?” are heard much to the delight of the Japanese colleagues.
Starting this October, NHSRCL officials will be sent to Japan to learn the nitty-gritty of the Shinkansen. What they learn will be important because they are expected to train around 3,000 personnel at a training institute in Vadodara who will be running the bullet train.
The first batch will be sent to Japan for 1-3 months. There will later be on-the-job training courses for six months for subsequent batches.
The professional language teacher has been provided by the Japanese embassy in Delhi. After every chapter, a test is taken. The marks of the tests are recorded for tabulation and performance review. Learning the Japanese script, however, is not a priority. In any case, there are 50 letters from simplified Chinese to form a phonetic script which is not easy to master in a course like this, officials said.
NHSRCL has decided to import the entire customer service manual of the Shinkansen. The manual is what determines customer-service ethos and practices of the transport system’s operations.
Much of it, officials say, is rooted in Japan’s culture. The Shinkansen famously issues apology letters to passengers even for the slightest, rare loss of punctuality. The track record of ensuring zero accidents is also ingrained in the Shinkansen culture of operations and maintenance.
“This is what we want to imbibe and for that, interaction with the Japanese colleagues during training in Japan is very important. That’s why we are serious about the language classes,” Khare said.