Yesterday evening while I was doing some late evening shopping at a local 99 yen shop, I saw a fellow do something which I've always felt was an "only in Japan" experience. First, it's important to set the scene. The shop is essentially a shoebox. It's probably no more than 15 feet wide (~4.5 m.) and 20 feet long (~6 m.) in terms of the longest stretch of space in each direction one can actually tread upon. Traveling from end to end of the store on the longest side at a normal stride would take less than 7 seconds.
As I was approaching the check-out, another customer walked up and stood in front of the unmanned cash register. An employee who was "at the back" of the store (that's about 4 seconds, to you and me) upon seeing the customer approach sprinted into action and attempted to "run" to the register to assist the customer. In mid-sprint, he knocked over a bunch of sundry goods piled on the end of the aisle. For those who haven't had the pleasure, many small Japanese stores have aisles capped and semi-blocked by half open boxes serving as ad hoc displays. They also serve as a challenging obstacle course for customers who grow rapidly bored spending time looking at products they might like to purchase. It gives the experience a festive "rat in a maze" feel and you can really feel like you've accomplished something if you manage to traverse the entire place without knocking something over. They also provide social interaction opportunities for employees and customers when items are invariably pushed over. Within seconds, helpful assistants usually rush over to pick them up and embarrassed customers apologize. It's all part of the colorful fabric of Japanese society which encourages all to be friendly and get to know one another through collisions with random objects.
The extraordinarily diligent employee in the 99 yen shop likely saved a total of half a second by running rather than walking, though he lost that gain because he had to pick up the items that toppled. Before anyone gets the idea that this is a stellar example of an attempt to provide the best service to the customer, let me say that I've gone to the same shop with different staff there and stood in the empty store and waited for a cashier for a minute before one decided to surface. This isn't about this superior service in this shop as 99 yen shops are hardly making the sort of cash that allows them to pay the sorts of salaries that allow them to train people in all the corporate niceties. There was, however, an older fellow in the shop at the same time who may have been a supervisor and it could be the young man was new and wanted to impress. I don't blame him. We all would likely do the same thing in his shoes.
When this fellow pointlessly and clumsily ran from one end of the shop to the other, it reminded me that the office ladies (often called "O.L.s") at my former office used to do the same thing. Well, it wasn't quite the same thing. The man in the 99 yen shop tried to actually run and the office ladies rarely knocked things over. He literally leaped from where he was to rush to the register. The office ladies did what can be called "the office girl trot". The trot seemed designed to provide the illusion of running by pumping legs and arms in an animated fashion while not actually increasing one's velocity more than what a quick stride would accomplish. Nonetheless, this sort of trotting and running across short distances in the office occurred daily, even when there was absolutely no reason to hurry.
I asked different office ladies on several occasions why they bothered to do this and they always said that it was to get there faster. When I pointed out that the office was sufficiently small that they were likely shaving no more than seconds off their time by trotting, they tended to shrug and smile. I'm not sure even they knew why they did it, though I had my guesses.
I figured the main reason was that they saw other people do it and they felt they should as well. It wasn't that they believed that it had much practical value. In fact, I'd wager that, if they sprinted from point to point every time they traversed the office in this fashion, they might save the company a whole half minute a day at the very most. In the end, I concluded that this running was more about the illusion of looking like one was extremely diligent or applying as much energy as possible to doing their work rather than actually saving time.
There may be people who sprint around the office back home, but I never worked in one where people did so. I think that a lot of folks in the U.S. would perceive such behavior as inappropriate, like running in the halls at school. The main problem with it is that running can be much nosier and more distracting as feet pound on the floor and footsteps while walking are more muted. I always knew when an office lady was "rushing" to give me a reschedule or some paperwork because it was clearly preceded by the pitter-patter of little feet trotting my way. At any rate, if anyone else has experience with this and has a better explanation for why employees run, I'd be very curious to hear it.