The Phenomenon Of Pointless People

One thing I find fascinating and hilarious in Japan is the employment strategy used by various companies whereby old men are employed, uniformed and given redundant tasks to perform.

the what

A position is created in order for a Pointless Person to fulfill totally unnecessary, but distinctly heartwarming and polite roles.

A typical example is shown in the photo below, where the uniformed old man on the right carries his red-lighted stick in the middle of the day, and whose sole objective is to guide pedestrians along the road on which they are already walking, and to advise them to take care not to fall into the hole which is surrounded by barriers and cones. He will bow and use polite language as he does so.


To extend the phenomenon there are often other Pointless People, who I call secondaries – people further removed so as to be even more redundant. This is where things become really funny and interesting. In the example shown above, on a one way street, there was not only a secondary standing on the road 50m before the roadwork but inexplicably another standing 50m after the roadwork! Both were of course uniformed and, bizarrely, helmeted.

This next example was seen at a train station, where an elevator was being installed. Despite the extensive signage, two staff members were equipped with plastic megaphones and positioned to instruct commuters to do the only thing possible – walk around the work.

station1_800 station2_800

the where and when

This phenomenon seems to occur whenever some regular pedestrian route is temporarily changed – escalators in a station, roadwork, a tile being repaired on a shop floor, etc.
In such situations, the Pointless Person will appear at the spot where the route deviates from the original path.

the extension

Occasionally the Pointless Person strategy is taken to extremes – an overkill approach, whereby excessive numbers of Pointless People carry out a role. This is achieved by simply increasing the number of secondaries.

I stumbled across such a situation in my local area the other night and felt it warranted substantial documentation. Below is a satellite photograph of the location (aside: Google Earth clearly hasn’t updated its images in the last 2 years) and next to it a map of the same area.

map_900 satellite_900
(click the map to enlarge)

Looking at the map, the actual roadwork being done is in a small area near position B. As this road is blocked, cars cannot travel to position C or beyond, and are therefore diverted up past position A.

There is an extensive pedestrian area (shaded pink on the map): between C and A there is a flight of stairs so vehicles cannot pass here. Between C and D is a narrow shopping street – pedestrian traffic during the day and later only delivery vehicles.

I first saw this scene from just below position A on the map, looking past the roadblock in the direction of position B (which can’t yet be seen as it lies at the bottom of a slope). The first two people of many appear in this image.


Moving along the street beyond the barrier, I made this short video from position A.

Note that with signage blocking the street, traffic cannot enter – therefore the front person is not entirely necessary, but given the one way street system he does have the means to serve a useful function of directing oncoming traffic.
The second guy (the first secondary) most definitely doesn’t. He is pointless, and stands for hours doing nothing.
Why he needs a helmet is anyone’s guess.


As I continued down the steps to position C it became obvious that there was some overkill going on. This photo was taken from position C looking towards position B:


Here we have two utterly pointless secondaries, both of them on the beyond side of the roadblock at position B.

I investigated further, walking to position B from where I took this shot of the actual roadwork:


Here, to my amazement, I found three more Pointless People, two of whom appear in the photo along with a workman. The other PP was standing behind me. Perhaps one PP could be considered necessary to divert traffic; the other two are most definitely extras (technically they aren’t secondaries as they are positioned at the actual worksite).

The following video begins from position B, where one of the Pointless People directs a cyclist towards position C.

It had been a funny unfolding encounter. I packed up my camera and wandered along the shopping street towards the 24-hour supermarket, smiling in amusement. Eight uniformed old men, out of which maybe only 2 served any useful purpose.

And then, as I rounded the corner at position D one final surprise.
Here was yet another secondary, a good 200 metres beyond the roadwork and at the end of a non-vehicular street.
So far away and redundant he should perhaps be classed as a tertiary.


I continued to the supermarket, giving one final glance back. Thus ended the night adventure.


the why

Theories busted. The existence of Pointless People is not

  • a demeaning phenomenon
  • an indication that management think the public lack intelligence or initiative

Pointless People’s raison d’être derives from Japan’s culture of service. In Japanese business, the customer is always regarded as having a superior position to the seller, so etiquette dictates that the customer is treated with reverence. There is in fact a common phrase, “okyaku-sama wa kami-sama desu” which roughly translates to “the customer is god”.

The Pointless People phenomenon appears to be simply an extension of this principle into the realms of (what to Western eyes can seem) near-absurdity. Initiated by management purely as an act of politeness and to apologise for the interruption to people’s usual routes of passage, it is in many ways a heartwarming and lovely thing.

Such a level of service, certainly unfamiliar to Westerners, has great benefits and without question would be very welcome elsewhere.

To this day, although I understand the underlying reasoning, I still find myself inwardly amused and delighted whenever I encounter the Pointless Person phenomenon.

~ by JapanGasm on 11 October, 2009.

8 Responses to “The Phenomenon Of Pointless People”

  1. This whole construction site with several pointless people seems quite extreme example. Every time when I encounter pointless people (as you mentioned, they are usually old people) I feel embarrassed and I always bow to them. I wonder how they think when they see you are coming down the street… such a boring job, and waste of employment cost!!!

    • I agree it’s a waste of employment costs, but then I also wonder what other work these men might do?
      They most likely worked in just one company all their lives until retirement and therefore may have no qualification or experience to do anything useful.
      For that reason I feel quite sorry for them when I think about it – being a PP requires no skill or talent whatsoever and as you say, it must be so boring.

  2. I dont know If I said it already but …Cool site, love the info. I do a lot of research online on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂

    …..Frank Scurley

    • Thanks for the thanks, Frank.
      There’s a seemingly endless supply of interesting stuff here – hope you keep enjoying the small fraction I’m able to document.

  3. Awesome blog!

    I thought about starting my own blog too but I’m just too lazy so, I guess Ill just have to keep checking yours out.

    • Thanks Savannah – much appreciated. I’d been thinking for years before starting a blog. Once a good friend finally gave me the encouragement to begin, I discovered it’s actually far easier to do than I’d thought. Go for it!

  4. The Pointless People phenomenon can be viewed here, in China, too. The most popular one here also appears to be traffic related. It seems that Chinese people are completely unable to parallel park without any kind of assistance.

    They have to be guided into a parking space by an appropriately suited and booted person donning a cap that says 交通 (traffic). These traffic people stand by potential parking spots all day and wait for someone who can make use their special parking powers and spatial awareness skills. Once spotted, they run over, stop all other cars and bikes from going past and start instructing the driver of the target car to reverse by shouting, ‘DAO DAO DAO DAO DAO!’

    They also have little glow sticks.

    I’ve never figured out whether these traffic people and their powers are welcomed by drivers or not.

    You never see female ones. Ever.

  5. […] and foremost of course are the ubiquitous Pointless People (detailed in a post here) but there is also a fantastic variety of signs, blocks, barricades and, most exciting of all, […]

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