Aberration, or yet another symbol of what is wrong with Japan?

Gen Kanai points to this article by Norimitsu Onishi for the International Herald Tribune about Monday’s train derailment in Osaka which has left 96 people dead (as of this writing) and hundreds injured. Onishi wonders if the ultimate blame for the accident might not lie with Japan’s attention to punctuality, which he claims borders on the obsessive.

Gen thinks Onishi “hits the core issue” and on the surface of it it does seem a compelling way to explain the accident, but count me as someone who finds the article’s conclusions just a bit too pat, especially this soon after the accident. The driver’s body appears to have been found as of this writing (according to this New York Times article) so we will probably never know what his motivations were, why was he speeding (if in fact he was), etc. It may well be that we was trying to make up lost time, but to state that “This disaster was produced by Japanese civilization and Japanese people” (a direct quote by a railway worker interviewed by Onishi, to be fair, but it is this quote that he hooks his argument on) sounds like someone looking for easy answers and convenient scapegoats while bodies are still being pulled from the rubble.

If in fact the driver was worried about being reprimanded a second time for overshooting a station, to the point that he was dangerously speeding, that to me seems the product of an inexperienced (only 11 months on the job), young (23) driver, not of an obsession with punctuality. I don’t think we can automatically assume that an older, more experience driver would have acted the same, as if each driver was cut via the cookie cutter.

Despite Onishi being the New York Times’ Tokyo bureau chief and therefore someone who should know better, I can’t help feeling he’s playing to the Western audience of the IHT/NYT here, one all too ready to lap up preconceived notions about a neurotic Japanese culture, hell-bent on perfection, inflexible to the point of being robots, incapable to seeing the bigger human picture, and so obsessed with punctuality that it’s willing to risk the lives of 600 people to make up a mere 60 seconds, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. At this rate, it shouldn’t be too long before the theory is advanced that the accident was caused by the driver’s wish to commit seppuku to atone for the guilt he felt at causing his passengers to be a minute late for work.

The reality on the ground is of course much different, not something easily compartmentalized and explained. I’ve used the commuter train system every day of the three years I’ve been here, and while not a common occurence, delays do happen, announcements are sometimes vague, and questions to station staff are occasionally met with shrugged shoulders. But the fact of the matter is that in those three years, I’ve been late to work on account of a train delay all of TWO times (and mind you, both times station staff handed me an “excuse slip” to give to my employer). This is not something to be defensive about, however, but something to be celebrated. The system, as extensive and complicated as it is, shuttling millions of people to and from work and school every day, by and large on time, works — let’s not look this gift horse in the mouth. One accident of this scale in 40 years, as tragic and destructive as it was, needs to be looked at for what it is, an aberration in what is generally regarded as the world’s most efficient train transportation system.

But aberrations don’t sell newspapers, or provide closure to the victims’ families, and so the hand-wringing and second-guessing pundits come forth to peddle their theories before a receptive audience. For Onishi’s readers in America and elsewhere, they’re not seeking closure of course but rather a justification of their own inefficiencies and in the process a sense of cultural superiority which says that somehow a system that works so well, that is so attuned to the needs of its customers, can’t possibly be the product of normal, psychologically sound individuals, but instead must be the inhuman machinations of some monolithic, dystopian Other out here in the Far East. This artificial polarization allows Monday’s train tragedy to be co-opted as some sort of divine comeuppance.

5 Replies to “Aberration, or yet another symbol of what is wrong with Japan?”

  1. from the BBC website relating to your notes on seppuku:

    “One Japanese station manager committed suicide a few years ago because his trains were late”

    excessive perhaps?

  2. One thing that Onishi has not picked up on is, in my opinion, far more likely to be a factor in the driver’s speeding than any national obsession with punctuality: the bullying of drivers who made mistakes. They were talking about this on TV here yesterday afternoon, and while there hasn’t been much in the English media (the Guardian mentioned it, and a few others) on TV the panel discussing the issue generated a lot of sympathy for the driver with their revelations about what happens when JR drivers err.

    They said that JR drivers who overshoot a platform get their pay automatically docked by 50,000 yen or more, and also have to attend ‘reeducation’ sessions in which they are shouted at and abused and have to confess their errors and write about how bad they are. These sessions are held on Sundays, are compulsary, and for an indefinite period.

    The driver had already had to endure 13 days of this before, for his first overshooting incident.

    In other words this guy was looking at losing his days off for an indefinite period, losing a large chunk of money, and being seriously humiliated. And, they said, there have been suicides after these sessions in the past. They are that devastating.

    Of course we will never know how much this system was responsible for what happened, but it sounds very much like a severely dysfunctional company culture to me, and an accident waiting to happen.

  3. Kurt, excellent article and analysis. I get so tired of hearing all this overblown theories about “Japanese society”.

    I’ve also heard about the JR West workplace culture of bullying and punishing their workers for mistakes. This seems to be a pretty awful business practice, and I wonder if JR East engages in similar punishments. JR West does seem to need serious reform at any rate.

  4. I think at this point everything is largely speculation. Someone has to go into this organisation and assess, what priority safety takes in real terms. This should be relatively easy to establish since many people are involved and can make a statement.

    However, I do fear that there is a Japanese factor to this which may contribute to such culture and the resulting incidents. While the Japanese are generally risk-averse and obedient to rules, all it takes is to have rules that people take risk without realising that they do so. Organisations like police, fire brigade and probably JR are extremely old school, with a management style and culture best compared to the wartime military (I have the impression the modern Japanese military has learned). Strong hierarchical thinking, orders to fulfil, discouragement to use your own judgement, and add to that a sense of pride and honour, and you have an interesting mix of people.

    For example if there are penalties for failing to meet certain standards, people will start cutting corners to make ends meet. This is only natural, and an inevitable route for a 23-year old with 11 months on the job to go down. The principle of ganbare also makes people take high risks, I think, because you are crossing a line and want to avoid giving up before you have given all you can. This can sometimes be self-destructive to the individual, but has little impact on society overall, interestingly. I have seen cases, where an employee was given a task, and even though he did not have the technical knowledge to do it, he did not want to admit it or didn’t want to come back to his boss empty handed. “I think we should not do this because XYZ” is something unthinkable. He gambled, and lost resulting in a service disruption for 40.000 customers. This is the result of authoritarian, management by fear, not an uncommon management technique, which can be traced through all of society here.

    I think the concerns over safety in Japan are still justified. There have been well-known and publicised issues with maintenance of JAL aircraft – to which the company even admitted. Aircraft have been loosing parts in mid-air due to negligent maintenance. The pilot of one flight refused to follow instructions by air traffic control, which for me is a very interesting scenario, since it is often said that Japanese are obedient to authority. What greater authority can there be for a pilot than air traffic control? The only possible answer is his own company. I haven’t even mentioned the nuclear reactor incidents several years ago where workers resorted to plastic buckets to contain a leaking reactor incident. The FT also mentions a recent government report confirming a decline of safety culture in Japan.

    So let’s put our biases aside, pro as well as anti-Japanese, and watch the news for hopefully neutral investigations on this issue.

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