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.