Tokyo subway attack exposes more subtle dangers in the city – News Couple
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Tokyo subway attack exposes more subtle dangers in the city


Four days after a knife-wielding man dressed as the superhero comedian Joker unleashes havoc on a Tokyo train, Japanese daytime television begins speculating how much he paid for the purple suit and green shirt.

One channel, citing police sources, put the expense at around $2,000 while investigating spending patterns before the tragedy for the 24-year-old. The analysis had a sense that a nation was resorting to nervous self-distraction rather than settling what it might be more anxious about. Japanese corporate culture, with its tendency to reward compliance over flexibility, may appear as an unexpected specter of accident.

The most obvious threat was Kyota Hattori, the man who attacked passengers on the Keio Line with a knife, spraying lighter fuel around the wagon and setting it on fire. Seventeen people were injured, one of them in a critical condition. Mobile phone footage showed people fleeing across the train and a sinister-clad Hattori sitting and smoking before he was arrested.

Such assaults, in Tokyo and Japan in general, are extremely rare. They tend to raise the same unanswerable questions: How many other Hattorians might be lurking in the midst of Greater Tokyo’s 37.5 million residents, undetected, but ready to unleash violence on their peaceful majority?

Behind the question is an acknowledgment that Tokyo’s highly successful focus on humanity works on trust. Indeed, on a chain of intertwined trust: in people, institutions, companies, rules – and in both self and public interest.

This is vigorously manifested in the city’s railway and subway network – a clean and meticulous service that the economy entrusts to its workers, civil society entrusts its mobility, and parents joyfully entrust to children as young as five traveling alone. If this transportation system breaks down out of fear, Tokyo becomes a crowded dystopia.

However, videos of the attack depicted another horror, involving not Hattori but the railway crew. Passengers crossed the wagons to escape the attacker and the flames found the doors closed, although the train had stopped at a platform. The driver and guard did not know why the passengers had activated the emergency station and could not ask them for the intercom because the passengers had fled.

Staff chose not to open the train doors after the emergency stop because they did not quite align with platform doors now appearing at a growing number of Tokyo stations, designed to prevent suicides and people accidentally falling off the rails.

The footage captures passengers on Sunday evening fleeing through the narrow, high side windows of the train. It wouldn’t have happened had the train been more crowded; Primary school age children may never be able to achieve this. And with that, the horror of the accident turned into something eerily different and familiar. The fear was not of the only crazy person, but of the institutional failure to recognize the need for flexibility: not just in an emergency but in any situation where the appropriate solution is outside regulation or custom.

The fear is real because Tokyo residents who work for companies know instinctively that there is a problem with suppressing individual initiatives within companies and organizations.

The Ministry of Rapid Transport’s decision to convene an urgent meeting of the railway companies indicates that it expected a backlash. Without much discussion, the ministry has ordered railway companies to agree to open the train doors in the event of an emergency, even if they are not fully compliant with the platform. The decree came with an implicit government sigh that such orders were necessary.

But there was an extra chill in those photos as the platform doors – which were installed at great cost and offered as a safety guarantee – immediately became a trap mechanism. JR East, one of 11 major rail companies serving Greater Tokyo, is part of a $5 billion program route to have it installed everywhere by 2032. Others have ambitious plans. They point to accidents that were prevented by the platform doors, although so far there are only partial numbers to back up the claims. The footage from last Sunday has upended the image of something once considered unequivocally good, prompting several residents to social media to question whether railway companies have given full consideration to all the potential consequences of installing platform doors.

Tokyo returned to work, school and normal life the day after the attack. But she did so with new poisons flowing through her life’s trusting artery. If at least a small amount of new flexibility is gained in the workplace as a result of the attack, then perhaps something good will come of it.

leo.lewis@ft.com



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