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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Tokyo subway attack exposes more subtle dangers in the city


After a knife-wielding man dressed as a comic super villain clown wreaked havoc on a Tokyo train for four days, Japanese daytime television began to guess how much he paid for the purple suit and green shirt.

One channel quoted a police source as saying that when investigating the 24-year-old murderer’s consumption patterns before the tragedy, the expenditure was approximately US$2,000. This analysis makes it feel like a country is resorting to nervous self-distraction, rather than addressing things that it might legitimately worry more about. Japanese corporate culture tends to reward compliance rather than flexibility, which may become an unexpected specter of the incident.

The most obvious threat is Kyota Hattori, who attacked passengers on the Keio Line with a knife, spilling lighter fuel around the car and igniting it. Seventeen people were injured, one of whom was seriously injured. Mobile phone screens showed people fleeing the train, and Hattori, dressed in sinister clothes, sat down and smoked before being arrested.

These atrocities are generally very rare in Tokyo and Japan. They often ask the same unanswerable question: out of the 37.5 million population of Greater Tokyo, how many Hattori may be lurking undiscovered, but are ready to launch violence against the peaceful majority?

Behind this question is the recognition that Tokyo has been extremely successful in focusing humanity on the basis of trust. In fact, it is based on a series of overlapping trusts: people, institutions, companies, rules-and self and public interest.

This is strongly proven in the city’s railway and subway network-a clean and punctual service, with economic entrustment of its workers, civil society entrusting its mobility, and parents happily entrusting children as young as 5 to travel alone. If this transportation system is interrupted by fear, Tokyo will become a deadlocked dystopia.

However, the video of the attack captured another terrorist incident involving not Hattori but railway staff. Passengers escaped from the attacker through the carriage, even though the train stopped on the platform, the flame found the door was still closed. The driver and the guard did not know why the passenger initiated the emergency stop, nor could they question the passenger through the intercom because the passenger had already fled.

The staff chose not to open the train doors after an emergency stop because they are not completely aligned with the platform doors of more and more Tokyo stations, aiming to prevent suicide and people accidentally falling onto the rails.

This footage captured the scene of passengers escaping from the high and narrow side windows of the train on Sunday night. If the train is more crowded, this situation will not happen. Elementary school-age children may never be able to do it. What followed was that the horror of this incident turned into a sense of familiarity that was both different and creepy. The fear lies not only in the lonely madman, but also in the institutional failure to recognize the need for flexibility: not only in emergencies, but also in situations where any expediency exceeds organizational rules or habits.

The fear is real, because Tokyoites who work in companies instinctively know that suppressing personal initiative within companies and institutions is a problem.

The Ministry of Communications quickly decided to convene an emergency meeting of the railway company, which showed that it had anticipated strong opposition. Without much controversy, the ministry ordered the railway companies to agree to open the train doors in an emergency, even if they were not in agreement with the platform. The decree was accompanied by an implicit government sigh that such orders are necessary.

But there is an additional chill in these images, because the platform door — installed at a huge cost and used as a security guarantee — immediately becomes a trapping mechanism. JR East is one of 11 major railway companies serving Greater Tokyo, and it is passing a $5 billion plan to install these railways in all locations by 2032. Other networks also have ambitious plans. They pointed out that the platform door has avoided the accident, but only some data currently support these claims. Last Sunday’s video subverted the image of what was once considered a very good thing. Many residents asked on social media whether the railway company had fully considered all the possible consequences of installing platform doors.

The day after the attack, Tokyo resumed work, school and normal life. But it did so because of new toxins flowing in its letters and veins. If this attack gains at least a little bit of new workplace flexibility, there may be some benefits.

leo.lewis@ft.com



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