Tue. Dec 7th, 2021


Four days after a knife-wielding man dressed as the comic supervillain Joker unleashed devastation on a Tokyo train, Japanese daytime TV began speculating about how much he paid for the purple suit and green shirt.

One channel, citing police sources, said the expense amounted to about $ 2,000, as it examined the spending patterns of the murderous 24-year-old before the tragedy. The analysis had the feel of a nation turning to nervous self-deception rather than deciding what it could rightfully be more concerned about. Japanese corporate culture, with its tendency to reward compliance above elasticity, may still emerge as the unexpected ghost of the incident.

The most obvious threat was Kyota Hattori, the man who attacked passengers aboard the Keio line with a knife, splashed lighter fuel around the wagon and set it on fire. Seventeen people were injured, one critically. Cellphone footage showed people fleeing the train and the sinister-clad Hattori sitting and smoking before his arrest.

These transgressions are, in Tokyo and Japan in general, mercifully rare. They tend to ask the same unanswerable questions: how many more Hattoris might be hiding within Greater Tokyo’s 37.5 million population, unnoticed but ready to unleash violence on its peaceful majority?

Behind the question is an acknowledgment that Tokyo’s extremely successful concentration of humanity on trust is functioning. In fact, on a series of overlapping trusts: in individuals, institutions, companies, rules – and in both own and public interest.

This is powerfully illustrated in the city’s rail and underground network – a clean, punctual service to which the economy entrusts its workers, civil society entrusts its mobility and parents of children as young as five who travel alone cheerfully trust. When this transportation system is disrupted by fear, Tokyo becomes a trapped dystopia.

However, the videos of the attack captured another abomination, not Hattori but the track staff. Passengers who ran through the carriages to escape the attacker and the flames found that the doors were locked, even though the train stopped at a platform. The driver and guard did not know why passengers activated the emergency stop and could not ask them about the intercom as the occupants fled.

The staff chose not to open the train doors after the emergency stop as it was not perfectly in line with the platform doors now appearing at an increasing number of Tokyo stations, which are designed to prevent both suicides and people accidentally falling on the rails.

The footage captures the Sunday night passengers escaping through the train’s tall, narrow side windows. This could not have happened if the train had been more overcrowded; primary school-age children may never have made it. And with that, the horror of the incident turned into something else and whimsically familiar. The fear was not only of the lonely mad, but of an institutional failure to acknowledge the need for flexibility: not only in an emergency, but in any situation where an effective solution falls outside the organizational rules or habit.

The fear is real because Tokyoites who work for companies instinctively know that there is a problem with suppressing individuals’ initiative within corporations and institutions.

The Ministry of Transport’s quick decision to hold an urgent meeting of railway companies indicates that it expected a setback. Without much debate, the ministry ordered railway companies to agree to open the train doors in an emergency, even if they were not completely in line with the platform. The edict came with an implicit government desire that such orders were necessary.

But there was an extra cold in those images, as the platform doors – which were installed at great cost and offered as guarantees of safety – immediately became a mechanism of trapping. JR East, which is one of 11 major rail companies serving greater Tokyo, is part of a $ 5 billion program to install it anywhere by 2032. Other networks also have ambitious plans. They point to the accidents that were prevented by the platform doors, but still have only partial figures to substantiate the claims. The footage from last Sunday changed the image of something that was once considered unequivocally good, and many residents went to social media to ask if the rail companies had fully considered all the possible consequences of installing the platform doors.

Tokyo returned to work, school and normal life the day after the attack. But it did so with new toxins flowing through his lifeblood of confidence. If at least a small amount of new flexibility is gained in the workplace as a result of the attack, something good may come of it.

leo.lewis@ft.com



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