• Home
  • About
  • Guest Post

    I must have left my house at eight because I always do

    Two troubling incidents from yesterday indicate why Japan’s new initiative to adapt security strategies from Israel to local conditions is coming none too soon. A man sprayed some unknown chemical in a train at a major transfer point and then melted away before being caught, and a woman decided to take slices with a knife at three people going through another big transfer station.

    Japan’s rail system is very efficient; everyone knows that. Everyone also knows about the inhuman crowding you get during morning rush hour and on the last trains at night. For the last five years, I lived right in Shibuya, within walking distance of my office. When I moved to Atsushi’s place, I was back on the Toyoko Line, commuting into Shibuya on one of the most crowded commuter lines in Tokyo (and therefore the world). Thankfully, my workday is cockeyed so I don’t have to go in between 8 and 9 a.m., and we’re just a few express stops out. But it’s hard to cram yourself onto a train with…jeez, how many people is it when I’m going in for an early meeting? Close to 75 in a car, I’d imagine…it’s hard to pack onto a train like that, in this day and age, without thinking how vulnerable everyone would be to another sarin attack or to some nutcase with a knife.

    Any city or country has special points of vulnerability created by local conditions, of course. And perfect security is impossible. I’m sure everyone who’s lived in Tokyo has had the experience of waiting for someone just outside the turnstiles of one of the train lines and suddenly realizing how many people are actually pouring out as every train arrives. You can’t really let yourself keep thinking about it or you’d go insane and start rampaging yourself (or maybe that’s just me; I’m an introvert in a big way).

    But it does underscore the impossibility of preventing all possible attacks, and the resultant need for train companies and users to know what to do when one hits. Fortunately, Japan is generally an orderly society, and Tokyo commuters specifically are well-accustomed to moving quickly away from the train in hordes without trampling each other.

    The biggest worry I can see would be an attack on one of the last trains of the night, especially on a Thursday or Friday. Those who know Tokyo will understand exactly what I’m talking about, but for those who don’t: A good number, perhaps even a majority, of commuters on those trains are solidly sloshed, and a significant proportion of those people are close to falling-down drunk. Some fast-acting poison that required quick reflexes in getting the hell out of the train and off the platform could be really deadly, especially if its absortion were accelerated by alcohol. Here’s hoping we never have to worry about it.

    2 Responses to “I must have left my house at eight because I always do”

    1. John says:

      75 per car? On the Odakyu line I calculated about 120 per car at rush hour, after the white gloves squashed people in. Opening the car doors results in a sound like opening a soda bottle as people can finally expand their chests to use all their lung capacity, only to have their personal space collapse again as the new set of passengers gets pushed in.
      And the Odakyu trains move so damn slow compared to JR. Did they hit a pedestrian some time ago, or do they like watching people suffer?
      I once saw a guy in a blue salaryman suit (white socks, of course) passed out in the train late on a Thursday night. He was laying on the floor, blocking one of the doors. People stepped over him to get in and off the train (as did I), but no one ever kicked him, or attempted to wake him. I hope he didn’t roll out of the car and fall through the gap at one of the remoter Odakyu stations.

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      You know, you’re right. I counted each train car in my head as having three sets of doors, but they don’t. They have four. So, lessee. You have 3-5-5-5-3 on each side in most cars. We’ve now got 80 people seated. The wildcard is between the doors. My estimate was a row is five, and then you have…how many rows when it really gets like a college prank with a Volkswagen? I guess it could be even more than 120 people–close to 150? In any case, it’s over the stated capacity; I’ll have to look when I ride in on my way to Shinjuku tonight.
      As far as the drunkenness thing goes…yeah, we’ve all got plenty of stories, huh? Yours is one of the better ones I’ve heard, in that the person in question landed in an obstructive position and gave everyone else a chance to show off that Tokyo impassiveness by stepping resolutely over him. When I lived on the Den’en-Toshi Line almost a decade ago, there was once a young guy in a suit who sat hugging his knees next to the doors and leaned out to yak every time they opened on that side. I mean, all the way from Shibuya to Ichigao where I got off, and maybe beyond. But even though he wasn’t blocking anyone, if there’d been an emergency, he still would have needed help from someone to get him away from the car.
      Added at 16:00: Sheesh. I obviously should be kept away from numbers until this week full of deadlines and moving offices is over and I can concentrate on counting properly. I’ve emended this comment; suffice it to say that John is right that I pretty much only counted half a train car.