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    Derailment fatalities top 100

    Am I the only one who thinks it’s a little creepy the way NHK is profiling the driver who, it seems to be all but certain, caused Monday’s train derailment? We know that he loved sports, played basketball in junior high school, was kind of a party guy, and seemed to have been excited about being hired by JR West. I don’t get it. If he were a serial killer, or something, I could understand looking for clues in his background to what animated him. Profiling him as if he’d just won some kind of prize, I don’t understand.

    There is one way in which information about Ryutaro Takami’s breezy personality is possibly meaningful. He overran platforms several times–once by 100 meters!–and had been reprimanded and sent to retraining. According to the conductor’s wife, Takami asked him to underreport the extent of Monday’s overrun at the station before the derailment, presumably to avoid being relieved of his duties and receiving a more stern reprimand. And it’s looking as if he decided on Monday that keeping his personnel record clean was worth risking the lives of his passengers by speeding.

    That kind of thing happens all over the world, but it’s a particular problem in appearances-are-everything societies like guess-where. One of Takami’s colleagues also relates that the company’s version of retraining involves mostly scolding by groups of superiors and pointless essay assignments about topics unrelated to railroad work, raising the possibility that JR West is in effect telling employees that avoiding the ire of higher-ups trumps every other priority. It’d be nice if that were more surprising than it is.

    Added on 30 April: In the interest of translating ideas rather than words, I rendered 再教育 (saikyoiku: “re-education”) as “retraining,” since that’s normally the word we would use for what goes on in the workplace. Re-education has totalitarian overtones.

    It turns out that it might have paid to be more literal-minded. This Asahi story expands on the information in the NHK telecasts we’ve been seeing:

    One great fear among train drivers for West Japan Railway Co. is being forced to take a “re-education program” after making a mistake on the job. Drivers are known to skirt safety procedures just to avoid the humiliation and financial loss of taking the program. One driver even committed suicide just after he started the re-education process.

    Re-education of drivers who commit mistakes is a JR West policy. The mistakes include being behind schedule.

    The main component of the re-education process is writing reports about the mistake to reflect on the error and think of ways to prevent a recurrence.

    JR West workers who make mistakes are also assigned menial tasks, such as pulling weeds from gardens at JR West facilities, washing windows or painting company buildings.

    There are one or two things that are important for context here. One is that, in Japan, those who are hired even at management level spend their first year or two going through “rotations,” in which they work alongside people who do sales, clerical work, and other low-level tasks. There are a few reasons for this. One is to give future managers a sense of all the little things that have to get done to keep the organization going. Another is to make them feel a sense of kinship with people at all levels of the hierarchy. Another is to show them the side of the company that customers see. The idea is to keep managers from being out of touch about the practical effects of the policies they set once they’re helping to run the place.

    Against that backdrop, having people pull weeds or wash windows (or clean toilets, which is a job that’s been mentioned on the broadcasts as another common punishment) is not just supposed to shame people into not transgressing again. Rather, it’s also supposed to serve as a reminder that the drivers who do the crucial job of running the trains have a whole organization of people with less visible jobs depending on them.

    I’d be willing to bet that that’s the way the re-education program is officially conceived. There’s evidence, though, that the message of humiliation ends up being so disproportionately emphasized that it drowns out the message that the employee should do his job more responsibly:

    One driver was so upset at being forced to undergo the re-education program that he hanged himself in 2001. The then 44-year-old man was late by about 50 seconds in pulling out from Kyoto Station.

    Bereaved family members sued JR West for compensation. The father claimed that bullying was the cause of his son’s suicide.

    In February, the Osaka District Court rejected the plaintiffs’ request for compensation on the grounds that JR West could not have foreseen that the man would kill himself.

    But the court did state that the re-education program caused the suicide.

    According to the ruling, the man was forced to write up to seven reports a day about his mistake. He was told by the deputy head of his train district that he was being paid to “just study.”

    There’s no mention of any other suicides in the Asahi article, but there is evidence that the desire to avoid re-education causes drivers to push their trains to the speed limit if they feel they’re losing time. Drivers on the Takarazuka Line have apparently developed a practice of charging down the straightaway at full tilt toward Amagasaki Station and then jamming on the brakes so they can make the curve where the derailment happened Monday. It’s likely that Takami was attempting such a maneuver and didn’t make it.

    3 Responses to “Derailment fatalities top 100”

    1. caltechgirl says:


    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      Given the new information about JR West, it’s becoming unbelievable that it didn’t happen sooner.

    3. Nothing to fear but face itself?

      Flirting with suicide (at least evoking suicide imagery) captured the imagination of downtown Philadelphia yesterday: With a federal corruption probe closing in on him, City Councilman Rick Mariano climbed to the base of the William Penn statue atop City Hall…

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