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    I stand in front of you / I’ll take the force of the blow

    So we’re all abuzz right now with the news of this white paper from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport:

    Roughly 70 percent of Japanese fear for their safety due to the frequency of natural disasters in this country, the possibility of major accidents like aircraft crashes and a growing perception that a terrorist attack could take place, according to a government survey.

    The fiscal 2005 white paper on national land and transport submitted to the Cabinet on Tuesday by Kazuo Kitagawa, minister of land, infrastructure and transport, also shows that 23.8 percent of Japanese regard the country as definitely or moderately safe.

    The survey conducted last December canvassed opinions of 2,000 eligible voters across the nation. There were 1,314 valid responses.

    People feel less safe. The next question is, should they? The rest of the article points to topics that will be familiar to anyone who’s been following Japanese news (or, hell, been reading this blog) over the last few years: the Niigata earthquake, the JR West derailment last year, the Aneha earthquake resistance falsification scandal, the asbestos scandal, and the seemingly daily reprimands handed down to JAL by the transportation authorities. (Dumbfoundingly, the article doesn’t even mention the nuclear power industry. Or the series of high-profile medical screw-ups.) Just today, there was word of yet another unsettling survey, this one performed by the Yomiuri on JR West drivers:

    According to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey, more than 60 percent of the respondents also said they had made greater efforts to improve safety since the accident.

    The results showed that while individual drivers felt they had developed greater safety awareness, they did not feel the company’s safety measures had improved overall.

    The reliability of that survey is a little questionable, since it didn’t include drivers from the largest union. Also, there’s a potential SLOPs issue. The drivers who are most likely to respond to questions about company safety policies are those who have unusually strong feelings about them.

    That doesn’t mean they’re wrong, though. One tends to doubt that real safety levels in Japan have just up and plummeted. What I suspect has happened is that economic dislocations have reduced the number of safety checks systems can perform. After the war, Japanese bureaucracies and companies made room for hordes of redundant workers. Their duplication of effort, like the Space Shuttle’s multiple computer systems, made it possible to plan, check, confirm, check the confirmation, reconfirm the check, and recheck the reconfirmation of the check, and then actually start the engine. One of Japan Inc.’s strategies was also to keep employment and consumption high in the construction industry by replacing equipment and infrastructure way before it was necessary. And the need to rebuild the country after it was flattened by the war also gave everyone a sense of being a cog in an increasingly prosperous machine.

    The end of the era of economic hypergrowth made necessary changes in approach, and Japan has adapted to some of them better than it has to others. I think the transition will ultimately be successful–in most ways, the Japanese are very pragmatic. So, for example, the sheer excess of personnel is essentially gone. When I arrived ten years ago, it was the twilight of the era of elevator girls in every department store and a half-dozen gas station attendants swarming over every car.

    But the essential way of thinking that prizes not making waves and submitting all your documents properly stamped over asking penetrating questions and finding imaginative ways to cut down on paper-pushing–that remains. Additionally, Japanese enterprises don’t seem to have internalized the fact that having fewer eyes on and hands in every operation means that each employee who is involved has to be more watchful and reliable. Everyone realizes that Japanese workers for the new age need a sense of individual responsibility, an ability to improvise, and the confidence to sound the alarm when they discover something is screwy; but no one seems entirely sure how to shift everything in that direction.

    And then there’s the fact that a lot of things that were originally built under the assumption that they’d be replaced by shinier, newer structures in a dozen years have been kept in service. That doesn’t mean the next earthquake is going to bring the whole of Tokyo crashing down, but it does mean that the Japanese are finding it more difficult to retain the image of their country as perfectly safe, clean, and healthy.

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