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Causes and effects can encompass far more than ‘specifics’

by Roger Pulvers

In January 1977, an express train traveling from the Blue Mountains of New South Wales to Sydney derailed on a curve near Granville Station, 21 km west of the city. The train — which was three minutes late when it left the last stop on its 2 1/2-hour journey — smashed into the pillar of a bridge, killing 83 of those on board and injuring 213.

The cause of the accident was found to be the poor condition of the tracks on that curve, and the driver was found not guilty of negligence.

In April 1996, a man named Martin Bryant went on a rampage with semi-automatic weapons at the resort of Port Arthur in Tasmania and murdered 36 people in cold blood, including a young mother and her two little children. Bryant was captured, tried and given a life sentence.

What do these two awful and gruesome events have in common? Aside from the fact that they both occurred in Australia, there is no connection. The train accident obliged Australia’s railway operators to be more diligent in their maintenance of track and stock; and the heinous crime in Port Arthur led the government to enact strict gun-control laws, then a long-overdue necessity in Australia.

I recalled these two events on the day of the dreadful accident in western Japan on the Fukuchiyama Line, an accident similar to that near Granville Station. Both happened on curves, and both involved a massive collision with a concrete structure. Both trains were also packed with morning commuters.

But the aftermath of the Japanese accident on April 25, as it has been reported in the media, is very different from that of the Australian crash in the way it was described and dealt with. The same can be said of the way the media in Australia treated the Bryant murder case when it is compared with the way the media analyzes particularly brutal crimes in Japan, such as the beheading of the 11-year-old boy in Kobe in 1997 or the murder of four little girls by Tsutomu Miyazaki in 1988 and 1989 in Tokyo. In Australia, there was little talk of the train accident or the shooting as being particularly “Australian” crimes. If anything, there was an inclination to point out that these things happen in other countries, too: train accidents in Britain and gun crime in the United States.

In Japan, however, there is a compelling tendency to view and judge such accidents and crimes as largely due to features of the national character. Virtually every newspaper I read, and every news analysis or talk show I saw on television about the JR West train accident, took pains to point out that Japanese people have an obsession with punctuality. There is also, according to many of the commentators, a culture of fearsome pressure permeating corporations like JR West. Junior staff who err or fail in a task are raked over the coals. “Shape up or you’re out on your neck” seems to be the motto of some such companies.

Even a matter of seconds is judged important to Japanese commuters. The public demands punctuality (without seemingly realizing that it is tied inextricably to safety). What was to blame for the accident? It was, it appears, the excessive speed of the train. The young and relatively inexperienced driver was trying to make up for lost time. Perhaps, though, it is the Japanese people themselves, apparently unwilling to brook delay, who bear the true responsibility. Did the Japanese national obsession with getting there on time underlie the cause of this accident? The media seems to be saying that it does.

So it is with crimes perpetrated by sick individuals. After the crime in Kobe was committed, the media commentators barraged readers and viewers with theories about Japan’s new lax society, where ethics are not taught as they once were in this country. I remember one expert on crime who blamed today’s teachers for the death of the poor little boy.

As for Tsutomu Miyazaki, the media immediately took up the fact that he was a video freak. His room was choc-a-bloc with prurient videos and the like. The taste for such things in Japan, according to the experts, was bound to lead to antisocial acts. I was asked at the time by a television station to record a five-minute video clip on the cause of Miyazaki’s crimes. In it, I pointed out that I believed him to be a deranged individual like people in other countries who committed similar crimes. Some weeks later I asked the producer when the clip was aired. “It wasn’t,” he said. “We thought you were too ‘specific.’ “

The behavior of a criminal such as Miyazaki is no doubt the result of many factors, personal and otherwise. But if a room full of prurient videos is a spur to antisocial or violent behavior, then watch out next time you get into a train crowded with salarymen.

When a shocking incident, be it an accident or a crime, occurs in a society, it is essential for that society to analyze its causes in order to prevent reoccurrences. Japanese definitely tend to see individual cases in terms of their ethnic traits or national character. Whether this is a correct viewpoint or not depends, I believe, on the nature of each and every incident.

Accidents and crimes will happen. But one thing that can be said is that the tendency in Japan to make them everyone’s responsibility, while creating a certain amount of pressure on Japanese people to fear failure and shun even harmless eccentricity on the job, has helped the Japanese create one of the safest and most efficiently functioning societies in the world.

When shocked by accidents or crimes, many Japanese people feel that they are responsible. Perhaps such guilt is the price they pay for Japanese law and order.