Tokyo commuter trains have suffered a recent spate of violent incidents — two of them fatal — involving total strangers and minor confrontations that got out of hand.
Many high profile cases involved young people who turned aggressive after being scolded for unruly behavior on the train.
But despite the increase in violence, carriers lament that there is little they can do other than to urge riders to have more manners and patience.
Police often are unable to apprehend perpetrators of violence because of the anonymity of crowded commuter trains and the lack of witnesses willing to come forward.
There were 2,377 violent crimes committed on trains or at stations nationwide in 2000, compared with 1,306 in 1996, according to the National Police Agency.
In one such incident in late April, a 43-year-old employee of a foreign bank from Kawasaki was assaulted by four young men on the platform of Sangenjaya Station on Tokyo’s Tokyu Denentoshi Line. He died from a brain hemorrhage several days later in a hospital.
The assailants, who turned themselves in, reportedly told investigators that they and the victim got into an argument after someone stepped on someone else’s foot.
About one month later, a 26-year-old employee from Yokohama died after being beaten up by a young man on the platform of Seibu Yuenchi Station on the Seibu Yamaguchi Line.
The suspect, a 24-year-old vocational school student, reportedly become angry after he made eye contact with the victim, who had asked passengers to make more room for him near a train door.
Some of the people involved in violent confrontations remain traumatized.
Keiichi Onizawa, 68, who said he was almost killed on Aug. 15 for “innocent remarks” on a train, is one such victim.
While riding alone in the afternoon on a Keio Inokashira Line train out of Tokyo’s Shibuya Station, the journalist saw a boy around 3 years old starting to get upset beside his mother. Hoping to ease her plight, he politely asked two young men sitting together in front of him if one of them could stand so the boy could sit down, he claimed.
They ignored his request and instead extended their legs as if to taunt him, and got off angrily at the next stop. One of them hit his shoulder on the way out.
“But, looking back, I guess they just changed cars and followed me,” he said, because the pair, one holding an iron bar, attacked him from behind on a riverside walk near his home in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward. He only recognized the men because one of them had shouted and he turned just in time to see them.
The two beat him up. The 30-second assault left him with injuries needing three months of treatment. The middle finger on one of his hands lost most of its dexterity.
“Police later told me that if the attack had lasted another 30 seconds, I would have been killed.”
The attack has also left mental scars. “I still cannot walk near the edge of the platforms, and I look back and hold on to railings when I use stairs.”
The two men were never apprehended, which is often the case with railway violence.
While an arrest rate for such crimes is not available, a senior official of the Metropolitan Police Department’s Railway Police Unit said it is often very difficult to catch perpetrators.
And finding witnesses is no less difficult. “Commuters don’t necessarily use the same train or station at the same time every day,” he said. “There is also a tendency for witnesses not to want to get involved, and thus they don’t come forward.”
Overcrowding, drunkenness and pushing and shoving have been cited as the main causes of the violence. In the wake of the death at Sangenjaya Station, Tokyu Corp. received about a dozen e-mail messages from commuters blaming overcrowded trains for skirmishes, an official at the carrier said.
Despite mounting public calls for greater railway safety, however, carriers said there is little they can do except urge riders to be more courteous to others.
An official of the Association of Japanese Private Railways said it has just started considering measures to combat train violence, but he said carriers are limited in the preventive steps they can take.
“We are not police, so we cannot intervene when trouble breaks out between passengers,” he said. “Railway facilities are public spaces like roads and parks.”
A Seibu Railway Co. spokesman meanwhile reckoned that about the only thing a carrier can do is make announcements on trains and at stations urging riders to remain civil.
“Following the incidents, we increased the frequency of station officials’ rounds,” he said. “But we are undergoing restructuring, and thus cannot hire new staff.”
The surging youth violence on trains has meanwhile cast a spotlight on social factors such as a lack of parental discipline and the spread of computer games that are violent in nature.
There are also mounting calls for education on morals and public manners.
Hirotada Hirose, professor of disaster psychology at Tokyo Women’s Christian University, believes that if anything, manners should be taught as a survival tool to avoid violent confrontations.
Reckless young people should be made to realize that their unruly behavior will eventually put them at peril should Japan become a real “risk society,” he figured, noting that in such a society, like the United States, public manners are a well-established way to avoid potential danger.
“In the U.S., if people inadvertently make eye contact, they smile at each other as a sign that they do not harbor hostility,” he claimed. “We need to teach (young people) why manners are necessary from a realistic point of view.”
Rail cops get orders
In the wake of a rash of violent crimes on trains, the National Police Agency issued instructions Wednesday to law enforcement authorities nationwide to beef up their patrols of railway facilities.
Orders were given to the chiefs of railway police forces during a regular meeting in Tokyo, emphasizing the need to raise the visibility of uniformed officers. This includes night patrols at stations where there are many drunks and patrols of railway facilities during morning and evening rush hours.
Patrol cars should also be deployed to watch stations, the NPA said.
Police are currently deployed in stations, mainly in plain clothes, to arrest pickpockets and gropers.
The NPA also called for a review of railway police officers’ shifts to better respond to incidents.
Railway police chiefs were ordered to strengthen cooperation between various sections of the police force and develop close contact with rail firms.
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