National | Regional voices: Chubu

A year after stabbing, Japan's shinkansen wrestle with balance between safety and convenience

JR Central reinforces onboard guards; JR East weighs baggage inspections

Chunichi Shimbun

A year after a knife attack on a bullet train left one passenger dead and two wounded, authorities and railways are trying to take steps — especially visible ones — to prevent similar crimes.

Experts are calling to start baggage inspections at train stations, though railways remain reluctant to do so because of the congestion and inconvenience they would cause.

The attack occurred on the Tokaido Shinkansen Line on June 9, 2018, when Ichiro Kojima allegedly attacked two women with a knife on the Nozomi 265 bound for Shin-Osaka Station from Tokyo and fatally stabbed Kotaro Umeda, 38, who tried to stop him.

Kojima, now 23, was indicted in November and is awaiting trial.

It wasn’t the first fatality on the vaunted shinkansen. In June 2015, a self-immolation aboard another Nozomi train killed a passenger who was sitting nearby.

In the wake of the knife attack, Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Central) placed security guards on all shinkansen.

“We want to further increase the number of security guards to reinforce security,” JR Central President Shin Kaneko said at a news conference last month, expressing hope that onboard patrols will act as a deterrent.

Kaneko said guards had basically been deployed on all Tokaido bullet trains before June and that security will eventually be present for the duration of each run between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka stations in the future.

The bullet trains are also stocked with first-aid kits, shields and sasumata, a two-pronged tool for subduing people that resembles a pitchfork.

Because staff did a poor job of communicating during the stabbing last year, the railway installed a group calling system on smartphones that will allow the crew and the control center to speak simultaneously during emergencies.

“We have repeatedly held drills and our ability to respond to emergencies is improving,” Kaneko said.

The government has also taken measures to improve safety on trains. In December, the transport ministry revised an ordinance to ban the carrying of unpacked knives on trains. It then trialed an airport-style body scanner at Tokyo Metro Co.’s Kasumigaseki subway station in March to see how well it could see through commuters’ clothing.

Train safety expert Seiji Abe, a professor at Kansai University’s Faculty of Societal Safety Sciences, said railways should just opt for baggage inspections.

“Placing guards on shinkansen is better than doing nothing, but it is impossible cost-wise to have them in all of the cars,” Abe said.

“The measures taken so far are mostly focused on how to cope with incidents after they occur,” he said. “Although passenger convenience might be sacrificed to some extent, railways should prepare to introduce baggage inspections.”

In the meantime, efforts are being made to develop the technology to conduct baggage inspections in seconds.

Anseen, a startup in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, that originated at Shizuoka University, is jointly developing a sensor with a subsidiary of East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) that can scan baggage and show the contents in mere seconds.

“Baggage inspections at airports take about 10 seconds, but this technology will shorten the time to four seconds,” said Anseen President Akifumi Koike, 34.

“Since it usually takes about two seconds to go through ticket gates at railway stations, four seconds probably won’t cause that much congestion,” Koike said.

The firm plans to test the device at World Expo 2025 in Osaka and eventually aims to introduce it at bullet train stations.

The Aichi Prefectural Police unit in charge of Nagoya Station — the largest bullet train stop in the Chubu region — has been on the lookout for suspicious people since the shinkansen stabbing last year.

In October it conducted a drill with JR Central and the Nagoya Fire Department based on a scenario involving a knife-wielding man in a train.

“It is important to cooperate with other organizations,” said Tetsuyuki Matsuda, vice head of the police unit. “We will prepare for contingencies by constantly staying in close contact with them.”

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on June 9.

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