When a 69-year-old man was arrested Nov. 8 on suspicion of attempted arson aboard a shinkansen train in Kumamoto Prefecture, he revealed to police an intention to “imitate” another incident eight days earlier, when a man stabbed a passenger on a Keio Line train in Tokyo, before torching multiple carriages with a flammable liquid.
While such crimes are rare in Japan, their frequency has been increasing in recent years, and the copycat nature of this most recent attack has led to calls for further safety measures on trains and other public transportation.
Meanwhile, risk and safety experts urge passengers to be extra vigilant, with some also calling for new approaches to education in order to raise awareness and better equip the public in the face of an assault.
Train operators in Japan had already been placed on alert, when in September the transport ministry issued an advisory urging them to bolster security in the wake of a stabbing incident on the Odakyu Line in Tokyo on Aug. 6.
Keio and JR line operators say they ramped up existing security measures as a result, deploying additional security staff to patrol stations and some trains.
Keio Corp. also introduced training exercises for its crews, but following the incident on Halloween, when a 24-year-old man dressed as the Joker from the “Batman” franchise injured 17 passengers, the company was among the major operators summoned to a government-initiated discussion on additional strategies to prevent the recurrence of such an incident.
Subsequently, officials from both JR and Keio said that internal discussions regarding other countermeasures, including installing more security cameras aboard trains and at stations, were “ongoing.”
In the meantime, the number of security personnel at Keio Line stations and on the limited express train on which the October attack took place has been increased further, says Keio’s Yasuha Komiyama, who also urges passengers to make a mental note of the location of emergency buzzers, which are mostly interactive and connect directly to the crew compartment, and are commonly found next to the doors between carriages.
Implementing countermeasures, however, can be complicated by the nature of the incident, says Mitsuru Fukuda, a professor at Nihon University’s College of Risk Management. The type of attack seen on the Keio Line, for example, is referred to as a “desperation crime,” as it is typically carried out by a desperate individual with little regard for the consequences, he says.
“They don’t care if they are apprehended, so (they) end up dragging along a lot of people with them,” says Fukuda, an expert in counterterrorism and risk management, adding this particular crime is also referred to as “extended suicide.”
“The perpetrator doesn’t even care about dying, basically making the prevention of this kind of crime extremely difficult. It’s impractical, for example, to check every passenger’s baggage.”
On an individual level, there is a limit to what passengers can do, other than to “calmly” evacuate and, where possible, assist others along the way, which was an “unusual and commendable” feature of the Oct. 31 attack, when passengers helped one another escape via carriage windows, Fukuda says.
“If faced with a situation where someone has a knife, or other weapon, or gasoline for example, very few Japanese would try and apprehend the perpetrator,” says Fukuda. “Evacuation should take priority — better still, evacuating while informing others what’s going on, though without instigating panic, which itself can result in injury.”
Preventative measures that could be taken on a more general level — such as increasing surveillance cameras — are invariably controversial due to the perceived impingement on privacy, he says. However, this kind of so-called miseru keibi (visible security), which also includes in-train announcements, can serve as useful deterrents, making perpetrators “think twice” about carrying out an attack.
Fukuda laments the lack of state-instigated initiatives to educate the public about how to respond to such events. Even drills to ensure passengers can effectively use the emergency buzzers could make a significant difference, he says.
“But in the absence of a framework, where train companies, municipalities and the public come together to discuss (the emergency process) through social education, it simply becomes some fleeting issue that only rears its head after an incident has occurred,” he says.
Such an oversight was behind self-defense instructor Hirofumi Kuroki’s decision to hold regular awareness-raising seminars for the public, including those that directly tackle the issue of how to respond to public transport-based incidents.
Seminar participants are given practical instruction on how to protect themselves should they be unable to evacuate, utilizing everyday “weapons” to negate the threat.
When used correctly, backpacks and bags, for example, can serve as a shield to push back a perpetrator and buy time, while umbrellas can be unleashed to at least dissuade a knife-wielding criminal from approaching, says Kuroki, a former intelligence officer with the Self-Defense Forces, where he was known as “Rambo Kuroki.”
“One of the problems during such incidents is the mind-muddling panic, and self-defense seminars help to instill calm, clear thinking and confidence to act when evacuation is not an option,” says Kuroki, who is president of Tsurugi Goshin-Budo, teaching self-defense martial arts to bodyguards, police officers, security personnel and other professionals, and visiting schools nationwide to coach basic self-defense techniques (even shouting at the top of your voice can be a life-saver, he advises).
Perpetrators such as the one on the Keio Line — the likes of which he believes are not uncommon in society today — tend to choose apparently less bothersome subjects, he says, adding if they can see or sense that members of the public are self-defense aware, “it could serve as a useful preventative tool, and make them think twice before attacking.”
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