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Japan was once thought to be one of the safest countries to live in by residents as well as visitors. But a series of incidents the past year suggest that this is no longer the case. Crimes and accidents have cost people their lives, while the shirking of responsibility and business ethics on the part of enterprises and professionals have deprived people of their sense of safety.

It is especially deplorable that society’s weaker members have been victimized. Reports of ill treatment of children and fraud targeted at elderly people are rampant nationwide.

The most devastating incident in terms of the number of lives lost was the derailment of a West Japan Railway train in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, on the morning of April 25. The crash killed 106 passengers and the driver.

The direct cause of the accident was the failure of the driver, Mr. Ryujiro Takami, to slow the train as it entered a curve. The train careened into the curve at a speed of more than 110 kph (40 kph above the speed limit). The driver apparently was under pressure from management not to cause a delay in the train schedule. It was also learned that the automatic train stoppage system (ATS) in use at the accident scene was an old version. The possibility that JR West neglected to put safety first cannot be ruled out.

In early November, it was learned that JR West had secretly repaired the upgraded ATS-P at 96 spots after speed parameters had been incorrectly set. At 30 locations, stoppage devices would not have functioned properly if a train had exceeded the speed limit. Similar parameter input errors were found later at 15 additional JR West locations and five others for JR East. Such laxness by mass transit operators is abhorrent. Profits must never take priority over safety.

The successive slayings of first-grade school girls in Hiroshima and Tochigi prefectures in mid-November and early December, respectively, have reminded parents of the potential dangers that their children face on their routes to and from school. The two girls, both 7, were murdered on their way home from school. The two incidents happened about one year after a similar case in Nara Prefecture. In that case, too, the victim was a first-grade girl.

These murders emphasize the need for parents, school authorities, the police and communities to join hands in working out effective measures to protect children. The Tochigi girl was carrying a buzzer to sound if she felt threatened by a stranger, but it could not save her. To provide all children with such buzzers would be unrealistic and might not work anyway. Parents and volunteers may have to escort children. Not only parents but also other community residents should demonstrate their interest in children’s safety by watching for people who behave strangely. And the police should provide communities with information about the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders.

In early December, in Kyoto Prefecture, a 12-year-old girl was stabbed to death by a cram-school teacher. This incident suggests that the screening of such teachers is inadequate and that some cram-school teachers are immature, cannot control themselves and may harm their students.

Despite the government’s general policy of reducing the number of public servants, 3,500 more police officers will be hired nationwide in fiscal 2006. This is a good decision. The augmented portion of the police force should be assigned to patrol communities with the aim of deterring crime.

The fabrication of earthquake-resistance data in building designs by structural engineer Mr. Hidetsugu Aneha has sent shock waves across this quake-prone archipelago. The Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry has announced that at least 88 structures are impacted by Mr. Aneha’s erroneous design data. The deception has jolted the trust that people had placed in the safety of what is usually the biggest, and probably the most important, purchase of their lives. Furthermore, the fear that quake data has been fabricated throughout Japan’s housing industry cannot be dismissed.

One builder is said to have pressured Mr. Aneha to reduce the number of concrete-reinforcing bars for structures. Although the builder denies that he intended to have Mr. Aneha violate the Building Standards Law, a profit-first attitude that relegated safety to second place is discernible. It is also alarming that government-approved building design certification agencies failed to detect the data fabrication. The government’s entrusting the certification work to private-sector enterprises may have been a bad idea from the start.

Every enterprise and citizen needs to realize that putting profits and efficiency ahead of safety chips away at the very foundations of this society.

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