Japan has long taken pride in its world-class rail system. Trains enjoy a prominent role in its culture from the Shinkansen to Kenji Miyazawa’s “Ginga tetsudo no yoru” (“Night on the Galactic Railroad”) to Hitori Nakano’s “Densha otoko” (“Train Man”). So it is hardly surprising for strains in Japanese society to appear there as well.

On July 7 it was announced by 25 railway companies that attacks on rail employees nationwide had increased for the third year in a row, to a new high of 869 cases in the last fiscal year, compared to 554 in 2004. Traditionally train companies have hesitated to get tough with unruly passengers but are increasingly calling in the police. In order to call attention to the problem, 74 railway companies throughout Japan kicked off an anti-violence campaign on July 15.

Almost 60 percent of those violent cases involve alcohol; it seems that drinking serves to release bottled-up frustration and stress. In one such case, a drunken Tokyo career bureaucrat was arrested on July 6 at JR Shin Osaka station for hitting the station employee who came to help when his ticket became jammed in the automatic ticket gate.

According to the rail companies the majority of incidents are set off by such trivial matters, rather than by delayed trains or disrupted schedules. Last October four employees at JR Ochanomizu station in Tokyo suffered injuries including broken noses when attempting to arouse a young man sleeping on the platform after the last train had departed.

This month the Nagasaki prefectural police described another shocking incident in April involving a bus: a 66-year-old woman attacked a high school boy commuting to school by public bus in Nagasaki city early one morning. Irritated that he was sitting in a “silver seat” (priority seating for the elderly) she started hitting and kicking him, and finally striking him in the face with the point of her umbrella, breaking his nose.

More disturbing still is the continuing rash of suicides at train stations, all too familiar to Tokyo residents. After trying various countermeasures to prevent people from jumping or falling onto tracks, such as supposedly calming blue LED lights, JR East has begun installing platform doors on its 29 Yamanote-line stations, to open only when the train is at the station. Sadly, last year JR East’s lines registered 132 suicides.

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