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Has Japan Forgotten Basic Human Values?

Thursday, May 5, 2005 Posted: 12:17 PM JST

Since the disastrous train accident in Amagasaki on April 25 a stream of news reports in the Japanese media paint a picture of JR as a company that, like many large organizations, appears to have forgotten basic human values. Usually after an accident like this lots of news stories come out that show a person or organization in the worst possible light. Only the negative is shown, an ocean of positive things can be ignored. So it is still too early to say how accurately these reports represent the true situation at JR. But there clearly seem to be problems at the company.

As I wrote in New York Times Article Draws Wrong Conclusions it is not the focus on precision and punctuality that has lead to this accident. If anything it is this focus that has made Japanese railways among the safest in the world.

Some evidence that has been made public seems to point to technical reasons. JR had not installed upgraded automatic train stop safety systems along 14 of 19 sharp curves on its lines, including the Fukuchiyama line where the accident took place. The tracks also seem to have subsided so they didn't have enough of the required angle to keep a train on the tracks during higher speeds. It is also believed that the driver of the train used the emergency break. If so, it may have contributed to the train jumping the tracks. Another technical factor mentioned by experts is the use of modern materials that have made trains lighter and easily create shifts of the center of gravity depending on the number of passengers and their position inside the train.

It is still way too early to clearly show what technical factors contributed to the accident.

However, it is a lack of respect for basic human values that now increasingly seems to be one of the more important contributors to the accident. Large Japanese organizations teach their employees to unconditionally follow the book, or "manual" as they say in Japan. Employees are discouraged to question procedures or to speak up, to think for themselves or to take responsibility.

It is clear now that the 23-year-old driver of the train drove at more than 100 kilometers an hour in a curve that had a clearly displayed limit of 70 kilometers per hour. He broke his company's strict tight time schedule, and to make up for that he also appears to have broken the company's speed limit. He clearly didn't ask himself if what he was doing was the "right thing" to do.

A recent study revealed that more than 40% of new recruits in Japan would commit illegal acts if they felt it would help the company or if they were asked to do so by the company. Especially young people unquestioningly follow the company's "manual", even when it doesn't make sense, or when a customer requests a simple change.

Try asking a shop assistant not to stick the ever-present piece of tape printed with the company name on a product that has not been wrapped. The tape is supposed to prevent theft at shops. Especially convenience stores, the small supermarkets that are open 24/7, use this policy religiously.

A surprisingly large number of employees will not honor your request. Even when it is pointed out that nobody actually ever checks if a product has the piece of tape, and that the thousands of tons of tape that are wasted this way contribute to Japan's intractable garbage crisis. If an employee can not think for him or herself in such a simple situation, you can imagine how difficult this becomes in more complicated moral situations.

Recent news reports describe JR West supervisors forcing employees who made mistakes to write seemingly endless series of letters of "regret" and "introspection". These letters are a common and integral aspect of Japanese society, used by schools, companies and even the police when someone has committed a crime. They do seem to have an effect in this society, but the media reports show an overuse that makes the whole procedure degrading and useless. The time would be better spend on practical re-education if the situation warrants such attention to the problem.

This problem is not restricted to JR West. Teachers, students and visitors at public schools are forced against their will to stand at attention when the Japanese flag is raised and to sing the national anthem during school ceremonies. Teachers who protest are just like the JR West employees forced to write an essay showing "regret" and "introspection". They are also fined and may be fired when they fail to stand and sing repeatedly.

Yesterday it became known that two off-duty JR West employees on the train left the scene of the accident without providing assistance to injured passengers. The news reports said that their supervisors did not order them to stay. Why did they need to hear that from a supervisor? This is clearly a decision they should have made themselves, even if it contradicted a direct order. They were on the scene and could see the true extent of the situation. Their supervisors were not, and could not.

Many relatives of victims were prevented by JR employees from seeing the remains of their loved ones. The bodies were too badly injured it was believed. This is a decision that the loved ones should be allowed to make themselves after having been carefully informed of the fact that the sight may be too shocking. It is a disregard of the rights of the victims' family members to just bar them from saying their last farewells.

On the day of the accident a bowling contest between JR employees was not cancelled. A group of 43 JR West employees in nearby Osaka, including section chiefs, went ahead with an office bowling party from 1 p.m. in spite of the train crash. A bizarre decision considering that it had become clear by that time how serious the accident was. At that point the number of dead had already exceeded 30 people. Not only JR as an organization, but the individual employees who showed up for the party should be taken to task for this. They ought to be able to think for themselves.

Japanese employees, not only at JR West, need to learn a basic question: "Is this the right thing to do?" In our crowded, complicated, interconnected world, where we grow up with overbearing commercialism, nothing matters more than having morals that show respect to our fellow human beings and life in general.

Keywords: opinion_item

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