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Monday, May 23, 2005

The deadly Japanese 'work ethic'

A story about the aftermath of the recent train disaster in Japan that claimed 106 lives caught my eye recently. It seems that it is Japan Rail employees who are taking the brunt of public anger over the disaster and are now having to be provided with counselling to help them cope with the harassment:

Last week a female member of staff was knocked to the ground on a station platform.

In another incident, a driver was attacked in his cab by two men, and death threats have been left on drivers' windows.

The number of physical and verbal assaults has risen to a point where the railway unions have set up telephone help lines to counsel frightened staff.

When asked about this, few people said they supported the attacks, but few seemed surprised by them either.

One young man told the BBC that the attackers were simply looking for someone to blame for the crash.

He said it was normal for the entire workforce to be tainted by company mistakes.

This is particularly unfortunate for the JR drivers, who, according to a recent story on the TUC's health and safety website 'Hazards,' are subject to humiliating 're-education' sessions if their trains run late. This sort of pressure from management is thought to be a likely cause of the recent deadly crash. Here's the whole article:
Japan: Union blames rail firm 'humiliation' for tragedy
Union members in Japan have placed the blame for last week’s massive train crash that claimed 106 lives squarely on the railway company, saying under pressure workers face humiliating penalties for slight delays. 'The accident is a result of JR West's corporate stance of prioritising operations and high-pressure management that uses terror to force employees to follow orders,' said Osamu Yomono, vice-president of the Japan Confederation of Railway Workers' Unions. Japanese trains are renowned for their punctuality, with JR West and other operators running timetables down to every 15 seconds. But it takes its toll in terms of stress on drivers, with punishment including 'nikkin kyoiku' - dayshift education. That means re-training sessions for those responsible for delays or overrunning stops. The sessions often include making drivers write reports all day long on topics such as how to improve themselves or chores such as weeding, which the union says is humiliating. A 44-year-old train driver of JR West hanged himself in September 2001 after he spent three days in retraining for being 50 seconds late when departing from a station. There have been allegations that the 23-year-old crash driver Ryujiro Takami, who had only 11 months' experience and who had gone through re-education, was speeding after falling 1½ minutes late due to overrunning a station.
While it appears that the failures behind the disaster may be traceable back to company management, the ideology of 'company responsibility' (kigyo sekinin 企業責任, Kr. kiôp ch'aegim) means that all employees have to share in the responsibility, no matter how distant their connection might be to the tragic events. In fact, the reality seems to be that it is only the people who are least responsible for this disaster who are being harassed as they are the recognisable people on the frontline. Management may have done the public bowing bit, but they do not have to confront the public every working day.

All this reminded me of an article I read last year on ZNet by a Shin Sugok, a Korean living in Japan (Kr. Chaeil kyop'o 在日僑胞, J. Zainichi). He talked about the tendency of Japanese society to bully the weak, citing the cases of the families of people abducted by North Korea, the Japanese taken hostage in Iraq last year and more generally minorities living in Japan like the Zainichi Koreans:
Recently, there seems to be a growing trend for the public to direct its anger and hatred at the socially weak rather than at the powerful such as government leaders and major corporations.
I think this trend clearly shows a fundamental dimension of "the masses" in Japanese society. As long as wretched people in weak positions put up with their misery, society tends to show sympathy and compassion. But once such people become vocal and raise objections against the government or businesses that caused them harm, the masses make an about-face and criticize them for making excessive demands and showing insufficient gratitude.
I'm not sure I agree with all of Shin's reasoning, but there does seem to be quite a bit of truth in this characterisation of the Japanese 'masses'. Clearly the rightwing stranglehold on politics and the media is one factor - something that allows people in Japan little outlet for their frustrations apart from toward basically powerless individuals (see my previous post on Japanese media critic Asano Kenichi). Behind this though, the deeper roots of this problem are the lack of collective struggle in Japan. The unions were destroyed in the 80s and have not recovered since. Add to this the lack of the sort of civil society movements that have been the hallmark of South Korean society over the last 20 years and the inexorable shift to the centre right of the supposedly 'left' opposition parties of the Socialists and Communists and you have a recipe for disaster.

Of course I'm sure those who actually participate in such acts of bullying, racism and harassment are only a small minority of the Japanese people, but until the rest of the Japanese people begin to oppose such actions collectively they are going to be a very powerful minority and the best allies Koizumi and the Japanese corporate elite could wish for.


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