17 May 2005
They don’t make Japanese the way they used to

Mark Ellott has been reading up on the Amagasaki rail crash:

Whatever errors there are in our management systems in the UK, at least we do not require drivers who make mistakes, such as overrunning platforms or even passing signals at danger to undergo what the Japanese Railway calls “day-shift education” where senior staff berate the employee and where they are made to write reports reflecting on their errors. This is nothing more than ritual humiliation and several members of staff apparently have been so demoralised they later committed suicide.

The implication being that the driver in the Amagasaki crash preferred to take a ludicrous risk (one that ended up killing him and 100 others) rather than face “day-shift education” again.

But there’s something rather odd about this.  As Mark says this is “prehistoric”.  In other words it’s been going on for some time, probably decades.  But (to the best of my knowledge) nothing like this has ever happened before.  When Brian Micklethwait and I had a chat about this the other day he concluded that: “They don’t make Japanese like they used to”.  Which tends to corroborate a story I linked to the other day plus bits and pieces of anecdotal evidence I’ve picked up over the last couple of years.

Japan is changing.

[Incidentally, I think after JR West and others have gone in for their usual heavy-duty navel-gazing, we’ll see a massive effort to introduce the sort of technology that is already being used on the Shinkansen bullet trains and which automatically slows a train that is travelling too fast.]

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  1. I find the suggestion that the driver took the risk to avoid the disciplinary procedure entirely believable. The old British Rail system was pretty awful and did tend to create a climate of fear of making mistakes. Good management does not punish people for making mistakes - the disciplinary procedure exists for wilful misbehaviour which is entirely different.

    A combination of the Japanese culture and the appalling use of discipline does indeed offer a reasonable explanation.

    I guess we await the outcome of the enquiry for further detail. Technology is definitely a step in the right direction to minimise driver error. A change in management procedures will also help by reducing unnecessary psychological pressure.

    Posted by Mark Ellott on 18 May 2005 at 10:42am

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