“Human Accident,” the Darker Side of the World’s Most Efficient Train System (GALLERY)

"Human Accident" - AkihabaraNews.com

It was approaching 4pm on a Monday afternoon in December last year, and I had just finished an interview with a company in Kawaguchi City, Saitama Prefecture, just outside Tokyo. It was time to head back into the city, but when I arrived at Nishi-Kawaguchi train station and saw the mass of emergency vehicles lined up outside, I realized that one of those all too common delays, a Jinshin Jiko (人身事故), a “human accident,” had likely occurred. It’s a curious euphemism.

The combined train and subway system in the greater Tokyo area is a masterwork of engineering and time management. There are thousands of cars across some 130 lines shifting millions of people throughout the metropolis, and some lines operate at intervals as short as 3 minutes. Different sections are administered by different transport companies, and the trains themselves vary in age and design, but as part of the larger system, they all just work.

To facilitate efficient and timely transfers, arrivals on many lines coincide with departures on others, even those operated by different companies. Some bus networks plan their stops to allow passengers to interlink with trains with minimum wait times. The result is as good a public transport system as you could possibly have in a city so massive and densely populated. To say the system runs like clockwork wouldn’t begin to do it justice; even the most expensive timepieces lack the comprehensive mechanical complexity of Tokyo’s public transport system.

There are delays at times. Typhoons, power surges, earthquakes often cause longer delays. There are also odd timing errors that sometimes push trains back a few minutes here and there, but all too often when trains are delayed for longer periods, the message scrolling across the notice boards on platforms is Jinshin Jiko at X Station.”

The phrase 'jinshin jiko' specifically means that a person has come into injurious contact with a vehicle: a car, train, etc. While there are cases where people have fallen off platforms by mistake and even some reports of people being pushed in front of trains, many of these accidents are suicide attempts. Not all are fatal. But the one on that December afternoon was.

It was a surreal experience. I had been delayed by these accidents a number of times before, and it was always frustrating. I recall being particularly angry when, for the third week in a row, on the same line and around the same time, there was another delay on the only train I could take home. Those were always somewhere else, out of sight. Witnessing the aftermath in person was unnerving, and eye opening.

One tends to get caught up in the efficiency of everything in Tokyo. We take the technology and the people operating it, the systems and individuals working to make all our lives so convenient, for granted. In the end, at the heart of this massive, high tech, connected metropolis are the 36-odd million human beings who call it home. Each of us with our own lives, dreams, skills, aspirations and problems. All of us closer and more connected to each other than we want to believe.

For me, having previously spent 5 years in a close-knit small town in the mountains of Gunma, northwest of Tokyo, I couldn’t stand the lack of ubuntu in the capital… Witnessing that accident firsthand taught me that it wasn’t lacking, it’s just...a bit different. And strangely, it took this tragic event to help me learn to enjoy being alive in this city, and to appreciate just how complex it truly is.

• •
Editor’s Note: The following gallery is completely safe for work (SFW).
The images serve as context for the day in question, and they are not inappropriate, explicit, graphic, or gratuitous in any way.

• •

Local Gallery:

AkihabaraNews on Flickr:

Photos: Nayalan Moodley, AKA DarcNoodles
AkihabaraNews contributor Nayalan Moodley is a freelancer specializing in words, photos, videos, graphic design, and illustration (blog).