The Trouble with Tokyo’s “Human Accidents”

What follows is a bit of a 180 from many of the tales I’ve told about Japan.  It’s a topic which – while talked about in hushed tones over here – isn’t considered polite conversation.  But to paint a real picture of this country, it’s an important thing to discuss.

High speed commuter trains not only get people to and from work or school every day.  They also provide a venue for those who’ve lost a battle with their own mental health to end their lives – and to do it in rather gruesome, exhibitionistic fashion.

After Chris headed off to work this morning, he texted me from our train station at Musashi Sakai.

“Chuo (Line) is severely backed up,” he wrote.  “The station is almost full.”

I pulled up the website for JR Rail, the company which operates the Chuo Line, and on the page listing delays were the words that make you shake your head – accident resulting in injury or death.  That advisory can mean a number of different things, but Twitter confirmed for me what I thought was the most likely circumstance.  A 40 year old woman jumped in front of the train at Koenji Station (two stops away from busy Shinjuku Station) at the height of morning rush hour.

(The rough translation of this tweet using Google Translate : Injury on the Chuo Line at Koenji Station with the smell of blood and the sound of the emergency buzzer filling the air.)

The “human accident” (as incidents like this are known as here, to avoid saying the “s” word) set off a chain reaction of delays for people trying to get to work or school across Tokyo.  Trains as far away as Chiba (which is 50+ kilometers from where we are) were off schedule because of the trouble at Koenji.  The scene at Chris’ train station was repeated across much of the city.

What’s sad is that writing about what happened actually feels like making a mountain out of a molehill.  “Human accidents” are all too common on train lines in Tokyo, and seem completely preventable.  Some train lines have taken steps to reduce the incidents of suicide by installing automated gates on platforms, making it very difficult or even impossible for someone to leap in front of a moving train. (At some Tokyo Metro stations, they’ve gone to the extent of enclosing the entire platform in glass.)

But along the Chuo Line, there are no gates.  And with trains reaching speeds of up to 100km/h on straight-aways (and special express lines moving through pass stations at 50-60km/h), the route has earned the dubious reputation of being the “suicide line.”

One “deterrent” rail companies have tried to use to dissuade people from committing suicide by train is to levy fines against the family of the person who jumps.  The money is said to compensate for the delay in service and clean-up costs.  But it clearly isn’t stopping people – although, one article I read said the fine may cause those wanting to end their life to choose certain train routes over others because the amount of the fine is less depending on where a suicide takes place.  That’s a grim reminder as to how much thought goes in to such an action by someone who truly needs help.

Even with more measures taken to secure the train corridors and the threat of financial penalty, the reality is Japan has one of the world’s highest rates of suicide.  According to a BBC story from earlier this year, 25,000 people took their own lives in 2014.  That’s an average of 70 people per day, with the majority being men.  The reasons, according to the report, are varied, although financial security and personal achievement seem to be at the heart of the “why” for some.

The numbers first began to rise after the Asian financial crisis in 1998. They climbed again after the 2008 worldwide financial crisis.

Experts think those rises are directly linked to the increase in “precarious employment”, the practice of employing young people on short-term contracts.

Japan was once known as the land of lifetime employment.

But while many older people still enjoy job security and generous benefits, nearly 40% of young people in Japan are unable to find stable jobs.

A couple of my Japanese friends were talking today on Facebook about this morning’s disruption.  Suicide is an uncomfortable topic, but I get a sense there is a sentiment that there needs to be more conversation here about mental health, and not just petty anger about delayed trains.

Back home in Canada, “let’s talk” seems to be a battle cry in trying to erase the stigma attached to mental illness.  Even Facebook is taking steps to promote the conversation of trying to help those who need it.  I can only hope the topic finds a place in Japan’s national conversation.

If you’ve found this blog post through a Google search and need help, there are resources across the globe that can be of assistance.

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