Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Ripple Effect

There was an earthquake some time ago in western Japan, centered around western Shikoku. Although it was fairly weak by most standards, did this quake cause trains to be delayed throughout Hiroshima-ken?

Anyone who has traveled the world would probably tell you the train system in Japan is the best. The best of the best of the best. It works almost to a fault. Thousands, tens of thousands, of trains leaving at precisely the right time every day, exchanging crew at the precise second, slowing down on schedule.

But, like any complex machine, it only works as well as its other parts - if one piece is out of alignment, the rest eventually fall apart. I believe that's what happened Thursday, April 26th, 2007.

It was the first time since my arrival (about a year) that I had to wait for a train. Running late. Almost thirty minutes late. Unbelievable. I'm such a spoiled public transportation brat after living in Japan; imagine how I'd react in the middle of Los Angeles... ugh.

The train system in Japan, Japan Railways, is subject to all kinds of natural and manmade interruptions: ice in Hokkaido, typhoons in Kyushu... When these cases are severe enough to cause the trains to be delayed, it usually makes the news - though only for a delay that causes a ripple effect, especially in the Tokyo area.

Not long along, a conductor overslept for his morning shift in a train on the Yamanote Line in Tokyo, and it made headline news... why? Cause and effect. The train pulls into a certain station at precisely 7:42 AM. The conductor looks out the window at exactly 7:43 AM, expecting to see his replacement arriving through the gates. No such event occurs. The current conductor must be transferred to another line. The train is left conductorless, and cannot leave the station. By this time, other arriving trains need to use the track, but they can't, because an 8-car conductorless train is blocking their path. They are diverted to other platforms, causing the trains bound for those platforms to be delayed, causing the trains behind them to be delayed. Soon every train in Tokyo will be running late. Ripple effect.

Japan has a notorious suicide rate. What you may not know, however, is exactly how people choose to end their lives here. I know we're only talking about a small fraction, and I know it's distorted by the media, but the fact remains: there are many people who commit suicide by launching themselves in front of the first train of rush hour. I'm somewhat surprised that organizations like the Japan Times and the shimbuns report how people are inconvenienced by this suicide - there's barely a footnote about the person's name or his life; instead, we only see how this affects the majority; this is part and partial with the Japanese way.

I like the certainty that comes from knowing I can leave my apartment, walk to the nearest JR station, and still have 45 seconds to spare before the train will roll up right in front of me, the door openings conveniently marked on the platform. This train will take exactly 34 minutes to reach its destination. No more. No less. Blending with the masses waiting for the train, on the train, and disembarking is probably the time I feel the most Japanese.

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