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     Jul 15, 2009
Japanese trial puts a culture in dock
By Scott North

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

The announcement of the impending indictment and resignation of Japan Railways (JR) West president Yamazaki Masao was of such import that Japanese dailies issued extra editions on July 8 to cover the story. Yamazaki is being charged with professional negligence resulting in death and injury in the Amagasaki train accident on April 2005. The crash, the country's fourth-worst since the World War II, claimed 107 lives and injured 562 other people. It is the first time a top manager has been indicted on


criminal charges in a train accident.

Yamazaki is resigning to take responsibility for the crash, in which the seven-car train packed with commuters derailed headlong into the ground floor of an apartment building while rounding a tight curve at high speed. The company initially blamed the accident on "rocks on the tracks" and later tried to pin responsibility solely on the dead train driver, Takami Ryujiro, who has been treated as persona non grata by JR West since the accident. But the trial may bring to light how the causes of this man-made disaster are much deeper than the actions of any one man.

Behind the banner headlines is recognition that this horrific train wreck was the tragic product of a shift in Japanese work practices that gained momentum as the economy slowed during the long, "lost decade". The case has come to symbolize the ruinous effects of those recent changes in Japan's much-studied and imitated approach to corporate management.

The indictment of Yamazaki is being interpreted by many Japanese as an implicit indictment of a shift from worker-centered management, emphasizing the steady development of human capital as the basis for long-term viability of the firm and society, to stakeholder-centric management, which pursues short-term efficiency and profit by pushing risk onto workers even at the expense of safety and well-being.

The JR West disaster also clearly shows how some old strategies for increasing output, primarily punitive methods designed to inspire fear and secure silent obedience to management authority, are gaining renewed favor as a means to achieve imported ends such as efficiency and shareholder value.

Prosecutors will likely argue that when the radius of the 600-meter curve in the track at the accident site was reduced to 300 meters in 1996, it should have been foreseen as dangerous. They will say that the company was negligent because it did not install the advanced Automatic Train Stop (ATS-P) system there. After denying culpability for two years, Yamazaki, who prior to the accident was president of the JR subsidiary in charge of operational safety, finally acknowledged publicly in August 2007 that the accident could have been prevented by ATS. He was promoted to president of JR West in February 2006 as part of management shake-up in the wake of the accident.

The charges against Yamazaki are being brought at the urging of victims and their families. Experts say, however, that prosecutors will have difficulty gaining a conviction. Even if the former president is found guilty, precedent suggests he will receive a suspended sentence. Of 10 JR West executives who resigned earlier to take responsibility for the accident, including Kakeuchi Takeshi, the president at the time of the crash, three are now in executive positions with JR-related companies.

Yamazaki, who will remain on the JR West board overseeing dealings with victims and their relatives, seems destined to be a sacrificial lamb. The overwhelming majority of victims and their families have not begun compensation talks with JR West and are unlikely to do so until Yamazaki's case is concluded.

That Yamazaki is being indicted is revealing of the alignment of forces and issues involved in the struggle over corporate Japan's responsibilities as it responds to recent economic challenges. Victims and their families accuse him of failing to lead properly, compromising his duty to assure the safety of workers and passengers for the sake of profit.

One seldom-reported, underlying factor is the demands of Western investors, who had stepped in to help cash-strapped JR West, a company burdened with huge debts from the dissolution and privatization of the formerly public Japanese National Railways. At the time of the crash, these foreign investors were said to hold about 25% of the company stock. They were demanding increased returns on equity as a condition of continued investment. The cost-cutting measures employed to boost competitiveness directly contributed to the crash.

Instead of training train operators over a period of seven to eight years, which included many hours with experienced instructors riding along in the cab, the time was cut to two to three years. The older motormen, who served as mentors, were let go to reduce costs. JR West thus lost some of the accumulated skill and knowledge that should have been passed on to younger drivers like Takumi, who was only 23 at the time of the crash. Takumi received his license in 2004 and had been driving for only 11 months at the time of the disaster.

Instead of the wise counsel of experienced drivers, JR West substituted harsh self-criticism sessions called nikkin kyouiku. For running late or other errors, drivers were forced to attend days or weeks of "re-education" that consisted of writing apologetic, self-reflexive essays about their "failures", pulling weeds, repeatedly hand-copying work rules, and other demeaning jobs. They suffered cuts to salary and bonus payments. The humiliation was compounded because co-workers knew of the disciplinary actions.

At least one driver committed suicide after enduring this treatment, while 264 JR West motormen filed suit against JR West's use of the re-education regime in April 2006. The suit cites humiliating re-education that lasted as long as five months.

In his time at JR West, Takami suffered through three rounds of re-education, the longest lasting 13 days. The pain of those experiences seems to have been on Takami's mind as he rushed to make up lost time so that he could keep to the tight schedule. If he arrived late at his destination, passengers would not make their connecting train and he would be punished again.

The Transport Ministry report on the accident cited excessive speed as the cause. The train was 46 kilometers over the speed limit when it left the tracks. Inexperienced motorman Takami overran the platform at a previous stop by 72 meters and lost valuable time in backing up. Although he asked the conductor to report a shorter overrun of eight meters, which carries a much lighter punishment, the conductor, responding to demands from passengers for an apology, subsequently radioed operations with news of a major overrun.

Takami was apparently listening to this radio traffic as he sped along in an effort to make up lost time. Distracted by the radio transmission and preoccupied by thoughts of what was in store for him, he applied the brakes too late to prevent the fatal derailment.

Two other train drivers who survived the crash while riding the doomed train to work did not stay to help with rescue efforts. When they reported the disaster via cell phone, their bosses told them "Don't be late to work." They ran off at the nearest station. This part of the story clearly shows the effect of the corporate culture of JR West on the psychology of the employees.

Why punish small delays so severely? Why punish errors at all? Why not invest in proper training, education, and safety equipment? JR West had to compete against lower-cost private lines. Its advantage lay in being able to make connections to other JR trains at Amagasaki Station that allowed riders to travel swiftly toward Kyoto. To squeeze maximum profit from this advantage, the schedule on the Fukuchiyama line demanded that drivers either achieve perfection or violate safe speeds to make up for delays. But the company did not provide the training to help motormen perfect their judgment and driving skills. The company has now admitted that the tight schedule for connections to other JR trains left no margin for even small driver errors or for passengers who were slow in boarding or getting off the train.

A major focus of the investigation was the lack of the ATS. One explanation is that it was not installed because it was costly, and because the skilled technicians who were needed to install it were in short supply due to cost cutting. Yamazaki, however, has been quoted as saying that "overconfidence" was responsible for the lack of safety equipment. Likewise, specially designed lightweight train cars were introduced to enable higher speeds and lower construction costs. But this made them less sturdy in the event of accident.

Authorities approved the extremely tight schedule so lax governmental oversight is also a factor. JR West at first insisted that the schedule was not to blame. They placed blame on Takami, the driver, and purposely omitted his name from the list of victims at memorial services. The majority of victims' families, however, have called for top managers to be tried for their role. Results of a poll of the victims and their families blamed the president and executives of the firm for the disaster.

As the investigation has proceeded, JR West has declared its intention to change its corporate culture and put safety first. But culture consists of highly durable strategies for organizing meaningful human social action. The JR West culture and that of many other Japanese firms have taken shape amid the growing pressures to jettison the substance and even the pretense of the corporation as a community of shared interests. In response to today's non-stop global economy, the emerging central principal for achieving efficiency is an organizational culture premised simply on the infallibility of hierarchy and the servitude of followers. Today's Japan's workers, although hard pressed, cannot dare to define reality differently than their managers.

Inability to resist this culture of fear, punishment, and humiliation, drove Takami to push his train beyond its safe limits. But there are many companies like JR West.

In the long-running debate on convergence, the last 20 years have seen Japan slide every closer to the West and its executives-and-shareholders-first dogma. However, nuclear plants, railroads, hospitals, and other providers of public goods cannot be allowed to sacrifice quality to efficiency and profit. Yamazaki's indictment could serve as a cautionary tale for other executives whose arsenal of management strategies consists solely of the unimpeded exercise of authority.

This may be why, despite enthusiastic fan support, Japanese executives seem keen to get rid of Bobby Valentine, the American manager of the Lotte Chiba Marines professional baseball team. Valentine has shown that he can achieve stellar results without abusing his player-employees. But because his methods - never using anger or humiliation, teaching players how to study the causes of their errors rather than punishing them for mistakes, employing abundant public praise to raise players' self-esteem - are alien to the majority of Japanese baseball managers and business executives, his widely known example threatens to undermine their authority. Workers gush about how they would love to have a boss like Bobby to validate and encourage them. His example enables a comparative perspective from which workers can question the quality of the authority that they labor under. That is precisely the sort of foreign influence the Nippon Keidanren-led business community in Japan would like to banish.

So to protect this community one man will take the fall. If the usual pattern holds, he will receive a suspended sentence: a short drop into a soft retirement. Damage to reputation and career are generally seen as sufficient punishment for Japan's leadership class, while workers pay for mistakes with their lives. Japan's citizens are hoping that the trial will help reestablish that employers' authority over workers still implies the traditional responsibility to protect and care for them, too.

Scott North is Professor of Sociology, Graduate School of Human Sciences, Osaka University.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

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