SPEAKING FREELY Japanese trial puts a culture in dock
By Scott North
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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
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
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,