Tokyo’s ‘Human Accidents’

“We regret to inform you that this train has been delayed by a human accident.”

I boarded the train at Kichijoji Station on the Chuo (Main) Line around 6 pm to go downtown for my regular Monday night meeting. It is a straight run to Shinjuku, the great crossroads of Tokyo. A quick change of trains and I’m there, usually in under an hour.

I was mildly but pleasantly surprised to find the train sparsely occupied and seats available when I entered the car. I pulled a book out of my bag and settled down. But after a minute or two I became aware the train was not leaving the station.

I looked around the car. Most of the passengers seemed unconcerned by the apparent delay. People wandered into the car, while others got up impatiently and walked out. Every now and then the loudspeakers chimed in with an announcement unintelligible to me.

Beginning to worry about getting to my meeting on time, I walked out of the car. Surely I could find a work-around, some other line that was moving. I climbed aboard a Tozei Line car, relieved to see the doors close and the train begin to move.

I passed familiar stations — Ogikubo, Koenji, Nakano, Ochimai. Ochimai? Where the hell is that? The next station was equally unfamiliar. This train was not going to stop at Shinjuku. I got off and caught another train moving in the opposite direction, back to Nakano Station where I knew there were trains to Shinjuku.

The train I picked out did, in fact, go there — I made sure by asking the station master — but it was agonizingly slow. I finally got to my meeting 45 minutes late. Is this the famously efficient Tokyo train system?

As it happens, my wife passed through Kichijoji station 30 minutes after me on a different errand. She told me later that she had heard the announcement: “We regret that this train is delayed by a human accident.”

Human accident — jinshin jiku in Japanese. What could these two words imply? It could be anything, but nine times out of ten “human accident” is a euphemism for suicide. Somebody has thrown himself in front of the on-rushing train.

Suicide is remarkably common along Tokyo’s extensive railway and subway lines. Last year 18 people killed themselves by jumping in front of the popular Yamanote Line, more than one a month, and the Yamanote is just one of dozens of rail and subway lines in the vast Tokyo conurbation.

Experienced commuters hearing the words “human accident” and not having to get somewhere in a hurry repair to a coffee shop to wait until the trains are moving normally again. Commuters who have to get somewhere wait stoically, hoping the delay will be short. Generally, such delays last about 30 minutes, but they can last longer, especially if the body is entangled in the train or some of the equipment has been damaged.

Looked at one way Tokyo is basically an extraordinarily complex but marvelously efficient machine for moving people from one place to another. Every day thousands of trains move an estimated 20 million people — two thirds of the total population of the capital — through 1,180 stations, all keeping within seconds of their official schedules.

But there is very little margin for error. The trains must arrive at evenly spaced intervals, scoop up their human cargoes and move on to the next stop. If a delay occurs for any reason, a fast-moving ripple effect occurs. Trains back up, yet the platforms continue to fill with people, becoming dangerously overcrowded.

The human accident that delayed my trip apparently occurred in the far western suburbs, yet its effects were still being felt downtown hours later. The car I rode home in was filled to bone-crushing capacity at 10 pm, more than four hours after the incident.

The authorities are completely unsentimental about the delays these suicides can cause. Relatives are often presented with a bill for the cost of the cleanup and delays that the inconvenient death has caused.

Uncharitable thoughts intrude: Why couldn’t he have hanged himself in the privacy of his own home? Or, maybe the Japanese should consider relaxing their strict gun control laws.

It is the unfortunate fate of train drivers to encounter a “human accident” in the course of their careers, often more than once. Standard procedure calls for the driver to stop the train immediately then climb down to confirm the condition of the victim, check on any damage to the train, especially the brakes, and help remove the body, or body parts, from the tracks.

Older drivers later will take their younger, traumatized colleagues out drinking or to a karaoke bar to help them get their minds off what they just saw. Professional counseling is also available.

More than 30,000 Japanese commit suicide each year, one of the highest rates in the world, but only a small percentage — just over 2% of men and 3% or women — do so by throwing themselves in front of moving vehicles (usually trains). As a public issue, suicides among teenagers because of bullying at school merits far more attention.

In time, as more lines install automated barriers, the number of suicides on rail and subway lines will slowly diminish. Until that day, however, delays caused by “human accidents” will continue to be a part of Tokyo commuters’ daily life.