A 71-year-old retiree poured flammable liquid over and set fire on himself while onboard the bullet train heading to Osaka from Tokyo.
A fatal fire on Japan’s bullet train, started by a man who self-immolated this week, has revealed blind spots in a system renowned for its speed, punctuality and safety record.
Riding the Shinkansen feels like being in an airplane — it goes so fast in an out of tunnels that it must be airtight. Windows cannot be opened, and doors open only when the train fully stops, which takes several minutes.
Yet, in a country with strict gun control and low crime rate, security is lax: no identification or baggage checks is required.
On Tuesday, Haruo Hayashizaki, a 71-year-old retiree, poured flammable liquid over and set fire on himself while onboard the bullet train heading to Osaka from Tokyo. He died on the spot, and filled the coach with smoke that fatally suffocated a female passenger.
It was the first fire in the train’s 50-year history. Experts say it was a warning that new security measures must be taken to ensure safety against even greater threats — potential terrorist attacks — ahead of the G-7 summit in Japan next year and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“The incident took advantage of the blind spots of the Shinkansen,” said Seiji Abe, an expert on transportation safety at Kansai University in Osaka. “Fire caused by malicious intentions was not anticipated, and provisions to keep out hazardous material were not in place.”
So far, authorities haven’t found any indications of mishandling by the train operator, but the initial investigation and witness accounts have raised questions, including how quickly the crew members grasped the situation and whether there should be a better way to clear smoke from the hermetically sealed cars.
A passenger pushed an emergency button, but unlike some newer models, this train was not equipped with an emergency intercom, said Tomoyuki Sano, a spokesman for Central Japan Railway Co., which operates the Tokyo-Osaka segment of the bullet train.
That meant that crew members knew something had happened in the area where the button was pressed, but were most likely unaware it was a fire until they arrived at the scene.
In a standard emergency procedure, the overhead electric power is cut off for a 2-kilometer (12-mile) stretch to keep the tracks clear for police and rescue workers, and the train’s ventilation system is turned off.
Satoru Sone, an expert on railway safety at Kogakuin University in Tokyo, said that the power should never be turned off, because ventilation is crucial to getting smoke out. He also said an emergency button with an intercom should be installed.
“In Japan, everyone is so complacent about safety while on a train, unlike overseas,” he said, noting that trains elsewhere have been targeted by terrorists and are often less reliable, so smoke resulting from mechanical troubles is not uncommon.
Despite Japan’s scrupulous efforts to maintain its bullet trains in perfect condition, the risk of fire and arson was little anticipated.
A 1964 law on violations related to bullet train safety doesn’t mention arson, and even today, inflammable ceilings and fire-retardant seats on the train are intended to prevent fire caused by glitches, experts say.
“The system is based on the view of human nature as fundamentally good, which I think is universal,” said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “Unfortunately, in every society there are some people who do evil, and it is extremely important to take precautions to stop these people.”
The police have yet to determine the arsonist’s motive, though Japanese media quoted neighbours saying Hayashizaki had repeatedly complained about his pension being barely enough to live on.