Fatal attack on Japan's shinkansen train highlights security challenges

Japan's bullet train Nozomi 265 is seen after the train made a stop due to a stabbing attack at Odawara station in Odawara, Kanagawa prefecture, on June 10, 2018.
Japan's bullet train Nozomi 265 is seen after the train made a stop due to a stabbing attack at Odawara station in Odawara, Kanagawa prefecture, on June 10, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Last Saturday (June 16) marked one week since one person was killed and two others were injured aboard a Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train travelling through Kanagawa Prefecture.

The incident has brought to light a number of blind spots, including in the rules on bringing weapons aboard and how evacuation instructions are given.

These were in spite of moves by Central Japan Railway (JR Tokai) to strengthen its security systems after a man committed suicide by self-immolation in 2015.

Security on Shinkansen trains in Japan, which have been running for more than half a century now, is entering a new phase.

UNABLE TO RESCUE PASSENGER

In the latest incident, about three minutes after the suspect, Ichiro Kojima, reportedly attacked a woman in car No. 12 of the Nozomi No. 265 train, a passenger told a chief conductor in car No. 10 that "someone has a knife".

The conductor rushed to the scene, where Kojima was straddling and attacking Mr Kotaro Umeda, 38.

 

Using seats and suitcases as a shield, the conductor approached to within several metres of the attacker. The conductor repeatedly told Kojima to stop and that he would listen to what Kojima had to say.

The conductor pleaded with Kojima to stop the attack, which he reportedly did, but kept a hold of the weapon and remained straddling Mr Umeda. Shinkansen cars have no tools for dealing with suspicious people, such as sprays or sasumata - a forked weapon used by police.

The train stopped at Odawara Station about 15 minutes later, but Mr Umeda could not be helped until then.

Two female victims who were evacuated to around car No. 16 received aid from a medical professional who happened to be on the train, but the emergency medical equipment in car No. 8 could not be accessed.

NO NOTIFICATION

The only announcement issued inside the train came 18 minutes after the attack to say that the suspect had been arrested.

Most of the passengers had no idea exactly what was happening or where. The narrow aisles were packed with panicked passengers trying to escape. One passenger reportedly said: "Some people were injured in a stampede."

At a press conference last Wednesday, JR Tokai president Shin Kaneko said that staff "had no time to make announcements. Some passengers have told us they were extremely anxious".

Using a smartphone, the conductor was able to stream video of the scene to an integrated command centre in Tokyo, which the police used in their initial response.

However, this was not shared with six other people, including crew members, in the car, who had to give evacuation instructions based on fragmentary information from passengers and others.

In the light of this, JR Tokai has decided to introduce by the end of August a system that will allow all crew members to talk with the command centre simultaneously over smartphones.

COSTLY MEASURES

How can people be prevented from bringing weapons onto trains?

The company's standpoint is that it is difficult to implement luggage inspections because convenience would be lessened. If inspections were implemented, the Shinkansen would lose its advantage as a mass-transit system with no waiting time.

Also, modifying train stations to make room for inspections and other changes would be costly.

After the self-immolation incident in 2015, the company rushed to install more in-car surveillance cameras to strengthen deterrence. That it was unable to stop this latest incident comes as a major shock.

Luggage inspections are carried out at railway stations in the United States and China as part of anti-terrorism measures.

With the Rugby World Cup coming to Japan in 2019 and the Olympics and Paralympics to Tokyo the following year, terrorists may seek to enter Japan amid the flux of visitors. Shinkansen trains could present soft targets for attacks.

"Even if deterrence is strengthened with surveillance cameras, it's impossible to completely prevent terrorism-like incidents," said professor of railway engineering Hitoshi Tsunashima at Nihon University.

"This is not only a problem for railways. We've reached a phase where the central government needs to be actively engaged in a leadership role in finding solutions," said Prof Tsunashima.