Sounds of Safety

130218_0909Japan has the highest life expectancy in the world, but how are they beating the reaper? Good health helps, but as we work our way down the list of the world’s biggest killers, somewhere between heart disease and colon cancer is accidental death: car crashes, drug overdoses, and falling old people. Here again, Japan wins. In the United States, motor vehicles alone claim over 12 lives a year for every 100,000 people (right between Jamaica and Bangladesh); Japan clocks in at just under 4. Yes, Japanese are better drivers, but the real story of these statistics is a vigilant culture of public safety.

Concern for life is evident as soon as I step out the door. Across the street is the neighborhood koban, a diminutive police booth staffed 24/7 with two officers. Children are on the way to school, marching holding hands in bright matching caps. They raise their hands in the air at each crosswalk so that cars can see them. Pre-schoolers, on the other hand, are simply wheeled around in a cart like a week’s worth of groceries. There is construction going on, and not one, but two men with reflective vests and batons bow and point me towards the edge of the sidewalk.

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The ground itself is equipped with safety features: a strip of textured surface that blind people can follow with their feet. The brailed walkway continues into buildings and stations, using different patterns to tell the walker to stop or change direction. Tokyo must have hundreds of miles of these strips.

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At escalators and intersections, sounds are used to warn those with low vision, and like the train melodies I wrote about earlier, these sounds often have charming flair. This is a combination of three recordings. There are two crosswalk melodies, from two different areas in North Tokyo. The tunes are from Japanese folk songs. Finally there is blinker sound used by the city’s garbage trucks. It says that the truck is turning left and to be careful.

You might wonder how a country with such meticulous safety precautions could allow a nuclear power plant to explode. It is a fair question that generated a lot of criticism and investigation following the Fukushima disaster of March 2011. A scathing report published last year by an independent commission found that the nature of Japanese culture was in fact “at the heart” of the disaster, which it described as “made in Japan.” In this case, the cultural traits it refers to are deference to superiors and blind obedience. Plant operators continued working diligently without pointing out flaws in the reactor system or challenging decisions made by senior management. Perhaps this is the other side of that exacting nature that makes the train conductor and sidewalk safety officer so effective. That is not to say that obedience and vigilance are inherently linked; they aren’t, but in my experience cultural characteristics come in bundles that aren’t easily separated; and they almost always cut both ways.

The National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission: full report

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