Fiery Suicide on Bullet Train Highlights Japan's Lax Train Security

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Haruo Hayashizaki wouldn’t have had a problem getting on the bullet train to set himself on fire.

All the 71-year-old man needed to do was buy a ticket, put it into a slot in a gate and walk onto the platform at Tokyo Station to catch the train known as the shinkansen. No sensors, no checks, no dogs.

The man died after drenching himself in fuel and igniting it with a lighter on a train bound for Osaka on Tuesday morning. The fumes from the blaze killed a woman in her 50s and injured more than 20 others.

The incident may shock the government and rail companies into tightening security on the high-speed network before next year’s Group of Seven summits in Japan and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. While added safeguards could reassure tourists, they may also slow boarding and hurt rail companies in their battle with airlines for domestic passengers.

“This should be the trigger for Japan to develop measures that consider the possibility of the shinkansen becoming a terrorist target,” said Osamu Ohkoshi, president of Ohkoshi Security Consultants, a Tokyo-based crisis management company. “If the fire in the front car hadn’t been put out, it could have become a fireball that spread throughout the entire train.”

Emergency Meeting

The government is considering the installation of cameras to track suspicious people at stations, chemical and biological agent sensors, and bomb detection devices at ticket gates, according to a transport ministry paper in January on the prevention of terrorism on the rail lines.

While none of these measures have yet to be adopted, Tuesday’s episode prompted an emergency meeting Wednesday between transport minister Akihiro Ohta and executives of Japan’s five main rail companies.

“While securing safety is the most important thing, convenience is also important,” Ohta said. “As well as terrorism, we need to focus on a wide range of safety measures, including the safety of the trains, strengthening security and preventing people boarding with dangerous objects.”

Acts of terrorism are not new to Japan’s railways. In 1995, members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult carried out a sarin-gas attack on Tokyo’s subway that killed 12 people and sickened thousands.

Japan will hold an anti-terrorism exercise in parliament Sunday. The drill will involve hundreds of police officers, cars and helicopters, according the Nikkei newspaper.

Enclosed Space

“Trains are an enclosed space, making them easy to target,” said Takehiko Yamamura, a crisis management consultant who has written books on the subject. “We should always keep in mind that terrorism could occur in Japan just as it does overseas.”

Ryota Himeno, a Tokyo-based senior analyst at Barclays Plc, said the cost of beefing up security would pale into insignificance when compared with the 5.52 trillion yen ($45 billion) bill for the planned magnetic-levitation train line between Tokyo and Nagoya.

“I don’t think the rail companies would suffer greatly,” Himeno said by phone. “Foreign visitors to Japan will rise further, and it’s necessary to maintain existing safety standards on Japan’s railways.”

Passengers such as 74-year-old Hiroshi Maruyama, while shocked by the incident, have mixed feelings about a step-up in security.

“I’d agree if they strengthened luggage checks before getting on the shinkansen,” Maruyama said at Tokyo Station just before catching a bullet train with his wife to his home in Niigata. “But the difference between the shinkansen and a plane is that you can board a shinkansen in a matter of minutes. I hope we don’t lose this.”