Abikyokan is a colorful Japanese term that translates as agonizing cries or pandemonium. It also refers to two Buddhist hells.
Writing in his "Dispatch from Princeton" (Jan 24), Akihiko Reizen uses abikyokan unsympathetically to describe Tokyoites' reaction to the heavy snow that fell on January 22, and the resulting traffic paralysis that ensued.
But hold on here, says Reizen: Wasn't the weatherman forecasting that big snowfall several days before it actually arrived? You would think that people would have taken more proactive measures.
Events might have even turned out differently, he writes, if office workers had been ordered in, being told "Get here on time, and if you've got any overtime to do, we expect it done." But as far as is known, no companies made such demands on their staff.
In fact, when the heavy snow became inevitable, many workers were urged to leave their offices early. Upon which they became kitaku nanmin (homeward-bound refugees). One would think a hasty departure would have avoided their being stuck, but that was not the case.
At such major rail stations as Shibuya, Shinagawa, Kamata, Musashi Kosugi and others, commuters transferring from one line to another encountered "unthinkably long lines of passengers." It's likely that as the snow came down increasingly more heavily, the times between train runs increased, and in some cases trains were delayed or cancelled.
Because storms of this nature are so few -- occurring on the average of once only several years -- it's simply impractical for the railways to invest in devices to prevent freezing of switches of blocking of the tracks.
Even if a source could be found to fund for the procurement of such devices, the cost burden of maintaining them would be excessive.
For better or worse, the snow played out pretty much as the weather bureau reported it would, with snowfall turning heavier from afternoon. So nobody can blame them.
What or who, then, is responsible for all the problems that occurred?
From one point of view, there was no sense of urgency in terms of crisis management, although the temperature did drop sooner than expected, causing the snow, produced by the presence of a low pressure area on the Pacific coast, to arrive slightly earlier than forecast.
In response, both the Meteorological Agency and the various weather forecasters in the private sector, updated their forecasts. Anyone had access to the information, such as on web portal sites, which made it easy to see that a change in the weather pattern had developed.
So it appears management was unable to minimize the damage through use of the available data, and Reizen sees this as a "big problem." Still, the troubles that ensued can be attributed to an even simpler cause.
The problem, in its essence, can be described as: "From such abstract factors as logic and statistics, the inability to come to a decision that takes risks into account." Or to put it more simply, one could say, "Dissatisfied unless able to observe the situation with one's own eyes"; or even "Inability to move until one directly encounters the actual sensation."
Another stumbling block is the policy of "A decision won't be announced for staff to leave the office until the snow begins to stick on the ground." Reisen was aghast to learn that one railroad that had cancelled its runs told homeward bound passengers they could walk home along the tracks."
The problem then, is that the difference between the speed of obtaining of key information and the speed of acting on it is severe. It can be called a cultural problem if people say they are worried they'll be criticized if they make proactive actions too early and are proved wrong. But even worse than that is the nature of Japanese organization that "no action will be taken until we can see something happening."
This customary insistence on not accepting something unless it can be visibly verified is not limited merely to weather conditions, but can be said to apply to a variety of other cases. For example, if a company takes the opportunity to adopt telework, then when inclement weather such as what recently happened does occur, company staff would not need to come into the city.
What is actually behind the resistance is the judgment that "we can't feel reassured unless people meet and communicate face to face," or "a task isn't complete until the final report is committed to paper."
This roadblock has lead to a major negative impacts on Japanese productivity. If one thinks, for example, "I can't decide until the actual snow begins to fall" -- as well as "there's no sense of trust in telework since people don't see the faces of their counterparts -- it is policies such as these that consume time and waste effort.
So then, concludes Reizen, addressing this cultural problem of "seeing is believing" in terms of the various ways it impacts negatively on productivity may be useful in the debate of how Japan should be reformed.© Japan Today