It’s a standard part of every public work –from the simple replacement of a sidewalk tile to the creation of a highway or the construction of the Sky Tree – and it is written on the fences, the back part of the equipment trucks and trailers and the signs with the information about the work, its budget and its estimated completion times: Anzen Dai Ichi (安全第一), that is “Safety is the most important thing”. And for those who can’t read Japanese, the abundance of uniformed guards in every conceivable place (e.g. the parking lots or outside shops) and the orange-colored cords signaling “no entry” will confirm that the matter of safety is being taken very seriously in Japan.
Still the Japanese are not as diligent in this matter as they would like to believe (or show to the rest of the world): the majority of those omnipresent guards are elderly and rather incapable of doing much more than simply being there (when there is an actual need the police is invariably called), the young, capped men at the stations are unable to hold back the sarariman hordes during the rush hours (or to prevent the most depressed among them from jumping in the tracks), the construction companies often try to cut corners that result in flimsier buildings (as proven with every major earthquake) and the constant announcements for emergency breaks in trains and buses seem to go unnoticed by a lot of the passengers.
Personally, I have come to the conclusion that the reason behind this “safety culture” is more psychological than anything else and is related, once again, to the hostile environment the Japanese have made their home. When nature proves to you on a daily basis how unpredictable and unexpectedly violent it can be, your inner balance depends on persuading yourself that you are prepared, if not against the big dangers, at least against the everyday small ones. But the almost uncontrollable repetition of the message unavoidably leads to their disregard or to their transformation to a kind of homeopathic magic; as we learned from recent history (when the huge industry involved with perhaps the most dangerous materials known to man made lethal allowances in safety) sometimes orange cords are not different than the shimenawa ropes found in Shintoistic shrines: mere symbols that offer no protection against real danger.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.