Japan's national railway network, much like the people it serves, enjoys an international reputation for efficiency and civility. But last Friday both the system and the national cool proved fragile indeed. For several chaotic hours, Tokyo came to a virtual halt after a group of radical activists sabotaged the core of its transportation system. As many as 10 million commuters who normally use the railroads were forced to battle their way onto buses, subways and private rail cars. They pushed and shoved with such force that police officers had to use bullhorns to direct the vast throngs. Those who tried to drive to work in Tokyo soon became entangled in gigantic traffic jams. The paralysis was so complete that many schools in Tokyo canceled classes, and national TV showed rows of vacant desks in offices. Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone condemned the tie-up as "a vicious crime."
Working in the wee hours, small bands of radical activists and students had used wire snippers to sever coaxial and optical cables for signal, communication and computer systems at 24 locations in Tokyo, Osaka and five other cities. Using canisters of kerosene attached to crude timing devices, they also blew up or burned down cable connections. Thus, when railway officials tried to start the first trains of the day at 5 a.m., they found to their horror that neither signal lights nor rail switches were operating on 22 commuter lines. As a result, the system in Tokyo and Osaka remained frozen until noon, when service was partly restored.
But the vandalism did not stop there. At about 7 a.m. some 50 activists, wearing masks and armed with steel pipes, stormed into the Asakusabashi station in the center of Toyko's wholesale district. They threw Molotov cocktails, torching and seriously damaging the platform and the stationmaster's office.
The trouble began on Thursday in Chiba prefecture, just south of Tokyo, when 1,100 members of a renegade chapter of the Locomotive Engineers' Union went on a 24-hour wildcat strike. At issue was the proposed breakup of the stateowned Japanese National Railways and its eventual sale to private ownership. Privatization is favored by the government, which is liable for the JNR's deficit, which totals over $92 billion. The proposal was harshly denounced by the 38,000-member Locomotive Engineers' Union as well as by the 200,000-member National Railway Workers' Union because it could reduce the JNR work force of 326,000 by almost a third.
The police arrested 48 suspects in connection with the sabotage, including Masashi Kamata, 32, the reputed leader of Chukaku-ha, or Middle Core Faction, an ultraleftist group that organized violent anti-U.S. demonstrations in the '60s. In recent years it has made headlines with its attacks on the new international airport at Narita.
While the Chiba strikers were unapologetic about the disruption and the damage, the Locomotive Engineers' Union roundly denounced the mayhem. "We cannot tolerate the destruction of our own system, no matter what," said a union spokesman. At week's end the government created a special unit of 320 detectives to investigate the crimes. --By Susan Tifft. Reported by S. Chang/Tokyo