I recently came across the concept of "diffusion of responsibility" in a book on social psychology. It explains why some crimes committed in full view of a crowd of people are neither stopped nor even reported.

Social psychologist Koichi Okamoto wrote that humans seem predisposed to think that if they don't do anything to help a person in need, someone else will. This, Okamoto posits, means that their inaction is not because people are observing them, but simply because other people happen to be there.

Perhaps this psychology was at work when a Shinkansen Nozomi train came perilously close to a ruptured undercarriage Dec. 11.

All 11 staff members and safety maintenance crew on board were aware of abnormal noises and odors, but none apparently thought of stopping the train.

Even though they were in frequent communication with the operation control headquarters in Tokyo, everyone deferred to one another.

The crew on board assumed Tokyo would decide on when and at which station to stop the train, while Tokyo assumed the crew would clearly say what needed to be done.

With some of the exchanged messages also being improperly processed, the train had been running with these issues for three hours.

In baseball, this would have been like a ball falling between two outfielders and neither taking any action, with the result being the missing of an easy out.

But nobody involved in the Nozomi incident was capable of taking even the most obvious action. I shudder to think that the train could have derailed.

Back in the days of the nationalized railway service, some trains were nicknamed "geta den"--"geta" are Japan's traditional wooden sandals, and "den" is short for "densha" (train)--because they provided a casual and convenient means of public transportation.

Today's Shinkansen bullet trains are just as familiar to the public, providing ready transportation for tourists, business travelers and people going home on holidays.

But the last thing we need is the train operators' "irresponsibility" riding with us.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 29

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.